There’s just a week to go until the Dallas Cowboys open 2022 training camp in Oxnard. It seems that no matter the reality, people find grounds for optimism and excitement about the team. I’ve been a bit (OK, a lot) of a curmudgeon about that all offseason. The team stumbled with the Randy Gregory contract negotiation. Trading Amari Cooper away is still a very questionable decision. Predictably, sad as that is, Stephen Jones has treated salary cap space like a treasure hoard that must be guarded at all costs, with only a handful of bargain signings. That leaves us facing a season with the Cowboys needing too many things to go just right. And almost any one of them not working out could torpedo the team.
The offense faces two big issues plus one that we hate to even talk about. The first is the offensive line, arguably the largest obstacle they face. The team released two of their starters from last season, right tackle La’el Collins and left guard Connor Williams. Collins has had an availability problem due to both injuries and a suspension. The performance of Terence Steele last year led the staff to believe Collins was expendable and were willing to eat the almost $5 million in dead cap space. However, it is hard to argue that Steele is better than Collins in actual performance right now.
Williams had his struggles last season, most visibly his frequent penalties. The plan is for first-round pick Tyler Smith to replace him. Smith is converting from tackle as well as having to make the jump to the pros. Those are just the two biggest concerns.
Tyron Smith is one of the best left tackles in the league. He also has not played a complete season since 2016. His back and neck issues are things that never seem to go away for any player. Backup tackle is an open question with Josh Ball, who missed all of his rookie season last year due to injury, and rookie Matt Waletzko the best options currently on the roster. Some of that cap space should probably have been invested in finding some insurance here.
Finally, there is some discontent with the performance of starting center Tyler Biadasz, who joined the team two years ago. He may be challenged for the starting job by either Matt Farniok, Connor McGovern or UDFAs.
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So only RG Zack Martin does not have any real question marks. The offensive line problem is actually all four of the ones listed above. The team has to get all of them right this year, at least to the point they are not having to put an obvious liability on the field. Having so many places it could go wrong just begs Murphy’s Law to come into play.
Wide receiver is the other biggie for the offense. CeeDee Lamb is the new WR1, and that at least is a good thing. He may have actually already become that in the latter part of 2021. Year three often sees WRs fully hit their stride, so that is in his favor as well. But outside him, it is a muddle. Michael Gallup is questionable to be ready for the start of the regular season, adding to the issue. The Cowboys drafted Jalen Tolbert to help solve the problems. He had an outstanding college career, but it was at South Alabama. This was a big departure from the way Dallas has drafted of late. The leap from a small school like that is even more difficult.
The team did sign James Washington, but there were clearly better options available. His price tag seems to have been a major part of that decision. That is not a good thing for such an important position. Another troubling note is that the team has five UDFAs headed into camp to compete for a WR job. That is an unusually high number even for a team that normally signs several to have enough bodies for camp. They seem to be relying a bit on at least one of them breaking through, at best a questionable strategy.
That other thing that we hate to even put out into the football universe is how dependent the team is on the health of Dak Prescott, and to a lesser extent, Ezekiel Elliott. Prescott came off his devastating 2020 injury and started the season well, but a calf strain just before the bye week seemed to hamper him the rest of the way. Elliott partially tore his PCL last year and played through it. His production clearly fell off after he was hurt. The team can ill afford any mishaps to them this year. That is particularly true for Prescott, who may well be called on to elevate his entire team.
Defense has a different problem based on a thing called regression to the mean. In football terms that simply means that when a team does something exceptionally well one year, they are much more likely to be closer to average the following. History has shown this again and again, and it is more pronounced with defensive performance than on offense.
The Cowboys led the league in takeaways last year. It was mostly in the form of interceptions, and Trevon Diggs was by far the biggest factor there. He not only led the team with his eleven picks, he had three more than the next best in the league. That is almost impossible to replicate. Dallas lived and died on those takeaways last year. Outside of the high sack total of Micah Parsons, the rest of the defense was frankly pedestrian. Clearly there was room for improvement in run defense and allowing yards when passes did get completed against them. They did little in the offseason to help with either issue, just investing a few late-round picks and some more of those bargain free agent signings.
That is not a prescription for fixing the warts. Given that takeaways seem fated to decline, Dan Quinn and his staff have their work cut out. They have to get better performance from a group that is mostly coming back from last year. If not, the defense could drag the team down.
When you break it down, that is more than a handful of places where not getting it just right could lead to a decline in the team’s overall performance. Normal preseason optimism leads fans to think all will work out. History tells us that does not usually happen. It is highly likely that at least one of these things will go badly, and with so many, it probably won’t be just one. Finding ways to work around these kinds of weak spots will be a necessity. That has not been an observable strength of this staff in recent seasons.
Camp is where these things have to be solved. We won’t know how successful the Cowboys are until the regular season. There is a feeling of uncertainty and even apathy around this team for many. These multiple problems play a big part.