The Dallas Cowboys got off to a hot start last season before fading down the stretch and exiting in the Wild Card Round, which puts them in a difficult position for this season. Another strong start to the season, while trying to break in a few new starters, will be met with skepticism that they can maintain it in December and January. A slow start with two home games against the Buccaneers and Bengals to open the season may be too much to overcome though, in their efforts to hold off the Eagles, Commanders, and Giants as NFC East winners.
It shouldn’t take long for some of the bigger moves the Cowboys made this offseason to be proven right or wrong, with so much riding on the results of this season for Mike McCarthy, both of his coordinators, and cornerstone players like Ezekiel Elliott.
Before the Cowboys sort out the strengths and weaknesses of this roster at training camp, let’s look back at the moves they made that could present the most challenge for 2022.
Releasing La’el Collins, elevating Terence Steele to starting right tackle
The Cowboys feel like they’re strengthened the middle of the pocket for Dak Prescott by drafting Tyler Smith in the first round. Smith is the projected starting left guard as well as insurance for Tyron Smith at left tackle, who missed six starts last season.
The team’s plan at right tackle has much more uncertainty though, with Terence Steele taking over for La’el Collins. The Cowboys are putting a lot of faith in Steele to continue his progression, and only have Josh Ball and Matt Waletzko as contingent options. The Cowboys offense’s stumbles last season were partly a result of them not being able to run against soft boxes, or protect when defenses brought pressure.
Coming into 2022, the Cowboys haven’t exactly proven they can beat this game plan against them, with question marks at both tackle positions and a different group of receivers trying to deter opposing defenses from blitzing. Even if Tyler Smith proves himself as the dominant run-blocker the Cowboys may want, their protection in front of Prescott needs to be sorted out in camp and the preseason.
Losing Randy Gregory in free agency, signing Dante Fowler Jr.
The Cowboys made it clear they were ready to move on from some veteran players like Amari Cooper or La’el Collins this offseason, but the loss of Randy Gregory stings more as the Broncos stole him at the last minute. Jerry Jones tried to spin his departure as the move that allowed Dallas to get three other quality players, but replacing Gregory with a rotation of Dorance Armstrong, Dante Fowler, and rookie Sam Williams isn’t that simple.
Gregory matched his career high in sacks with six last season, and was a strong enough run defender to stay on the field opposite of DeMarcus Lawrence. Between Gregory, Lawrence, and Micah Parsons, the Cowboys had continuity from their top pass rushers, that got better as games and the season went on.
Now they have all of the traits left behind by Gregory, divided amongst players that may not see the field at the same time. Armstrong has the best chance to earn whatever starting snaps are available at right end, but the challenge for Dan Quinn becomes finding the playing time for Fowler and Williams to make them effective.
If the Cowboys are going to have any chance at replicating their turnover production from a year ago, they’ll need to consistently get after the quarterback. Losing a proven pass rusher and replacing him with a group that needs time to gel could leave the Cowboys secondary exposed to quarterbacks with a clean pocket, making it even harder to get offenses in the long down and distances this rush group needs to be effective.
There’s also the overall concern that the Cowboys haven’t done enough about their run defense if they commit Parsons to more pass rush snaps leaving them thin at linebacker.
Re-signing DeMarcus Lawrence on a team-friendly deal was one of the best things the Cowboys did this offseason, as he’s helped a long list of defensive ends be productive on the opposite side of him. Entering year nine with the Cowboys, the hope is that he can do the same by the time Tom Brady and Joe Burrow come into AT&T Stadium.
Trading Amari Cooper to the Cleveland Browns, waiting until the third round to draft a wide receiver
In the past, the Cowboys have shown they won’t sit around and let their pass offense struggle with subpar receivers for too long. This was the essence of why they traded for Amari Cooper in 2018, though their plan at the moment is to let CeeDee Lamb prove he can carry this offense.
Lamb will have help from Michael Gallup upon his return from injury, as well as FA acquisition James Washington and rookie Jalen Tolbert. The Cowboys have plenty of speed at receiver, but do they have the skill to coexist in Kellen Moore’s offense and sustain drives?
The Cowboys opponents will surely try to make any other receiver but Lamb beat them, and Prescott needs more than just Dalton Schultz as a reliable check-down option. The promise of Tony Pollard being used as a receiver more could be proven as early as training camp, but the pressure on Gallup and Washington is still palpable.
This group has plenty of speed and route-running ability, but if the goal is to see more scripted touches within the flow of Moore’s offense for all of the Cowboys receivers, the team is also banking on some progression from their play-caller. Moore was a head coaching candidate for several teams this offseason, but hasn’t proven enough for any team besides Dallas to elevate him beyond offensive coordinator.
Instead of surrounding Moore with additional talent and finding a way to keep Amari Cooper as the savvy veteran that came up with clutch plays, the Cowboys will go into a prove it year for both Moore and McCarthy with receiver depth being a major concern.