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.