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5 Offseason Questions Facing the Dallas Cowboys

There are a lot of question marks facing the Dallas Cowboys heading into the 2021 offseason. Much of the Cowboys’ lack of success in 2020 was due to the injuries along the offensive line and to quarterback Dak Prescott. However, even if the Cowboys were guaranteed reasonable health for their squad in 2021, they still have several questions to answer this offseason.

Does Tyron Smith have another year in him?

There were many reasons why the Dallas Cowboys failed to make the playoffs for the second year in a row, but by far, the biggest reason was the injuries they suffered on the offensive side of the football. In particular, the offensive line took a beating this year, with four of the five starters projected to lead the way along the offensive line saw time in the trainers’ room due to injury.

For Tyron Smith, it was the fifth season in a row in which he sat three or more games, and in 2020, it all came to a head as the All-Pro left tackle missed all but two games this season. The three games a season before 2020 was a troubling trend but missing nearly the entire season could be the thing that pushes Smith to retirement.

Smith has been dealing with neck and back issues for the last five seasons, and those are injuries that generally don’t get better. Once you hurt your neck or back, it’s always an issue. Like back issues, the Dallas Cowboys have been dealing with something that has been an issue for years. But…

Is this the Season they Invest in a Legit Run Stuffer?

The Bart Simpson “At least you tried” meme comes to mind when I think about the efforts the Dallas Cowboys front office put into finding interior defensive line help during the 2020 offseason. They signed Gerald McCoy and Dontari Poe. McCoy was injured before playing a snap for the Cowboys, and Poe played a lot of snaps and was bad for enough of them to find himself released by the Dallas Cowboys.

It’s been an issue for years now, but the Dallas Cowboys have struggled against the run. While Antwaun Woods has been good at times, and there’s a lot of promise from Trysten Hill and Neville Gallimore, the Cowboys shouldn’t go into 2021 with them as your top three defensive tackles for 2021.

With players like Dalvin Tomlinson, Leonard Williams, Johnathan Hankins, and Poona Ford (RFA) set free agents. There’s potential for there to be a pretty strong defensive tackle market in March.

If the Cowboys hope to get better play out of their linebackers moving forward, they need to look into giving them some help up the middle. Especially if they consider running it back with their underwhelming linebacker duo in 2021, which brings us to our next question…

Does Jaylon Smith Return?

Jaylon Smith has a lot of tackles and a lot of stops per Pro Football Focus. Both of those things are true. However, when you watch Jaylon Smith, and it doesn’t even have to be the All-22 film, there’s just something off about how he’s playing the game. Both physically and mentally, he’s been a liability at the second level, especially against teams that run a lot of play-action, counter, or misdirection.

If the Cowboys wanted to get out of his deal, they have options this offseason. If the Cowboys wanted to move on, they could designate him a post-June 1st cut and save $7.2 million on the salary cap with $2.6 million in dead money. That’s certainly not a prohibitive number. If you’ll recall, the Cowboys were willing to eat $8 million in dead money by releasing Dez Bryant in 2018 to save $8.5 million on the salary cap.

As much as Jerry Jones loves Jaylon Smith, Dez Bryant might have been his favorite player of the last 10 years. They had a great relationship, and it was a tough decision for the Cowboys to make that move, but they made it. Smith doesn’t have near the relationship equity built up that Bryant had at his release.

With the potential money they can save, it’s not outside the realm of possibilities that they move on from Jaylon Smith after extending him just before the 2019 season. But that isn’t even the biggest question facing the defense with the potential turnover in the secondary.

How do the Cowboys Retool the Secondary?

Xavier Woods, Chidobe Awuzie, and Jourdan Lewis are each scheduled to be free agents this offseason, and there’s no guarantee that any of the three will be back. After what seemed like a promising start to their careers in their first two seasons in the league, they never hit an upward trajectory. Solid players, but aside from Lewis’s occasional splash play, they aren’t players the team should be dying to bring back.

But that then begs the question, what do they do in the secondary? Awuzie and Woods have played many snaps for this team over the last four seasons, and Lewis has been a steady rotational player. While there will be an opportunity to upgrade their starting cornerback spot opposite of Trevon Diggs, they still need to find guys who can come in and contribute a hefty amount of snaps.

Each of the three could still have a role on this team, but the Dallas Cowboys front office seriously needs to figure out a way to upgrade the free safety position and get steadier play from the cornerback group. Perhaps that’s something they do in player acquisition, but maybe they think they can fix the defense by changing the man at the top.

Where Does the Defensive Coaching Staff go from here?

Yesterday, it was announced that Defensive Coordinator Mike Nolan and Defensive Line Coach Jim Tomsula were let go by the Dallas Cowboys. Now begins the task of finding someone to take over a defense that looked like one of the worst in the history of the franchise through the first half of the season. Things improved during the second half against a softer schedule that gifted the Cowboys a bunch of turnovers,

However, there was a bit of a disconnect for much of the season about what kind of gapping defense this should be. Mike Nolan came in with the idea of turning a defense that had been a one-gap defense for much of the last decade into a two-gap defense, and the results weren’t pretty, especially in the running game.

If the Cowboys want to switch up the style of defense they’re playing, that’s fine, but they need to go through a total overhaul to make it happen and find players to fit the scheme they want to run. With Trysten Hill and Neville Gallimore, they have a couple of one-gap defensive tackle to build the interior with. They need to find a coach that will assess the talent in the locker room and have a plan for how to maximize that talent.

What do you think?

John Williams

Written by John Williams

Dallas Cowboys optimist bringing factual, reasonable takes to Cowboys Nation and the NFL Community. I wasn't always a Cowboys fan, but I got here as quick as I could.

Make sure you check out the Inside The Cowboys Podcast featuring John Williams and other analysts following America's Team.

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  1. Invest draft picks on fixing defense!! 1st pick on Cornerback! 2nd pick on Jaylon Smith!! 3rd pick, on DE or DT !! Trade 4th thru 7th pick! For lower 1st or top 2nd replacement for Offensive Tackle !!

  2. Another question I’d say is “what to do with Zeke ? ” we saw what happened to Todd Gurley and the Rams , they STRAIGHT UP DROPPED HIM , which is saying a lot , I think you could get something from a Zeke trade , or do you keep him and hope he’ll be better when Dak is healthy ? The other questions are very much valid and at this point on J Smith , T Smith , and Zeke , it’s time to move on , we need to start drafting their positions and with Zeke, go with pollard and maybe bring in some other RB through free agency or draft

    With the secondary I think you can keep SOME OF THEM SURELY , they didn’t play exceptional, and Awuzie was injured for a lot of the year so I don’t see very high offers going there way , just need to keep 1 or 2 of the cheapest ones to go along with Diggs and go get you another starting CB with your 1st Pick .

    If they could get Marvin Lewis at DC , then that would be great , though he getting A LOT of looks at head coach so Idk ,if he doesn’t then what happened to Kris Richard ??? I’d think he’d be good

  3. Who is the new DC seems like an important question as well. I was not excited to hear about them looking at Joe Whitt Jr. He is a former CB coach of McCarthy’s. No more McCarthy cronies! We need a smart and creative coach who can coach and teach and who has some passion and fire about him. This D is in desperate need of some attitude and if that is not coming from the HC then it needs to come from the DC. The last crony Mike brought in was a disaster. He needs to think outside his coaching circle or he is going to find himself on the chopping block next time.

  4. Move on from Zeke after next year when it becomes more fiscally possible. Can’t keep making excuses for his lack of production. We need more from that position period. Give Pollard who has two more years left on his contract more touches next season.

    T Smith- We need to draft his replacement this coming draft. He may retire or get cut and we could use that cap money if he does either. Most likely they cross their fingers try to squeeze one more year out of him.

    A run stuffing DT (or two) has been a position that has been lacking for several years. Obviously the Poe signing was disastrous as was signing McCoy with a pre existing condition. I expect this postion will be addressed in the draft and free agency as well.

    J Smith same as Zeke big contract low production. It’s more possible to cut him without taking a big cap hit, though they may hang onto him one more year an/or address the position in the draft. Smith is just too much of a liability. He can’t play in space and TEs and pass catching RBs have been abusing him all year.

    I expect the Cowboys to draft a CB in the 1st rd and a safety possibly in the 2nd or 3rd. Maybe they resign Woods and one of the two CBs to serve as a bridge for those drafted secondary players.

    I would expect this coaching staff with a year under their belt and a full off season will be better equipped. The move to replace Nolan had to be made. They need a fresh voice and start. Might start looking at DCs candidates outside McCarthy’s coaching tree though.

  5. This team, as it stands now, has a ton of problems on defense. I do think that when they jettisoned Nolan, the first step was achieved. As we remember, Marinelli’s defense was not the best, but much better than this years was. Did the players suddenly get that much worse?? I doubt it. Drafting Trevor Diggs was a great move last year and perhaps another stud CB with this years first round pick is what they should do. Bringing back Chido and/ or Lewis might be advisable for depth reasons. I’m still not sold on what we have at DT, YET. But, I wouldnt spend a 1st or 2nd rounder on one, a 3rd or later would work.
    Now, the o-line problems, in particular OT. I’ve been screaming for 5 years at my tv on draft day about this. Although he’s not over the hill, Tyron Smith has become injury prone at this stage of his career, and it won’t get any better moving forward. There is one or two talented 1st OT’s available in the draft and maybe packaging up a few comp picks the Cowboys have to move up, maybe in the 2nd round to the late 1st might be possible. The other positions on the offense seem to be in good shape for now, that is as long as they can get Dak Prescott extended.

  6. Tyron has missed too many games over 5 years causing disastrous results in the games missed and likely 3-5 losses during that time because of his being missing. A 2nd or 3rd needs to used on OT and if Leatherwood or Slater are there take them as they can also play guard. Connor Williams was rated in the top 20 percentile of OGs by PFF this year. We can’t sign him after next season. If McGovern isn’t able, then either of these tackles could cover both spots. Jaylon must be cut for the salary cap savings and to send a message about big contracts followed by poor preparation and effort by the rewarded player. Plus, his celebrations after tackling backs 10 yards downfield got very old. We signed Poe and McCoy from the Panthers who had a horrible run defense in 2019 and were routinely gashed. Why did we think they would be an upgrade? The Cowboys looked at Mike Pennell, KC’s NT, who PFF praised finding in 2019 KC’s run defense was 1.5 yards better with him on the field. He signed for a little over a million with KC. Sign him 3 years at $9m or draft McNeil, NT who is very athletic and had 5.5 sacks in 2019 in the early 3rd or even in the 2nd if the evaluation goes well. Gallimore and Hill don’t look to be run-stuffers anytime soon. Cut Dak and use the money on the defense. Draft a QB with #10 or trade that pick and Gallup or Moore and future second rounders to move up to select a better one that what can be had at #10. We can’t afford both after next season. If the Patriots put a restricted tender on JC Jackson, CB, who had a lot of interceptions this year, give up a 2nd and draft him, if that is the tender. If Dak’s cap hit is gone next year we’d be in a great position to add one of the quality safeties that might be there- Simmons or Johnson III, who along with Jackson and the likely improvement and emergence of Wilson and Diggs makes for a good to great secondary. That is how to fix the secondary. Why not hire the Baltimore passing game coordinator instead of a McCarthy retread as DC. We saw how those worked this year.

  7. How do you mention JSmith and not LVE?
    JSmith is still improving, in a bad situation. In addition to tackles… he’s been your most durable LB. You don’t make matters worst. He’s very coachable and your most athletic LB. As JJ said… he is a “cornerstone player”. With SLee potentially retired, JSmith value to DEF is even higher heading into 2021. Would be premature to drop him before you have replacement on roster. LVE is more of a compliment than anchor. Hope they both improve. But, spare no opportunity to land a superior LB.

  8. LVE and Smith were below average and Smith is a much larger cap hit. Smith didn’t play well in 2019, so it is not all on Nolan. Granted, the LBs have had a much more difficult time than most because our DTs never require double teams, can’t penetrate or even hold their ground, and most often are being displaced into our LBs laps. But, all LBs failed to keep gap integrity far too often, couldn’t get off of blocks (Ravens, Cardinals, Vikings games) and couldn’t handle tackling in the flats (see Rams game). JJ assessing anyone as a cornerstone player is not even minimally persuasive to me. We need to rid the team of bad contracts over the next two years and do a full replacement of the linebackers (and DTs). I prefer LVE because we have to keep someone next year, he is cheaper, and there is faint hope that if he should return injury free he could play like he did in 2018 in the right system. Elliot goes after 2022 when we can afford the hit.

  9. It’s an interesting point , but the difference between LVE and J smith is he’s being payed pretty high for as low of production , he’s a problem in space or coverage , and looks like he’s regressing where as LVE isn’t doing good cuz he can’t stay healthy , I agree the best ability is availability, but I’d you don’t back that up with production then you don’t have an excuse to not be putting up numbers where as LVE does with his injuries

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