A topic that always pops up in the lull between now and training camp is considering what former Cowboys would make the biggest difference on their current roster. Much of this Cowboys offseason has been about moving on from veteran players and becoming even more reliant on recent draft picks. Instead of turning back the clock too far to add Michael Irvin back to this receiving corps, or giving Dan Quinn a rusher like Charles Haley to work with, we’ll look at how the crucial picks they made this year fit in with last year’s roster weaknesses.
The Cowboys underachieved in the playoffs after they won 12 regular season games just to be dropped in the Wild Card round at home vs. the 49ers. That loss was a culmination of a period at the end of the season where the offense went through a stretch of inefficiency that forced the defense to work harder to win games.
The Cowboys biggest reason for optimism on offense this season may be that QB Dak Prescott is fully healthy and wasn’t limited through any offseason workouts. They did add four rookies including first-rounder Tyler Smith in the draft, addressing their needs on the offensive line and at receiver.
With so much riding on both this year’s class making an immediate impact and last year’s taking a step up, how much could Smith, Jalen Tolbert, Jake Ferguson, and Matt Waletzko have potentially helped last year’s version of the Cowboys?
The Cowboys made it pretty clear during the season that they were looking for a better left guard than Connor Williams, now with the Miami Dolphins. Williams was benched for Connor McGovern at one point, but got his job back and started the playoff game.
Against the 49ers, Williams had a holding call that erased a 32-yard pass to CeeDee Lamb, a false start on third down that led to a punt, and conceded multiple pressures in the face of Prescott. Of course, the Cowboys have no idea if Tyler Smith will actually hold up any better at left guard, considering he played left tackle at Tulsa.
The most immediate thing the Cowboys are counting on Smith for is a boost in the run game. His brute strength is best on display when digging out linebackers on the second level, something the Cowboys are still hopeful Ezekiel Elliott can take full advantage of.
In the first seven weeks of the season, Ezekiel Elliott had a 56% successful run rate on first and second down carries. Kellen Moore’s running game was setting up Prescott for third down success, with plenty of options to throw to in manageable down-and-distance situations. From week seven on, these numbers dropped to 44% on first down and 47% on second.
Whether it’s a promised bigger role for Tony Pollard, or a return to the physical run game that’s been a staple for this team, keeping their rushing efficiency up needs to be a goal for this year’s Dallas team. If they get Smith, who graded as their top prospect at the position, playing up to this billing, the results should follow for both Elliott and Pollard.
The Cowboys depth chart at receiver from last year to right now is the perfect example of how quickly things change in the NFL. Jalen Tolbert is an exciting prospect with great potential as a third-round pick, but projecting him to see the field for a team that still had Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, and Michael Gallup is difficult. Tolbert was limited through much of OTAs, but did begin to see some work in the slot, where the Cowboys also had Cedrick Wilson contribute last year.
The Cowboys fielding three receivers all with traits of a potential number one didn’t work out as expected, and they now have more structured roles at the position. This isn’t to say Lamb doesn’t need help from a currently unproven commodity, and Tolbert’s next chance to prove himself will come at training camp.
The Cowboys franchise tagged tight end Dalton Schultz who put up a career high in catches, yards, and touchdowns last season. For the first seven weeks of the season, the Cowboys also had Blake Jarwin, but his injury forced him to be released this offseason.
Schultz’s consistency made it less of an issue that only Jeremy Sprinkle, Sean McKeon, and Ian Bunting were behind him on the roster for much of the season.
All of these players are still here along with UDFA Peyton Hendershot and fourth-round pick Jake Ferguson from Wisconsin. Where Schultz and Jarwin were similar as receivers, but rarely saw the field together, Schultz and Ferguson are comparable as all-around tight ends.
A change of face in the lineup when the Cowboys offense went stale last year could have been a boost, but it’s likely one of their more veteran tight ends would get the first chance before a rookie like Ferguson. With Ferguson joining a team that’s now more depleted at receiver, there is a chance for him to earn snaps and play a legitimate backup role in 2022.
Another long-time starter no longer with the Cowboys from last year is La’el Collins, who is now with the AFC Champion Bengals as the Cowboys move forward with Terence Steele. Steele being handed the starting right tackle job early this offseason shows what the coaching staff thinks of him, but Dallas doesn’t have the usual depth to challenge Steele in the way they typically do with new starters.
The Cowboys need a contingency plan for both Steele and Tyron Smith at left tackle, and believe they have enough bodies for both positions between last year’s pick Josh Ball, Tyler Smith as a flex option, and current fifth-rounder Matt Waletzko.
If Waletzko was on last year’s roster, his rawness as a player would still need plenty of work, but he’d have a chance to change the outlook on this current team coming in at the same time as Ball.
For the sake of the same player development the Cowboys are counting on up and down this roster, Ball’s year in the system should give him an edge over Waltezko, making the North Dakota State product a developmental backup as a rookie.
This exercise makes it clear that the Cowboys offense had more than enough to accomplish more last season. As a disappointed Jerry Jones said to the media immediately after their stunning playoff loss, the NFL is designed to take from the league’s best and add to the worst each offseason.
Many of the Cowboys losses have been their own choice, but left with only the draft to fill big shoes, it’s going to take some time for this team to prove if they’re at all capable of at least staying atop the NFC East and earning another shot at playoff redemption.