2016 NFL Preview: Cowboys might regret their draft decisions

Shutdown Corner


Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per day in reverse order of our initial 2016 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 6, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

Scroll to continue with content
Ad

I wanted to put the Dallas Cowboys very high in these rankings.

The pieces were in place for them to go back to where they were at the end of 2014, when they were Super Bowl contenders. Had Dez Bryant’s catch at Lambeau Field been called a catch, they were going to advance to play the Seattle Seahawks with the NFC title on the line. The Cowboys won at Seattle earlier that season. If we assume the 2015 debacle was because of Tony Romo’s injuries, it’s logical to assume the Cowboys could be contenders again this season.

Everything seemed to fit for the 2016 Cowboys. Then Jerry Jones had to go and screw up the draft.

I didn’t like the Cowboys’ draft when it happened. The longer I’ve thought about it, the more I hate it.

The Cowboys have serious issues on defense, especially with suspensions and injuries hammering the depth early this season. They could have come out of the draft with cornerback Jalen Ramsey and linebacker Myles Jack, two instant impact starters at severe positions of need. Ramsey was the best player, regardless of position, in the draft, and Jack would have been a top-10 pick if not for concerns about possible future microfracture surgery on his knee. The Cowboys didn’t need to move up. They just needed to stay put and take a pair of rookies who could have been starters on Day 1 for a very good team.

I get the Ezekiel Elliott pick at some level. Make your strengths strong, I guess. But here’s the deal: Among all the teams in NFL history, the one that had the least incentive to invest heavily at running back might be the Cowboys. This might go down as one of the top five offensive lines in NFL history. It’s that good. The old bones of Darren McFadden went from having a foot out of the NFL door to a 1,000-yard season with a 4.6-yard average last season. A mid-round rookie pick like Kenneth Dixon or Devontae Booker couldn’t have run for 1,000 yards behind this line? There’s no doubt. No should use the No. 4 overall pick on any running back in this era, and it’s especially confusing for a team that could make a star out of just about any back. Elliott will be good, but anyone would have been good behind this line. And that mystery back wouldn’t have cost the fourth pick of the draft.

At least the Elliott pick is understandable. I don’t get the Jaylon Smith pick at all.

[Yahoo Fantasy Football is open for the 2016 season. Sign up now]

I’m rooting for Smith. He was a great prospect before suffering a career-altering knee injury in an exhibition game he was playing for free, and I hope he returns to that form. But it’s a huge gamble. It’d be shocking if he is back anywhere near that level this season. There’s a possibility that Smith never returns to his old form. Picking Smith, who essentially has to be redshirted this season, made no sense for the Cowboys. Dallas picked Elliott presumably in a win-now move, then took a linebacker nobody foresees playing now.

Smith is a great pick for a rebuilding team, and a weird one for Dallas. The Cowboys could have had Jack (or Reggie Ragland or Deion Jones or Su’a Cravens or any number of linebackers with two good knees) to play right away. Jack might have only three or four great years before his knee goes. That sounds like the perfect pick for a team that wants to win now … a team like the Cowboys.

The Cowboys had the fourth and 34th picks, and a significant defensive need in a win-now season, and they got no immediate help for the defense with either pick. Brilliant.

Maybe it won’t matter. It’s feasible that Elliott plays the 2014 DeMarco Murray role to perfection and the Cowboys go back to making sure the defense isn’t on the field much. Romo’s return from injury is a big factor. Dez Bryant will be healthier too. The schedule is favorable. Warren Sharp at Rotoworld ranked the Cowboys’ schedule as the easiest in the NFL this season. There’s a lot to like about the Cowboys.

I would have liked them even more had they added two future stars and immediate starters to the defense, like they could have done in the draft.

Ezekiel Elliott was selected by the Cowboys with the fourth pick of the draft (AP)
Ezekiel Elliott was selected by the Cowboys with the fourth pick of the draft (AP)

The Cowboys picked a player who is an overwhelming favorite to win offensive rookie of the year. It’s hard to envision a scenario in which Elliott doesn’t have a big year behind a great line. The rest of Dallas’ offseason was just decent. Cedric Thornton was signed to help on the defensive line. Defensive end Benson Mayowa was an intriguing signing as a restricted free agent from the Oakland Raiders. The Cowboys didn’t lose a ton either. Moving on from Greg Hardy is addition by subtraction. Grade: C

In 2014, the Cowboys were good. I didn’t see it coming, but coach Jason Garrett did a marvelous job employing a complementary attack. The running game was the foundation. Tony Romo had his most efficient season with less offensive responsibilities. The defense was good enough because it was hidden, with the run game chewing up yards and the clock. All the pieces are in place to replicate that formula.

This offseason has brought a ton of bad news for the defense. Ends DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory are each suspended for the first four games. Linebacker Rolando McClain is suspended 10 games. End Benson Mayowa had arthroscopic knee surgery in mid-June, though the team is hopeful he’ll be back before camp. Rookie third-round pick Maliek Collins, a tackle, might not be ready for the start of the season because of a broken foot. And all of this happened to a defense that wasn’t too good to begin with.

If you watch football with a logical, open mind and don’t irrationally hate the Cowboys, you know Tony Romo has been a fantastic quarterback. All of the myths of him not being clutch have been proven wrong time and again. He’s good. If you don’t think so … well, to be blunt, you’re wrong. But now, at age 36, Romo has injury concerns. He broke his clavicle twice last season. He has dealt with a lot of physical issues, including significant back problems. Even with a great offensive line to protect him, he’s going to get hit and every time it happens the Cowboys will hold their breath. If you told the Cowboys that Romo would be play 14 games and be healthy at the end of the regular season, I bet they’d sign up for that. Kellen Moore is the backup, so Romo better stay upright most of the season.

Speaking of injury concerns, the Cowboys are hoping this is finally the year linebacker Sean Lee stays healthy. Lee’s rookie year was 2010 and he has never played all 16 games in a season. When Lee plays, he’s the biggest difference maker the Cowboys defense has. He’s a tremendous playmaker. Given how many holes the Cowboys have on defense between suspensions, injuries and talent deficiencies, it would be a great time for Lee to get through a full season without missing any time.

Cosell: “Very often the beauty of O-line play and the cohesion comes from simplicity. When you look at what the Cowboys did in 2014 and even what they did last year with Darren McFadden doing well for them, they don’t do a lot of things. What they do, they do really, really well. I think that’s very often so critical in a run game. A run game is about the offensive line being able to work together, in particular when you have to get to the second level of the defense because that’s the part that can be really difficult.”

[Click here for Greg Cosell’s podcast previewing the Cowboys and the rest of the NFC East.]

From Yahoo’s Brandon Funston: “It’s hard to argue that Ezekiel Elliott didn’t land in the catbird seat as the new featured back in Dallas. The Cowboys, behind what most consider to be the best offensive line in football, have ranked top 10 in percentage of rushing plays called each of the past two seasons. In ’14, Dallas produced the runaway top fantasy running back in DeMarco Murray. Last season it turned a broken-down Darren McFadden into the No. 13 overall fantasy back — he averaged 4.6 yards per carry after failing to top 3.4 YPC in any of his previous three seasons.

“By all accounts, Elliott is a dynamic all-around talent with few weaknesses. With expectations that he’ll push 275-300 carries in his inaugural campaign, he has a legitimate claim to top-5 fantasy RB status, and to have his name called in the middle of Round 1 of fantasy drafts.”

[Yahoo Fantasy Football is open for the 2016 season. Sign up now]

Dez Bryant played in nine games last season and had 31 catches for 401 yards and three touchdowns. That isn’t what the Cowboys expected when they gave Bryant a lucrative extension last offseason. It wasn’t Bryant’s fault. He hurt his foot in the opener and rushed back. He never looked like himself in the second half of the season, though that was probably due to the misfits throwing him the ball after Tony Romo got hurt. Bryant had at least 1,200 yards and 12 touchdowns in each of the previous three seasons, and the Cowboys are expecting that Bryant to show up in 2016.

CAN A TEAM WITH A BAD DEFENSE WIN A SUPER BOWL?

Old-school fans who pine for the days of three runs and a punt so the defense could then hold the opponent to three runs and a punt must have loved Super Bowl 50. The Denver Broncos had no offense and won anyway. That, however, isn’t the norm anymore. You usually need some defense to win it all. Right?

Not necessarily. The Giants’ most recent Super Bowl championship team ranked 27th in total defense. The 2009 New Orleans Saints were 25th. The 2006 Indianapolis Colts were 21st. Most of the championship teams through NFL history ranked in the top 10 in yards allowed, but it’s not unheard of to win a title with a poor defense. Three of the past 10 champions were bad on defense (though all of them turned it on late in the season or in the postseason). So don’t rule out the Cowboys because their defense isn’t great.

I want to say the Cowboys are a Super Bowl contender, using the 2014 comparison. I can’t do it though. This isn’t a championship defense and Tony Romo’s health concerns add another layer of doubt. Buy it isn’t that outlandish, given they were in the Super Bowl contender club two seasons ago. I suppose a Super Bowl title has to be the best-case scenario for this team, even though I’m stopping short of putting them on the short list of title contenders.

It happened last year, right? Tony Romo went down and the Cowboys were done (although they played better than their 1-11 record without Romo would indicate; they lost six games decided by a touchdown or less). It’s not just Romo that causes some heartburn. The cornerback situation is scary  (oh how Jalen Ramsey would have helped there). The defensive line might need to sign guys off the street to fill a lineup the first few weeks of the season. There’s little doubt that Ezekiel Elliott will be effective, but we’ve seen a ton of rookies tire in November and December. Really though, if Romo stays upright the Cowboys will be competitive, at least. However, if he goes down and it’s Kellen Moore time, take shelter. It might get ugly again.

I’m picking the Cowboys to win the NFC East. And they would be one of those teams nobody wants to face in the playoffs because that run game will be nearly impossible to stop. But,  again, the defensive issues. I’m not sure this is a top-20 defense even if everything comes together. Some issues will be masked by presumably leading the league in time of possession, but the defense puts a cap on what the Cowboys can do this season. They’ll regret not doing more to help that side of the ball when they had the chance.

32. Cleveland Browns
31. San Francisco 49ers
30. Tennessee Titans
29. San Diego Chargers
28. New Orleans Saints
27. Philadelphia Eagles
26. Atlanta Falcons
25. Miami Dolphins
24. Los Angeles Rams
23. Chicago Bears
22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
21. Detroit Lions
20. Indianapolis Colts
19. Jacksonville Jaguars
18. Washington Redskins
17. Buffalo Bills
16. Baltimore Ravens
15. Oakland Raiders
14. New York Jets
13. New York Giants
12. Houston Texans

 

– – – – – – –

Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

What to Read Next