In anticipation of the upcoming NFL season, Head & Heart Sports will feature one division each week until the season begins and preview each team’s 2016 outlook. This week we take a look at the NFC East, continuing with the Dallas Cowboys today.
Recap of 2015: The 2015 season for the Cowboys was not exactly what they had hoped for. After winning the division in 2014, they fell to last place in the NFC East last season. The season was filled with controversy and injuries leading to the 4-12. The team hadn’t finished that poorly since 1989 when they went 1-15. The Cowboys lost DeMarco Murray in free agency to the Philadelphia Eagles (I don’t know why anyone would go to Philly, they have ZERO rings and aren’t about to win one anytime soon.) and only brought in injury-prone Darren McFadden. Despite still having one of the best offensive lines in the league, the Cowboys still struggled running the football for much of the season. The season started off with a Week 1 win over the New York Giants but the team lost Dez Bryant as he suffered a broken foot. Dez would go on to miss the next 5 games of the season. In Week 2, the Cowboys managed to beat another division rival the Philadelphia Eagles but lost Tony Romo after he suffered a broken collarbone. He would go on to miss the next 7 games of the season. After the loss of Romo, Dallas would go on to lose their next 7 games. The team was hopeful to get Romo and Bryant back on the field and healthy. Bryant returned to the field in Week 8 but was eventually shut down for the season after Week 15. Romo would return to the field in Week 11 before eventually re-breaking his collarbone in Week 12 against the Panthers. The team was also surrounded by controversy the whole season with the signing of Greg Hardy and current RB Joseph Randle. Hardy was suspended for the first 4 games of the season for violating the league’s domestic abuse policy and after returning from the suspension he showed no remorse for his actions and was a topic of conversation week in and week out. Randle came into the season with high hopes of picking up right where DeMarco Murray left off. He would eventually be waived by the team after also being involved in a domestic abuse dispute as well as previously being arrested for unlawful possession of marijuana. All in all the season was a disaster and the Cowboys will look to turn the page heading into the 2016 season.
Significant Additions: OLB Benson Mayowa, RB Alfred Morris, C Joe Looney, ILB Justin Durant, DE/DT Cedric Thornton
Significant Subtractions: C Mackenzy Bernadeau, QB Matt Cassel, DE Greg Hardy, DE Jeremy Mincey
Potential Impact Rookies: RB Ezekiel Elliott, OLB Jaylon Smith, DT Maliek Collins, DE Charles Tapper, DE Shaneil Jenkins
Team Strengths: There isn’t really any one area you can call a strength for this team after they just had their worst season in 26 years. One area where the Cowboys do not need to put any focus on this offseason was their offensive line. This line has developed into the top offensive line in the league. For the second year in a row Pro Football Focus rated the Cowboys as the top offensive line in the league. They were able to manage that ranking despite having Joseph Randle and Darren McFadden as the starting running backs. OT Tyron Smith, C Travis Frederick, and OG Zack Martin are in the top-5 best offensive lineman and they are all top-2 at their respected position. They were able to provide a push up front and open up running lanes to help their running backs average 4.6 yards per carry which was good for 5th in the league. Ezekiel Elliott comes into this season with googly eyes with the opportunity to run behind this line. If Elliott can live up to his hype, the Cowboys will once again be one of the top ground attacks in the game. I think one other area of strength for this team is Tony Romo. The entire league witnessed how bad this team was when Romo wasn’t on the field. With Romo was in the lineup, the Cowboys went 3-1 and without Romo in the lineup they were 1-11. Romo has received a lot of criticism over the years for all of his failed and missed opportunities in the playoffs and with the playoffs on the line in the regular season. He is greatly underappreciated by that organization and fanbase. They drafted Dak Prescott (LOL) this year and the fans will be chanting his name after Romo throws his first pick of the season in Week 1. Since Romo took over the starting job, the Cowboys are 79-50 with him in the lineup and just 9-22 without him. Without Romo this team doesn’t even sniff the playoffs and their 2016 season will once again hinge upon his health.
Team Weaknesses: For starters, the depth at QB was a disgrace. After Romo sustained his first collarbone injury, the Cowboys were left with Matt Cassel, Brandon Weeden, and Kellen Moore. Together, the three of them combined for one win and eleven touchdown passes. If you include the five touchdown passes Romo threw before his season ended, the Cowboys only totaled 16 for the entire year. Only the 49ers, Rams, and Vikings threw fewer touchdown passes. As a team the Cowboys threw 22 INTs which was the 2nd most in the league. Heading into this season, the Cowboys QB depth chart is no better and they are again one Romo injury away from another losing season. After Romo, the Cowboys have Kellen Moore and Dak Prescott as the team’s backups. Moore started two games last season and went 0-2. He threw for four TDs and six INTs and also lost one fumble. Prescott is a rookie and had a solid career while at Mississippi State. The Cowboys should not expect a guy like Prescott to be able to step into the role of a starting NFL QB anytime soon and have a positive effect. Back-up QBs are very hard to find in the league now-a-days but you would have expected Jerry Jones to have shown a little more effort to get a more formidable back-up into town as insurance for another Romo injury. A direct result of the poor quarterback play was the poor wide receiver play. The Cowboys lost Dez Bryant for 7 weeks after he broke his foot in Week 1 and then again lost him for the final 2 games of the season once they were officially eliminated from playoff contention. After Dez, the receiving corps on this team is very thin. They had hoped for more production out of guys like Terrance Williams and Cole Beasley. Williams and Beasley were tied with 52 catches each. Williams had 840 yards receiving on the season and Beasley had 536 yards receiving which was only good for 37th and 76th in the league. I understand they didn’t exactly have high quality QBs throwing to them but these two should have still found a way to be more productive and make more plays. (Williams was targeted 94 times and only had 52 receptions; Beasley was targeted 74 times and also only had 52 receptions). As a team, Dallas ranked 30th in total team receiving last season. If Dez Bryant has any setbacks at all from his foot injury, this team will again be in trouble as the front office did not make any moves to bring in any reinforcements to this receiving corps.
Fantasy Players to Watch: Proceed with caution when drafting Cowboys this season. Dez Bryant is a WR1 but that’s if he is healthy and his QB, Tony Romo, is also healthy. There is not much reason to hope that Dez can’t come back and be healthy but, my worry is that at age 36, Tony Romo may struggle to stay healthy. From 2012 to 2014, Bryant posted 1,200+ yards and caught 12+ TDs in each of those seasons. He also led the league with 41 TD catches over that span. Dez should be a strong consideration for a WR1 position and should go early in your draft. If Romo can stay healthy and return to his form from 2014, he should be considered a low end QB1/high end QB2. With the exception of last year, Romo threw for 28+ TDs and 3,700+ yards in his last six seasons. If Dez and Romo are both healthy, I expect both players to pick up where they were in 2014 and provide big fantasy numbers again this year. Everyone is going to be high on Ezekiel Elliott this year. At first glance, he seems to be a lock for a 1st round pick and one of the top RBs in the league this year. He is still only a rookie and who knows what kind of production he will be able to sustain through a 16 game season. He does have the opportunity to run behind the leagues best offensive line and he should get plenty of touches this year with Darren McFadden missing time due a broken elbow after falling near a swimming pool. (It is unclear exactly how he fell but, I assume he must have been playing PokemonGo, found a Blastoise, and lost sight of where he was walking.) Hopefully for Cowboys fans and Elliott’s Fantasy Owners, he turns out to be a Todd Gurley and not a Melvin Gordon. Another guy that is going to be high on draft boards due to his name is Jason Witten. Witten has seen a significant decrease in fantasy points over the past two years and I anticipate that trend to continue. Witten is still a safety blanket for Romo but he does not see as many targets as he once saw in the late 2000s. I would still project Witten to be a TE2 with the lack of depth at this position in the fantasy football world. Unless you want to disappoint yourself, do not draft Terrance Williams or Cole Beasley. Sure these two will probably have a couple of breakout games over the course of the season but chances are you aren’t likely to play them in those weeks. So do yourselves a favor and don’t draft them at all.
2016 Outlook: The 2016 season looks to be a more hopeful season for the Cowboys. They get Romo back healthy, Dez back healthy, and they drafted the top rated RB in this year’s draft in Ezekiel Elliott. They re-signed Rolando McClain and Morris Claiborne to keep the core of their defense intact. They also no longer have Greg Hardy on the roster and will be able to finally move on from the weekly drama that followed along with his domestic abuse incident. They also hope to have their defensive leader Sean Lee back healthy. Lee is full of talent but always finds himself missing multiple games every year. Since he entered the league in 2010, he has not played in all 16 games of any season. The health of Lee will go a long way for this defense. If the ground game can return to its form from 2014 and put out the league’s leading rusher for the 2nd time in three years, then the offense will return to the top-10. Not to continue to beat the same drum but, if Romo and Dez can stay healthy and Elliott can live up to his potential as a top RB in this league then the Cowboys should be able to regain the success they had in 2014. The division is still weak and up for grabs. The Eagles could be considered to be rebuilding after cleaning house of Chip Kelly and all of his players. The Giants are the Giants and still have plenty of questions on offense and defense. The Redskins won the division last year but that was more or less just a by-product of the division being down as a whole.
Record Prediction: The Cowboys schedule this season plays into their favor. They have the 4th easiest schedule in the year based off of last years win percentages per team. The NFC East also does not appear to have gotten any better and the Cowboys should be able find themselves at the top of the division this year. This division will more than likely only require 9 wins and I think the Cowboys will be right around 9 wins this year. They have a tough road schedule this season having to face the Packers, Steelers, and Vikings to go along with their three division matchups. Look for the Cowboys to turn it around this season and finish 9-7 and re-claim the NFC East. Of course, Tony Romo could go down with an injury in Week 1 and force Kellen Moore or Dak Prescott into the starting job making the Cowboys the doormat of the NFC East for a 2nd straight year.
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