We haven’t even had the OTAs at this point, so coming up with predictions about this year’s edition of the Dallas Cowboys is a bit fraught with peril. These are admittedly highly speculative. Feel free to bookmark this article so you can mock it in the future. However, the possibility of mockery will not deter.
Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch will both be starters - sort of
Look for them to line up for the first defensive snap of games, with Micah Parsons also on the field. But their usage will be different. Dan Quinn is talking about how there will be 3-4 looks, and that will likely be the case here. Parsons and Vander Esch will be the ILBs, and Smith will have one of the OLB positions. This will strictly be a run defense alignment, and Smith and LVE will come off the field for pass defense. Jabril Cox will come in to pair with Parsons in the nickel.
LVE will keep a role as a run defender if he stays healthy, but Smith could be relegated to a backup job if he does not show some real improvement from last year. And the team will have Keanu Neal waiting and perhaps taking some snaps from Smith or Vander Esch. Both the latter will have little margin for error. It all depends on how Quinn winds up utilizing his players, but there will probably be some pressure from on high to give Smith and Vander Esch starting jobs again. It would be more face-saving than proper deployment of assets, but that is how football goes sometimes.
The starters on the defensive line in that 3-4 alinement
Look for Quinton Bohanna, Neville Gallimore, and Brent Urban as your NT and two DEs. Bohanna and Urban were acquired for their run-stuffing ability, where they hold up the offensive linemen while keeping the linebackers clean. And Gallimore grew a great deal last year.
From week 9 to the end of the season Neville Gallimore led the #DallasCowboys defensive line and was second in the team in @PFF’s stop metric.— John Williams ✭ (@john9williams) May 24, 2021
A stop is a play that is a “loss” for the offense with respect to down and distance. #CowboysNation @PFF_Cowboys
As mentioned above, Jaylon Smith will probably line up as one of the OLBs, and DeMarcus Lawrence will be the other. His run defense is very underappreciated.
In 2020, DeMarcus Lawrence finished 3rd in tackles on run plays, 3rd run stops, 3rd in run-stop percentage and 1st in forced fumbles on run plays among EDGEs, per PFF. Also had an average tackle depth of just 1.6 yards. #Cowboys pic.twitter.com/4mLdDzZdpR— John Owning (@JohnOwning) May 24, 2021
Will this fix the woeful run defense from last year?
And here’s the line for passing downs
The objective in forcing the opponent into 2nd and 7 or longer is to make them throw the ball, and that brings out the nickel defensive line, which will probably be the one that sees the majority of snaps. The Cowboys will deploy Lawrence, Gallimore, Trysten Hill, and Randy Gregory. Parsons will hopefully come on more blitzes than Quinn has traditionally employed. If he does, it could be a dicey situation for opposing quarterbacks.
Ezekiel Elliott will return to being a force
It certainly will help to have the offensive line healthy again, but the real reason will be the return of the passing game with Dak Prescott also back in the saddle and throwing to his receiving weapons. There is also that guy on the sidelines calling the plays.
Who are the smartest offensive minds in the NFL?— Zach Drapkin (@ZachDrapkin) May 21, 2021
A look at the best passing play callers from 2012-2020: pic.twitter.com/yA0qb3XB5L
With only two years as offensive coordinator, Kellen Moore has shown a great ability to use all the tools in his kit. That includes early-down passing, which should create some good situations for Elliott to exploit teams that cannot commit to stopping the run. And if Dallas can open up some big leads, Elliott will feast later in the game.
Prescott is certainly confident he will be ready to go.
But I also knew I didn’t have to be ready until fall. I’m right on pace. As I said, I’m healthy. If we had to play a game now, I feel like I can go out there. Obviously with the protection of my O-line and making sure I’m not getting beat up the whole game, I could go out there and be very successful, start the game, finish the game and not even worry about the leg.
Still, the Cowboys learned the hard way how important quality depth at quarterback is. We all hope he doesn’t get hurt again. That is not a strategy, however. The team has been checking out available free agent QBs like Brett Hundley but has not found anyone they want to bite on yet.
That makes Garrett Gilbert the favorite in the competition to be Prescott’s backup, and while it is based on a one game sample, there is reason to believe he the wins the job. Cooper Rush could come on and challenge him, but that seems like a longshot.
Further, expect Dallas to only carry two QBs on the 53-man roster. They just have too many other positions they can use that spot to bolster.
Clearly they will need a QB on the practice squad for emergency use. However, the owners have not decided if they will continue the rules implemented last season to deal with the pandemic. The squad was expanded to 16, but most importantly, up to six of the members could have unlimited prior years of play. Things are returning to normal, but those rules had some real advantages that should be strongly considered for extension.
If the owners elect to continue to allow at least some PS members to have unlimited previous experience, then the Cowboys could sign someone like Hundley to give them a better option than Ben DiNucci, who was about as clearly a work in progress as imaginable last year when he was forced into his lone start.
It would seem to outsiders to make all the sense in the world to continue that kind of flexibility, but the billionaire owners often revert to remarkable penny-pinching. Practice squad salaries are drops in the bucket when it comes to the big picture, but those drops are often remarkably coveted.
If they don’t allow some form of that experience provision to continue, then DiNucci may be the best option, although you should expect the team to really be scouring the waiver wire for a better way to go.
There you go. Five predictions about what the Cowboys will do this year. Mark ‘em down, and feel free to point and laugh if things don’t go this way.