2020 NFL Team Previews: Dallas Cowboys

2020 NFL Team Previews

By Professor MJ

Dallas Cowboys



1. Introduction

It was a strange year for America’s team.

They started with three easy wins over weak opponents, only to end up missing the playoffs with an 8-8 record.

I call it a strange season because if you look at their best offensive players’ statistics, they all did very well! The team scored the 6th most points in the league, while their defense allowed the 11th fewer points. How in the heck did they miss the playoffs?

In their eight wins, the average margin of victory was 20.1 points. In their eight losses, the average margin of defeat was 6.0 points. Indeed, the Cowboys lost six games by one possession or less (i.e. 8 points or less).

One more reason for missing the playoffs: Jason Garrett’s decisions. He made multiple questionable calls and it ended up costing him his job.

The former 13-year Packers head coach, Mike McCarthy, is the new sheriff in town. We’ll see what he can do with this talented group.

2. Offensive Position-by-Position Breakdown

2.1 Quarterbacks (QBs)

Dak Prescott has been a very steady force since coming into the league. He hasn’t missed a game in four seasons and has thrown 97 TD passes versus 36 interceptions. He has also rushed for 21 touchdowns.

Last year, he topped his career-high in passing yards by more than 1,000 yards! He had another solid season and was graded as the tenth-best QB by PFF.

I thought signing Andy Dalton after the Bengals released him was a very smart move by the Cowboys. Dallas has invested so heavily on its offense; you don’t want to take the risk of this group stalling because of an injury to Prescott. Cooper Rush wasn’t going to be the answer.

If Dak goes down, Dalton can fill in immediately and provide good play. Sure, he had a down year in 2019. In his defense, the offensive line struggled a lot and his top weapon, A.J. Green, missed the entire season. I do not believe the Dallas offense would crash down with Dalton under center.

2.2 Running Backs (RBs)

Ezekiel Elliott has also been a steady performer for the Cowboys over the recent years. He regularly accumulates between 1,700 and 2,000 total yards, while scoring between 9 and 16 TDs every year.

Tony Pollard got some playing time in blowouts as a rookie. Chosen in the 4th round out of Memphis, he has shown great promise. He ranked extremely well in yards after contact and finished with close to 500 rushing yards despite limited action. If something were to happen to Elliott, he seems ready to shine in a big way.

2.3 Wide Receivers (WRs)

Here is one more position where the starters are returning.

After struggling down the stretch, Amari Cooper seemed like he might leave Dallas in free agency. However, the Cowboys re-signed him to a fat contract.

In the first nine games, he averaged 5.9 receptions and 94 receiving yards per game, while totaling seven TDs. In the final seven matches, he averaged 3.7 receptions and 49 receiving yards, while hauling in a single TD pass.

The fact that he played much better at home than on the road was also well-documented. There are rumors that he played the last two months despite knee and ankle injuries, though.

Hats off to Michael Gallup for largely exceeding the 2019 expectations. He doubled his production in terms of receptions and receiving yards compared to his rookie season, while tripling the number of touchdowns (from 2 to 6). PFF gave him the 34th rank out of 122 wideouts, which is awesome for a second-year pro who was drafted in the third round.

Randall Cobb signed with Houston, which leaves 55 receptions and more than 800 yards on the table. He was one of the best #3 WR in the league for sure.

Tavon Austin seems unlikely to assume the role, but #17 overall pick CeeDee Lamb might. This selection will give OC Kellen Moore some nice flexibility. Indeed, Lamb can line up either inside or outside. Moore will then have the possibility to slide Cooper into the slot, where he won’t face press coverage that has given him some trouble.

Lamb is a physical receiver who breaks tackles very often. He posted some jaw-dropping numbers at Oklahoma:

  • An average of 19 yards per catch;
  • 24 receptions of 40+ yards;
  • 6 games of 160+ receiving yards.

The Cowboys are in business with Cooper-Gallup-Lamb.

2.4 Tight Ends (TEs)

Jason Witten and Blake Jarwin provided a pretty good TE duo. Witten, who caught 63 passes last year, left for Las Vegas. That gives a big opportunity to Jarwin to improve upon his 31 receptions from 2019. As a matter of fact, he signed a three-year, $24.25 million contract extension. That tells me he is the clear number one guy!

Dallas acquired Blake Bell who played for the Super Bowl champions K.C. Chiefs. He is mostly used as a blocker and will complement Jarwin nicely.

2.5 Offensive Line (OL)

The Cowboys offensive line performed admirably well in 2019. Dallas attempted the 10th most passes in the league, and yet only allowed 23 sacks, the second fewest in the NFL! Sure, Prescott is hard to bring down, but that’s still very impressive.

The PFF rankings are staggering: tackles La’el Collins and Tyron Smith finished at the #5 and #16 spots out of 81 qualifiers. Guards Zack Martin and Connor Williams ranked 3rd and 43rd out of 81 players. Finally, center Travis Frederick ended the year as a slightly above-average guy.

All of them are returning, except Frederick who surprised everyone by announcing his retirement at age 29. He has made the Pro Bowl on five occasions. Joe Looney is penciled in at center for the time bein. He started all 16 games in 2018 and got pretty bad marks from PFF that year.

2020 VS 2019 OFFENSE

Prescott, Elliott, Cooper and Gallup are all back in the Cowboys’ lineup, and they are all pretty young. It bodes well for 2020.

However, the team took some small hits by losing Randall Cobb and Jason Witten (albeit rookie CeeDee Lamb has a shot to pick up the slack). The bigger loss was the retirement of center Travis Frederick. He will be difficult to replace.

Adding Andy Dalton as the backup QB provides a great insurance policy in case Prescott gets hurt.

For these reasons, I envision a 2020 season where the offense does a similar job as 2019.

Final call (2020 vs 2019):

Big downgrade-Moderate downgrade-Small downgrade-Stable-Small upgrade-Moderate upgrade-Big upgrade

3. Defensive Position-by-Position Breakdown

3.1 Defensive Linemen (DLs)

Maliek Collins graded as an average interior defender and he is gone to the sin city. Christian Covington played close to 50% of the snaps and was used a rotational lineman. He did okay, but nothing spectacular. He is also off the team.

The Cowboys vastly improved the position by acquiring a couple of guys from Carolina: Gerald McCoy and Dontari Poe.

McCoy is riding an eight-year streak with at least five sacks. He turned 32 years old, but still graded as the number 30 DL out of 114.

Meanwhile, Poe finished just two spots below McCoy in PFF’s rankings. Like McCoy, he is a pretty effective run stuffer.

Those acquisitions will solidify the line tremendously. They are great gets.

The team added depth via the draft by selecting Neville Gallimore. He is pretty fast for an interior lineman, which suits him well for tracking down running backs or scrambling QBs. However, his college production was unimpressive and he offers a lower ceiling considering he’s an older rookie. He’s projected to be a rotational player in the NFL.

3.2 Defensive Ends (DEs) / Edge Rushers (ED)

This position brings a few question marks.

Demarcus Lawrence had a subpar year with 5 sacks. He had 10.5 and 14.5 the two previous years. However, he is a complete player and still finished at the #13 spot in PFF rankings among edge rushers. I am not worried about him, he should bounce back in 2020.

The problem stems from the fact that three guys left the team. First, Robert Quinn will leave big shoes to fill. He racked up 11.5 sacks last year and has averaged 8.9 throughout his nine-year career.

Michael Bennett seems unlikely to come back. He has said he would like to finish his career in Seattle. He recorded 4 sacks in 9 games, which isn’t bad at all.

Finally, Dallas lost some depth when Kerry Hyder signed with the 49ers. Surprisingly, he finished 51st ouf of 107 edge rushers according to PFF.

3.3 Linebackers (LBs)

The Cowboys are set at linebacker. The whole group is back, especially Vander Esch who missed half the season because of an injury. His PFF grade dropped from 85.4 as a rookie to 58.6 as a sophomore. Hopefully, the neck issue won’t be a recurring injury.

Jaylon Smith had an exceptional season and came close from finishing in the top 10 among NFL linebackers based on PFF grades. He had the sixth-most tackles in the league with 142. He is still young and the former Fighting Irish has a bright future ahead of him.

Veteran Sean Lee is back for another season in Dallas! Strangely enough, 2019 was the first time in his career where he managed to play the whole season. He saw more action than anticipated because of Vander Esch’s injury and he filled in well. Still, we’re talking about a 34-year old guy that has struggled to stay healthy for his entire career.

3.4 Cornerbacks (CBs)

Chidobe Awuzie brings a lot of stability at this position. He’s a pretty reliable corner.

Losing Byron Jones opposite of Awuzie will clearly hurt the team, though. He received nice marks from PFF and landed the most lucrative contract among all cornerbacks in the NFL from the Dolphins.

The team signed Maurice Canady. He doesn’t seem to be the answer since he played five games with the Ravens before being waived, and then signed by the Jets a few weeks later.

Next up we have Jourdan Lewis, who is more of a slot prospect. As for Anthony Brown, he lost starting slot duties before getting hurt. He still got rewarded with a $15.5 million contract for three years.

Therefore, as of now it seems unclear who will play opposite of Awuzie as the number 2 corner. Another potential candidate is second-round rookie Trevon Diggs. He allowed a low 42% completion rate in coverage last season with Alabama.

Diggs is a former receiver, so he has a good feel for what his opponent will do. He has a rare combo of size and strength, but his main weakness remains a tendency to grab and hold receivers who get past him (he hits the panic button too often).

3.5 Safeties (S)

Xavier Woods enjoyed a third pretty solid season. The sixth-round pick from the 2017 draft turned out to be a very nice late pick for the Cowboys.

Dallas lost its other starting safety to free agency, as Jeff Heath chose to go with the Raiders. The Cowboys didn’t waste any time replacing him, as they got Ha Ha Clinton-Dix two days later. Overall, I believe that’s a bit of an upgrade. Clinton-Dix is a year and a half younger, and he’s a better player, even more so against the run. Also, he hasn’t missed a single game during his six-year career!

2020 VS 2019 DEFENSE

A big upgrade is likely to occur on the interior of the line with the additions of Gerald McCoy and Dontari Poe. The safety situation was slightly improved by replacing Heath with Clinton-Dix.

However, losing their best corner Byron Jones, as well as edge rushers Robert Quinn and Michael Bennett will have a big impact for sure.

I was torn between calling it a “small” or “moderate” downgrade when comparing the 2019 to 2020 unit. I decided to go with a small one. The team allowed the 11th fewest points in the league, and I expect them to finish in the 13-17 range for the upcoming season.

Final call (2020 vs 2019):

Big downgrade-Moderate downgrade-Small downgrade-Stable-Small upgrade-Moderate upgrade-Big upgrade

4. Regular Season Wins

According to sportsbooks, the Dallas Cowboys are expected to win 9.5 games this season. Should we bet the “over” or the “under”?

I'll answer this question via two different methods.

4.1 Professor MJ's Prediction

I won't go into the mathematical details, but here is a summary of my own personal pick (based on my analysis above and my estimated spreads for the Cowboys' 16 games):

Tip: Bet OVER 9.5 wins

4.2 Based on BetOnline's Point Spreads

Here is the methodology I used here:

  • Use BetOnline.ag’s point spreads on all 256 regular season games.
  • Convert those point spreads into win probabilities.
  • Simulate each of the 256 games, according to those win probabilities, via the R statistical software.
  • Repeat the previous step one million times (you get 1M simulated seasons).
  • Count the proportion of seasons where the Cowboys won more or less than 9.5 games.

Here are the results:

Tip: Bet UNDER 9.5 wins

In summary, my own analysis recommends betting the OVER, while BetOnline's point spreads suggest betting the UNDER.

Here are BetOnline’s point spreads for the Cowboys’ 16 regular season games:

  • HOME: -6.5 vs ARI, -7 vs ATL, -4.5 vs CLE, -7.5 vs NYG, -2 vs PHI, -3 vs PIT, 0 vs SF, -11 vs WAS.
  • ROAD: +7 @ BAL, -5 @ CIN, -2.5 @ LAR, +2.5 @ MIN, -3 @ NYG, +2.5 @ PHI, +2.5 @ SEA, -6 @ WAS.

      Note: The “Best odds” from the table above were obtained after looking at 13 well-known online sportsbooks on May 18th, 2020.

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