Just to be perfectly clear, this article has nothing to do with the Dallas Cowboys now having the tenth overall pick in the NFL draft. In a sense, it is about everything else. While draft capital is going to be important in addressing roster issues, the difference between being tenth in the order and nineteenth is overestimated by many. That is especially true this year, when the top of the class coming out of college is not exactly laden with blue-chip talent. Will McClay just needs to do good job with what he has. It may be too much to expect a repeat of last year, when four of the seven draftees became legitimate starters. (Sorry, Ben DiNucci, but your lone start hardly fits the legitimate part.) We still need to see the team get similar bang for the buck as they did in 2020.
No, the point of this is that the final, futile game against the New York Giants laid bare just about all the problems that plagued the team all year. There was a risk they would pull this game out and have a too-optimistic view of where they stand. Now, reality has slapped Dallas right in the face. They have the evidence. The big challenge is facing it honestly and coming up with good solutions.
We have to start with the coaching. While Mike McCarthy seems secure and the offensive staff actually did a pretty good job under some trying circumstances, the defense was often just a train wreck. Facing a Giants team that had been struggling to put up any points at all, they let them jump out to a 20-9 halftime lead. The three first-half touchdown drives just shredded the Cowboys defense. They went 78 yards in six plays, 65 yards in six plays, and 75 yards in only four snaps. They never faced a third down in any of those drives, and only seven all game which they never converted. While the defense did stiffen in the second half, only allowing a single field goal, the damage was already done. If you haven’t done the unpleasant math, they allowed New York to gain an average of 21.8 yards per play on those three TD drives. Ineptitude just begins to describe that, and should probably accompanied by some modifiers that we refrain from using here.
Mike Nolan is definitely on the hot seat. Still, there are some counterarguments as to why he may deserve one more shot. We have gone over them frequently, so let’s go with a very quick list: No offseason, no preseason, limited training camp, failed free agent signings, lots of injuries, and some notably poor play from who was on the field.
Even if we don’t get to a full offseason schedule, which remains in doubt, just having a second year to work with the players might lead to a significant improvement in how Nolan’s scheme is executed. The multiple free agents that failed to even make the team should not have come as any surprise. That is just the Cowboys way. We were seduced by the names, ignoring a lot of evidence that many of the signings were on the decline. For whatever reason, Dallas is just better at getting talent in the draft, and should truly act accordingly.
However, the team should try and re-sign Gerald McCoy, who was lost to injury in camp. He may still have something to help a position with real need. And Aldon Smith and Andy Dalton were not bad signings at all, so the team shouldn’t completely give up on the free agent market. Judiciousness needs to be really dialed up, though.
If Nolan is retained, what about his assistants? Maurice Linguist seems to have done a good job working through a steady stream of missed games in the secondary, and the sudden flurry of pass interceptions to close out the year is encouraging. As for the rest, that needs to be carefully evaluated. But don’t be surprised if Nolan and his staff return relatively unscathed. The circumstances just make a definitive answer very difficult to discern.
That leads to the roster, where the main work has to happen if there is no wholesale change in the coaching staff. First and foremost, the team absolutely has to get Dak Prescott re-signed. It needs to be to a four- or five-year contract. Another tag is very expensive in cap terms. To get the deal done, Jerry and Stephen Jones are going to have to figure out how to meet the demands of Prescott and his agent. Bite the bullet, get out the checkbook, and make it happen. When the inevitable negotiating in the media over cap costs starts, it needs to be treated with the disdain it deserves.
Simply put, the loss of Prescott doomed the Cowboys, even in the widespread dysfunction of the NFC East. Dalton did not have a terrible year, leading the team to four wins, including the three-game streak in December. But his warts showed in his bad start against the Giants, along with his inability to hit anything deep. He also was sacked six times, which was largely on him as he held the ball too long and looked indecisive.
Many of the other roster issues are going to be helped significantly with better injury luck, or a regression to the mean, which are really much the same thing. We all know how the loss of Tyron Smith, La’el Collins, and Zack Martin hurt the offensive line. Somewhat overlooked is how Tyler Biadasz’s injury interrupted what looked like him staking out the starting center job. Now all should be back. While the team might need to take a hard look in the draft at shoring up the depth or even trying to find the tackle of the future, especially with Smith’s injury history, things should be in much better shape at the start of the season. (Frantically knocks on wood.)
If there is one place the team is absolutely set, it is the receiving corps. Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and CeeDee Lamb had very good years considering the quarterback situation, Dalton Schultz was the biggest silver lining of the season, and Blake Jarwin should be back. They just need to find some depth at WR, and with Prescott back, this should be one of the most formidable sets of targets in the league.
Running back is also of no real concern, as Tony Pollard showed he is a very strong complement to Ezekiel Elliott. All in all, this tells us one thing.
They need to go hard after defense in the draft, and possibly in free agency as well.
The two most glaring needs, just like they probably were last season, are defensive tackle and the secondary. The interior of the defensive line was just not up to the task, although Neville Gallimore came on strong late in the season. Trysten Hill is another player coming off injury that should be a big plus after his fast start last year, and as mentioned, McCoy might also be a factor. Even together, however, they are not enough for the team to neglect the need in the offseason. In particular, they need to finally invest in a 1-tech/nose tackle. This is one place the team has always been averse to investing high draft capital. But the talent pool in this year’s class has no viable first-rounders at the position. This is where a mid-round pick could be smartly invested to finally solidify the defense up the middle. As fellow front-page writer David Howman mentioned in a group chat, the often terrible linebacker play may have had more to do with the offensive linemen that were able to just slice through to the second level to get on the linebackers. Shoring up the defensive tackle position could play big dividends.
Defensive end has a hole to fill as Aldon Smith was on a one-year deal. DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory are a great starting duo, but they need a good third and fourth rusher for the rotation. Dorance Armstrong was good enough that Bradlee Anae never sniffed the field, but it is far from certain that they are the answer. This is somewhere the team may want to look hard at the tenth pick, and certainly at some point, preferably not just deep in the rounds.
Linebacker is the opposite of defensive tackle, because the Cowboys are notorious for over-drafting the position. It remains to be seen if that tendency will be reined in. But the desultory or worse play of Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch is a big problem. That is a conundrum that may defy the coaching staff, whoever it is, given Smith’s extension.
That brings us to the secondary. Trevon Diggs had a very solid rookie season and will hopefully only get better. The rest of the cornerbacks are less reliable. Already, Caleb Farley is being mocked to the Cowboys at ten, and would not be a bad thing, probably. Jaycee Horn is another name to watch.
Outside of Donovan Wilson, safety is a big problem. Wilson is much better in the box, meaning that the team still desperately needs a good centerfielder. This is a position that looks to have some good value all through the draft, although the first round is a bit of a reach. Given that the Cowboys are just as reluctant to draft safeties high as they are defensive tackles, that may not be an entirely bad thing.
That is many of the questions that have to be answered. The loss on Sunday just brings them into clearer focus, and that was almost essential. It will hopefully tamp down the usual overestimation of the talent on the roster, although with Jerry and Stephen Jones that is hardly a given. It may have hurt to see such a dismal performance. But sometimes, there is wisdom from the pain.