Dallas Cowboys Week 1 PFF grade review

While there is worthwhile debate over exactly how accurate we can treat Pro Football Focus grades, in the absence of many (if any) reliable and simple measures of NFL player performance they are a very useful snapshot to work off of. With that in mind, it's worthy sharing the grades from Dallas's first game to give us at least a broad sense of which players did the heavy lifting and which ones might have work to do.

Let's dive in!

Dak Prescott - 72.8 grade (51 snaps)
Cooper Rush - 48.7 grade (7 snaps)

There isn't a lot to see here. Prescott's grade was rock solid (10th among 32 QBs) in a contest in which he wasn't asked to do a lot and had to deal with cumbersome weather. It's helpful that a measure like PFF grading will account for on-target throws that ended up dropped. Rush had a late-game cameo in the blowout, and there is no cause for concern coming from a tiny number of rain-soaked snaps.

Running Backs
Tony Pollard - 47.1 grade (37 snaps)
Rico Dowdle - 61.5 grade (9 snaps)
Deuce Vaughn - 51.3 grade (8 snaps)
Hunter Leupke - 57.5 grade (4 snaps)

Despite a solid stat line in terms of efficiency, Pollard graded out very poorly. If you suspect that his fumble hurt, you'd be right - but he still was tabbed with only a 53.4 rushing grade. Chalk that up to him being given good opportunities by the blocking but failing to spring much extra yardage on a night in which (this is going to get repetitive) he wasn't much needed. None of the depth runners stood out over their limited appearances on the field.

Wide Receivers
CeeDee Lamb - 75.9 grade (46 snaps, 23 route snaps, 4 targets)
Michael Gallup - 53.4 grade (39 snaps, 19 route snaps, 2 targets)
Brandin Cooks - 64.8 grade (34 snaps, 19 route snaps, 4 targets)
Jalen Tolbert - 56.7 grade (16 snaps, 4 route snaps, 1 target)
KaVonte Turpin - 63.5 grade (11 snaps, 4 route snaps, 3 targets)

Surprise surprise, in a contest in which the game context and elements worked against the pass, there wasn't a lot of opportunity or performance from the team's receivers. For context, last year Lamb averaged 34 route snaps per game. Speaking of Lamb, this is what a true high-end wideout looks like, with the week's 13th-best grade out of 97 qualifiers despite many reasons to put forth a vanilla night. Cooks was literally average in his grade, while Gallup lagged, but with limited routes and even fewer targets in bad weather we'd be better off circling back again next week.

Tight Ends
Jake Ferguson - 69.0 grade (42 snaps, 14 route snaps, 6 targets)
Peyton Hendershot - 38.7 grade (28 snaps, 12 route snaps, 1 target)
Luke Schoonmaker - 59.5 grade (16 snaps, 2 route snaps, 0 targets)

You'll be excused if you're wondering how Ferguson managed such a solid grade despite recording 2 recognized drops on just 14 route snaps - well, it's because his receiving grade was bad (39.2) even as his run blocking grade (88.3) led the position for the Week (his pass blocking was good too)! Assuming the rain was at the heart of the drops, Ferguson looks fully capable of taking Schultz's former routes and making similar use of them, and if that comes with strong blocking Dallas will be in good TE1 hands this year. Hendershot's drop on his only target sunk his grade, while Schoonmaker (who wasn't given any real chance in the receiving game) did solid run-blocking work. It will be more interesting when the TEs are given more receiving opportunities, but for now we can imagine now the hierarchy is going to work out: Ferguson locked in as the starter and main guy, with Hendershot and Schoonmaker seeing variable snaps based on game plan, game flow, etc.

Offensive Line
Tyron Smith - 69.6 grade (60.6 run/82.7 pass, 49 snaps)
Chuma Edoga - 59.9 grade (60.0 run/53.5 pass, 56 snaps)
Tyler Biadasz - 52.4 grade (51.0 run/56.7 pass, 51 snaps)
Zack Martin - 91.1 grade (87.4 run/85.7 pass, 51 snaps)
Terence Steele - 62.4 grade (60.1 run/81.1 pass, 58 snaps)
Asim Richards - 54.0 grade (9 snaps)
TJ Bass - 69.8 grade (9 snaps)
Brock Hoffman - 71.6 grade (7 snaps)

If the grade for Biadasz looks disappointing, let's not forget that he drew constant work against one of the best Interior Defensive Line duos (Dexter Lawrence, Leonard Williams) in the league. That he could put up an okay grade in a tough matchup is part of his becoming a reliable young veteran. Surely every Cowboy fan would have signed up for Edoga's performance, and the Cowboys had very good pass blocking from the three big-pay members of the line. Smith and Steele didn't bulldoze in the running game, which is something to keep an eye on, but Martin has already begun his 2023 All Pro campaign. In many weeks there will only be 5 names to see here, but the blowout enabled some spot work for three members of the depth group.

Award Alert: Martin's performance grabbed him the RG slot of PFF's Team Of The Week
Award Alert: the OL as a whole took home PFF's Offensive Line Of The Week

Interior Defensive Line
Neville Gallimore - 52.3 grade (34 snaps, 11 run/22 pass rush/1 coverage)
Chauncey Golston - 66.8 grade (30 snaps, 7 run/23 pass rush)
Osa Odighizuwa - 69.4 grade (27 snaps, 11 run/16 pass rush)
Jonathan Hankins - 65.5 grade (18 snaps, 9 run/9 pass rush)
Mazi Smith - 69.7 grade (17 snaps, 7 run/10 pass rush)

For the Cowboys, this was actually a pretty nice IDL showing! Grades in the mid-to-high 60s ranked in the second quartile (25th-50th percentile) this week, meaning average to above average, and that encompassed everyone but Gallimore (whose run grade struggles at least came with a solid pass rush grade). Golston was actually the 3rd-best at the position in pass rush grade, something to watch for even as his snap usage this week aligned nicely with the great pass rushing (his run grade was 2nd-worst). Odighizuwa as we've come to know was stronger on the pass rush side of the run/pass rush grade split, and Mazi Smith was rock solid in all grading departments.

Edge Defenders

Micah Parsons - 86.0 grade (40 snaps, 14 run/26 pass rush)
Sam Williams - 61.8 grade (34 snaps, 10 run/24 pass rush)
Dante Fowler - 67.3 grade (33 snaps, 4 run/29 pass rush)
DeMarcus Lawrence - 69.6 grade (30 snaps, 9 run/24 pass rush)
Dorance Armstrong - 93.0 grade (18 snaps, 2 run/16 pass rush)

The Cowboys on the edge got to enjoy a good chunk of the game with their ears pinned back, leading to elite pass rush grades by Armstrong and Parsons and a good one by Williams. Run defense was a more mixed bag, but Lawrence as usual led the way there (a missed tackle and some empty pass rushes lowered other parts of his overall). This week also gave a look at how the rotation might lay out with this group, as Parsons saw the most play and plenty of run snaps, Lawrence and Williams can be seen as the other two "starters", Fowler will be utilized as suits him as a pass rush specialist, and Armstrong will be a luxury as a high-end "backup" who still sees a lot of the field.

Leighton Vander Esch - 71.0 grade (48 snaps, 14 run/8 pass rush/26 coverage)
Damone Clark - 50.4 grade (46 snaps, 18 run/2 pass rush/26 coverage)
Markquese Bell - 69.9 grade (31 snaps, 9 run/22 coverage)
Devin Harper - 68.2 grade (3 snaps, 3 coverage)

We can see what Dallas will be missing with the loss of Overshown, as Bell saw true rotational usage as the third 'backer (primarily in coverage). The team's defensive depth shows in how well Bell performed, diminishing concern about the depth chart here. There were no surprises in terms of LVE and Clark being the clear primary linebacker starters, with the former putting up his usual solid job as the lynchpin in the middle. None of the group did anything notable in coverage, but there were zero missed tackles and LVE and Bell also graded out very well against the run (the area that sunk Clark's grade on the day).

DaRon Bland - 74.8 grade (55 snaps)
Stephon Gilmore - 89.9 grade (54 snaps)
Trevon Diggs - 80.7 grade (54 snaps)
Noah Igbinoghene - 56.5 grade (16 snaps)
CJ Goodwin - 69.2 grade (16 snaps)

Any remaining mystery about the team and how it will use its corners has been solved in one game: as long as each member is healthy, Dallas's primary trio will be constantly on the field and might see every single cornerback snap for the team in a given game. Jourdan Lewis will eventually factor in, and Nahshon Wright and Eric Scott might appear as well, but the Gilmore/Diggs/Bland threesome might be the best in the league (and performed to that level on Sunday night). Diggs and Gilmore were excellent in coverage, tackled well, and were solid against the run, and each signaled the beginning of a potential 2023 Pro Bowl run.

Award Alert: Gilmore's performance grabbed him the first CB slot of PFF's Team Of The Week. Not a bad start with the star on his helmet!

Jayron Kearse - 65.4 grade (53 snaps, 33 DL+box/20 coverage)
Malik Hooker - 63.7 grade (49 snaps, 2 box/47 coverage)
Juanyeh Thomas - 84.6 grade (41 snaps, 17 box/24 coverage)
Israel Mukuamu - 73.5 grade (23 snaps, 3 box/20 coverage)

For safeties, especially in Dan Quinn's scheme, it seems sensible to note how each player's pre-snap alignment breaks down. PFF notes alignments close to the line of scrimmage (DL, box) and also labels a number of other alignments that can be loosely grouped into "coverage" types. Kearse's role was as it has been, hybrid LB/S work with more snaps spent up front than in clear coverage; Hooker played back as a true FS; and Thomas appeared to slide into Donovan Wilson's "SS" spot. Grade-wise, a missed tackle slightly diminished an otherwise usual game from Kearse, while Hooker didn't have his best coverage day. Thomas especially stood out, with very good coverage as his best rating but everything in the green across the board. Considering that Bell is a natural safety, it somehow appears that the Cowboys have developed their way into a glut of riches (well, valuables, as "riches" is a bit of an exaggeration) at a position where the team struggled at times to nail even one starter whom fans would be happy with.

Team Grades/Breakdown
Edit: I forgot a planned item! This is the first time I've ever seen this information from PFF, and I really like the idea of it, so I'll look to share it every week and see whether it grants further understanding about the team:

Noise-canceled score - "a score that accounts for how efficiently the offenses moved the ball, putting less emphasis on noisy things as turnover and special teams swings"
NC Dallas Cowboy - 27
NC New York Giants - 3

This feels like a better read of the game we watched Sunday night. Most definitely the defense dominated, but admittedly the defense did set up to allow 3 points when the noise of fluke outcomes is removed. In real-life terms, there isn't really any notable difference between a true 0 or a true 3 point defensive effort - both are fantastic, and in today's game of more ball movement and accurate kicking with long legs shutouts more often are the result of coaches passing on FG attempts and flukes than defenses simply locking down the opponent to the point that they truly couldn't earn even 3 points.

Meanwhile, this certainly wasn't a traditional "40 burger", but if anything I like all the more that the team still garnered a noise-canceled 27 points despite the rain!

Overall - 82.0 (3rd)

Offense - 65.3 (13th)
Passing Off - 67.6 (13th)
Rushing Off - 57.5 (22nd)
Pass Blocking - 82.1 (6th)
Run Blocking - 72.3 (3rd)

Defense - 87.7 (2nd)
Run Def - 65.5 (17th)
Tackling - 79.2 (6th)
Pass Rush - 87.9 (2nd)
Coverage - 84.6 (2nd)

Special Teams - 90.6 (tied 1st)

This was a rather well-rounded victory! The OL took care of business for a water-logged offense, and meanwhile the defense did a heck of a lot right - being right at the top in both pass rush and coverage would win a lot of games by itself.

Also, check out this graphic:
Even with the weather and perhaps some rush, the offense still managed 1 of the mere 8 teams whose offense was in the black for Expected Points Added Per Play. Combined with the team's tie for 6th on that side of the ball, the defense's 2nd place showing place Dallas in the top tier of all NFL teams. Not bad!

Game Ball

John Fassel - a victory like this tends to include a lot of good player performances and denies a single standout highlight, making this a good time to tip a cap to everything Bones Fassel has done for this team since his arrival. Remember, the team's special teams wheels had come off in 2019, the hidden Achilles Heel that led an otherwise strong group to lose too many close games and thus underperform in terms of wins and losses. From the day Fassel arrived, his side of contests has stood out as among the best in the game - enough of a sample size that we can ascribe the lion's share of credit to him. As noted in the previous section, the Cowboys started off with the NFL's best special teams grade, pointing to another.

Final Word
If this piece is of value, hopefully I can make it an every-week review! Please share feedback regarding what information shared was or was not of interest, what else you'd like to know, etc. Next up: the New York Jets!

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