Going into 2017, Dallas knows that this will be the last hurrah for Jason Witten, the future Hall of Fame tight end. Coming off of a playoff appearance, they turn their attention to repeat as division champions. They endured a fantastic 13-3 campaign led by a rookie backfield tandem that made the Pro Bowl. Dak Prescott played poised, Ezekiel Elliott led the league in carries, and their formula for success was to chew up clock. You know what that does, it keeps a once-historically bad defense on the sidelines, keeps them fresh, and they were so successful because they were able to score touchdowns.
The whole rookie wall thing, I don’t think that will come into play when it comes to Easy E toting the rock as a sophomore. The strength of that well-known O-line is to ground and pound. Not to pick a bone with one of the elite units in the game today, but Tony Romo went down with a clavicle injury, then the back injury, and he didn’t hold the ball too long on those particular plays. If the passing attack can continue to be efficient and move the chains in that way, then I don’t see why they couldn’t replicate some of their success from 2016.
Prescott faced some times of adversity, not much, but a few. He rose to the occasion in the postseason when Green Bay took an early lead. That was another big moment in the growth of a young quarterback. Not so much in the opening month of next season, but the middle weeks, that’s when we’re going to get our answer about Dak’s film. He’ll have his opportunities to adjust. Not to discredit their positives, but truth be told, the Cowboys are going from the easiest schedule on paper to the 11th toughest. Granted, their 3 division rivals will face a top 10 slate of games.
Dallas lost in the regular season to the Giants twice, and the Eagles when they decided to rest some key starters for the majority of the finale. Then, they had a bye week to watch and rest, Aaron Rodgers came to town, and their comeback effort fell just short, as time expired. The Packers and Cowboys connected on 3 field goals in the final minutes and that’s how that game ended. So, where do they need to upgrade exactly?
A very efficient team on 3rd downs, in part because they gained the necessary yards to put themselves in 3rd and short situations, and they found a way to convert drives into touchdowns. That’s often the difference between playoff teams and non-playoff teams, who tend to settle for more field goals than they would like. Well, the Boys are going to be challenged to pass more. They ranked 19th through the air, leaning a lot on Cole Beasley on short routes where he would pick up yards after the catch. Understandably, Witten isn’t shedding a ton of tackles anymore, yet he continues to find the seam when called upon as a safety blanket. That overtime win against the Eagles on a scramble drill, he caught the game-winner. Dez Bryant is a big target, gets into the end zone every other game, but that may be a position they look at considering his lingering injuries. He missed 3 games and recorded under 800 yards. plus the fact that Terrance Williams is a free agent. As great as Beasley was, Dallas didn’t want to throw a lot, probably couldn’t afford to between a rookie and covering up the defensive flaws.
It’s still a war of attrition in the trenches. They’re going to call running plays more times than not. The big boys up front are gonna do what they do best and open holes for Elliott, who wasn’t touched for the first 3-4 yards throughout last season. These other teams are gonna have to live with an extra safety in the box to line up against their 2nd ranked run game. That’s what makes this team go. And Elliott is going to get extra yards, the guy always falls forward like some motivational quote. As an offense, they’re probably better suited to keep Beasley in the #3 role. I don’t think the world of Williams, but if they don’t retain him, finding a #2 is their biggest offensive priority. Preferably, a speed guy to give them that final dimension to complete the offense.
That’s a good thing, considering that the offense is pretty much in tact, with a lot of stability from the previous year. Same coaching staff, no changes there, so that wide receiver will be more of a cherry on top. They can choose to sign a vet on the cheap, or find someone on day 2 or 3 in the draft. The main focus will be on the defensive side, where they sold out against opposing run games and contained them all season long, they were first against the run. The optimist will say that the secondary was good, Sean Lee can cover, and the reason they placed bottom 5 against the pass is that they held a lead most of the time. I can’t say that to be true for every week. 7 of their 13 wins had one possession outcomes. Those can go either way on a year-to-year basis. The typical Cowboys season has them splitting games, so splitting those close contests, that puts them at 9 or 10 wins. It didn’t happen in 2016, but we don’t know if they made strides as a team, or if they rode a great run led by 2 rookies that didn’t turn the ball over. I’m not hinting one-hit wonder at all here, especially not with Elliott, although I do expect more than 4 interceptions for Prescott.
Okay, so I’m not crazy about the defense that chilled on the sidelines a lot against the easiest schedule. That doesn’t mean that I can;t acknowledge an elite defensive coordinator like Rod Marinelli. He put the guys in the right positions, called the shots, and they allowed the 4th fewest points. They still went out there on game day and kept opponents from scoring. Factoring in a possible step back from the offense, they were middle of the pack in sacks with the 5th fewest interceptions forced, and they didn’t record any touchdowns. Neither did the special teams. 4 players in the secondary are free agents. Brandon Carr and Mo Claiborne, both started as the cornerbacks. Barry Church the starter at strong safety and backup J.J. Wilcox.
No team is foolish enough to gloss over a pass rusher if a good one presents itself in the offseason. On paper, I will say that they have DeMarcus Lawrence, Tyrone Crawford and David Irving. They have some rotational players up front, but they could use some help at defensive tackle and at linebacker. Depending on who they’re able to re-sign, they might have to address all 3 levels of the defense. They might have a new starter for each unit. In 2016, Benson Mayowa and Maliek Collins combined for 11 sacks to lead the defense. As a team that only mustered up 9 picks not he year, only Church had more than 1, finishing with 2. There’s quite a few signs that has me worried about them coming back to earth, similar to Carolina’s great run the year before, but Dallas seems too even keeled and well-coached to fall as far as the Panthers did. I thought they were a fluke and they were. Dallas never strays to far from .500, they’re usually in the NFC East race and they’ve earned the favorites label.
In the first round of the draft they are slotted at 28. Selecting at 60 in the 2nd round. As far as free agency goes, they have the least cap space in the NFL. They may get outbid for their defensive backs. They won’t be big players in free agency and that’s quite alright, most of their team will be returning to defend the division crown. That’s yet another reason why Tony Romo is expected to be released. Priorities, however, secondary help if they can’t keep their own, defensive tackle, linebacker, then receiver. This draft is deep in the secondary, they can come away with replacement starters without taking a step back in talent. It’ll be interesting to see if they believe in their current players in the front-7, as they might be tempted to add a pass rusher at the end of the 1st round.