2021 NFL rookie grades, NFC East: Cowboys strike gold; Giants, Commanders still searching for returns - Nick Shook, Around The NFL
Without Micah Parsons, the Cowboys draft class loses a lot of shine, pulling them closer to the Eagles and Giants - two teams with five combined picks in the first round this April.
Dallas hit a 450-foot home run with its selection of Parsons, going best player available over clear need at 12th overall and reaping the rewards. Parsons won Defensive Rookie of the Year and earned first-team All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors, completing a trifecta that has him entrenched as a key defensive star for years to come. Most of Dallas’ positive grade is built on the massive success of the Parsons pick, as it’s more of a “B” class without the star linebacker. Joseph spent most of his rookie season on special teams before stepping into a defensive role, performing well in limited snaps late in the season. Odighizuwa played in all but one game, recording two sacks and 36 tackles (six for loss). His defensive snap counts tailed off as the season wore on, and he didn’t draw a strong Pro Football Focus grade, but he did produce an optimistic outlook. Golston was another rotational player who saw on-field time early and made consistent contributions despite watching his snaps fluctuate. Wright was drafted as a developmental corner who could eventually help fill the void left by Chidobe Awuzie’s departure, though he spent almost all of his rookie season on special teams. Cox played primarily special teams and suffered an ACL tear in October. He carries promise into his second season, provided he can return to form after knee rehab. Ball arrived with the hopes of providing depth at tackle but landed on injured reserve with an ankle injury and didn’t play in 2021. Fehoko was intriguing during the preseason but ended up not factoring into the offense due to the logjam of talent at receiver, playing 48 of his 55 total snaps on special teams. Like Odighizuwa and Golston, Bohanna saw a decent amount of playing time and is an exciting prospect. Mukuamu was drafted to help in the future and played most of his snaps on special teams. Farniok also spent most of his time on special teams but could end up being valuable for depth.
The Cowboys have kept themselves in the headlines this offseason, but have yet to address their plans for improving the 2022 roster.
It might be too early to say this is it for coach Mike McCarthy but it is certainly shaping up that way. Sean Payton’s shadow will linger and owner/GM Jerry Jones went out of his way to keep defensive coordinator Dan Quinn with a contract extension and future raise. While there was obvious progress in his second season, McCarthy will have to do better than winning the NFC East in 2022. With how the offense struggled down the stretch in 2021, he needs to make more of an imprint on that side of the ball considering his background. There might not be an outright Super-Bowl-or-bust mandate from Jones but the pressure will be there. In 2014, Jason Garrett was in the final year of his first contract and needed to win. The Cowboys went 12-4 and made the divisional round of the playoffs only to lose to McCarthy’s Green Bay Packers. McCarthy signed a five-year deal with the Cowboys in 2020, but even with two years remaining he had better win.
Best-case scenario for the team’s offseason: The Cowboys are already sending the message they can’t keep everybody because of the cap. While true, they need to keep the right guys so they need to find a way to keep Gregory and Lawrence and improve the offensive line either in middle-tier free agency or early in the draft. The combination of Gregory, Lawrence and linebacker Micah Parsons should make for a formidable defense in 2022.
Jabril Cox was lost for the season in October with a torn ACL, and wasn’t part of Dan Quinn’s overhaul of the linebacker position. With Leighton Vander Esch and Jayron Kearse hitting free agency, could this be the year the LSU product makes an impact?
Nick: I would guess that Cox would be able to do some things in the offseason but won’t be turned loose until maybe training camp if that. Some players react differently but even if they’re back to 100 percent, they probably still need a few more months to get back to themselves. The hope for him is that he can be ready because linebacker isn’t a position that has a ton of depth. I would think his rehab schedule might determine just how early the Cowboys address this position in the draft.
Rob: Usually with an ACL, the goal is to be ready for the start of next season, so we’ll have to see how much work Cox can do in the offseason program and training camp to find a larger role on defense. Remember, Blake Jarwin tore his ACL in the 2020 opener and they brought him along slowly through the following preseason. Cox got hurt on Halloween, so it’s a shorter timetable. But all indications are that his rehab has been going fine, and the Cowboys really like his potential.
The numbers all point to Ezekiel Elliott being in the backfield next season, but 2023 is a much different story. If this is it for Elliott, will his workload increase even more, or is it finally time for Tony Pollard to take more of Elliott’s touches?
Zeke is on the books in 2022 for $18 million. There is no realistic way to say goodbye to that … until spring 2023, at which time Dallas could (pre-June 1) absorb a $6 million dead-money hit or (post-June 1) walk away with no financial penalty.
Book this: Zeke Will not be playing for this team under this existing contract in the 2023 season.
He will almost certainly be cut and/or offered a new pay-cut deal.
What about trading him? That is more viable, post-June 1, and Dallas would actually save money there. Zeke’s dead money would be $5.8 million, with a cap savings of $7 million.
But that means: a) Dallas would be “paying the cap’’ to not have Elliott, to the tune of $5.8 million, b) Dallas would not get a 2021 NFL Draft pick for doing so (as it’s post-June 1) and c) the new team would have to want a $12 million running back that his own team just announced isn’t worth the money.
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