On October 17, 2021, the Dallas Cowboys walked into New England and beat the Patriots behind a record-breaking performance from quarterback Dak Prescott. The win improved the team’s record to 5-1, a streak of five straight victories that included two blowout victories over division opponents. Headed into their bye week, Dallas was flying high, however Prescott suffered a calf injury on the game-winning play, and the Cowboys’ season went downhill from there.
The Cowboys went on to go 7-4, but only 3-4 against non-division opponents. The better teams figured out they could stifle the Cowboys’ offense by playing a coverage shell and forcing Dallas to try and run the ball against lighter boxes. Dallas was unable to run efficiently though, and they struggled blocking four-man rush concepts. This spiral culminated with a disappointing home playoff lost to the San Francisco 49ers, and led to another offseason of decisions for the Joneses-led front offense.
The risk of lost talent
(AP Photo/Terrance Williams)
The Cowboys have said on many occasions they sign their own. If one plays well for Dallas, the Joneses will eventually pay up. This offseason though the Cowboys chose to let a few of their biggest names walk. Whether it was not re-signing edge rusher Randy Gregory, trading wide receiver Amari Cooper or cutting right tackle La’el Collins, the team decided to take the risk of losing three of its key players from the Dak Prescott era.
Cooper had accumulated 292 receptions, 3,893 yards, and 27 touchdowns in 56 games for the Cowboys. Gregory finally got his chance to be a starting defensive end for Dallas and added six sacks in 11 starts. Collins has been a great right tackle for Dallas at one point.
Cooper has had lingering injury issues that limited his impact on a game-to-game basis and his ability to practice regularly. Collins was suspended multiple games this past season after missing 2020 following hip surgery, and while Gregory has been full of potential, he hasn’t developed into a game-changing edge rusher and is almost 30 years old.
The Cowboys have first-round pick CeeDee Lamb to take over as the top receiver of the offense and he’s entering the famed third year. The club used the $ 20 million that would’ve gone to Cooper’s base salary to re-sign younger talent Michael Gallup and add James Washington.
(Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Collins cap hit wasn’t a big deal for a good OT at only $ 10 million, but he had too many problems that rubbed the Cowboys front office the wrong way. From coming into camp out of shape, to being suspended for allegedly bribing a league official, Dallas was going to wash their hands of Collins, and take their cap relief. The belief in Terence Steele from the coaching staff as the future RT made the loss of Collins palatable.
Gregory was a player the team wanted back. They thought they had a deal done before Gregory decided to take his talents to the Denver Broncos instead.
Like with Cooper, Dallas went younger and cheaper giving that money to 24-year-old, hopefully-ascending DE Dorance Armstrong, and once third-overall pick Dante Fowler, Jr.
Fowler only had one great year that lived up to his draft stock when he put up 58 tackles and 11.5 sacks for the Rams back in 2019. Armstrong, had similar sack totals as Gregory, was only four million per year, and is five years younger than Gregory.
The big risk is if the young talent replacing former big contributors will be able to close enough of the gap in production to make it worthwhile for the savings the front office has made from allowing Cooper, Gregory, and Collins to go elsewhere?
Risking money on bigger free agents or hope for player development?
(AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
In 2012, the Cowboys spent big money on cornerback Brandon Carr, and while Carr was a solid pro for Dallas, he never lived up to the price tag the front office paid. Since that mistake, the Jones family hasn’t wanted to risk any real money on outside free agents.
Spending money externally is a real risk. The Cowboys are already paying quarterback Dak Prescott, with new, top-of-the-market Trevon Diggs and CeeDee Lamb contracts needed soon and Micah Parsons on the horizon right behind them.
Even if now-Buffalo-Bill Von Miller is an upgrade at the edge position, is it worth a contract that pays him $ 20 million per year the next three seasons?
The Cowboys are taking a different type of risk, they are leaning on the development of an extremely young roster. When looking at the jumps in play of guys like Terence Steele and Diggs from their rookie seasons to Year 2, it’s understandable why Dallas thinks roster building that way is a winning strategy. If players like Micah Parsons, Osa Odighizuwa, Kelvin Joseph, Chauncey Golston, and Quinton Bohanna take similar extraordinary leaps in play then the risk will be more than worth it.
A roster loaded with star players like Dak Prescott, CeeDee Lamb, Micah Parsons, Trevon Diggs along with talented and improving contributors from the last couple of draft classes, this team could be contenders.
On the other hand, if many of the young players don’t vastly improve, and the Cowboys only hope to find cheap contract steals like Jayron Kearse last season in free agency, then the Dallas roster will have trouble matching up with teams like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Los Angeles Rams, the Buffalo Bills, or any of the loaded squads in the AFC West.
Ideally teams mix draft and development with key signings in free agency, but if Dallas can pull this off, they could ride a dynasty wave of young, cheap talent for the next three years. This is an enormous risk-reward scenario for Jones, who would like to add another trophy to his case as Cowboys owner.
The risk of drafting for need
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The risks the Cowboys took by letting players walk, along with not signing viable replacements in free agency, left major holes on the Dallas roster. The team had to go into the draft with a plan. Does the team draft the best available player like a falling Jermaine Johnson or Devin Lloyd, or take a risk on a player at a lesser talent level but at a position of need?
Dallas went the route of drafting for need, filling the biggest need at nearly every pick. A left guard in the first round to replace Connor Williams, then a replacement for Randy Gregory at edge in Sam Williams. Lamb is the Amari Cooper replacement, but Jalen Tolbert was drafted to be the next, third receiver on the offense. Blake Jarwin’s injury didn’t lead to Dalton Schultz getting a franchise tag, that was happening regardless, but the team was in need of another tight end, and Jake Ferguson was selected in the fourth round to hopefully fill that role.
No team has a 100 percent success rate on the draft, so the risk in drafting for need is if the player doesn’t hit, and quickly, then the team still has that hole in the roster for that season and seemingly going forward.
The Cowboys are attempting a dangerous high-wire act this offseason. Their original decision to allow holes in the roster by trading, cutting, and not re-signing players was a risk. Then the riskier decision to not use free agency to fill those holes left Dallas leaning on their drafting and development of young talent to improve a team that got man-handled in the first round of the playoffs.
If everything they hope somehow happens; the draft picks all mostly hit, plus the kids from the last few drafts turn into big-time contributors, then the Cowboys will flourish going forward.
If Dallas misses on almost any of this, then the season could fall completely apart. Then the team might be looking at a new coaching staff and other significant changes going into 2023.
You can find Mike Crum on Twitter @cdpiglet or at Youtube on the Across the Cowboys Podcast.