There isn’t much more to gain from the 2020 season. At 2-6 and with the struggles their facing at the quarterback position, the Cowboys are very unlikely to see the playoffs in 2020, so the question begins turning to 2021. It isn’t quite draft season, but it certainly is evaluation season.
Though the season didn’t go as planned, being this bad at the midway point allows them to take an honest approach to evaluating their team for the future. It’s time to start planning and preparing for the future.
1. Get Tony Pollard the Football
With Ezekiel Elliott dealing with a hamstring issue in a season that is all but lost, the Cowboys should look into limiting his touches over the rest of the season. In the NBA, they call it load management. The Cowboys coaching staff should take advantage of the opportunity to limit how much Ezekiel Elliott has to touch the football over the remainder of the season.
Elliott has seen 300 carries in each of his first four years in the NFL, aside from the 2017 year where he was forced to sit out six games. He’s been a high volume runner for his career and will continue to be, so the Cowboys would be wise to create a timeshare between Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard.
Because Elliott’s contract keeps him with the team until 2022 (the first time it’s feasible to release him and not take on huge dead money), there’s no sense in pushing Elliott to 300 carries in 2020.
Pollard has been inconsistent this season, but played well against the Philadelphia Eagles, racking up 40 yards on seven carries. The Cowboys should look to get him 10-12 touches a game and expand his role in the Cowboys’ offense for 2020. He won’t be a long-term answer for the Dallas Cowboys at running back, but he could be an answer to lessening the workload for Ezekiel Elliott in 2020.
See what Tony Pollard can do with an expanded workload. He’s been explosive and showed off impressive balance in his short career. Give him more opportunities and allow him to develop further into that change of pace back the Cowboys hoped he’d be when they selected him in 2019.
2. Francis Bernard and Luke Gifford Need Playing Time
Jaylon Smith is a shell of the player he was in his best season in 2018. Yes, he’s one of the league’s leaders in tackles. Yes, the interior defensive line play hasn’t been very good, though it was better in week eight against the Philadelphia Eagles. Yes, he has a big money contract. All of that is true and yet, the reality is Jaylon Smith isn’t the long-term answer for the Dallas Cowboys at linebacker. Physically, he’s a liability. The Cowboys need to start looking elsewhere. This season that means looking at some of your young and unproven depth.
That means getting undrafted rookies Luke Gifford and Francis Bernard on the field and seeing what they can bring. Who knows if they would be much better than Smith, but with eight games to go in the regular season and struggles at quarterback, there’s no better time than these final eight games to figure out if Gifford and/or Bernard can play in the NFL.
3. Unleash Armstrong and the Anaehilator
There wasn’t a more confusing drop in the 2020 NFL Draft than the fall of Bradlee Anae to the fifth round of the NFL Draft. He was a highly productive, highly competitive piece of a Utah defense that was one of the best in college football in 2019. Some of the knack on him was that he wasn’t very athletic or fast. However, the things he brings to the table don’t show up on a stat sheet.
Anae plays with an edge that helps him at the point of attack to set the edge. He has excellent hands and pass rushing technique that allow him to win despite being somewhat limited athletically. In limited snaps with the Cowboys he’s shown to be able to hold up against the run and has been effective. It’s time to expand his role and see what he can do.
The Cowboys have a nice group of depth along the edge with DeMarcus Lawrence, Aldon Smith, Randy Gregory, DoranceArmstrong, and Bradlee Anae. Between Gregory, Armstrong, and Anae the Cowboys have three young players that they need to find answers on.
The Cowboys have a good feeling on Gregory and he’ll be with the team and have a role in 2021. Armstrong has another year on his rookie contract in 2021 and could remain as a depth player. He’s been solid in his career even if he hasn’t been able to take the next step toward a starting role.
It’s possible the edge group of Lawrence, Smith, Gregory, Armstrong and Anae returns intact in 2021. With the team likely being more competitive, they wouldn’t get the same opportunity to evaluate their younger depth like they have this year.
That’s why it’s important to take advantage of this season and see what Armstrong and Anae have to offer along the defensive line and to see if they can develop their games ahead of the 2021 season.