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A hard look at confidence levels for the 2021 Cowboys

Let’s try to strip out some of the annual offseason overconfidence.

Dallas Cowboys v New York Giants
These two are positives, but some other questions certainly remain.
Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Do you believe? This season for the Dallas Cowboys is all about fixing the issues of 2020. While the mandatory minicamp is happening this week and will provide more information, we already have a pretty good idea of how many of those fixes are going. Given that, how confident are we for each one? Glad you asked. Here is a judgment on things, with each one graded on a scale of very confident, confident, uncertain, unconfident, and very unconfident.

Quarterback

There were a lot of other issues last season, but the biggest contributing factor to the whole collapse was unquestionably the severe ankle injury of Dak Prescott. If he is fully back, then there is certainly reason to hope for significant improvement this year. It is clear that the ownership and staff are highly confident. You don’t sign someone to a $160 million deal otherwise.

Based on all reports and video evidence from the OTAs, that confidence seems well placed. If this was just about Prescott, then it would be deemed a highly confident situation, but it isn’t. We saw how much the team is limited by bad play from backup quarterbacks. Andy Dalton also had injury issues, and was not consistent when he was on the field. He’s gone, leaving the Cowboys trying to sort out who is QB2. Garrett Gilbert is the current favorite to win that job. He had a good showing in his one start last year after only being with the team a few weeks, but that is a slim reed to cling to. The Cowboys will have to decide if they need to go into the free agent market for a veteran backup. The pickings are slim at the moment, so any move would likely come late in camp, or even after the final cutdown date for the league when some better options may be freed up.

Still, Prescott is the more important part of this equation.

Level: Confident

Offensive line

The extensive injuries on the offensive line certainly made life harder for the quarterbacks. Once again, the team is exuding confidence that all the injured starters from last year, Tyron Smith, La’el Collins, Zack Martin, and Tyler Biadasz, will be fully ready for the start of the season. Smith is telling the reporters that he is pain free for the first time in years after his neck surgery and ready to return to the level of play that made him one of the elite tackles in the league.

Here is a case where we need to be aware of history. With Dallas, that tells us that we have heard the team exude this kind of positivity before, and it has turned out to be a load of something else entirely. With injuries, you just don’t know until the players are on the field for a few games. We’ll remain skeptical.

Level: Uncertain

The rest of the offense

Outside of a fumbling problem for Ezekiel Elliott that contributed to the early woes of the team, there was nothing really to worry about. There was even a pleasant surprise when Dalton Schultz stepped in for the injured Blake Jarwin and proved to be, at worst, a competent tight end, and at times looked to be a bit better than that. The wide receiving corps is the strongest unit on the roster, and are contending to be among the very elite in the NFL. And even that issue with taking care of the ball for Elliott may have been a result of a lot other things than his talent and ability.

We used caution on the offensive line, but the rest of the offense calls for at least a small sip of the Silver and Blue Kool-Aid.

Level: Very confident

EDGE rushers

DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory are back, and that’s good news. Gregory is coming into the season with a full offseason of preparation for the first time in what seems like forever.

The depth behind them is another story, one with a lot of “ifs” and “maybes”. They used a premium pick on Chauncey Golston, signed Tarell Basham, and have hopes that Bradlee Anae will work his way into the equation, or Dorance Armstrong will take the next step. There also is some belief that Dan Quinn will use linebackers, including rookie Micah Parsons, in DPR or blitzing roles to bolster things. The latter really has not been Quinn’s MO in the past, however, so that is strictly “believe it when we see it” territory. Lots of options, but at this point very unproven.

Level: Uncertain

Interior defensive line

Neville Gallimore improved greatly over the course of his rookie year, and could be poised for a further jump in his second. Trysten Hill was playing well before his own injury. But outside of them, this unit was a mess last season. The team added a lot of new players in both the draft and free agency to bolster things, particularly to stop the bleeding against the run. Poor play in the middle of the line just compounded the issues with the linebackers.

However, things were so bad last year that this is one place where the offseason moves are more reassuring. Add in Quinn’s already documented hands-on coaching for these guys, and this should be one place we see evident improvement.

Level: Confident

Linebackers

There are a bevy of excuses reasons offered for why they were so discombobulated last year. A lot of the blame is being directed at Mike Nolan’s failures to communicate and train well, with the restrictions forced by the pandemic another frequently mentioned culprit. Hope for this year is being pinned on Quinn and his staff doing a much better job, plus this being another place where the team was not hesitant to bring in new blood. Micah Parsons was the first-round pick and they doubled-down in the middle of their draft with Jabril Cox. Old Quinn hand Keanu Neal was also brought in to help, but he is making the switch from safety to linebacker, and we still have to see how the rookies handle the jump to the big league. More worrisome is that two players who were often just dazed and confused, Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch, are out of necessity still a big part of the plan.

As just about everyone in the Star Wars franchise said at one point, I have a bad feeling about this. At best, it will take a few games to get things working a lot better than last season, and there is no guarantee that it is going to be that significant of an improvement.

Level: Unconfident

Cornerback

They let one of their starting cornerbacks walk because of price, a too familiar story. They are hoping that one or both of the two rookies drafted, Kelvin Joseph and Nahshon Wright, will fill that hole. Trevon Diggs proved he can play at this level his rookie year, but having a second-year player as the backbone of the unit is not that reassuring. Slot man Jourdan Lewis has been somewhat inconsistent. While the woes of the defensive line and linebackers drew most of the attention last year, this unit clearly got burned far too often.

With Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers up first this fall, they are going to be challenged right out of the gate. Growing pains seem to be coming. They may last a long while.

Level: Unconfident

Safety

Donovan Wilson is turning out to be a pretty good box safety. Damontae Kazee could provide the team their first true safety in a long, long time. Yet his injury history puts an obvious caveat on that. Outside them, the team once again waited until the sixth round to draft help, and that is in the former of Israel Mukuamu, a college corner they are converting.

Level: Unconfident

Specialists

Don’t forget these three positions. We have to hope John Fassel was right in replacing Mr. Perfect, L.P. Ladouceur, with Jake McQuaide. Greg Zuerlein has no competition after an inconsistent showing last year. And one of the real camp battles will have to determine who they will have punting. Fassel needs to do another good job this season.

Level: Uncertain

Coaching

Yeah, it’s kinda important. Kellen Moore is the clear bright spot, as he is already showing signs of becoming one of the best offensive coordinators with a future head-coaching gig likely. Mike McCarthy still has a lot to prove. Nolan certainly had to go, but he was certainly scapegoated after last season. Fassel has done a lot to inspire confidence. As for Quinn, the hope that he is going to elevate this defense is real. But I don’t need to look at any history outside of my own to find a cautionary tale, because I thought the same thing when Nolan came on board with McCarthy. Add in how many new faces need to carry major loads for things to work out this year on defense, and nervousness is understandable.

Level: Uncertain

The lack of any area with a very unconfident designation is a small consolation. Breaking things down like this really pierces the normal offseason over-optimism, and there are far too many areas that are uncertain or worse. That is the real point of this exercise. Clearly, the offense is going to have to be the main thing the Cowboys rely on, while we unfortunately are stuck with having to go with a lot of hope elsewhere.

Let’s leave on a positive thought. A bunch of these things could be made much better in training camp. We may even see some encouraging things coming out of minicamp that could elevate some of the ratings. This is a snapshot view. With luck, the long range could be much better.

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