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The Cowboys may have a viable plan to make a playoff run in 2021

There are a lot of moving parts and things that might fall short, but the effort is showing in Dallas.

Los Angeles Rams v Dallas Cowboys
It all starts here, of course.
Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Maybe it’s just the usual offseason optimism, but it sure looks like the Dallas Cowboys have a real blueprint for trying to get back to the top of the NFC East and make a playoff run. It looks like this might actually have a shot at working.

At the heart of all this is that the personnel moves in the early stages look better than they have in recent memory. Admittedly, this isn’t a wholly objective view. Still, the steps taken show that the brain-trust of the team do not think they are a couple of seasons or more from getting back to being in the thick of things. Despite what someone once said, maybe the team can get fixed in an offseason.

Let’s delve into the reasons why that turnaround could come about.

The big one

Previously in the offseason, there was one big, dark cloud still looming for Dallas. That was getting the contract worked out with Dak Prescott. It is understandable that there was pessimism, the team had dropped the ball in the past few years when they could have done a deal for less money, assuming Prescott’s agent Todd France was not playing the long game. If he was, he did so brilliantly, securing his client a four-year deal with some record setting guarantees.

Things have also been colored a bit by the injury Prescott suffered last season that torpedoed Mike McCarthy’s first year at the head coaching helm. All indications are that Prescott is going to be fully recovered. Now, with him securely in the fold, the Cowboys have the most important single element any NFL team needs to be competitive, a true franchise quarterback. He was playing at a very high level despite the won-lost record when he was lost for the season. With all his weapons back and the draft still looming to possibly add more, there is every reason to think that he and offensive coordinator Kellen Moore can continue to put up some big numbers.

The defense should have a faster start to the season

Part of the reason the Cowboys were 1-3 going into the disastrous fifth game for Prescott was that the defense was a complete mess. Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan took the brunt of the blame. There is a legitimate argument to be made about whether he was scapegoated as the performance actually improved in the latter half of the season. But there was an obvious failure to have his defense ready out of the gate. The lack of any offseason practices and a limited training camp plus no preseason games certainly played a part. Still, it was a pitiful performance in the early going and there were some clear signs of discontent among the players. Nolan’s firing became inevitable, justifiably or not.

Now Dan Quinn has the responsibility to fix things, and there is reason to be optimistic about getting OTAs and minicamps back this year. There are still some limitations, mostly centering around relying more on virtual meetings while the COVID pandemic hopefully continues to wind down. It should still be more effective in getting Quinn’s defense installed. The fact it is expected to resemble what the veterans were used to before Nolan is not a bad thing, either.

Now if free agency doesn’t fool us again

Let’s be honest. Dallas has really struggled to find any real help in free agency for years. Last season was just the latest in a string of frustrating bargain hunts, with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Dontari Poe the most obvious examples.

This year has not exactly seen the team open its cap space checkbook up, outside the megadeal for Prescott, but the unique circumstances of the pandemic and the reduced cap may have made their miserly approach workable. The free agent market has been depressed around the league, which has made the penny-pinching, go-slow methods favored at the Star less of a handicap. So far, they have also shown a real interest in addressing some normally under-prioritized positions.

Last year, the Cowboys were repeatedly gashed in the running game, and while the linebacking corps got a lot of the blame, the problem really started at defensive tackle. Dallas got bullied too much, letting offensive linemen get to the second level as the opponents controlled the line of scrimmage. To address this, the Cowboys added Brent Urban and Carlos Watkins to the roster. Urban, in particular, has demonstrated a real ability to hold his ground and help clog things up in the middle. That alone may lead to improvement in the run defense even if neither of the new DTs are great in pass defense.

Then the Cowboys got really active in the safety market, signing Keanu Neal, Jayron Kearse, and Damontae Kazee. Of the three, Kazee may wind up having the biggest impact, since he is a legitimate free safety. That has been missing in Dallas for years. Neal and Kearse both seem to be more of hybrid free safety/linebacker types, which is something Quinn is apparently trying to incorporate in his scheme.

Under the principle that you can never have too many pass rushers, the team also inked Tarell Basham. He is not going to challenge DeMarcus Lawrence or Randy Gregory for a starting job, but as a rotational/relief pass rusher, he may be a useful addition.

On offense, they got some quality insurance at swing tackle in Ty Nsecke. After the disasters at tackle last season, that is more than just prudent. It was pretty much a necessity.

They also replaced long snapper L.P. Ladouceur with Jake McQuaide, and old John Fassel hand. While many were disappointed in the decision to move on from Ladouceur, Mr. Perfect himself, McQuaide looks to be of similar quality, and we hope for that to prove out.

There is one snake in the woodpile in these signings, and that is something that David Helman of DallasCowboys.com put so well I’m quoting his analysis from a recent article.

The Cowboys are well aware what blue chip talent looks like, and they’ve made a tradition of zeroing in when outside circumstances bring down the cost.

Injuries are often the circumstance in question. Arguably the two biggest additions of this free agency class, Keanu Neal and Damontae Kazee, struggled with injuries during their careers in Atlanta. The result is that the Cowboys were able to secure the services of two of the Falcons’ best defenders for a grand total of $3.2 million in guaranteed money.

That’s all well and good when the players involved are indeed recovered from those injuries. The staff is putting a lot of faith in their own medical personnel regarding Neal and Kazee, as well as Quinn’s own familiarity with the players. It is still a calculated risk, and we will be holding our breath a bit this season.

It is assumed that the Cowboys are not done in free agency, with two positions still in need of help. Linebacker play was at times just dismal last year, and rolling with Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch as the starters makes many of us nervous, to put it mildly. Neal may be at least a partial answer there, but the team would be wise to bring in someone who can step in if the staff decides it needs more. Rumbles persist that something may yet be in the works with K.J. Wright, arguably the best remaining free agent backer out there. If they do secure his services, things will be looking up.

Cornerback also remains as a position of need, with the numbers currently under contract a bit limited. That depressed market has some good names still available. Richard Sherman and Quinton Dunbar are two that are often mentioned as possible targets, but they are not the only possibilities. It would be disappointing to see the brain-trust whiff entirely at corner in free agency, and I don’t think they will.

Get those final two holes plugged, and that sets up the team for the big event.

The draft

It’s coming fast, and all signs are that the Cowboys will have several attractive options at pick 10 in the first round. There is expected to be a real run on quarterbacks before they go on the clock, which is very good for them. It is entirely possible that all nine selections before them will be offensive players, setting them up to get real defensive help, with Patrick Surtain II and Jaycee Horn among the most enticing names to shore up cornerback. If one of the top offensive players like Penei Sewell, Kyle Pitts, or Rashawn Slater are still available, we could also see a repeat of the CeeDee Lamb situation, where the team adds to a position of strength with a real difference maker. And there’s always a chance they could trade down to get even more picks.

Beyond the first round, Dallas has a lot of draft capital with ten picks in all, including a total of three (so far) on day two. With the lack of a combine this year, Will McClay and the rest of the scouting staff have to do some intense homework to find the best talent they can in the early and middle rounds.

That all still has to play out. But if they can find some real value in the draft, and finish out free agency, they could well be set to be a force again. The offense should be in great shape under Kellen Moore, especially if Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, and La’el Collins are back to full speed this year. If that works out, then Quinn doesn’t have to get the defense to being top of the league. Just being middle of the pack should make for a lot more wins than we saw in 2020.

Of course, it is the season for unreasonable optimism across the NFL. In a few months, we will find out just how justified that may be for the Cowboys.