Sunday marked the final day of preseason, which means that meaningful football is on the horizon. All of the hope, expectations, and optimism that exists in every NFL fan will soon be tested. But we can’t ignore the last four weeks.
Yes, preseason wins and losses are largely irrelevant. You can read about the impact of preseason success on regular-season performance here. However, with the Dallas players taking the field for the first time in 214 days, there are important headlines that should not be dismissed.
While we will look at the most intriguing takeaways from the preseason, these trends should be taken lightly. This is less of a statement about the team's future and more of an idea of what Cowboys fans need to look out for.
The Cowboys focus on defense in the draft paid off
As Dallas selected six consecutive defenders to begin the draft, it is clear where the Cowboys’ priorities lie. This dedication to the defense paid off through four preseason games. Again, it was not meaningful football, but the rookies are off to a good start.
First-year Cowboy defenders performed as well as we could have hoped. Of the bottom twelve defenses in 2020, only the Detroit Lions saw greater production from their first three defensive picks in the preseason. These numbers do not even include Jabril Cox, who we’ll get to later.
The emergence of Micah Parsons obviously headlined the Cowboys preseason. Not only did the first-round pick earn the best defensive grade in the rush among all rookies, he finished as the 18th ranked defensive player according to Pro Football Focus. Of the 972 defenders who saw 20 snaps or more in the preseason, Parsons finished among the best.
The focus on Micah Parsons overshadowed how well Jabril Cox did. The fourth-round pick finished with a 5.9% missed tackle rate, well below the preseason average of 12.3%. With the second-most tackles among all rookies, it is clear that Cox has the ability to get to the ball and finish the play.
While not all the defensive rookies played perfect football, it was an all-around breath of fresh air after the 2020 defense we saw. Put simply, the Cowboys rookies should give fans hope that the defense will be improved in 2021.
Special teams is a factor to keep an eye on
In terms of Pro Football Focus grading, the Cowboys finished with the second-worst special teams in the preseason. This is not an indictment of John Fassel, nor should it be any reason to worry. Both the kicking and returning units were not playing with their normal starters. Very little, if any, value should be placed on this final grade.
However, there is not a lot of depth when it comes to the specialists for the Cowboys. Across four games, Cowboys kickers converted just 57.1% of their field goals. Dallas would need to quickly find a capable free agent if Greg Zuerlein were to go down to injury again. Assuming full health, this will likely be a non-issue. But for a team that attempted the most field goals in 2020, having a backup plan at kicker wouldn’t be the worst idea.
Punt returning is similarly a facet to consider. While CeeDee Lamb is expected to maintain this role in 2021, the star WR cannot be placed in an unnecessary position of risk forever. It was speculated that Cedrick Wilson could take this task, but only Johnny Dixon and Reggie Davis were given the opportunity in the preseason. Clearly, neither of these players are the answer.
Dixon and Davis averaged 3.7 punt return yards per attempt on their six combined returns in the preseason. This would have been the lowest by far in 2020 of everyone who returned more than five punts. Again, this is a non-issue if Lamb is going to continue fielding punts. But with Lamb set to have an increased role in the upcoming season, other options need to be considered.
The Cowboys WR corps is deep
This section will not include any discussion of Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, or Michael Gallup. They are great at what they do; we did not need proof of that in the preseason. It is the other Cowboy receivers that shined in the preseason.
Cedrick Wilson, Noah Brown, Malik Turner, and Simi Fehoko all finished with a contested-catch rate above the preseason average. Those four also averaged a passer rating of 85.0 when targeted. This is especially impressive considering that Cowboys quarterbacks finished with a passer rating of 68.0 when they didn’t target one of these four.
The number of WRs the Cowboys will carry is still in question. However, if you are forced to choose between those four, it is a good position to be in. Even if Wilson and Brown are the only ones to make the roster, they proved that both can produce at a highly efficient level.
Hopefully it was a warmup for the backup offensive line
As 2020 saw the line in constant rotation, it was messy at times. That is why we can chalk up the offensive line’s performance in the preseason to figuring out what a healthy line means.
With that being said, it was not a good showing for the Cowboys on the line who are likely to make the final roster. Ty Nsekhe, Terence Steele, Brandon Knight, and La’el Collins all finished in the top half of quarterback pressures allowed in the preseason. While Brandon Knight will not start, he still allowed the most pressure among all linemen over the last four weeks.
Contrast that with the fact that Connor Williams, Connor McGovern, and Zach Martin all played statistically very well in the preseason. This section could have easily been titled “key offensive linemen impress.” But last season proved that depth at the offensive line is important, and there is still room to grow for a few of the backups.
The Cowboys starting LBs actually performed well
Before Jaylon Smith haters get too enraged, it was only the preseason. There are 17 games of meaningful football ahead, which is the true test for the Cowboys linebacking corps. However, in the limited reps the starters received, the LBs performed admirably.
Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch, and Keanu Neal all had zero missed tackles across their 84 combined snaps in the preseason. While this number will not remain at zero in the regular season, it could improve from the 10.3% missed tackle rate we saw in 2020. The performance from these three allowed the Cowboys to finish with the third-best tackling grade throughout the preseason, a statistic they finished 18th in across 2020.
Keanu Neil should be further highlighted. Despite playing 17 of his 21 passing plays in coverage, not a single target was thrown his way. This is less due to luck and more due to the fact that Neal finished with the highest coverage grade among all players who played more than 20 snaps. It is early, but Keanu Neil could provide an impactful skill for a team needing coverage help.
With the preseason over, all NFL fans can begin to look forward to the upcoming season. While there are some questions the Cowboys still have to answer, fans should feel somewhat confident with the progress made over the last four weeks.
How do you feel the preseason went? Answer in the poll below, and let us all rejoice in the fact that football is upon us once again.
Do you feel more confident about the 2021 Dallas Cowboys after watching the preseason?
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I feel the same