The Dallas Cowboys are a consensus contender heading into the 2023 NFL season. But while projected to be one of the strongest teams in the NFC, they’re certainly not without their weaknesses. With their first kickoff just a few more days away, what are Dallas’ biggest liabilities going into the new campaign?
Some situations are pretty universal throughout the league. Nobody wants to lose their starting quarterback; few have a backup who could keep them competing anywhere close to the same level. Even if Cooper Rush can string together some wins in the regular season, we don’t want to see him in the playoffs over Dak Prescott.
Similarly. losing Micah Parsons or Trevon Diggs on defense would be devastating. But any defense would suffer losing that kind of talent; the next man up just isn’t going to be that special. So while any of these superstars would be big blows to the team, they’re not unique to the Cowboys.
Our focus today is on areas where Dallas brings more distinct concerns into the season. Where are they weaker, at least on paper, than many of their NFL peers?
1. Offensive Line Depth
Not only is this a critical position but the Cowboys are particularly thin at it. While their starting five could be one of the better units in football this year, they may be just one injury away from a big problem up front.
Thankfully, of the five starters, their greatest concern is at least where they may have the best backup plan. If veteran OT Tyron Smith can’t stay healthy, which has become an annual thing since 2016, and especially bad the last few years, the Cowboys can slide Tyler Smith left and plug someone in at guard. Smith handled left tackle well as a rookie and the open spot at guard isn’t as hard to fill.
Beyond that, though, you’re asking for trouble just about anywhere else. Rookies Asim Richards and T.J. Bass could be in over their heads quickly if asked to do too much. Backup center is a huge issue right now; Brock Hoffman beat out Matt Farniok for a practice squad spot but neither guy was really impressive this summer. Maybe veteran Sean Harlow would get the nod before Hoffman but he’s hardly a sure thing, failing to make the Giants’ roster this year.
Even Chuma Edoga, a former third-round pick signed in March for some experienced depth, has red flags. He missed most of August injured and has struggled to find a home in the NFL since the Jets drafted him in 2019. There was talk before his injury that he might not even make the roster after getting outshined by other prospects.
Granted, plenty of teams would unravel quickly with offensive line injuries. But the Cowboys might not even be able to sustain one right now, especially if it comes at center. Hopefully, some of the young prospects will get stronger with more practice and developmental work throughout the season. But any early injuries could put Dallas in a really bad spot.
Brandon Aubrey might be the next Justin Tucker but there’s no way of knowing that yet. Unfortunately, finding out he’s not even the next Brett Maher could cost Dallas some games in the process.
The Cowboys took a cavalier approach at kicker this year after Maher’s contract expired. They signed practice squad journeyman Tristan Vizcaino in February and left him unchallenged until adding Aubrey, a former soccer player who converted to placekicking in the USFL in 2022, in early July. Aubrey would eventually beat out Vizcaino but reportedly more as the lesser of two evils than by being particularly strong in training camp.
If you’re going to trust anyone’s instincts about a special teams guy, coordinator John Fassel is a good one to listen to. Hopefully, whatever he sees in Aubrey is validated by performance. But until he’s asked to kick in real NFL games, especially in clutch moments, there’s just no way of really knowing what Aubrey is. It’s a big gamble in a league where regular season wins and losses carry so much weight.
3. Linebacker Depth
Like on the offensive line. if Leighton Vander Esch and Damone Clark stay healthy then this issue will be mostly mitigated. But with rookie DeMarvion Overshown being lost to an ACL injury, the Cowboys are already down a key rotation player and now face some daunting prospects if they lose one of their starters.
While Overshown was hardly going to be experienced depth, he outshined the competition in camp and was clearly the next man up. Jabril Cox has never recovered from his own rookie injury and wound up getting released at final cuts. That leaves Devin Harper, a 2022 sixth-round pick who barely played last year, as the only true LB behind Vander Esch and Clark right now.
The Cowboys’ answer here appears to be leaning even more on their safeties to play hybrid roles. Expect to see a lot of Jayron Kearse and Donovan Wilson playing closer to the line of scrimmage. Markquese Bell has reportedly been told he’ll be taking LB reps as well, even taking Cox’s old number once it was vacated.
With both Clark and Vander Esch having some significant injury history, being so thin here is a worthy concern. Maybe losing Overshown will be the last major blow to the unit, but it definitely put them on the razor’s edge.
4. Offensive Familiarity
This is a double-edged issue. While the departure of Kellen Moore as offensive coordinator and play-caller does allow for new wrinkles in Dallas' offense, it also means new things for players to learn and to build chemistry over. With some tough early games on their schedule, could growing pains wind up costing them in the standings?
While Moore took QB Coach Doug Nussmeier with him to Los Angeles, thankfully most of the offensive coaching staff is still in place from last year. Plus, Mike McCarthy is now the play-caller and he will help preserve some continuity for new coordinator Brian Schottenheimer,
Again, any misfires by the Cowboys may be made up for by plays when the element of surprise works in their favor. Ultimately, the shift to more West Coast principles and overall schematic alterations could prove to be an upgrade. But Moore ran a highly productive offense and only time will tell if Dallas was wise to let him go.
5. Backup Running Back
If your offensive line is good enough then who totes the rock may not matter so much. But given the top weakness on our list, having a lack of proven depth behind Tony Pollard gets amplified among our concerns.
If Pollard and the guys in front of him stay healthy, Rico Dowdle and Deuce Vaughn should make for a sufficient rotation to spell Pollard and cover the team’s needs. Vaughn’s potential for a variety of uses is exciting, and the combination of Dowdle and fullback Hunter Luepke should be able to handle short-yardage situations.
Still, there are those moments when special players do special things. That’s what’s scary about losing a guy like Ezekiel Elliott; instinctive running and a knack for making something happen when it matters most. Anybody can look good when a lane is being paved for them by Pro Bowl offensive linemen. What do they do when the blocking doesn’t make the play?
Pollard’s proven that he’s that dude, but now he may be the only dude on the RB depth chart. Vaughn still has to prove he can work his magic against first-team defenders. Dowdle has to stay healthy, first and foremost, and also show his stuff against the real competition. And while he had a fun night in the preseason finale, Luepke barely made the roster and needs to show more as a ball carrier.