Basically all NFL teams are convinced at this time of the year that they are better than they were last season. Most of them actually have a point, as retirements and injuries inevitably eat away at the quality of their rosters over the season and into the offseason, they get fresh infusions of talent from the draft and free agency. But some have a much better case than others. After an extremely well-regarded draft and an unusually productive free agency, the Dallas Cowboys are one of the most apparently improved teams. All things are not equal up and down the roster, of course. Now that we at least know the initial 53-man roster, here are the units that should turn out markedly better this year.
Duh. They added Dontari Poe, Aldon Smith, Everson Griffen, Neville Gallimore, and Bradlee Anae, plus Trysten Hill was much improved in camp while Tyrone Crawford appears fully healthy. That’s a lot of upgrading, with the pass rush in particular looking like it is going to be among the league’s elite. Now, they also can look forward to Randy Gregory coming in for the week 7 game against the Washington Football Team. Oh, my.
And they didn’t just go grocery shopping to cook up a banquet. The team hired a new chef to prepare what is hoped to be a sack feast, with a nice side of run stuffing. Jim Tomsula has brought a new philosophy. No more playing the run on the way to the passer. Poe in particular should help solidify the middle of the line, while the lateral pursuit of DeMarcus Lawrence, Smith, Griffen, and even Hill should help make sure the defense doesn’t get gashed the way it was far too often last year. And when the quarterback drops back to pass, he will face ferocious pressure from inside and the edge. Even without the expected increased, and more intelligent, use of blitzes, the “basic” pass rush looks absolutely delicious.
There is also evidence that the ingredients are going to be blended in fresh and tantalizing ways, with Lawrence, Smith, Griffen, and Crawford all able to move inside to put as many QB hunters on the field as possible. The line, especially in the middle, was a real problem a year ago. Now, we can expect some real chef’s kisses.
There was the one big addition from the draft, CeeDee Lamb. We have terribly high expectations for the rookie, but all indications from camp are that he may be even better than we could dream. He replaces Randall Cobb, who wasn’t exactly a liability except for too many drops, but everyone expects him to be an upgrade. Not only is he showing signs of being a fearsome weapon in his own right, he is going to help Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup just by attracting more attention from the defense.
It wasn’t just the new guy that was impressive in camp, however. Both Cedrick Wilson and Noah Brown had perhaps the best camps of their careers and are apparently WR4 and WR5, respectively. Like with the defensive line, they seem to be benefiting from some new thinking on the coaching staff, especially Brown. After having been seen as primarily a blocker, he was fully integrated into the passing game as far as we can tell. He had plenty of highlights that will hopefully be duplicated, even if he, like Wilson, are not on the field as much as the starters. Ventell Bryant also made the roster, but likely as a special teams contributor.
The phrase “addition by subtraction” may be a bit overused to discuss this group. Or maybe not. Jason Witten ate up a lot of first team snaps, but was no longer the offensive threat he was early in his career. Yards after the catch were virtually nonexistent for him last year. Now Blake Jarwin will get to shine, and another and more welcome phrase came into play, “catch down the seam.”
Dalton Schultz was another unexpectedly strong performer as camp progressed. In addition to being a good backup, he offers the possibility of two tight end sets not being automatic running downs. That is partly due to how the coaches appear to be approaching things, just the way that Jarwin is thriving with better usage. Blake Bell looks like a decent depth player as well, and initially at least, Sean McKeon made the roster as well.
And one wrinkle that is coming is using the tight end to replace the fullback position, with Dallas electing cut Sewo Olinolua.
If I had any doubts the Cowboys are going to ask their TEs to fill the fullback role, talking to Dalton Schultz has me fully convinced. He just gave us a pretty damn thorough breakdown of how to play the position— David Helman (@HelmanDC) September 3, 2020
Creativity. Give us more.
All that happened here was the starters in the nickel switching places. But all indications are that having Jaylon Smith at the WILL and using Leighton Vander Esch as the MIKE is a much more effective use of their respective strengths - and raises the question, just why wasn’t this the plan all along? Even though new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan is very strong with linebackers, it shouldn’t take a genius to figure this out. Vander Esch apparently recovering from the injury problems that limited him last year just makes this all the more encouraging.
However, things are a bit thin with Sean Lee reportedly going on IR, Justin March being cut, and UDFA Francis Bernard a real surprise to be waived after an outstanding camp. Expect March to come back as soon as a spot is opened up by IR moves, and Bernard may get a shot as well.
Still, the way the two main pieces are being used, along with having Joe Thomas to fill in when they use a SAM, means that this should still be a very effective unit.
This one is all about the coaching. Those not-so-subtle hints about the staff using both Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard at the same time and integrating them more into the passing game is strictly a matter of using the talent available to a fuller extent - which you may note as a common thread here. This is a very good duo to have, with different enough skill sets to give opposing defenses some real headaches. Rico Dowdle was a bit of a surprise to make the team and provides depth.
This is a tribute to Andy Dalton. In camp, he looked exactly like what he is, an experienced and more than capable former starter. After years of only having a former UDFA project to backup Dak Prescott, the team now can have confidence that they can survive even the worst thing that can happen. Dalton didn’t just show a grasp of the position and the playbook, he established some immediate chemistry with the receivers.
You can even throw Ben DiNucci in this conversation, because he looked rather good in extremely limited work. He may be on the team because Mike McCarthy took a shine to him, but he may just have a future in this game.
That’s the explanation.
Those are the places where the team definitely got better. That still leaves some real questions about the offensive line and the secondary, many revolving around some injury problems. Right tackle is a real concern with La’el Collins also expected to go on IR. If the team can manage those, however, the improvement on the field should be marked.