2019 NFL preview: Cowboys are good again, but still seem like a circus

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Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, complete with our initial 2019 power rankings.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Paul Rosales)
(Yahoo Sports graphics by Paul Rosales)
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Just another calm offseason for Jerry Jones and his Dallas Cowboys.

In between getting name-dropped in Post Malone songs, quarterback Dak Prescott wants to get paid a fortune. There’s probably a debate about Prescott’s contract extension happening in Dallas right this moment, because it hasn’t stopped all offseason.

Amari Cooper wants to get a huge extension as well. Ezekiel Elliott would like that, too, though more off-field controversy and another meeting with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell wasn’t great for his case. Then this week there was a report that Elliott could hold out in training camp over his contract issues, putting the pressure on the Cowboys to stop procrastinating on his extension.

Oh, that’s not all. Offensive tackle La’el Collins is angling for a long extension. Linebacker Jaylon Smith wants a deal too.

“When it’s time for Jerry to cut the check, it will happen,” Smith said.

[Join or create a 2019 Yahoo Fantasy Football league for free today]

All of this is happening as the Cowboys media regularly discusses Jason Garrett, coming off an NFC East title but in the final year of his contract, coaching for his job this season. Multiple stories speculated that Saints coach Sean Payton would be a good replacement. It’s safe to say no other coach coming off a 10-win season has read headlines this season about the best option to replace him in 2020. And we haven’t even gotten to the weirdest story of them all, Jason Witten deciding at age 37 to come back and play after a year on “Monday Night Football.”

There’s Randy Gregory’s latest suspension, fellow defensive end Tyrone Crawford getting in a bar brawl ... all this three-ring circus needs is a lion tamer, trapeze act and a contortionist.

And all of this seems normal in the Cowboys’ world. No team gets more attention. No team brings more attention on itself. Chaos is typical here. It would be strange if there weren’t a few dozen storylines swirling around the Cowboys at all times.

Imagine this team in the spotlight at Super Bowl week. Maybe that’s not such a crazy scenario.

Calling the Cowboys a contender was laughable halfway through last season. When the Cowboys fell to 3-5 after a lethargic home Monday night loss to the Titans, Garrett seemed to have a foot out the door. Maybe a foot and a half. And then with no warning, everything changed. The Cowboys won seven of their final eight regular-season games. They took a division title. They beat the Seahawks in a playoff game before losing to a much better Rams team. The Cooper trade at midseason and the emergence of rookie Leighton Vander Esch as one of the NFL’s best inside linebackers were some of the reasons the Cowboys surged. They bring most of their 2018 roster back. Their 10-6 season seemed to have a solid foundation. Considering Dallas’ dominance came in the second half, it seems it can pick up right where it left off.

So why do the 2019 Cowboys seem so volatile? Every team in the NFL deals with contract situations all the time, and most coaches know they’re a bad year away from getting fired. Yet, with the Cowboys it seems like a high-wire act. Maybe that’s just the nature of the market and being the most watched team in American sports. They’re used to it.

With some stars about to get paid, especially Prescott, let’s assume the Cowboys have a different look next season. Once a quarterback graduates from his rookie deal, the math changes. As much as Jerry Jones loves cutting checks to stars, he’ll reach a point in which he can’t pay everyone. There’s some urgency this season. The Cowboys haven’t reached the NFC championship game since January 1996. Given how they played in the second half of last season and everyone coming back, that’s not an unrealistic goal this season.

And whether the Cowboys are good, bad or right in the middle, we’re sure to hear all about it.

Running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) scores as Dak Prescott (4) celebrates, something the Cowboys hope to see a lot of this season. (AP)
Running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) scores as Dak Prescott (4) celebrates, something the Cowboys hope to see a lot of this season. (AP)

Strangely enough, the Cowboys didn’t make much noise in free agency this offseason. They got defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence locked up to a long-term extension, which was big. They traded for defensive end Robert Quinn, and early reports on him are positive. Randall Cobb replaces Cole Beasley, which might be a bit of a downgrade but it’s fine. The rest of the additions and subtractions were rather mundane, though having defensive tackle David Irving announce his retirement by lighting up a blunt was definitely interesting. Even the draft was boring, because Dallas shipped off its first-round pick to Oakland in the Amari Cooper trade.

GRADE: C

A good offensive line should get even better. Center Travis Frederick missed all of last season after being diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome. Reports on him this offseason have been positive, and we shouldn’t underestimate what it means to add a four-time Pro Bowl center to the lineup. It’s possible Frederick isn’t the same player in his return, but if Frederick is back to form then the Cowboys will have one of the best lines in the NFL. Pro Football Focus ranked Dallas’ line as the second-best in the NFL heading into the 2019 season. Tyron Smith and Zack Martin might be the best tackle and guard in the NFL. When you are that good up front, it makes everyone else on offense better.

DeMarcus Lawrence is a fantastic defensive end and was paid a nine-figure contract to reflect it. Elsewhere on the defensive line, there are some depth concerns. Randy Gregory was second on the Cowboys last season with six sacks, but his future is up in their air again due to another suspension. Tyrone Crawford, who was third on the team in sacks, still could face NFL punishment for a bar fight. Taco Charlton has not come close to living up to his first-round draft pick status. The Cowboys are excited about Robert Quinn, acquired in a trade from the Dolphins, but it has been a while since Quinn played at a Pro Bowl level. And it’s telling the Dolphins couldn’t get more than a 2020 sixth-round pick for him. There aren’t a ton of glaring issues with the Cowboys’ depth chart, but the abrupt retirement of David Irving and the Gregory suspension made the Cowboys’ defensive line depth a little thin.

If you have a few days to kill, start reading all of the stories that have been written about Dak Prescott’s impending contract extension.

Most speculation says the extension will be similar to the four-year, $128 million deal Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz signed. Owner Jerry Jones has said at every turn that the deal will get done.

Is Prescott worth it? It’s hard to say he’s worth $32 million a year, but quarterbacks are a different economy in the NFL. And Prescott has been a steady, solid quarterback capable of really big things at his best. That has value.

When the Cowboys media isn’t debating Prescott’s extension, reports say that he has looked very good as he hones his mechanics and simply gets more comfortable as an NFL quarterback.

"I'd say this is the best I've felt," Prescott said, according to Jon Machota of the Dallas Morning News. "Who knows what it is? Is it three years under my belt? Being here and seeing defenses a lot more clear? Being quicker and faster in everything I want to do? Having great teammates around me? Who really knows the answer?”

Amari Cooper had a huge impact after a midseason trade with the Oakland Raiders. He gave the Cowboys a dimension on offense they didn’t have. Cooper is still maddeningly inconsistent, but his 53-725-6 line in nine Dallas games was impressive. Cooper’s 217-yard, three-touchdown outburst in an overtime win over the Eagles hinted at how good he can be. It’s not easy to join a new offense in midseason, but Cooper did very well. The next step for Cooper is to have a bigger impact in more games — he had just two 100-yard games in the regular season for Dallas — but a full offseason to get acclimated to the Cowboys will help. Then the next step is figuring out how to pay Cooper, whose contract demands are reportedly “shockingly high.”

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “Dak Prescott isn’t a perfect quarterback. His sack avoidance was terrible last year and he could be a lot sharper in the red zone. But there’s one sneaky thing that elevates his fantasy value — his ability [and willingness] to rush for touchdowns. Prescott has taken in six rushing scores in each of his three seasons, and don’t sleep on how rare that is. Cam Newton [2011-13] is the only other quarterback in history to accomplish that feat [to be fair, Newton collected 28 rushing scores over that span; Prescott made the minimum 18 in his].

“Prescott won’t lead all quarterbacks in rushing — figure on about 315 yards in a standard season there. But he’ll contribute with his legs, that’s the point. And at least Amari Cooper gives Prescott a bona fide No. 1 target to work with.

“I’m a little sheepish telling people to go cheap on quarterback, because it’s the oldest saw going — like advising someone to double down on 11 at the blackjack table. Surely you’ve figured this one out. Nonetheless, Prescott is set up to be a solid value yet again. He’s been the QB6, QB11 and QB10 in his three professional seasons, and yet Yahoo players have Prescott going QB20 in early drafts. For reasons I can’t quite understand, he’s even going after ordinary commodities like Nick Foles and Derek Carr. We’ll take the easy completions where we can get them — this is one of those times.”

[Yahoo fantasy preview: Dallas Cowboys]

If you covered up the Cowboys’ record and looked at some of their other stats, you wouldn’t know they won the NFC East. The Cowboys were 21st in Football Outsiders’ DVOA per-play metric and profiled as a 7-9 team. They looked like an 8.4-win team based on Pythagorean expectation, which is points scored and points allowed. Dallas outscored its opponents by only 15 points. What gives? Dallas was masterful winning close games. Including playoffs, they were 9-2 in games decided by seven points or fewer. They had an eight-point win as well. Teams don’t often repeat unusually good or bad records in close games. Dallas got a bit lucky to win just about every close game last season, and that’s unlikely to happen again.

WHAT’S EZEKIEL ELLIOTT’S FUTURE IN DALLAS?

Dak Prescott is going to get paid somewhere in the neighborhood of $30 million per season. DeMarcus Lawrence already joined the $100 million club for defensive players, signing a five-year, $105 million deal. Amari Cooper reportedly wants far more than $16 million per season. The Cowboys’ two most expensive players, in terms of 2019 cap hits, are tackle Tyron Smith and guard Zack Martin. Other players are waiting for their own new deals.

So where does the money for Elliott’s extension come from? Do the Cowboys even want to pay what might be a record deal for a running back? It has been noted that the Cowboys don’t seem to be in a hurry to extend Elliott, whose rookie contract runs through the 2020 season. Elliott seems to be getting impatient over the pace of the talks and finally someone leaked that he could hold out of training camp over it. Elliott’s off-field issues, which include him knocking down a security guard at a music festival in Las Vegas (Elliott wasn’t suspended after meeting with commissioner Roger Goodell), might factor in, although the Cowboys have always publicly supported him. Expensive, long-term deals with running backs are generally bad investments. Jerry Jones’ ego might not allow him to let a star player like Elliott walk, but it’s getting harder to figure out how the Cowboys pay everyone.

What we know is this: Elliott will be one of the NFL’s best backs this season, assuming there’s no long holdout. Last season he expanded his game, catching 77 passes. He had 58 receptions his first two seasons combined. Elliott had 2,001 yards from scrimmage last season and he could improve upon that. Then Dallas will have even more questions about his future, if it’s not settled soon.

The Cowboys don’t have a perfect roster, but they have a tremendous amount of elite talent. Dak Prescott is a hard quarterback to figure out, but perhaps he can play on the same level he did as a rookie if the supporting cast around him has improved. We know the running game will click. The defense made major strides last season. The Cowboys are 32-16 in Prescott’s 48 career starts, coming off a 7-1 second half of last season, and expectations should be high. It’s not like there’s a team in the NFC the Cowboys can’t beat; this team should be viewed as a Super Bowl contender.

Maybe we were fooled by the Cowboys last season. Their advanced metrics weren’t strong and their record in close games was clearly lucky. We focus on the 7-1 finish, but what about the 3-5 start? What if that’s who the Cowboys really are? Having Jason Garrett’s future under constant debate might be the norm for this team, but it still is a strange dynamic and a potential distraction. If the Cowboys play down to what the statistics said they were last season and go 8-8 or worse, it’s going to be an even crazier offseason than usual in Dallas.

Even though I generally am skeptical about a team that has a great record in close games, I believe the Cowboys made real strides late last season. The vast amount of blue-chip talent on the roster is hard to ignore, especially if center Travis Frederick looks like his old self. I’m not picking the Cowboys to win the NFC East, but the race between them and the Eagles should be excellent. And while the competition for NFC wild-card spots should be fierce, the second-place team in the NFC East will be in prime position to grab one.

32. Arizona Cardinals

31. Miami Dolphins

30. Oakland Raiders

29. New York Giants

28. Cincinnati Bengals

27. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

26. Washington Redskins

25. Detroit Lions

24. Buffalo Bills

23. New York Jets

22. Denver Broncos

21. San Francisco 49ers

20. Jacksonville Jaguars

19. Atlanta Falcons

18. Tennessee Titans

17. Carolina Panthers

16. Minnesota Vikings

15. Seattle Seahawks

14. Baltimore Ravens

13. Pittsburgh Steelers

12. Houston Texans

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Frank Schwab is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @YahooSchwab

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