All across the NFL, writers and fans are dissecting their team’s haul of draft picks and how they will help their team be a winner this year. For the Dallas Cowboys, it is almost all about the defense. That was imperative after how bad they did under Mike Nolan last season. They certainly got some very encouraging players, along with some flyers that might just pay off.
But the focus on additions to rosters can lead to some overblown conclusions, like this bit of hype for a division rival.
The easy answer to the question is the quarterback. With Ryan Fitzpatrick the presumptive starter, that is the likely weak link for them.
So here is what is most important for the Cowboys to be a contender this year.
The Dak factor
While some still doubt him, Dak Prescott has demonstrated that he is a true franchise QB. His injury in the fifth game last year doomed the team. How far they go in 2021 will hinge on his health. If he is back to form, this offense is one that truly merits the question in the tweet above.
The second most critical element of a team’s performance is how many injuries they endure overall. For Dallas, the rash of offensive linemen who missed much of the season was almost as big as Prescott going down, and probably was part of why he was lost as well. Offensive tackle was a mess for much of the year, and there were multiple other linemen who had to be shuffled in and out of the lineup as the missed games piled up.
When Tyron Smith joined La’el Collins and Cam Erving on IR, Dallas was forced to rely on Brandon Knight, who had very limited experience, and UDFA rookie Terrence Steele. It did not go well, especially the first half of the season. The lack of depth hurt the team badly.
Both Knight and Steele are now much more ready to contribute, and the team added free agent Ty Nsekhe and draftee Josh Ball to ensure they do not get caught in such bad shape at tackle. That is just the most obvious place they addressed depth. How well they fixed this overall will be important, especially as they get deeper into the 17-game schedule.
Mike Nolan may have become something of a scapegoat for the glaring failures of the defense, but he is hardy without blame. Now Dan Quinn and his assistants are responsible for avoiding the frequent collapses that led to embarrassing losses, particularly in the first four games when Prescott was still on the field. Quinn has seemingly gotten exactly who he wants both as free agents and draft picks. This puts the onus even more on what he does with the defense.
Kellen Moore had things roaring along before he also faced a revolving door of quarterbacks. He will have to prove he can maintain a high level of productivity, but there doesn’t seem to be any real concern there. John Fassel inspires even more confidence, as the special teams were much better last season than the one before.
There is some talent on this roster, and that appears to be more legitimate to say than it has in some recent years. But we’ve seen talent wasted too often in the past. Now Mike McCarthy has to lead his staff to getting things done right.
This one actually overlaps the previous two elements. It is not just about the talent. Leadership is a crucial intangible. The Cowboys are fortunate in Prescott having the locker room firmly behind him, and he inspires and elevates those around him. There is a question as to who will be the leaders of the defense. Tyrone Crawford and Sean Lee are both gone, and they were leaders even when they weren’t dominating on the field. We have to see who will emerge.
The new blood
Yes, the free agent additions and rookies are at the bottom of this list. Part of this is just about numbers. A bunch of rookies are not going to be with the team come September, and several of the free agents signed might join them.
When we look at the new names, we tend to be too optimistic. Dallas in particular has a poor history with free agents. This year has some interesting additions, but they will absolutely have to prove that they are not the usual disappointment this fall. As for the rookies, there is no way that eleven draftees will all work out. We get too pumped up about late-rounders who were always long shots. Worse, we frequently get all excited about a UDFA or two who will just serve as camp bodies for the most part.
This is why we should not be too up or down about the draft group. What is important is how the picks fit into what the team is trying to do, and there are some indications that this year saw a real focus on fitting what the coaches want to do.
There will be contributions for the rookies, but only one or two will make a big impact at best. All the other things mentioned here will outweigh how good or bad the draft class is, especially their first year.