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A complete overview of how PFF saw the 2021 Dallas Cowboys and their players

PFF constantly evaluates Cowboys players by different metrics, but here is the 2021 cliff notes version.

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NFL: JAN 16 NFC Wild Card - 49ers at Cowboys Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The offseason never ends for Pro Football Focus. In a given week, they have a slew of new rankings by different standards, fantasy football content, and even articles challenging how fans have traditionally thought of football. The result is that there will always be content for Cowboys fans to consider.

For example, Micah Parsons landed inside their top-50 players in the league, Tyron Smith is still elite, and the Cowboys roster might not be as loaded with talent as one might believe. These are all different evaluations that PFF has published over the last month.

But instead of digging into these specific topics, how did PFF feel about the Cowboys as a whole? And instead of measuring the players by projected future success, how did Dallas personnel rank among the rest of the league? Here is the big picture, as ranked by PFF.

A complete overview of how PFF saw the 2021 Dallas Cowboys and their players

NFC Wild Card Playoffs - San Francisco 49ers v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

Let’s start at the team level. The 12-6 Cowboys (including playoffs), who allowed 381 points and scored 547, ranked (out of 32 teams):

  • Overall: 2nd (only behind the Rams)
  • Offense: 1st
  • Defense: 15th
  • Passing Offense: 7th
  • Rushing Offense: 10th
  • Pass Blocking: 2nd
  • Run Blocking: 1st
  • Receiving: 2nd
  • Run Defense: 27th
  • Tackling: 13th
  • Pass Rush: 7th
  • Coverage: 9th
  • Special Teams: 15th

There is one glaring aspect of the above summary that likely stands out: the offense was graded significantly better than the defense. At times last season, it seemed like the defense was the only Dallas unit keeping them in the game. And even the offensive line, the group that many believe was actively hurting the team, graded as the second best in pass blocking and seventh in run blocking.

Now, this article will not discuss whether PFF is correct in its evaluations. The 15th-best defense and the second-best offense appear slightly odd, but that is how it shook out. These rankings will likely be justified if we consider the individual level.

Quarterback

Out of 38 qualifying QBs, Dak Prescott finished:

  • 10th overall (8th by passing grade, 36th by rushing, 32nd by fumbling)

An important note on the rest of this discussion: we are only considering Cowboys players who participated in more than 20% of the available snaps. So, while Cooper Rush’s win against the Vikings was certainly impressive, it will not be considered here.

Dak’s ranking seems somewhat reasonable. The players above him are quarterbacks you would expect, such as Tom Brady, Justin Herbert, Aaron Rodgers, and Joe Burrow. Names like Ryan Tannehill and Kirk Cousins actually finished above Prescott in the rankings, which is interesting.

Running Back

Out of 61 qualifying RBs, Dallas’ players finished:

  • Tony Pollard: 4th overall (2nd by rushing grade, 46th by fumbling, 3rd by run blocking)
  • Ezekiel Elliott: 33rd overall (21st by rushing grade, 14th by fumbling, 45th by run blocking)

Yeah, it might be time to give Pollard the reigns. But to give Zeke credit, he was the 10th ranked running back heading into the bye week, which are the weeks where he was at peak health. But other than that, Pollard ranked significantly better than Elliott in every category other than fumbling.

Wide Receivers

Out of 94 qualifying WRs, Dallas’ players finished:

  • CeeDee Lamb: 10th overall (10th by receiving grade, 2nd by fumbling, 81st by drops)
  • Michael Gallup: 39th overall (43rd by receiving grade, 43rd by fumbling, 62nd by drops)
  • Amari Cooper: 41st overall (40th by receiving grade, 68th by fumbling, 36th by drops)
  • Cedrick Wilson: 46th overall (48th by receiving grade, 82nd by fumbling, 58th by drops)

Apparently, the debate over which Cowboys receiver was the number one on the team last season was not a contest. Lamb graded significantly higher than Cooper in every category other than drops, and Gallup was apparently the second-best receiver on the team. However, the drops were a real problem across the board, with not a single player falling inside the top 38 percent.

Tight Ends

Out of 44 qualifying TEs, Dallas’ players finished:

  • Dalton Schultz: 6th overall (7th by receiving grade, 16th by pass blocking, 5th by drops)

We have finally identified the one player on the team who is able to hang onto the ball. And out of 44 tight ends, Schultz’s blocking grade falling at 16th might suggest he is a better blocker than fans assume. Regardless, it was a good season for the tight end.

Offensive Line

Out of 214 qualifying offensive linemen, Dallas’ players finished:

  • Zack Martin: 3rd overall (3rd by pass blocking, 3rd by run blocking)
  • Tyron Smith: 5th overall (5th by pass blocking, 5th by run blocking)
  • La’el Collins: 27th overall (42nd by pass blocking, 6th by run blocking)
  • Connor Williams: 47th overall (44th by pass blocking, 36th by run blocking)
  • Connor McGovern: 98th overall (80th by pass blocking, 116th by run blocking)
  • Tyler Biadasz: 122nd overall (83rd by pass blocking, 90th by run blocking)
  • Terence Steele: 126th overall (135th by pass blocking, 96th by run blocking)

For the most part, the rankings should not come as a huge surprise. Martin and Smith are the best linemen on the team, but that was known before PFF grading. What is somewhat surprising is the fact that only two Dallas linemen fell below the 50th percentile by grading, and both of them barely missed that bar.

Defensive Line

Out of 247 qualifying defensive linemen, Dallas’ players finished:

  • Demarcus Lawrence: 5th overall (1st by run defense, 23rd by pass rush, 21st by tackling)
  • Randy Gregory: 80th overall (191st by run defense, 16th by pass rush, 193rd by tackling)
  • Dorance Armstrong: 92nd overall (53rd by run defense, 164th by pass rush, 8th by tackling)
  • Tarell Basham: 140th overall (102nd by run defense, 168th by pass rush, 213th by tackling)
  • Carlos Watkins: 151st overall (144th by run defense, 172nd by pass rush, 28th by tackling)
  • Chauncey Golston: 159th overall (157th by run defense, 151st by pass rush, 180th by tackling)
  • Osa Odighizuwa: 219th overall (235th by run defense, 130th by pass rush, 199th by tackling)

There are a lot of interesting insights to be gleaned from the defensive line grades. Such as the fact that Randy Gregory was simultaneously one of the best pass rushers in the league but also one of the worst run defenders. And outside of Gregory and Lawrence, there was not a single above-average pass rusher on the defensive line (Parsons will be discussed later).

Another interesting aspect of these grades is that the defensive line’s success was in no part due to the defensive interior. While Carlos Watkins and Osa Odighizuwa were serviceable, they did not grade well. And Carlos Watkins, despite playing most snaps at defensive tackle last year, is technically listed as a DE.

Also, Lawrence might continue to be the most underrated asset on the team. His run defense grade was the best in the league. And PFF assuredly considered the lack of sacks when they still ranked him above Robert Quinn, Shaquil Barrett, and Melvin Ingram by pass rushing efficiency.

Linebackers

Out of 95 qualifying LBs, Dallas’ players finished:

  • Micah Parsons: 1st overall (36th by run defense, 1st by pass rush, 43rd by tackling)
  • Leighton Vander Esch: 39th overall (37th by run defense, 52nd by pass rush, 33rd by tackling)
  • Keanu Neal: 86th overall (94th by run defense, 80th by pass rush, 84th by tackling)

At the risk of spoiling the rest of the rankings, Parsons is the only Dallas Cowboy to finish first overall at his position. This is on the back of the best pass rushing grade in the league by a wide margin. But if you are looking at a year two improvement for the linebacker, it could come in his run defense or tackling ability.

LVE was a solid second linebacker. Over the back half of the year, he was actually ranked top ten at the position despite a very slow start.

Hopefully, Keanu Neal finds more success switching back to safety for the Buccaneers.

Cornerbacks

Out of 129 qualifying CBs, Dallas’ players finished:

  • Anthony Brown: 45th overall (72nd by run defense, 45th by coverage, 63rd by tackling)
  • Jourdan Lewis: 75th overall (112th by run defense, 64th by coverage, 41st by tackling)
  • Trevon Diggs: 91st overall (123rd by run defense, 54th by coverage, 76th by tackling)

Here is the primary source of debate this offseason, Trevon Diggs ranking as a 30th percentile cornerback. Meaning that 70% of all cornerbacks were better than Diggs last season, according to PFF. Once again, this is not an article disputing the rankings but rather just laying out the facts.

Now one interesting note, all three Dallas cornerbacks finished within the top half of the league by their coverage score. Maybe this is what makes the unit work, there is not a drastic dropoff in talent among the secondary. It is possible that three “average” players, according to PFF, are better than two superstars and a liability. In 2022 when the interceptions don’t come as easy, this hypothesis will be tested.

Safeties

Out of 98 qualifying safeties, Dallas’ players finished:

  • Jayron Kearse: 13th overall (34th by run defense, 16th by coverage, 3rd by tackling)
  • Malik Hooker: 29th overall (12th by run defense, 40th by coverage, 78th by tackling)
  • Donovan Wilson: 54th overall (79th by run defense, 46th by coverage, 80th by tackling)
  • Damontae Kazee: 57th overall (68th by run defense, 42nd by coverage, 73rd by tackling)

The Cowboys will be entering 2022 with two top-30 safeties from last year. But it will be interesting to see if Dan Quinn relies more on Kearse and Hooker than he did last year. Because Dallas was just one of the seven teams to have four safeties play more than 20% of the available snaps, most other teams had two or three.

Regarding individual takeaways, there is not a lot to be surprised by. Kearse was solid, Hooker played admirably in the 474 snaps he played, and Wilson and Kazee were around the league average. Not a bad year for a position group that many thought would be the weak link.

And if you are curious about special teams, here is where the rankings stood:

  • Bryan Anger: 2nd best PFF grade out of the 35 qualifying punters
  • Greg Zuerlein: 29th best PFF grade out of the 49 qualifying kickers
  • Tony Pollard: 5th best PFF grade out of the 42 qualifying kick returners
  • CeeDee Lamb: 7th best PFF grade out of the 36 qualifying punt returners

And that is how the 2021 Dallas Cowboys season looked at the individual level. Some players might have been lower or higher than you expected, but for the most part, the rankings seem pretty fair.

Now, it is a new year. From the first snap of preseason, PFF will be compiling new grades and evaluations for the rest of the country to debate. It is fun to see where your guys stack up across the league. Pro Football Focus looked favorably upon last year’s Cowboys, so maybe they were just one season off.