2021 NFL Preview: There are too many questions with Cowboys to trust them yet

·11 min read

Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2021 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 4, the day before the Hall of Fame Game.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

The Dallas Cowboys were 1-3, leading the New York Giants 24-23 in the third quarter of a game that could have gone either way. The one win was an absolute miracle against the Atlanta Falcons. Then Dak Prescott suffered one of the more graphic and infamous injuries the NFL has seen in a while. 

Prescott has signed a long-term extension and seems to be doing well in his recovery, and there's a sense that the Cowboys are the team to beat the NFC East because their quarterback is back. They're a strong favorite at BetMGM to win the division, at +115 odds. Washington is second at +250. 

That ignores a few issues, most notably that the Cowboys weren't good last season even with Prescott on a pace to throw for about 6,000 yards. 

The Cowboys' defense was horrendous early last season, and even with late improvement and a much-needed coordinator change, there's a long way to go for that unit to be decent. We also should have some serious questions about coach Mike McCarthy. 

The Cowboys are hoping the change to Dan Quinn as defensive coordinator is the biggest fix for the defense. McCarthy has his doubters, and he made a brutal hire the first time. McCarthy and Mike Nolan went back several years to their days as assistants in San Francisco together, but Nolan hadn't run a defense since 2014 and hadn't had a good defense for a few years before that. McCarthy hired his buddy and it was awful. The Cowboys allowed the most points and second-most yards in franchise history. 

Quinn takes over the Cowboys defense, and the former Atlanta Falcons coach isn't a sure thing. The 2019 Falcons were bad with Quinn running the defense, then took off in the second half when Quinn handed the defense to Raheem Morris. That's not a great sign for a coach known for his defensive prowess. It has been a long time since Quinn was coaching a top-ranked defense with the Seattle Seahawks, which led to him getting the Falcons job. Quinn was a fine hire, he's certainly better than Nolan, but it's no guarantee he fixes the defense. 

To help the talent level, the Cowboys invested in role players in free agency (Prescott's four-year, $160 million deal is going to force Dallas to be a little more responsible in spending) and had a defense-heavy draft. Maybe the additions and Quinn allow Dallas to move up to the middle of the league in defense. The good news is, that's probably all they need. 

Dallas' offense should be great, but there are injury concerns. The offensive line was beat up last season. Tyron Smith missed 14 games, Zack Martin missed six games and La'el Collins missed all season. That's a lot to overcome and a good reason Ezekiel Elliott didn't look like his normal self. Those linemen should be back, but it's also dangerous to assume none of the injury issues persist. There's a fair question about Prescott too, which we'll get to in a bit. If the offense holds up, it should be among the best in the league. Between Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup, the Cowboys have a great receiver trio. Elliott should bounce back. The offense is set up very well. It's just a little more precarious than you'd like, given the injury questions. 

Then there's the McCarthy question. Any list of coaches on the hot seat will include McCarthy, though owner Jerry Jones has historically been patient with his coaches. A lot was written and said about McCarthy reinventing himself after he was fired by the Green Bay Packers, but you couldn't see it in 2020. Maybe it was injuries, though the Cowboys were bad before the biggest injury, to Prescott. Either way, it would be tough to find anyone who is too confident in McCarthy coming into 2021. 

Maybe the Cowboys will blow past the rest of the NFC East. Perhaps Prescott is as good as ever, the offensive line is healthy, and a top-five offense is helped by a defense that gets a lot better with some new talent and Quinn's scheme. You can easily talk yourself into that story, and that's why the BetMGM divisional odds have Dallas favored.  

There are just a lot of questions for the Cowboys to answer first. 

Mike McCarthy is hoping for a better second season with the Cowboys. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Mike McCarthy is hoping for a better second season with the Cowboys. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Finally the Cowboys got off the franchise tag treadmill with Dak Prescott and signed him to a massive deal. We can have a never-ending debate over whether Prescott was "worth" $40 million a season, but that's what the Cowboys had to pay to keep him. The Cowboys didn't do much to address the backup QB spot after Andy Dalton signed with the Chicago Bears. Defensively, the Cowboys signed outside linebacker Tarell Basham, former Falcons safeties Keanu Neal (who will likely fill more of a linebacker role) and Damontae Kazee, and defensive linemen Brent Urban and Carlos Watkins. Most of those players weren't expensive; Neal was the only one to get $4 million a year. That doesn't mean they can't contribute, but it's hard to say any will be big difference makers. The Cowboys lost cornerback Chidobe Awuzie, who the Bengals felt was worth $21.75 million over three years. Dallas used their first six picks (all in the top 115 overall) on defense, including linebacker Micah Parsons in the first round. The Cowboys needed to invest heavily in defense in the draft, but it's uncomfortable to depend on rookies past the first round to turn around your defense. Maybe the additions fit very well right away, but it's hard to be too optimistic yet. 

Grade: C

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Dak Prescott says he's good to go. He said in late May he was ready to play in a game. He said a brutal ankle injury that ended his 2020 season isn't on his mind anymore. 

"I've buried the injury, honestly," Prescott said, according to the team's site. "From the point of practice, from the point of just moving forward and going about my life, I've buried it. I've buried it mentally. Put it on the tombstone."

That's well and good, and certainly better than hearing how the injury is still bothering him. But with all athletes coming back from a major injury, it doesn't matter what is said in the offseason. We don't know if Prescott will lose any mobility, and that's one reason he became a top-end quarterback. We don't know how Prescott will respond until we see him in games that count. The good news is that all signs so far are positive. 

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The Cowboys' win total at BetMGM is 9.5, and as you can probably tell from their ranking here, I'll be on the under. It's not out of the range of realistic outcomes that Dallas is a 10-win team, but the Cowboys went 6-10 last season and they didn't make many major additions. Sure, Dak Prescott's injury was a big blow last season, but Dallas would have been 0-4 with him if not for the Falcons' ridiculous collapse in Week 2. I just have too many questions to assume a huge rebound for Dallas. 

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From Yahoo's Scott Pianowski: "It might seem silly to discount Ezekiel Elliott entering his age-26 season, but remember he's already played five years and logged 1,413 regular-season carries. Windows seldom stay open as long as we want with running backs. Remember how quickly things went bad for Todd Gurley? Remember when David Johnson was on the cover of magazines? It gets late early at this position.

"Elliott was a mediocre per-play back last year, averaging just 4.0 a carry and 6.5 a catch — both career lows. The Cowboys no longer have a dominant offensive line. And the passing game looks much stronger than the running game, with three dynamic receivers and a potential MVP candidate in QB Dak Prescott. The Pokes aren't going to mothball Zeke, but he probably isn't the featured piece of the offense any longer — and the team has a solid backup in Tony Pollard.

Elliott's ADP is 8.4 in early Yahoo drafts, which feels about right, but he's more reactive pick than proactive pick for me. With high profile running backs, I like to go after guys on their first contract, players who probably hadn't had their best season yet. We can't say that about Elliott these days."

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In Ezekiel Elliott's first four seasons he averaged 96.5 rushing yards per game and 4.6 yards per carry. His production fell off in a big way last season. Elliott averaged 65.3 yards per game and 4 yards per carry. Backup Tony Pollard looked better at times. Elliott had 1,169 carries through those first four seasons. Is he wearing down already after that heavy workload? Or did Elliott struggle last season because three fantastic offensive linemen barely played due to injury and the loss of Dak Prescott hindered the whole offense? We don't know yet. We're getting a lot of "best shape of his life" rhetoric this offseason, which is meaningless, but this is an important season for Elliott and he seems to realize it. 

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Is Micah Parsons the answer on defense? 

Aside from DeMarcus Lawrence and perhaps Jaylon Smith, the Cowboys lack blue-chip talent on defense. They didn't do much to address the pass rush opposite Lawrence, apparently hoping Randy Gregory is the answer. The run defense was miserable last season and there are still questions in the secondary too. Dallas' big move was taking Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons with the 12th overall pick. Cowboys fans might have been hoping for cornerback Jaycee Horn or Patrick Surtain II, but when they went in the top 10, Dallas got a playmaking linebacker instead. With more questions about Leighton Vander Esch, who has been injured and didn't have his fifth-year option picked up, the Cowboys should have Parsons in a prominent role right away. One of those elite cornerbacks might have helped more, but Parsons could have an impact. He is BetMGM's favorite to win defensive rookie of the year, at +400 odds. The Cowboys need him to have that type of rookie season. 

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I liked the Cowboys before last season and many of the same reasons apply to 2021. Dallas' offense could be the best in the NFL if everything goes right. There are endless playmakers and, with health, a great offensive line and a prolific quarterback. If going from Mike Nolan to Dan Quinn is a huge upgrade for the defense (and it could very well be), then Dallas might pair a No. 1 offense with a middle-of-the-road defense. That would be enough to win the NFC East and maybe even win a couple playoff games. The oddsmakers certainly like the Cowboys' upside. 

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You can also talk yourself into the Cowboys being terrible. Dak Prescott is no sure thing to return 100 percent, and neither are Tyron Smith, Zack Martin or La'el Collins. Ezekiel Elliott might be on the downside after massive usage his first four seasons. That does happen faster than we anticipate with running backs. The defense was miserable last season and Dallas is expecting low-cost free agents and a bunch of rookies to help turn it around. I don't think Mike McCarthy will get fired in midseason because Jerry Jones is usually more patient than that, but by the end of the season we could have questions about McCarthy coming back in 2022 and what Dallas will do with some aging, high-priced stars. It would be really disappointing if this core didn't make at least one NFC championship game. 

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I think Dak Prescott will be fine, but just about everything else that worries me. The defense has a long way to go to be respectable and Mike McCarthy is looking more and more like he hit the jackpot coaching Aaron Rodgers. I don't think the Cowboys will be awful because the offense will outscore a few teams, but I don't get why they're such heavy favorites to win the NFC East. They have to hit too many green lights for me to pick them as a playoff team. 

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32. Houston Texans
31. Detroit Lions
30. Jacksonville Jaguars
29. New York Jets
28. Cincinnati Bengals
27. Philadelphia Eagles
26. Carolina Panthers
25. Atlanta Falcons
24. Las Vegas Raiders
23. New York Giants
22. Chicago Bears
21. Denver Broncos

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