Juggernaut Index, No. 9: The Dallas Cowboys

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Andy Behrens
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The Cowboys will open the season as they ended 2015, without Tony Romo. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
The Cowboys will open the season as they ended 2015, without Tony Romo. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

The Juggernaut Index is our annual ranking and review of NFL teams for fantasy purposes — repeat: FANTASY PURPOSES. Here we concern ourselves with a franchise’s likely contributions to the fantasy player pool. We are not concerned with projected wins and losses. Instead, we’re focused on yards and points. As always, we’re beginning with the league’s least useful teams, working our way toward the elite fantasy juggernauts.

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Tony Romo is probably the greatest oft-maligned quarterback in NFL history. If Romo were to never play another snap, he’d finish with the league’s third highest career passer-rating (97.1), the fourth best completion percentage (65.3) and the seventh highest average yards per attempt (7.89). His 2014 campaign was secretly historic, as he posted the sixth best all-time single-season rating (113.2) and led the NFL in every important non-fantasy stat while quarterbacking a 12-win team. Despite the widespread perception that he’s un-clutch, he’s actually directed 30 game-winning drives. His career fourth quarter rating is 102.9.

And now it sees we can’t wait for Dallas to launch the Dak Prescott era.

Romo, as everyone knows, suffered a compression fracture in his back during the Cowboys’ third preseason game, and he’s expected to be sidelined until perhaps mid-season. Brutal news for a terrific QB, a player underrated in his time. Prescott is a fourth-round rookie from Mississippi State who’s been shredding opposing defenses throughout the preseason, completing 39 of 50 throws for 454 yards, five TDs and zero picks. Even his mistakes have been gold. He’s also added seven carries for 53 yards and two rushing scores. Prescott, without question, has been great fun in exhibition play. And of course NFL preseason games are basically just like the real thing, except with very little game-planning and only a fraction of the talent. Which is to say, they are not at all like the regular season.

Still, Prescott has been plenty impressive. Much better than advertised. He’s a talented dual-threat QB who improved steadily throughout his collegiate career, dramatically reducing his giveaways. You won’t find many scouts who considered him a finished product entering the league — footwork is a concern, anticipation passing is another — but it’s clear he’s a serious NFL prospect. Even if Prescott’s play is uneven, he’ll have a tough time disappointing Dallas fans who endured last season’s parade of under-skilled quarterbacks (Cassel, Weeden, Moore).

For now, it's Dak Prescott's offense. He's been a machine in the exhibition season. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
For now, it’s Dak Prescott’s offense. He’s been a machine in the exhibition season. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Fantasy-wise, he’s a player I’d be willing to draft much more aggressively than I’ve ranked him — particularly if it was the sort of league in which viable QBs can be found on the wire in-season. With Prescott, there’s a “What if?” factor that you don’t get with Cutler, Flacco, Smith, et al. Dak’s rushing ability gives him an uncommon fantasy floor for a rookie QB, and this team’s offensive line is terrific. Prescott could be fun.

Of course none of this means that he should, or will, replace Tony Romo when No. 9 is ready to return. Romo has been legitimately excellent for the past decade, and the offense has been built to suit him. It’s not realistic to draft-and-stash Romo in leagues of typical size, however, because you’ll have to wait an eternity — probably until Week 8 at the earliest, following the Cowboys’ bye.

So, for now, it’s Dak’s show. Don’t even talk to me about Dez Bryant’s numbers without Romo last year, because Dez himself was injured and those quarterbacks were often ridiculous. Bryant is on the short list of the most talented wideouts in the league, he’s 27 years old, and he’s produced three seasons with at least 1200 yards and 12 TDs. For me, he’s still a fringe No. 1 WR for fantasy purposes. He suffered a concussion in practice last week, but there’s no reason to think his availability is in question for the opener. To this point, Dez has said all the right things about both Romo and Prescott. If he falls to Round 2 because of Dak-related uncertainty, great. I’m on board. Targets won’t be an issue.

As for the rest of Dallas’ receiving corps … well, that’s another matter. Jason Witten would have seemed like a lock for another 65-700-4-ish season with an upright Romo. He can no doubt survive the Prescott weeks just fine, but his ceiling is awfully close to his floor. When it’s time to consider Witten, just give me Vance McDonald a few rounds later, thanks. Terrance Williams hasn’t seen 100 targets in any of his three pro seasons, and it isn’t happening this year, either. He didn’t catch more than five balls in any game last season until Week 17, when he randomly delivered an 8-173 line that made his season seem less miserable. Brice Butler is essentially Dez’s understudy, not to be drafted. Cole Beasley is just another reason to hate PPR.

Dallas’ running game should be stellar this season, and Ezekiel Elliott has to be considered a contender for the rushing crown. Some of you refuse to touch a rookie in the first round, which seems like a weird hangup in light of the seasons just delivered by Todd Gurley and David Johnson. Others among you won’t consider any running back near the top of a draft, a weird hangup considering the history of professional football. Zeke certainly hasn’t had the ideal offseason — it began with hamstring issues and more recently involved a visit to a dispensary — but he was the fourth overall pick in the draft, the most complete back in his class. He produced back-to-back collegiate seasons with over 2000 scrimmage yards, delivering monstrous big-game performances against upper-tier defenses. Zeke’s greatest on-field flaw might be his willingness to deliver hits rather than avoid ’em. In Dallas, he’ll work behind an elite offensive line, paired initially with a QB who happens to be a gifted runner as well.

Ezekiel Elliott has a clear path to fantasy domination. (Photo by Josh Lefkowitz/Getty Images)
Ezekiel Elliott has a clear path to fantasy dominance. Don’t overthink the pick, you guys. (Photo by Josh Lefkowitz/Getty Images)

The bottom line is that Elliott is an every-down talent who landed in an ideal situation, fantasy-wise. Assuming good health, he has a clear shot to lead all scorers at his position. Romo’s injury won’t boost Elliott’s value, necessarily, because it’s such a negative for the offense overall. But Zeke should still rank among the NFL leaders in touches and scrimmage yards. Alfred Morris has enjoyed a quality preseason, but he has to be viewed purely as a high-end handcuff. Darren McFadden (elbow) and Lance Dunbar (knee) are returning from injuries, entering the season merely as rotational depth (and possibly trade chips).

Last season, the Cowboys defense was a middle-of-the-pack group that didn’t force turnovers (8 INTs) and didn’t drop many quarterbacks (31 sacks). LB Sean Lee is a wonderful player when healthy, but his availability has been a multi-year issue, and, well … he can’t make every tackle, right? FS Barry Church should have IDP value, but this is a defense with various soft spots. The decision to use that early draft pick on an injured Jaylon Smith is still a head-scratcher. No need to consider this D/ST as anything more than a bye-week coverage option for deep league gamers.

2015 Offensive Stats & Ranks
Points per game – 17.2 (31)
Pass YPG – 216.9 (27)
Rush YPG – 118.1 (9)
Yards per play – 5.5 (12)
Plays per game – 60.6 (29)

Previous Juggernaut Index entries: 32) Cleveland, 31) San Francisco, 30) Philadelphia, 29) Baltimore, 28) Tennessee, 27) Los Angeles, 26) Miami, 25) Detroit, 24) Chicago, 23) San Diego, 22) Minnesota, 21) Tampa Bay, 20) Atlanta, 19) Washington, 18) Buffalo, 17) Kansas City, 16) Oakland, 15) NY Giants, 14) Indianapolis, 13) Jacksonville, 12) Houston, 11) Denver, 10) NY Jets, 9) Dallas