Free agent additions: RB Alfred Morris, DE/DT Cedric Thornton, C Joe Looney
Free agent departures: DE Greg Hardy, DE Jeremy Mincey
Early Draft selections: RB Ezekiel Elliott, LB Jaylon Smith, DT Maliek Collins, DE Charles Tapper, QB Dak Prescott
Offense: Last year was a strange season in the NFL, as 5 of the 6 teams that selected at the top of the draft are set at quarterback. This includes the Cowboys, who have Tony Romo returning from a broken collarbone. Romo has a history of injuries, so the Cowboys drafted Dak Prescott as his hopeful successor and backup in case he goes down again.
The Cowboys must have thought the running game was an issue last season, seeing as how they ignored the defense and drafted Ezekiel Elliott with their #4 overall pick. Darren McFadden still ran for 1.089 yards after getting the starting nod a few weeks into the season, which I thought was a very admirable effort while playing with a backup QB the whole time. However, he only scored 3 touchdowns (with an elite line), and he has always had injury issues. Those surfaced this offseason when he broke his elbow trying to save his phone from breaking. The Cowboys also signed Alfred Morris and still have pass catcher Lance Dunbar. I don’t think all 4 will be on the roster when the season starts, but even if one gets cut, the Cowboys have a very capable stable of running backs.
The strength of the Cowboys offense is the offensive line. They have LT Tyron Smith, C Travis Frederick, and RG Zack Martin, who are some of the best at their respective positions. RT Doug Free is serviceable. The weakness last year was rookie LG La’el Collins, but he was a tackle in college, so he should improve at his new NFL position with time. People are expecting big things from Ezekiel Elliott running behind this line.
Finally, at receiver, TD machine Dez Bryant returns from injury. His presence in the lineup was sorely missed last year. The other receiver, Terrance Williams, has not performed well, and while Cole Beasley is a good slot receiver, he needs Bryant as a downfield threat to be more effective. Meanwhile, TE Jason Witten is 34 and slowing down. Maybe converted basketball player Rico Gathers steps up and becomes the next Antonio Gates or Jimmy Graham.
Defense: Things aren’t looking good for the Cowboys on this side of the ball. DE DeMarcus Lawrence and ILB Rolando McClain, two of their better players, are suspended for 4 and 10 games, respectively. Greg Hardy, a locker room cancer, has at this point not been brought back. Their defensive line is comprised of some relative unknowns at this point. DT Tyrone Crawford is probably the best of the bunch and recorded 5 sacks last season. DT Cedric Thornton is decent at playing the run, but has never recorded more than 1 sack in any of his seasons in the NFL. At defensive end, the Cowboys have David Irving, who has never started an NFL game, and Benson Mayowa, a situational pass rusher for the Raiders last season. I’m sure the Cowboys are praying that rookies Charles Tapper and Maliek Collins have an impact sooner rather than later, and I imagine the starters here will change quite often throughout the season.
The Cowboys best player on defense is linebacker Sean Lee, who recorded 156 tackles in 14 games last year. He is good in coverage as well, so the Cowboys are praying he stays healthy all year. Andrew Gachkar seems to be in line to start at middle linebacker with Rolando McClain suspended, while the other linebacker spot right now belongs to Anthony Hitchens, a 2014 fourth round pick. The Cowboys will need to get very creative in order to get pressure on the quarterback. 2016 second round pick Jaylon Smith is not progressing well and at this point is a long shot to play at all this season.
Their secondary is a little better, but only by default. Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr have been major disappointments at corner, but will probably be the starters for week 1. Their third corner, Orlando Scandrick, had a great 2014 season, but is now coming off a torn ACL and MCL. He says he will be ready for training camp, so maybe he can displace one of the two disappointments already mentioned, but I think he played nickel corner before anyway. At safety, the Cowboys have 2015 first rounder Byron Jones, who can also play corner and had a good rookie year, as well as Barry Church, who is poor in coverage but good in run support.
Special teams, schedule, and intangibles: The Cowboys went 1-7 at home last year, and are a very mediocre 27-29 since AT&T stadium opened in 2009. They do not have a very strong homefield advantage at all there. Even in 2014, when the Cowboys went 12-4, all 4 of their losses happened at home. Opposing teams’ fans have flooded the stadium to see the spectacle, so maybe when the novelty wears off (either now or in a few years), their home record will improve.
The Cowboys are about even in the return game, not allowing their opponents to severely outgain them in that regard. They did allow a 100 yard kick return TD however, while generating no touchdowns of their own in the return game.
Dan Bailey is a very good kicker, going 30-32 while not missing any extra points. He’s also come through in the clutch, and kicked 49 touchbacks.
The Cowboys also have a very good punter in Chris Jones. He posted a 42.7 net average in 2015, while also downing 27 punts inside the 20 with only 1 touchback.
The Cowboys play a last place schedule, so they have winnable games against the 49ers (away) and Buccaneers (home), though the Buccaneers won’t be so easy as they have improved. They also play the NFC and AFC North, so they have winnable games against the Browns, Bears, and Lions. Their division isn’t very strong, so if they stay healthy, they should be able to win at least 3 games within the NFC East.
Position Ratings (out of 5 stars):
Summary: It’s the same questions for the Cowboys every year: will Tony Romo stay healthy? Is there enough talent on defense? How will they screw themselves over? If everyone on offense stays relatively healthy, the Cowboys will stay competitive, but they will have to rely on some timely turnovers from their defense in order to win the division. Of course, I have to factor in some untimely losses regardless.
Prediction: 8-8 (2nd NFC East)