- It’s tough to win in a pass-heavy era when you have the worst receiving corps in the league. Add in the uncertainty surrounding the OL, and the Cowboys could find themselves in the NFC East cellar this season.
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Cowboys 2018 win total: 8 (over -165, under +145)
Cowboys 2017 record: 9-7
Key offseason acquisitions: WR Allen Hurns, WR Deonte Thompson, OT Cameron Fleming, OG Marcus Martin, DE Kony Ealy, LB Joe Thomas
Key offseason losses: RB Alfred Morris, WR Dez Bryant, WR Brice Butler, TE Jason Witten, OT Byron Bell, OG Jonathan Cooper, OLB Anthony Hitchens, CB Orlando Scandrick
Five things to keep in mind before betting the Cowboys’ win total
1. The Cowboys have one of best offensive lines in football, and that’s due to having All-Pros at left tackle (Tyron Smith), right guard (Zack Martin) and center (Travis Frederick). But when Dallas is even without one of its star linemen, it brings the whole group down significantly.
Smith missed games against the Falcons and Eagles in November last season, and as a result Dak Prescott got crushed. Against Atlanta, Prescott was pressured on 38.6% of dropbacks (he was pressured on 28.6% of his dropbacks overall last season, which was the 12th-highest rate in the NFL). Falcons DE Adrian Clayborn, who racked up six of his 9.5 sacks in 2017 in that game, treated fill-in LTs Chaz Green and Byron Bell like human turnstiles. The following week, it was the Eagles’ turn to wreak havoc, sacking Prescott four times and forcing him to commit four turnovers (three interceptions and a lost fumble).
Now Dallas is without their All-Pro center, and it could be for a while. Frederick announced on Aug. 22 that he will be out indefinitely because he is suffering from Guillain-Barre syndrome, an autoimmune disease. Frederick was one of two centers, the other being Denver’s Matt Paradis, to not surrender a single sack last season. Martin also is dealing with a hyperextended left knee and a bone bruise after taking a low hit in the Cowboys’ Week 2 preseason game. Per Pro Football Focus, his 11 pressures allowed were the fewest among all NFL guards in 2017. Meanwhile Smith’s back issues have been the main culprit for his missing six games over the past two seasons.
The Cowboys fell from third in offensive efficiency in 2016 to 10th last year. Even blocking for tailback Ezekiel Elliott slipped—the Cowboys averaged 2.02 yards before contact per rushing attempt in 2016 per PFF (fifth), and 1.59 yards before contact in 2017 (13th). If Dallas is without any, let alone multiple, of its All-Pros up front, that drop will be even steeper this time around.
2. The offensive line won’t be the only reason Prescott could have trouble at times getting throws off. The Cowboys’ four top targets from last season—Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, Terrance Williams and Cole Beasley—were unable to gain separation from opposing coverage rather often. Bryant was cut and Witten retired this offseason, and Dallas didn’t do a whole lot to make Prescott’s life easier after those departures. Where this could especially hurt is in the red zone—Bryant and Witten tallied 33 targets together inside opponents’ 20-yard lines, every other Cowboy had 28 combined.
Dallas signed former Jaguar wideout Allen Hurns to a two-year, $11 million deal to replace Bryant on the outside. Despite his 6’3” frame, that transition could be an adjustment for Hurns considering he lined up in the slot on 58% of snaps last season. Third-round wideout Michael Gallup has a great opportunity to pick up immense playing time in his rookie campaign, but he’s still an unknown commodity. Replacing Witten at tight end is a wide-open competition as well, with Geoff Swaim the leader in the clubhouse for now.
3. DeMarcus Lawrence racked up nine sacks in his first three seasons, but became one of the NFL’s top quarterback disruptors in 2017 seemingly out of nowhere. Lawrence had 14.5 sacks and finished with 79 total pressures according to PFF—the second-highest number out of all edge rushers, only behind Von Miller’s 83. Last year’s top draft selection Taco Charlton underwhelmed on the opposite end despite all of the attention drawn by Lawrence. The Michigan product will battle with reinstated Randy Gregory, free-agent acquisition Kony Ealy and fourth-round rookie Dorance Armstrong for snaps on the edge. Tyrone Crawford can play inside and out, and will start out the season at defensive tackle. The interior pass rush will really get a boost when David Irving returns from his four-game suspension, as he accrued seven sacks in just eight games in 2017. The defensive front has the potential to be scary good, and can certainly improve upon its 38.4% pressure rate, which was already the seventh-highest mark last season.
4. The Cowboys will be relying heavily on second-year players (Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis and Xavier Woods) for a unit that has been completely overhauled since the end of the 2016 season. Awuzie came into his own during the second half of 2017 and will enter this season as the other outside corner opposite Byron Jones, who is moving over from free safety. Despite a promising rookie year, Lewis will be battling Anthony Brown for the top spot in the slot. New DC Kris Richard preferred taller and lengthier corners during his time as the Seahawks’ DC, and for all of Lewis’s strengths, height (5’10”) isn’t one of them. Safety Xavier Woods looked like a steal last year after he was selected in the sixth round of the 2017 draft. He’s battling a hamstring strain, though, and faces an uphill fight to play in the season opener against the Panthers. While this group has the talent to emerge as a nice complement to a lethal pass rush, it’s also easy to envision growing pains given the secondary’s youth.
5. Jason Garrett’s seat is warm with only two postseason appearances and one playoff win in seven full seasons as the Cowboys’ head coach. A schedule consisting of the brutal NFC South and the improved AFC South won’t help matters. In the NFC East, the Eagles and Giants each got better this offseason and the Redskins are healthier after injuries decimated their 2017 record. The defense will be better than what people think, but it’s tough to win in a pass-heavy era when you have arguably the worst receiving corps in the league. Add in the uncertainty surrounding the most important unit on the team, the offensive line, and the Cowboys are more likely to find themselves in the NFC East cellar compared to playing meaningful football in January.
PICK: UNDER 8 Wins