For the past two decades, predicting the fate of your Dallas Cowboys is just a matter of piecing together how a given year’s iteration will end up 8-8. This year is different only because there’s an extra game, so it will be mathematically impossible to end up with an even record. Still, examining how American’s Team will wallow in mediocrity has become an annual tradition. Will it be injuries? Will the draft class flop? Will Zeke “Hands of Grease” Elliot fumble away another game or two? Is this defense as bad everyone who doesn’t live in North Texas thinks it is?
Training camp began anew last week in Oxnard, California, and, for the 61st year in a row, the Cowboys fielded a team, and for the 78th year, owner/GM Jerry Jones continues to live. Even though we know how will it end, there are still some interesting camp battles and storylines to contemplate.
Besides COVID-19, the biggest turd in the ’Boys’ 2020 punchbowl was the season-ending injury to Dak Prescott. Multiple news reports are suggesting his bum ankle has completely healed, and he’s a full participant in practice. Before succumbing to the injury, Prescott was on a pace to shatter every Cowboys passing record. Owner Jerry has already praised his $160 million man’s camp performance the way only a desperate, dying old man watching his legacy as a competent front-office mind slip away could.
One of my favorite camp traditions is checking in on who media is reporting to be in “the best shape of his life.” This year’s candidate is Ezekiel Elliot, who apparently decided to “try” this offseason instead of pulling his usual act of committing sexual assault. He appears ready to put behind the worst statistical year of his career and find creative new ways to let us all down.
The offensive line was woeful last year, as its two bookends — tackles La’el Collins and Tyron Smith— played a combined two games. Future Hall of Famer Smith is already back in action, and some media talking heads are reporting that he is (wait for it) in the best shape of his life. Collins is also a full participant in camp, which is pretty amazing considering he needed a walker just to get around last year.
Center is a position of intrigue again. It appears the coaching staff is comfortable letting oft-injured 2020 draftee Tyler Biadasz man the middle with very little competition. Former third-round pick Conner Williams is taking snaps as Biadasz’ backup, but he hasn’t played the position since his sophomore year of college.
The entire defense was a mess last year, and the front office made its annual show of trying to patch that leaky boat. Arguably the biggest addition to the unit is new coordinator Dan Quinn, who helmed Seattle’s Super Bowl-winning Legion of Boom before taking the head coaching job in Atlanta — where his team famously choked away a Super Bowl. Quinn joins headman Mike McCarthy on Jones’ last-chance coaching island, where former DC Mike Nolan failed to get a rose after last season.
The brain trust is hoping the biggest improvements to the D will come via the draft, in which the front office invested eight of its first 11 picks (and the first six) on that side of the ball.
The team’s first pick was Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons, who joins a suddenly crowded linebacker room that includes 2021 fourth-round steal Jabril Cox; the team’s highest-profile free-agent signing and former Hotlanta first-rounder Keanu Neal; perennial underachiever Jaylon Smith; and porcelain doll Leighton Vander Esch. Cox and Neal are hybrid defenders who are fast enough to play box safety, and Parsons will no doubt see time on the edge, where he was a menace in college. It’ll be interesting to see how Quinn deploys these guys.
The team’s biggest area of need going into the offseason was the secondary, and the front office didn’t do much to address it. Sure, they picked Kentucky’s Kelvin Joseph 44th overall in the draft, but depending on a corner who has been asked to leave two major Division 1 schools for “doing the pot” sounds … very on-brand for the Cowboys. The team signed former Atlanta safety Damontae Kazee, but he’s coming off a major Achilles injury. Jones and Co. have been flirting with former first-rounder Malik Hooker, but nothing as of now is written in blood. He would represent a major talent upgrade, but his history of staying healthy is downright Vander Eschean. The front office’s strategy (again) appears to be trotting out young players and injury-plagued veterans and seeing if any of them can stay healthy/sober long enough to make a play.
I’m actually bullish on the defensive line. Though his sagging sack numbers say otherwise, end DeMarcus Lawrence was actually pretty dominant last season. Since Nolan played him standing up way too often, his stats were depressed, but he graded out at a more than respectable 88.7 on Pro Football Focus. He’s starting camp on the PUP list, so that’s worth monitoring. Randy Gregory suffered from the same misuse under Nolan last season, but he still flashed the elite quickness that made him the buzz (pun intended) of the draft a few years back. I’m predicting a big year for both. Free agent signees Tarell Basham and Brent Urban will add some much-needed depth as the coaching staff waits on more younglings to develop.
The tackle position is interesting and could be boom or bust. Second-year man Neville Gallimore appears to be the real deal, though he’s hardly a star. Former second-round pick Trysten Hill has been a media whipping boy since many among the draft cognoscenti decried the choice as a massive reach. I may be among the minority in this, but I think he’s got something. He earned a starting spot out of camp last season, and he made plays. Injuries cut his season short, and he’s starting camp on the PUP list, so that doesn’t bode well. The team drafted a couple of guys who appear ready to contribute.
This season will likely come down to health, and the team has a terrible history in that respect — and they’ve built a team full of guys who can’t stay on the field. I’m predicting another “good-on-paper” year that ends with nine wins. While that’s pretty mediocre, it could be enough to win the worst division in football. If a few things break right, the ’Boys could win 10 or 11, but it’s been many (many) years since things have broken right for Dallas — unless you count Dak’s ankle.