The Dallas Cowboys are heading into 2019 with high expectations based on the perceived overall strength of their roster. But nobody’s perfect; every team has a few liabilities. Where are the Cowboys biggest risks for this upcoming season?
A saying I’ve always liked, and I’m pretty sure it came from Bill Parcells, is that you can’t have prime rib at every position. The salary cap forces NFL teams to live on a budget, and sometimes you have to settle for the chopped steak or the meatloaf to field a 53-man roster.
Not every starter is going to be a Pro Bowler, and not every backup is going to be a solid option if asked to play a major role. Some of the greatest teams who ever won a Super Bowl could’ve had much different seasons if the wrong injury happened at a critical position.
The Cowboys have certainly had their share of derailed seasons. In recent memory, Ezekiel Elliott’s 2017 suspension and Tony Romo’s 2015 injury wrecked what could have been playoff-bound teams. In both cases, the team was heading into those years with high hopes coming off a strong finish in the previous season.
This year’s Dallas team is also looking to build on a good showing in 2018, but carries is its own set of weak spots. What are those, and just how risky are they?
We’ll start with what I perceive to be the team’s riskiest decision, and it actually doesn’t involve the roster.
1. Kellen Moore, Offensive Coordinator
Say what you want about Scott Linehan, but he was a highly experienced coach who helped the Cowboys have four winning seasons and three playoff appearances in his five years here. This offseason, Dallas decided they could do better by promoting Kellen Moore to the job.
Moore has spent just one year as a full-time coach, serving in 2018 as the Quarterbacks Coach. The quick ascension to Offensive Coordinator is rare; even Sean McVay spent six years in lesser roles before becoming the Redskins’ OC in 2014.
Many would argue that Kellen’s practical coaching experience didn’t begin last year. He has been seen as one of the assistant coaches even while playing, with an eventual future in coaching never in doubt.
Jason Garrett has said that Moore won’t be thrown into the deep end. Tight Ends coach Doug Nussmeier, who has been the OC with major college programs like Alabama, Florida, and Michigan, is expected to assist Kellen with his duties. Dallas also hired Jon Kitna to bolster the QB coaching, and of course Garrett has plenty of his own experience to contribute.
All that said, you are still asking a 30-year-old to take over as the offensive boss for a team looking to win the Super Bowl. Even if Kellen Moore turns out to be a genius, growing pains with the new coach could affect the Cowboys’ play early in the year. Maybe they lose a game or two because the chemistry isn’t quite there yet.
Dallas is betting on Moore’s innovation and upside as a coordinator, breaking their longtime strategy of going with proven experience. Will it be what pushes them over the hump, or what drives them off a cliff?
2. Backup Quarterback
Let’s go back to that 2015 season. The Cowboys had a proven problem, Brandon Weeden, as their primary backup. When Tony Romo went down, they panicked and acquired Matt Cassel. They already knew Weeden wouldn’t get the job done, and yet they were fine with him until Romo’s injury meant he’d actually have to play.
Four years later, Dallas is taking Cooper Rush and Mike White into training camp to compete for the backup QB job. Neither has a bad track record like Weeden, but they have no record to go by at all.
Let’s say that Dak Prescott suffers a Romo-like injury late in the preseason. Will the Cowboys be content to allow Rush or White to run the show, or will they again find themselves trying to scramble and add a veteran?
Neither of those young QBs looked stellar in the 2018 preseason. Maybe they’d improve with first-team talent around them, but that also means facing the other team’s starting defenders.
To be fair, most NFL teams don’t have a Nick Foles. A major injury at quarterback will derail almost any club’s season.
But you can do things to mitigate the risk, and right now the Cowboys seem a little too comfortable with their current depth. Developing young players is great, but you only get so many cracks at a championship before Father Time and NFL economics force you to rebuild.
If Dallas isn’t careful, we could wind up bemoaning the lost opportunities of the Dak Prescott Era the same way we do Tony Romo’s.
3. Backup Running Back
The logic here is similar to what we just discussed with the quarterbacks. Having suffered for losing Ezekiel Elliott in 2017, should the Cowboys be gambling on their RB depth this season?
Dallas saw what happened when Elliott went out that year. After going 5-3 to start the year, Dallas lost it’s next three games when Zeke’s suspension finally took effect. Had it not been for the cupcakes that came along in the Redskins, Giants, and Raiders, that losing streak likely would’ve gone longer.
The Cowboys are arguably thinner now at RB than they were in 2017. Then they had veterans Alfred Morris and Darren McFadden, and Rod Smith was in his third year with the team.
Now Dallas is counting on a pair of rookies, Tony Pollard and Mike Weber, to carry the load if Elliott is somehow lost.
There’s good reason to be excited about Pollard. The fourth-round pick has tantalizing athleticism, but also only had 243 offensive touches in his entire college career. Elliott gets over 300 caries in a single year, let alone his receptions.
Pollard may not be able to hold up to being an every-down back, and neither Weber or Darius Jackson may be good enough to be that effective. For a run-focused team like the Cowboys, that’s a daunting lack of depth when you’re aspiring for a championship.
Ezekiel Elliott is highly durable, but his personal conduct issues are perhaps the bigger concern. His high profile and history with the league office make him an easy target, and give him less cushion.
If something bad happens with Zeke, the Cowboys may wind up kicking themselves for not investing more in his backups.
4. Starting Talent in Secondary
No, the Cowboys didn’t sign Earl Thomas this offseason. They also didn’t add Eric Berry, Adrian Amos, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, or anyone else who might’ve been on your safety wish list. They didn’t even draft one until the sixth round (Donovan Wilson), leaving the position relatively unchanged from last season.
Dallas did sign veteran George Iloka to hopefully compete with Jeff Heath and Xavier Woods, but he spent last season as a backup in Minnesota. He may be nothing more than a versatile depth option.
At cornerback, Dallas decided to gamble on the third-development of Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis rather than add a more proven corner. Both had sophomore slumps in 2018, and the Cowboys are banking on them getting back to the promise shown as rookies. If not, Anthony Brown is their only recourse at a critical position playing across from Byron Jones.
Pass coverage is just as critical as pass rush in the modern NFL, and the Cowboys were not that strong in the secondary last season. Counting on Awuzie, Lewis, and Woods to all blossom in their third season could be dangerous.
Sometimes you have to take what the draft and free agency options give you. But in this case, Dallas had plenty of opportunities for some immediate upgrades and passed. With Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Carson Wentz, Jared Goff, and others all on the 2019 schedule, the Cowboys will find out fairly quickly if they made the right move.
5. Defensive Tackle
After giving up an embarrassing 273 rushing yards in their playoff loss to the Rams, the Cowboys seemed destined to upgrade the middle of the defensive line. But other than the second-round pick spent on Trysten Hill, Dallas did not add any significant upgrades at defensive tackle.
The Cowboys appear content with the reality that Maliek Collins and Antwaun Woods were both not at 100% in that Rams game, dealing with illness and injury. Considering that Dallas had the fifth-best run defense in the 2018 regular season, it’s wise not to overreact to one awful day in January.
But still, that bad day happened. And like we just discussed with safety, Dallas had some opportunities in free agency to add proven players like Gerald McCoy or Ndamukong Suh.
The Cowboys’ focus this offseason was re-signing DeMarcus Lawrence and also upgrading the DE position with Robert Quinn. They seem to be hoping that the pressure on the outside, coming from both sides, will make life easier for the defensive tackles.
Maybe Trysten Hill will make an immediate impact, but that is another risky proposition for a Day 2 rookie. The Cowboys are again hoping to get more flavor out of the same basic ingredients, and in the end there’s only so much these guys can do.
Sometimes you simply get what you paid for, and the lack of investment in the DT position could once again bite Dallas in the butt.