After being one of the worst defenses in football in 2020, the Cowboys come into the spring desperately needing to upgrade that side of the ball. Although defense rightfully should be the top priority, the Cowboys offense still has some question marks of its own. Today we take a look at three questions facing the Cowboys offense as we enter March.
1. What’s the backup plan at tackle?
Tyron Smith will go down as one of the best offensive tackles in Cowboys’ history. The seven-time Pro Bowler, and two-time All-Pro, has been among the elite tackles in football since he entered the league. As good as Smith has been, the Cowboys cannot rely on him at this point of his career. Smith has missed at least three games in every season since 2016, and over that five-year span, the Cowboys are a .500 team (13-13) when he’s been unable to suit up.
Without the Pro Bowl tackle in 2020, the Cowboys offensive line did not fare well. According to Pro Football Focus, Dallas had the fourth-worst run-blocking line in football and the seventh-worst pass blocking group. Granted, Smith’s injury alone was not the only complication the Cowboys faced. Zack Martin and La’el Collins also battled injuries during the season, but that only makes it more imperative the Cowboys have a backup plan when Smith, or one of the others, inevitably goes down.
Despite making some improvement as the season wore on, tackles Brandon Knight and Terence Steele are not the answer at backup tackle. Knight was the clear better of the two, but he still has his fair share of struggles. 48.5 PFF offensive grade (55.5 PB and 36.2 RB), and 37 pressures allowed in 11 games. Steele’s numbers were even worse. 50.3 PFF offensive grade (49.1 PB and 52.6 RB) and 48 pressures allowed in 16 games, third-most in the NFL.
Now, this doesn’t mean it’s time to give up on either player. Both Knight and Steele should have a spot on the roster or potentially the practice squad in 2021. But, if it’s on the 53-man roster, that spot should be as a developmental, last-case scenario tackle. Not your backup option if your 30-year-old often injured tackle goes down.
With all their needs elsewhere, the Cowboys don’t need to take a tackle with the 10th pick, or even the 44th for that matter, unless they like the value, but they do need to bring in someone who is an upgrade over their current options. Whether it be a draft pick, or possibly a cheaper veteran in free agency, the Cowboys need to have a better backup plan at the tackle spot in 2021.
2. Veteran with knowledge or youth and potential at the center spot?
Versatile linemen Joe Looney is one of the Cowboys’ more intriguing free agents to be. The 30-year-old played in 13 games last season, starting 12. Looney’s performance was up and down, 16 pressures and three sacks allowed, but he did bring versatility and some much-needed experience to a suddenly inexperienced offensive line.
With the big three linemen back in 2021, the Cowboys won’t have as much of a need for Looney’s veteran experience, but he still could be a valuable piece at the right price. When deciding if they want to retain Looney, Dallas will have to decide if they believe second-year center Tyler Biadasz is ready to take over as the full-time starter.
Biadasz actually performed very similarly to Looney in 2020. In eight games, four starts, the 23-year-old allowed 11 pressures and just one sack. The rookie center had a slightly higher PFF offensive grade than the veteran ( 53.5 vs 50.7).
As every decision does this time of year, Looney being back in Big D likely will come down to money. If someone is willing to give the veteran money to be a full-time, guaranteed starter at center, his time with the Cowboys is likely up.
3. Finding the perfect mix at runningback
Like it or not, Ezekiel Elliott will be the Cowboys’ starting running back in 2021. Don’t buy any of the fake rumors, Zeke isn’t going anywhere. Coming off a year in which his numbers drastically dipped, (4.0 y/a and 65.3 ypg) Dallas desperately needs a bounce-back year from the 25-year-old rusher. One way the Cowboys can assure this will happen is by finding the right mix between their two talented running backs.
According to Pro Football Reference, Tony Pollard played just 28.7% of the Cowboys’ offensive snaps in 2020. That number needs to be much higher this upcoming season. Pollard showed the ability to make people miss and hit home run-type runs, which the Cowboys need to use to their advantage.
To get Pollard on the field, Dallas doesn’t necessarily need to take Elliott off. The Cowboys could run some 20 or 21 personnel and use both of their runners at the same time, possibly having one as a decoy to make defenses account for.
Ideally, you wouldn’t want to split carries or any playing time at all, with a running back on your roster that has a nearly $14 million cap hit, but the Cowboys made their bed and now must lie in it.
By using Pollard more, it hopefully will make Elliott stronger. Dallas can use Elliott more with second-half leads, and keep him fresh down the stretch of the season. If the Cowboys are able to find somewhere around a 60-40 balance between the two, it will allow both of them to play to their strengths.