2022 NFL Previews: Dallas Cowboys

The Dallas Cowboys are supposedly America’s team but lately, they have just been letting them down, so maybe they actually are America’s team. The Cowboys are once again entering the season with the expectations of winning it all but the reality that they are still far off from that goal. Dallas currently has the ninth-best odds to win the Super Bowl, which is much too low for a team of this caliber.

That puts an immense amount of pressure on quarterback Dak Prescott. Actually, Prescott may be under more pressure than any other player in the league, but that is just life as the Cowboys’ quarterback.

I do think Prescott is unfairly criticized. Yes, he hasn’t elevated Dallas to the level that they should probably be at, but it isn’t like it is all his fault. The Cowboys passed for the second-most yards in the league last season and were easily a top-ten offense. Prescott also set career-highs in completion percentage and touchdowns, so he was doing his part.

There really isn’t a logical reason why the Cowboys aren’t able to make it into the top tier of teams. They have great quarterback play and a bunch of talent throughout the roster but something just doesn’t seem to be clicking when the games matter most.

Coaching may be the area that has been holding them back recently. Former head coach Jason Garrett was clearly not the right man for the job but then Dallas picked Mike McCarthy to take over for him. McCarthy is at best an average NFL coach that only has a Super Bowl ring because he wasn’t able to hold back Aaron Rodgers enough. McCarthy’s seat should be very warm this year, and if the Cowboys don’t put together a great season then he should be fired.

It is almost impressive that the Cowboys are not firmly atop the NFC given the wealth of talent on the roster. Scrolling through their roster is amazing because they have difference makers at nearly every position. They have so much talent that they felt they could get rid of wide receiver Amari Cooper just to save the money, something they did need to do.

Trading away Cooper was as much about the money as it was about the trust that the franchise has in wide receiver CeeDee Lamb. The Cowboys are ready for Lamb to be their number one receiver, although he arguably already was last season. He can do everything that you need a wideout to do and has the potential to be the next great Dallas pass-catcher.

The Cowboys also have faith in wide receiver Michael Gallup, who they brought back in free agency on a five-year deal. Gallup hasn’t been on the field consistently but has shown more than enough to be a capable second wide receiver when healthy.

Where it gets really interesting is the third wide receiver spot. Dallas likely originally planned for wide receiver James Washington to man that spot when they signed him in free agency. But then the Cowboys were able to land wide receiver Jalen Tolbert in the third round, which was surprising to some.

Tolbert obviously has the upside as the younger player but Washington is more proven and the Cowboys may not have time to wait for a key member of their offense to develop. Eventually, Tolbert will make his way into the receiver rotation, and be productive in doing so, but Washington could make that take a bit longer.

Outside of the receivers, Dallas has tight end Dalton Schultz, whose emergence as one of the most effective tight ends in the league has been a welcome surprise. Schultz is playing this season on the franchise tag, so he needs to prove his worth to the Cowboys this season.

As long as he continues what he has been doing, then he should get rewarded with a very favorable contract. He has been probably the most reliable pass-catcher, playing in all 17 games last season while finishing second on the team in receptions, third in yards, and tied for first in touchdowns.

Speaking of reliability, that has been running back Ezekiel Elliott’s calling card throughout his career. He has missed just three games in his career (not including the ones missed due to suspension) and also played, and started, in every game last year. While his productivity may be trending downward, at least he is consistently available.

Elliott has posted two worst seasons in the past two years, but he did still rush for over 1,000 yards in 2021. Part of that is due to a slightly more conservative workload as he gets fewer carries the older he gets. He is only 27 years old but that is getting up there in running back years.

Luckily for Dallas, they have running back Tony Pollard to help split the load with Elliott and keep him fresh late into the season. Pollard has been fantastic in his role as a change-of-pace back, averaging 5.5 yards per carry and 8.6 yards per reception last year. Pollard may eventually be Eliott’s replacement but for now, they form a very dangerous running back duo.

The only thing that could possibly hold that duo back would be poor offensive line play. The Cowboys were known for the past few years for their dominant offensive line, but that has been slowly going away. Left tackle Tyron Smith and right guard Zack Martin are the only two holdovers from the days of elite line play.

Losing right tackle La’el Collins could end up being a huge blow to the Cowboys because it means they will have to slot in an inexperienced player at that spot. It could end up being their 2022 first-round pick Tyler Smith, who was largely considered a reach when they drafted him, or Terrence Steele, who has been on the team for two seasons and has filled in at both tackle spots.

The remaining two spots at center and left guard will be filled by center Tyler Biadasz, who has been very solid at the position, and whoever doesn’t win the right tackle spot, most likely. This unit does have the potential to be a stout group once again but it could also be the biggest weakness of the team if one or two starters get injured or are ineffective.

The Cowboys’ defense is not hurting for star power, with a superstar player on all three levels. And even after only one season in the league, linebacker Micah Parsons is the biggest star on the entire unit.

Parsons is one of the rare defensive players that comes along and can do anything asked of him on the field. He produced as a pass rusher, run stopper, and in coverage. He had one of the most dominant seasons that a rookie defender has ever had in the NFL and he is just getting started.

With a full year of NFL experience under his belt, Parsons is set to get even better in year two. He will also have a better understanding of the defensive scheme and will have no problem expanding his game even more and coming up with more big plays. The sky is truly the limit for the young defender, and a Defensive Player of the Year Award is certainly within reach, maybe even this season.

The other young Dallas defender that broke out in 2021 was cornerback Trevon Diggs. He was the absolute best ballhawk in the league last year, recording 11 interceptions, the most in a season since 1981. Diggs gets a lot of hate for giving up over 900 yards in coverage last year but he actually put up a decent completion percentage and quarterback rating against, suggesting that he isn’t just looking for picks.

If Diggs improves his coverage skills then he could launch himself into the top tier of corners. He would also make it hard to argue that the Cowboys don’t have one of the best secondaries in the league.

With cornerbacks Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis and safeties Jayron Kearse and Donovan Wilson, Dallas has a five-man secondary group that can be very dangerous. Kearse is the most valuable part of that group after Diggs. He is a very underrated player that was extremely important to the Cowboys last year. He led the team in tackles while also contributing in other areas of the game. Diggs may get all the attention, deservedly so, but Kearse is just as vital to the Dallas secondary.

Last but not least is the Cowboys’ defensive line, which is the one area that may hold the defense back this year. Dallas’s pass-rushing numbers from last year look good on the surface but once you realize that Parsons was the main reason for the success they had in that area, it gets a little more concerning.

Parsons was the best pass rusher on the Cowboys in 2021 by far. He racked up 13 sacks, which is more than double the next best player. Defensive end Randy Gregory was that player with six sacks but he left the team in free agency.

That means the remaining d-linemen accounted for only 17.5 sacks last season. Defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence can singlehandedly change that in 2022. He was once regarded as one of the best pass rushers in the league but recorded just three sacks in seven games last year. Lawrence is going to have to be a lot better this year if the Dallas line wants to be serviceable.

There are young players on the line that can also step up and increase the sack production. Defensive ends Dorance Armstrong and rookie Sam Williams will play key roles this year. As largely rotational pass rushers, if they could rack up a few sacks each it would go a long way. Same with defensive tackles Osa Odighizuwa, Neville Gallimore, and rookie John Ridgeway. They don’t have to be insane, but they have to at least be solid.

The wild card on the defensive line is defensive end Dante Fowler, who was signed in free agency. Fowler has never quite lived up to his third overall draft slot but he has demonstrated flashes at times. The Cowboys are counting on him to be as effective as Gregory was last year. If he fills that role then the Dallas defense will have one less thing to worry about.

Talent only gets you so far in the NFL. Eventually, a team needs to translate that talent into on-field production. The Cowboys were able to do that last season and I predict they will have similar success.

I think they will finish 11-6, which would be a regression from 2021 by one win. It is still a very good season, but likely not the one Dallas is hoping for. The biggest difference between this year and last year is that there will be much more competition from the Philadelphia Eagles this time around.

The Cowboys have a much harder schedule than the Eagles, so every win will be even that much more important for Dallas. I think this division race will be a lot closer than some people think. I think both teams end up extremely close in the standings, maybe even with the same record, so the head-to-head games will be very important.

I do predict that the Eagles will just barely edge the Cowboys out for the NFC East crown, largely due to their easier schedule. But I still think Dallas is the more talented team and could easily take the division. Either way, I see the Cowboys making the playoffs easily, but they could end up struggling once they get there.