As we sit enviously watching the Kansas City Chiefs and Tampa Bay Buccaneers prepare for Super Bowl LV, it is natural to look forward to how the Dallas Cowboys can solve the issues of 2020. Some, like injuries and the difficult transition to a new coaching staff, will hopefully more or less resolve themselves. The team also has that elephant tromping around the room in the need to get Dak Prescott re-signed. But it is not unreasonable to hope all that will actually get better. With free agency and the draft coming up, there are a lot of theories about just how to utilize the resources available to fix this team. They are projected to have ten draft picks, of course, and have proven repeatedly that they can find the cap space they need.
So of course there is a chance. Here’s the thing, though. That chance is much smaller than most will admit. Consider this a warning that 2021 is going to be a rebuilding year, and expecting the Cowboys to get into the playoffs, much less make a run, is likely to lead to disappointment.
This is not a roster that is a player or two away. It is one that needs perhaps a half dozen quality pieces to add to things, and that is assuming that all those injured players are back and fully healthy. The needs will just grow during the season as the inevitable damage piles up and players start missing games.
To properly discuss things, we need to look at what the team currently has on their roster. Fortunately for me, the inestimable Bob Sturm already did that bit of work.
I think this is correct, but let me know if I missed anything. pic.twitter.com/0Ymvwpqpi9— Bob Sturm (@SportsSturm) February 1, 2021
This is a particularly relevant chart, because it shows how each player was obtained, which is very pertinent to our discussion.
We know how much the Cowboys like to claim they depend most heavily on the draft, but this shows just how much of the roster is actually acquired through free agency, including UDFAs. However, when you consider that this includes more players than will actually make the roster, that will probably tilt back to the draft. Still, while it is certainly admirable that they have found player like La’el Collins, Blake Jarwin, and Antwaun Woods through the two free agency paths, there is not a lot of other success to point to in this list. We should not expect that to change, so Dallas has to do well in this year’s draft.
Further complicating things are all those names in red, representing the Dallas players that are now unrestricted free agents. That includes six starters at various parts of the season, and any of those who are brought back, including Prescott, will of course eat into the cap space available.
Even ten draft picks are not going to be enough, because there is no such thing as a sure thing in the draft. You have the best shots of finding players that can help the team on days one and two, but even then you are not really looking at a high success rate on average. The day three picks are all really crapshoots. If the Cowboys come out of the draft with three long-term starters and a couple of reliable backups level players, they would be beating the odds. That leaves at least two or three holes that have to be filled in free agency, where Dallas has not exactly proven itself a master of the market. Or you can hope to develop what you already have under contract. That may yield a player or two over time, but we are in a bad situation because the current roster doesn’t have a lot of obvious answers jumping out at us.
Some like to point to the 2020 draft class as a sign of hope. It did yield four players that started more than one game in CeeDee Lamb, Trevon Diggs, Neville Gallimore, and Tyler Biadasz, and there is hope that Bradlee Anae and Reggie Robinson will be more utilized. However, Pro Football Focus applied their scoring system to the draft classes of all 32 teams last year, and that is not very encouraging. Dallas only ranked 24th overall. Their evaluation took into account volume for the players, so the Cowboys were marked down because Gallimore and Biadasz did not see much time early in the season, with Biadasz then going on IR, while of course Anae, Robinson, and Ben DiNucci contributed almost nothing, with DiNucci’s dismal performance in his limited time on the field dragging the whole class down in PFF’s scoring. We can hope that the class will contribute more in their second year, but it does not bode all that well for the coming class.
So just how many positions need to be addressed? Note the number of unrestricted free agents that could be lost from Sturm’s list, especially in the secondary. Assuming (which may be a bit optimistic) that management does not screw up the Prescott situation, the team seems to have adequate answers at QB, WR, TE, RB, and DE. That leaves the following positions of concern:
- Free safety
- Cornerback, both CB2 and slot corner
- Defensive tackle, especially 1-tech
- Linebacker depth, and possibly a starter
- OT depth at a minimum
- possibly IOL depth
That is six positions they gave to get right, and a seventh that still should not be overlooked, if they get all the injured players back. Any that are not ready to go, such as the two starting offensive tackles they planned on last season, just adds to the urgency.
Already, we are beyond reasonable expectations for finding enough quality players in the draft. With ten expected picks, we have to prepare for at least three or four to just not pan out. Free agency, including signing some of their own, will help, but Dallas has shown a marked inability to get reliable personnel going outside the team.
It’s a numbers game, and the numbers show, as Todd Archer evaluated, that it will take a couple of years to really get this team built to be a contender. Given that some of the current players that are being depended on will fall victim to injury or just a decline in their ability, that may be optimistic. A truly objective analysis makes three or four years more likely, again with the big “if” of them getting most of the talent acquisition process right along the way.
We tend to judge the Cowboys on a pass/fail basis regarding whether they make it to the Super Bowl. That will almost certainly lead to disappointment in the near term. What we should really be looking for is how much they can improve each year. The first step is getting to a winning record, which may be helped a lot by the dysfunction in the rest of the NFC East, although the Washington Football Team may be close to getting beyond that. But the terrible performance of last season means that just adding a couple more wins this year may be more significant than we would like to admit.
It is most likely that this will be a long haul, and we should try to cultivate some patience. That is not something fan bases are known for. As much as we may not want to face it, this team is not in good shape at all at the moment, and will have more challenges arise even as they seek to address the multiple ones that are now clear.