Just how good will the Dallas Cowboys be in 2021? That’s a legitimate question because the Cowboys are sort of a Rorschach test, everybody sees something different with the team from the most pessimistic views to unbridled optimism. After injuries, COVID, and a new coaching staff proved to be an issue in 2020, figuring out 2021 is more complicated than usual.
One place to start would be the talent accumulated on the roster. The Cowboys have usually been lauded for the talent they have and that was one reason Jason Garrett caught so much flak; he supposedly wasn’t utilizing the roster to its fullest potential. Mike McCarthy fell victim to some of the same condemnation.
Not everyone, though, buys into the idea that the Cowboys roster deserves so much praise. But Pro Football Focus does. They recently posted their team roster rankings over at ESPN, and the Cowboys slide into the top ten at position number eight. As many would expect, that is based on a dangerous offense loaded with weapons.
Biggest strength: There is no reason that this passing offense, if healthy, shouldn’t be one of the league’s best. QB Dak Prescott’s 85.2 PFF grade before his injury last season was on pace to be the highest of his career. Even in Prescott’s absence, rookie wide receiver CeeDee Lamb proved himself to be one of the more dynamic slot receivers in the league. His 877 receiving yards from the slot in 2020 were fewer than only Cole Beasley’s. Lamb, Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup are certainly in the conversation for best wide receiver trio in the NFL.
Tampa Bay tops the roster rankings, followed by Kansas City, Cleveland, Buffalo, Baltimore, Green Bay and Los Angeles (Rams).
The Cowboys offense will carry this team. It’s doubtful they will find much success in 2021 unless the offense is firing on all cylinders. That’s because their defense performed so poorly last season. And the biggest weakness on that defense is at cornerback.
Biggest weakness: This secondary bled production to opposing passing offenses in 2020, and it didn’t get noticeably better this offseason. Second-round selection Kelvin Joseph has a chance to start opposite Trevon Diggs. While that might represent an upgrade in talent, last season showed the risk involved with relying heavily on rookie cornerbacks. Eight of the 20 highest yards per coverage snap marks at the cornerback position belonged to rookies in 2020, including Diggs in Dallas. The Cowboys are banking on young players improving on the fly in a new system.
The Cowboys are certainly playing a risky game by not trying to acquire a veteran corner to plug into this group. That could still happen sometime at training camp or after the big round of cuts to get down to the 53-man limit. As is, they are showing a lot of trust in a patchwork group that hasn’t really showed they are up to the task. Only Trevon Diggs stands out at this juncture.
Micah Parsons has the highest PFF grade on defense, but that is from his 2019 college season and has little bearing on what he might be in the NFL in 2021. The truly highest-ranked player on the defensive side of the ball is DeMarcus Lawrence. The second highest is his expected bookend and the player PFF calls the X-factor for the team.
X factor for 2021: The “breakout” label is typically reserved for second- or third-year players. But Randy Gregory, at 28 years old, is a legitimate breakout candidate in Dan Quinn’s defense. Gregory has played more than 300 snaps just once in his career due to a string of suspensions. He didn’t meet that 300-snap threshold last season for Dallas, but it was comfortably Gregory’s best season on a per-snap basis. He finished the year with an overall grade of 80.5. It appears he’ll have every opportunity to build on that as a starter in 2021.
Our own David Howman was singing the praises of Gregory earlier today. Gregory reaching his full potential could help re-shape this defense and re-shape the Cowboys 2021 season.
Are you buying the Cowboys roster as a top-ten roster in the NFL?