Bill Barnwell of ESPN recently took a shot at naming long shot contenders for certain awards. He separates his nominations into three categories. Tier 1 are guys who have a legitimate chance at a specific award but are being overlooked. Tier 2 are guys who would need an extraordinary season to win, and Tier 3 are super long shots who would need to combine an incredible season with some luck.
Barnwell is doing six awards here. Offensive Rookie of the Year, Defensive Rookie of the year, Coach of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, Offensive Player of the Year and MVP. There are no favorites mentioned, like Patrick Mahomes for MVP, but interestingly Barnwell also does not include Dak Prescott for MVP because he says he has a legitimate shot at it. Ponder that for a moment. He also doesn’t include CeeDee Lamb for Offensive Rookie of the Year for what appears to be the same reason.
Three Cowboys do make the list. The first two makes sense, but the third would be an unbelievably crazy situation.
Defensive Player of the Year
Tier 1 long shot: DeMarcus Lawrence, DE, Cowboys
While the Defensive Player of the Year award typically rewards a wider variety of players than its offensive counterpart, the easiest way to win is still to rack up a ton of sacks on a playoff team. Lawrence is in position to do that for the Cowboys after both player and team disappointed in 2019.
The Boise State product registered 14.5 sacks and 26 knockdowns during his breakout campaign in 2017, but while he made it back to 10.5 sacks and 23 knockdowns in 2018, he had just five sacks and 16 knockdowns a year ago. Lawrence underwent shoulder surgery before last season, but it wasn’t as if he struggled early before coming on late; the sixth-year man had just a half-sack during the second half of the season.
If Dallas does live up to lofty expectations and rank among the leading teams in the NFC, Lawrence will have more opportunities to get after opposing quarterbacks. A return to his 2017 form would earn the 28-year-old DPOY consideration.
This one makes a lot of sense. Lawrence has proven he can be among the league leaders in sacks, and sacks are the way to get noticed. He also may benefit from having the combo of Everson Griffen and Aldon Smith across from him. Those two should force offenses to spread their blocking resources around and not concentrate on Lawrence.
At least that’s the thought, although that didn’t really work out well last year when Robert Quinn was terrorizing offenses from the opposite end spot. It’s really a mystery as to why Lawrence had such a down season in the sacks department. Having Gerald McCoy would have also helped Lawrence’s cause by applying pressure up the middle, but that is not going to happen now.
The Cowboys also have the Tier 1 long shot for Offensive Player of the Year.
Offensive Player of the Year
Tier 1 long shot: Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Cowboys
While there has been plenty of chatter surrounding Dak Prescott and his chances of winning hardware in a contract year, I’m going to look in a different direction and toward a running back. The Cowboys got more pass happy last year on early downs, but even in a season in which they went 8-8 and were trailing a bunch in the fourth quarter, Elliott got 301 carries and 355 touches.
If the Cowboys get another 16-game season out of Elliott and are winning handily more frequently in the second half, his workload and production could challenge for this award. Todd Gurley won Offensive Player of the Year in 2017 by racking up 1,823 yards from scrimmage and 19 touchdowns. Elliott’s best season was his rookie campaign, when he actually topped Gurley’s total with 1,994 yards from scrimmage, although he had only 16 scores.
The easiest way for Elliott to win would be to follow in Gurley’s footsteps and tally a ton of touchdowns. Eighteen scores would get him in consideration, although as we saw with Aaron Jones a year ago, those touchdowns aren’t enough. Elliott also probably needs to top 1,800 yards to get there. That might not be enough to win Offensive Player of the Year alone, but unless Elliott becomes the latest player in the 16-game era to rack up 2,000 yards, it’s his most plausible path to glory.
This is an interesting call because it some ways it runs counter to the narrative about the Cowboys offense in 2020. Dak Prescott is expected to be slinging the rock under new head coach Mike McCarthy, an offensive-minded coach who has always been ready to pass the ball. The Cowboys have a trio of excellent receivers so the thought is just how much will Elliott get to eat in this offense.
On the flip side of that is the idea that so many weapons on the perimeter will open things up for Zeke in the running game. More 11 personnel could give Zeke bigger lanes to take advantage of. The Cowboys also seem to be interested in using him more as a receiver than in the past. In the end, though, as Barnwell mentioned, you have to rack up touchdowns to get your name in consideration. Just how much the Cowboys feed Zeke at the goal line would have an outsized impact on his chances.
And now for the shocker. Admittedly, this is a Tier 3 candidate which was explained as someone who “would require a dominant campaign and some significant luck to even get the opportunity in 2020.”
For MVP. Behold!
Tier 3 long shot: Andy Dalton, QB, Cowboys
OK, let’s go for a real long shot here. It’s safer to pick a backup quarterback than it is to pick a non-quarterback to win this trophy, and if we’re looking at backups around the NFL, a few players stick out. John Wolford of the Rams is one. Guys such as Jameis Winston (Saints) and Nick Mullens (49ers) also come to mind if they were to get significant playing time.
The best candidate of the bunch, though, is Dalton. We’ve already seen his ceiling when he has help; he played at an MVP level with the Bengals in 2015, when he posted a passer rating of 106.2 and went 10-2 in his first 12 starts before going down with a broken thumb. The Cowboys have one of the best offensive lines in football, and Dallas was third in my weapons rankings. If Dalton was called upon, he would have plenty of help.
Of course, the Cowboys aren’t about to bench Prescott. It would take a September injury to Prescott for Dalton to get the sort of playing time and record the sort of yardage he would need to be a serious MVP candidate. If that happens and Dalton goes something like 12-1 as the starter while playing the way he did with the Bengals in 2015, he is going to compete with Mahomes & Co. for MVP.
That one is just too scary to contemplate. Yes, the Cowboys now have a very competent backup QB, but no one wants to see him as QB1 for the Cowboys. We’ll just leave it at that.