The debate will rage on among fans and analysts of the Dallas Cowboys. Is their roster the problem, or is management (coaches, front office) blowing a great opportunity? Usually things are not so cut-and-dried and there is a combination of stuff going on. But there is a feeling that the Cowboys have some really good talent that is not reaching their overall potential.
For an example of the sum being less than the parts, in Pro Football Focus’ list of the top 101 players of the 2021 season, the Cowboys have seven players. With 32 teams in the league, on average each team should have just over three players. So the fact the Cowboys have seven would point to the roster being much above average.
• This list is based solely on 2021 play. Past or future play is not accounted for. This isn’t about class or talent; it’s about performance throughout the 2020 NFL season.
• This list is created with an “all positions are created equal” mantra. So, you won’t see 32 quarterbacks heading the list, even though that is the game’s most valuable position. Instead, we take a look at how guys played relative to what is expected from their position.
• Unlike PFF’s awards, the 101 factors in the postseason, so some players who won PFF awards may find themselves jumped in the 101 by rivals who had a playoff run worthy of a change in ranking.
The first and second Cowboys players on the list are really no surprise. Zack Martin was ranked as the fourth best player in 2021.
2021 Snaps: 1,105 | 2021 PFF Grade: 94.3
In any other season, Martin’s year would have been the best offensive lineman performance, but this season, it’s second to Williams. Evan Mathis’ 2013 season is the only time PFF has given a better grade to a guard during the regular season in the past decade. Martin was a dominant run-blocker for Dallas and allowed 23 pressures from 17 games, including the postseason. Martin has been the most consistent member of the Cowboys’ offensive line since he arrived in Dallas, and 2021 represents his best season.
And then there was Micah Parsons at number 10.
2021 Snaps: 960 | 2021 PFF Grade: 89.7
Few rookies have ever made the kind of impact that Parsons was able to this season in Dallas. Drafted as an off-the-ball linebacker, Parsons was forced to moonlight as an edge rusher, and all he did was finish the season with the best pressure rate (22.6%) and pass-rushing grade (93.0) of any player in the league. He became a hybrid weapon on defense, giving the Cowboys rare flexibility upfront while forcing his way into the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year conversation.
So far so good. There is probably not a lot of argument around Cowboys Nation about the placement of those two names. But here is were things get a little bit off balance. There has been a lot of talk about how the Cowboys offensive line is an issue. How they need to correct things up front and how certain Cowboys players’ production is dipping.
We’ve cited the decline in the running game, and the lack of time afforded to Dak Prescott in the pocket as examples. So what are to make of the idea that PFF ranks four Cowboys offensive linemen in the top 101? We already mentioned Martin, here are the other three.
2021 Snaps: 754 | 2021 PFF Grade: 91.9
At his best, Smith is arguably the best left tackle in the game. However, a career blighted by injuries has left us with a scant view of that player. We saw him back again this season, as he posted a 90.0-plus PFF grade for the first time since 2015. He couldn’t escape injuries entirely and did miss a stretch of games, but he was outstanding when he did take the field, allowing 17 pressures across 515 pass-blocking snaps and earning a run-blocking grade of 90.0.
2021 Snaps: 702 | 2021 PFF Grade: 85.7
Another player who missed time but was outstanding when he did take the field, La’el Collins helped Dallas solidify its position as the best offensive line in the NFL over the season. The seventh-year tackle had to earn his starting spot back at right tackle but allowed 20 pressures over more than 500 pass-blocking snaps in total. His 89.7 run-blocking grade represents a new career high in that facet of play.
2021 Snaps: 963 | 2021 PFF Grade: 81.1
Williams is one of the more polarizing players in the NFL. Fans often focus on his negatives, but the baseline of his performance, especially relative to the current state of NFL guard play, is actually high. Williams allowed 15 pressures across 15 games starting in which he played 624 pass-blocking snaps. His run blocking was also good, and he earned a PFF grade of at least 74.0 in each facet of play.
PFF 101 Rank, 2020: unranked
There is probably not a lot of argument around Tyron Smith. When he is healthy he is still one of the best. Keeping him healthy is becoming more and more of an issue as he ages, but he still holds down the left edge.
But La’el Collins and Connor Williams? Seeing them ranked this high has to be a surprise. There has been plenty of discussion about Collins and whether moving him inside is a good move. There have even been rumblings about walking away from him when his contract expires. Apparently PFF doesn’t see it that way. And then there is Williams who looks to be on his way out in Dallas and was temporarily replaced mid-season. His propensity for picking up penalties was a constant source of frustration.
This brings up a legitimate discussion. Because of the spotty stretch at the end of the season for the Cowboys offense, and the brutal exit in the Wild Card Round, are we being too harsh on what the offense achieved in 2021? After all, they ended up first, or near the top, in many offensive statistical categories. Is our frustration blinding us to the fact that the Cowboys have plenty of talent and that running it back to some extent is not the worst choice?
There were definitely times when the Cowboys offense struggled, but we might just be overselling that point. Or, PFF may just not know what they’re doing.
They also ranked two more Cowboys offensive players in the top 101.
2021 Snaps: 880 | 2021 PFF Grade: 84.9
Lamb built on a strong rookie campaign with a season that saw him emerge as a true dominant force. For the second year in a row, he started on an incredible pace before his quarterback situation deteriorated and his production declined down the stretch. This time, Dak Prescott was still under center, just not playing as well as he had before picking up an injury. Lamb averaged 1.94 yards per route run, moving outside from the slot on 59.1% of his snaps this season.
2021 Snaps: 1,113 | 2021 PFF Grade: 81.6
Before getting hurt, Prescott looked on his way to a ranking at the very top of this list, but he was never able to recapture the same form after returning from a calf injury. Prescott accumulated 34 big-time throws overall, recording more than one in a game nine times. He had 24 turnover-worthy plays, 16 of which came from Week 11 on.
The Cowboys certainly played quality football on offense for large parts of the season. They certainly have a lot of talent on that side of the ball. It’s possible that the end of the season has caused emotions that are blinding us to that fact to some extent.
The pressure will be on Mike McCarthy and Kellen Moore in 2022 to make that talent work in a way that allows the Cowboys to win big in the post-season.