Ethan Hewett | January 21st, 2020
It was a year of high hopes for America’s Team in the Dallas Cowboys after dealing with mediocre seasons and early playoff exits for the past five years. With a weak schedule to start the season, Dallas rocketed out to a 3-0 start but quickly began to fall back to earth as the team would finish 8-8 on the year and second in the NFC East. There isn’t a better record to describe this team than .500 as the offense was potent at times in 2019 but they lacked consistency both on offense and defense causing them to crumble against better opponents.
At the end of the season, owner Jerry Jones decided to part ways with former Head Coach Jason Garrett, which was a few years coming now, and also Defensive Coordinator Rod Marinelli after missing the playoffs. Mike Nolan is the new DC and Jones has a few big decisions to make this offseason regarding the future of his franchise with big contract expiration dates looming large.
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What Went Right
Final record and coaching aside, this offense was really good. While Dak Prescott had some inconsistencies, he still put up a respectable 4,902 yards with a 30:11 touchdown to interception ratio and posted 65% completion percentage. Prescott also had great protection most of the season from an offensive line who welcomed center Travis Frederick back into the lineup this season allowing only 23 sacks which was 2nd in the National Football League.
Ezekiel Elliott continued to be a dominant force out of the backfield totaling 1,357 rushing yards averaging 4.5 yards per carry. The three-time pro bowler didn’t have as big of a season but he had help from rookie standout Tony Pollard who was a solid number two behind Zeke. Pollard exploded in the Dallas offense chipping in 455 rushing yards averaging 5.3 yards per carry. Pollard was a big-play threat in the run game putting up five rushes of 20 yards or more, which led the Cowboys, with one of those being for 44 yards. The combo of Elliott and Pollard helped contribute to what was one of the best offenses in the NFL.
Speaking of being one of the best offenses in the league, Dallas ranked in the top five in nearly every offensive category, including being ranked number two in offensive success rate sitting at 53% behind only the New Orleans Saints. When between the twenty-yard lines, Dallas had one of the best passing games in the NFL as well also sitting at 53% success meaning they could move the ball down the field very well.
While the offense was the biggest strength of this team, defensive end Robert Quinn who the Cowboys picked up in the offseason put up solid numbers racking up 11.5 sacks, 13 tackles for loss, and 22 quarterback hits. All of which led the team. Quinn, who was drafted by the St. Louis Rams in the first round back in 2011, showed flashes from his younger years but is now up for either an extension or will find himself back in free agency this offseason.
What Went Wrong
Garrett and the new, young offensive coordinator Kellen Moore had put together a solid team and system. However, when it came to making in-game decisions when it mattered most, the duo just couldn’t get it right. Whether it was being too conservative and not going for it on fourth down when they really should have, or going for it deep in their territory and giving the opposition an easy score, it was a mess.
This can easily be attributed to the team’s lack of using in-game analytics. Using stats such as win probability in-game gives the team’s an edge and is a useful number to know on whether or not you go for it on fourth down. Garrett, however, does not embrace analytics and it was a shot in the dark every time on fourth down.
Outside of bad playcalling, Dallas struggled a lot in the red zone. Especially in the later parts of games where the passing offense turned pedestrian sitting 28th in the NFL in success rate in the third and fourth quarters.
While the offense was efficient for the most part, the Cowboys were plagued with drops from their pass catchers. Dallas had a total of 36 drops in 2019 which was in a three-way tie for most in the NFL between them, the Buffalo Bills, and the Miami Dolphins. Dallas also finished third-worst in drop percentage sitting at 6% behind the Bills and Pittsburgh Steelers. Michael Gallup was notorious in 2019 for drops totaling 11 with a 9.7% drop rate.
Dallas did welcome back Frederick at the center position, but they dealt with some health issues at both tackle positions with left tackle Tyron Smith and right tackle La’el Collins both missing multiple games in 2019. While the games they missed didn’t necessarily affect the box score, mixing starting lineups on the offensive line can affect communication and effectiveness.
While the above areas show that Dallas had issues on the offensive side of the ball, the real problem for the majority of the season was the defense. According to Sharp Football Stats, the Cowboys had one of the worst run defenses in the first quarter sitting in 30th with a 52% success rate, while having a 49% success rate in pass defense which is 21st. This caused Dallas to fall into deficits early in games and often cost them the game as Dallas was 2-5 in games where they trailed at the end of the first quarter and 0-8 when trailing at the half.
The run defense was a big issue as they lacked a true run stuffer along with linebacker Leighton Vander Esch missing a good amount of the season and the safety Jeff Heath was mediocre all season.
Outlook for the Offseason
We’ve already seen the Cowboys offseason start-up after letting go of Garrett, and the replacement they decided to go with was Mike McCarthy. Formerly the Green Bay Packers head coach in 2018. Dallas has some big decisions to make with in-house signings but it is also clear they still lack a few big pieces on this team. Luckily they sit with $81.9 million in cap space which should be enough to retain those big team free agents along with trying to find playmakers in the open market.
The Team’s Free Agents
No question about it, Dallas needs to resign Prescott. He is their franchise quarterback and while I don’t know if he is worth $32-33 million a year yet, that might be what it takes to retain him and Dallas needs to do it. Prescott has shown he has the talent and leadership to take this team to the playoffs, he just needs a little more help around him. Again, he’s going to be a big cap hit, but they have the room to do so.
Speaking of names that should be re-signed, Amari Cooper. Cooper is coming off the best statistical season of his career having career highs in receiving yards (1,189), receiving touchdowns (8), and yards per reception (15.1). Cooper also had the lowest drop percentage in the past two years at 4.2% and had zero fumbles. While some might think that receivers can be replaced, Cooper is definitely in that great to the borderline-elite category so that might be harder than you think. He is another player who will require a big price tag, maybe the $15-18 million a year price, but Prescott needs that number one receiver.
To round out the trio of big names who need big contracts, cornerback Byron Jones is the final piece. Jones had a little bit of a down year statistically, but he’s still one of the better corners in the league and he isn’t the kind of player you just let walk. His market value will also be high, but if you pair him with a solid number two corner along with a better safety corp, this could be a very good secondary in 2020.
Dallas needs to figure out their situation on the defensive line. Quinn was a solid free agency pickup leading the team in sacks with 11.5. However, he is 29 years old entering his 10th NFL season. It is going to be a decision between Quinn and defensive tackle Maliek Collins. Collins has been a decent inside player, but nothing special. However, he could develop while you are seeing the best you can get with Quinn.
Open Market Free Agents
Cornerback James Bradberry should be a name that Dallas targets this offseason. Bradberry is a big and physical cornerback who has the numbers to back it up. He will most likely come with a bigger price tag so the Cowboys may have to make some sacrifices if they want Bradberry. Trae Waynes and Ronald Darby would be other names that could be a little on the cheaper side for the Cowboys.
With Jason Witten and Blake Jarwin entering free agency, it would be smart to also target a tight end this offseason. Eric Ebron could serve as a very good target for Prescott over the middle and wouldn’t break the bank too bad either.
Interior defensive lineman should also be a big position of need for this Dallas team. Chris Jones should be a name on everyone’s list if the Kansas City Chiefs don’t somehow re-sign him, but he also comes with a big price tag that might deter the Cowboys. Shelby Harris or D.J. Reader would be two players who would be a little easier on the cap but still bring quality play on the interior defensive line.
Safety is another big need for this defense. I think they use both free agency and the draft to address this position so I would lean towards a more veteran player in free agency with players like Andrew Sendejo and Tavon Wilson out in the market. Both players are veterans with Sendejo in his thirties and Wilson not too far behind. Both are incredibly physical and rack up a lot of tackles. Sendejo would be reunited with the team who took him on as an undrafted free agent back in 2010 and he is an incredibly hard hitter. Fellow Minnesota safety Anthony Harris would be another, but expensive, option if the Vikings let him hit free agency.
Projecting the NFL Draft
1.17 – Javon Kinlaw, DL, South Carolina
The Cowboys need to improve at the strong safety position, but another position they need to improve is at defensive tackle. Kinlaw is a physical specimen sitting at 6’6” and 310 pounds. He is incredibly physical and has shown positional versatility which is good since new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan intends to use a hybrid scheme. Kinlaw is a day-one starter and will make others around him better with the havoc he creates inside.
2.51 – Brandon Aiyuk, WR, Arizona State
With the future of the Dallas receiving room a bit shaky at the moment, it wouldn’t hurt to grab a very good receiver in Aiyuk. He is the definition of a playmaker, and several scouts have him ranked higher than former Sun Devil N’Keal Harry. He is a yards-after-the-catch monster and also a strong deep threat. With a very high NFL ceiling, Aiyuk would make a solid slot receiver in this Dallas offense.
3.82 – Brandon Jones, S, Texas
While some will question waiting so long to take a safety, Jones is the type of player that the secondary lacks. He defends the run well and tackles well. While he may not be a day one starter for the Cowboys, bringing in a veteran safety to have competition with Jones would be ideal and he could develop into a very good NFL strong safety.
With the new coaching trio of head coach McCarthy, offensive coordinator Moore, and defensive coordinator Nolan, expect a different team in 2020. While I don’t completely agree with the McCarthy hiring, it just might work out. The Cowboys should have a very good offense in 2020 if they manage to hold on to a couple of key pieces while also bringing in a couple through free agency and the draft.
While they have a large amount of cap space, it is going to be tight after making those vital signings, so we could see a few trades as well in the later parts of the offseason and preseason. I expect Dallas to be competing for the NFC East title again next season and fighting for a good playoff spot. 10-6 or 11-5 would be a guess as to where I think this team could be in 2020.
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Main Image Credit: Embed from Getty Images