The Dallas Cowboys front office and coaching staff have done an exemplary job bettering their organization in the last 5 months.
The off-season had a quite a peculiar start, with the Jones’ longest-firing-ever of longtime head coach Jason Garrett. Once that was finally out of the way, things have been all pluses for the Cowboys.
On January 7th, the Cowboys hired respected, Super Bowl winning longtime Packers head coach Mike McCarthy. McCarthy quickly got to work assembling a staff comprised of a blend of seasoned “salty old dogs” and promising young up-and-comers.
After suffering the defections of their best pass rusher (Robert Quinn – Bears), and best cover man (Byron Jones – Dolphins), among many others (Maliek Collins, Jason Witten – Raiders, Randall Cobb – Texans), the Cowboys somehow managed to at least on paper patch the majority of the holes on a roster than it March looked unready to compete.
The Cowboys used free agency to really strengthen their interior defensive line, signing a pair of defensive tackles, former Carolina Panther teammates Gerald McCoy and Dontari Poe. The team also covered themselves on the back end, adding veterans HaHa Clinton-Dix (Bears), and Maurice Canady (Jets) to the secondary. Offensively, the team was able to retain top wideout Amari Cooper after allowing him to hit free agency.
Dallas absolutely knocked the draft out of the park. After sending a shockwave through the NFL by cradling the falling, too-good-to-pass-up WR CeeDee Lamb, the Cowboys banged away at talented defenders, and still managed to snag a potential starting center to replace the recently retired Travis Frederick. The team stuck to it’s board, and received high praise from just about anyone who covers the draft.
The only thing the team really could have done to give itself a better off-season would have been to secure it’s QB on a long term deal.
No team enters any season without questions, and as I peruse the Cowboys roster, I have 6 concerns heading into the 2020 season.
1) Will the Young Defensive Backs Be Okay?
I want to start off by making it crystal clear that I like this group a lot. I really do. I’m a fan of the talent, and the athleticism, but the inexperience gives me just a bit of discomfort. If you really think about it, the Cowboys are staring down the barrel of the possibility of having two rookies (2nd rounder Trevon Diggs, and 4th rounder Reggie Robinson) starting on the corners. That scenario should bother no one looking through a long term lens, but growing pains are inevitable, and they may be ugly early on.
Does Chido Awuzie remain at corner, or shift to safety? If he moves does it work out? Does he also experience some growing pains in that scenario? Can Jourdan Lewis play at a high level if his snap count and number of responsibilities both increase?
So many things to ponder with this unit. One would hope that the offense does most of the heavy lifting early on, and that the young secondary can round into shape for the stretch run.
Another note: I have been staunchly against a trade for Jets safety Jamal Adams. However, looking at the roster as currently comprised, you could absolutely talk me into it. The draft is over, the Cowboys got a steal in CeeDee Lamb with the pick that would have 100% been included in any Jamal Adams deal pre-draft. The team has a roster that looks right on the edge of being ready to go all-in for 2020. It is also set to receive 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 5th round compensatory picks in the 2021 draft. That would soften the blow a bit as far as putting a package together for Adams. If the Cowboys want to load up for a run, I’ll get on that train. Absolutely.
2) Who Is Rushing the Passer Besides Demarcus Lawrence?
Cowboys 2019 sack leader Robert Quinn is gone. Gerald McCoy and rookie Neville Gallimore give you a little juice on the interior, but the cupboard is bare at the other end spot. Randy Gregory is likely to be reinstated, but he has been away from the game a while, and until he is reinstated… he isn’t. That statement holds true for newly acquired Aldon Smith, who hasn’t actually played a down of football since 2015. Furthermore, who knows what position Smith really projects to now in his current form. Smith is said to be 287 lbs currently. Maybe he’s still an EDGE, maybe he is a 3-technique now.
Other than the two currently suspended guys, you have 2019 5th rounder Bradlee Anae, and a bunch of young role-player types who don’t really fit the twitchy, bendy, right end mold. Dorance Armstrong looks at this point to be an NFL end, but more in the mold of a guy who can spell Lawrence on the strong side. Joe Jackson looks more like an inside/outside utility DL player. Jalen Jelks is a total unknown at this point. Yes, Tyrone Crawford has played right end, but he’s not at all what you are looking for if you want some juice off the edge. There are some undrafted free agents on the roster that have my interest, but the fact that undrafted free agents have my interest is a clear signal that the Cowboys have an issue at right end.
Much like the notion of trading for Jamal Adams, if the Cowboys want to load the boats and go to war, there are moves to make at weakside end. Everson Griffen and Jadeveon Clowney remain available. Theoretically, the price dips with each day the two remain unsigned. The Cowboys could honestly sit tight with their hand on the phone, waiting for one end to set the market for the other. Either guy would be and upgrade over what the Cowboys have opposite DeMarcus Lawrence.
3) Who is Punting?
Pardon my being blunt, but Chris Jones is overpaid, and bad at punting the football. Chris Jones finished 31st in the league last season with a 41.6 yard average. He has the league’s 10th highest punter cap charge at $2.4M. Something’s got to shake, because that doesn’t match.
Not that teams often use draft capital on punters, but as dire as the Cowboys’ punting situation is, I was a little surprised that they didn’t burn a 6th or 7th round pick at the position. I was stunned to see the team leave the UDFA signing period without a punter.
For now I will leave my trust with new special teams coach John Fassel, and hope he has something up his sleeve as far as competition for Chris Jones. However, if the Cowboys open the season with Jones still punting, I won’t have a ton of hope for the team’s punt game.
4) Who Is Returning the Punts?
This one is easy to me. To my knowledge, fear hasn’t logged a single tick in the win column in it’s entire NFL career. I think you put CeeDee Lamb back there (for all returnable balls in non-blowouts) and let that demon change a few football games. You drafted an absolute fearless dog for a reason. Yes he is valuable in your passing game, and that is his main job, but he is not your #1 receiver yet, and his value as a kick returner is immense. Put that man back there, at least when it matters, and let him be great.
Tony Pollard returned just two punts for 10 yards in his entire college career, and none in the NFL thus. He has never really done the job, but everything you see when you watch him play suggests that he probably could. If the Cowboys want to work on that in training camp, I’d be very excited.
I do not want to see the punt return job become a throwaway job. Other teams may be allowed to feel like, if they don’t have a punt returner, they just don’t have one. Not this team. The team that has finished bottom 5 in special teams consistently for the better part of a decade? Nope. This team needs some hidden yards in the worst way. No more average starting field position at it’s own 26. I don’t want to hear about your Cedrick Wilsons or Jourdan Lewises. The return game needs some pop, at the very least when it matters. Give me CeeDee, Pollard, or death. In my eyes, a punt returner is a need, not a luxury.
5) How Does the LG/C Situation Shake Out?
LG Connor Williams ended his season with a torn ACL. All world center Travis Frederick retires. I do feel that the Cowboys have covered themselves here in the past two drafts with the 2019 selection of Penn State C/G Connor McGovern, and Wisconsin C Tyler Biadasz in 2020. Joe Looney is still in the mix, so it’s not time to mash the panic button. It’s just… interesting.
Sort of a 3-way fight for 2 positions. The key thing to watch here is a rather likely scenario. If you end up with Biadasz at center and McGovern at left guard, you are in good shape talent wise, but you have two guys next to eachother up the middle, with a combined zero NFL starts. Both of these young interior offensive linemen have studly makings, but that is a ton of inexperience. Middle pressure is every QB’s kryptonite, and free rushers coming right down Main Street while the infants figure things out inside would be less than ideal.
Hopeful, but cautious here.
6) Who Is the Swing Tackle, and Is He Good Enough?
Swing tackle matters with the Cowboys, because both LT Tyron Smith, and RT La’el Collins seem to be banged up quite often. In Dallas, it’s safe to assume that the swing tackle might see 3 games of action between the two sides.
2nd year player Brandon Knight acquitted himself quite well in limited action in 2019. The Cowboys were not however wrong for bringing in some veteran competition in the form of former Chief Cam Erving. From a cursory look, Knight should probably beat out Erving for the job. If that happens, that’s totally fine, maybe even ideal, but the team showed that it wasn’t just going to stand pat, and I think that’s a good sign of how this organization plans to run going forward.
Cam Erving is probably a better player inside than outside, and that is where he has a chance to make this tricky. While Brandon Knight is probably the better tackle, Cam Erving can legitimately play all five offensive line positions at a serviceable level. If the Cowboys want to get cute and try to save a roster spot on the offensive line, Erving could probably steal this job.
Once again, it cannot be overstated what a phenomenal job the Cowboys have done readying this team for the 2020 season.
There is still a lot of off-season left, and a world of possibilities, but these are 6 story lines I will have my eye on as the season approaches.
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