It’s the bye week, which provides extra time to think about the Dallas Cowboys. So that’s what we did.
A ringing Bell
One story that doesn’t seem to be getting enough attention for the Cowboys is Markquese Bell. He made the team in 2022 as a safety but was moved to linebacker this year and has been called on in the wake of Leighton Vander Esch’s injury. He is already fourth on the team in tackles despite having played backup snaps the first four games. Not only has he been very valuable depth at linebacker, his switch during training camp this year saw him beat out Jabril Cox to make the roster. Dallas went into the season thin at LB, carrying only five. Partly, this came about because of the loss of DeMarvion Overshown to IR in preseason. They risked it getting even worse by waiving Malik Jefferson to try and bring him back on the practice squad. They had already tried that with Devin Harper and seen him claimed off waivers by the Cincinnati Bengals.
Normally, you think that situation would lead to lamentation and the wearing of sackcloth and ashes by some fans, but people barely pay attention to it. Part of that is that Bell and Damone Clark held up very well as the only full time LBs currently on the 53-man roster, with Jefferson being called up from the PS to provide a little depth and special teams snaps. However, it is probably more due to how Dan Quinn doesn’t use traditional off-ball linebackers as much as most other defenses, relying more on his defensive line. Micah Parsons provides some help there in the few snaps he is not on the line, and Jayron Kearse is technically a free safety but fills a de facto role as a linebacker on most plays. Clark is the only active pure linebacker in the Quinn defense, and is a nice story in himself after the surgery he had to have prior to the 2022 draft. With some help from Bell on about half the defensive plays, Quinn makes it work most times, including the win before the bye against the Los Angeles Chargers.
Bell is not only doing quite well for a former UDFA, he is another example of how Quinn has built his roster around players with the position flex that seems to be so en vogue with the Cowboys. His linemen can line up in almost any position, the difference between safety and cornerback often seems blurred, and we have seen how he uses big, hard-hitting safeties to take up the slack at linebacker. Bell’s ascension is as much a reflection of that use of personnel as it is a testament to his own accomplishments.
Not Bland at all
Let’s shower some more praise on a defensive player, DaRon Bland. He was saddled with the formidable task of replacing Trevon Diggs when the All Pro cornerback was lost to IR. He has done so in incredibly impressive fashion.
CB DaRon Bland in 2023:— Mike Poland (@kenfigkowboy) October 19, 2023
0 TD’s allowed
7 PBU (2nd-most in NFL)
3 INT’s (most in NFL)
2 Pick-6’s (most in NFL)
30.6 passer rating allowed (lowest in NFL)
Is Bland the best CB taken in the 2022 NFL Draft?#dallas #cowboys #DallasCowboys pic.twitter.com/MTRAPgOOoC
Mike’s question is legit. If you believe in statistical rankings, he is not just the best in his class, but one of the best playing in the league this year. If Diggs is back to his normal self, opposing quarterbacks will be picking their poison facing two true ballhawks in the Dallas secondary next year. Bland is turning to a huge find for a sixth round pick.
Meanwhile, this year’s draft class is... not great
Bland is the kind of player we have become so used to Will McClay unearthing, but this year the luster is kind of off the draft crop. Kind of is actually putting it kindly.
With Overshown’s injury, none of this year’s draftees have seen any appreciable time on the field. Second-round pick tight end Luke Schoonmaker actually leads the group with 35% on offense and 54% of the ST snaps. His offensive contributions have been almost entirely as a blocker. First-round selection Mazi Smith has just seen the field on 26% of the defensive plays. He is beginning to make some contributions but a day one pick is supposed to come in and give you much more. While the team obviously plans on more from him as time goes on, it is not the return on investment you need from such a valuable draft pick.
The rest of the class has been nearly invisible. Deuce Vaughn is off to a rocky start, T.J. Bass is ahead of Asim Richards on the depth chart, and Eric Scott is a regular on the inactive list each week. The only rookie that has shone is UDFA kicker Brandon Aubrey, who has not missed anything since his first extra point whiff.
It is an unaccustomed reminder to Cowboys fans that every draft pick is a gamble of sorts and not every class is going to be a strong one. This year, the luck seems to have run out a bit for them.
Rough waves on the Texas Coast
The offense feels a lot like a machine where the parts just haven’t been put together quite right. The bye is hopefully going to get some things seated better. If not, things are just going to get tougher.
The four wins so far are to a great deal because of the sometimes heroic efforts of Dak Prescott, who has been under constant pressure in so many games. He has been sacked fourteen times over the first six games, but it would be a much higher total if not for his ability to evade the grasp of would-be tacklers and create with his arms and legs.
Part of this is the issue of the offensive line. They were reliant on backups for the first four games, but getting the starters all healthy has not led to any real improvement, with Prescott still ducking and dodging the pass rush and the running game just not doing anything. Again, we can hope that the extra time of the bye week will help them get their performance back to what the team needs. But just as many of us said at the beginning of the season, the offensive line was going to be one of the most crucial aspects of the season, and so far, that has been true, with some concerning results.
Even more troubling is Mike McCarthy’s version of the West Coast offense just hasn’t clicked. The red zone woes were a bit better against the Chargers, but had been bad for weeks before. We need to see a lot more. If it doesn’t work out, a certain seat may start really heating up.
At least CeeDee Lamb seems to have found his groove with his outstanding performance against the Chargers. Now the rest of the offense needs to start clicking.
On Halloween weekend, we will begin to see how this team is going to finish the year when they host the Los Angeles Rams. Some things are good, but there are some witch-worthy warts right now.