The Dallas Cowboys week one matchup with the Carolina Panthers is the first of 16 opportunities that the Dallas Cowboys have to prove that they belong in the NFC playoff discussion. In almost every matchup there are areas where each team has an advantage over the other. This week is no different.
Both the Dallas Cowboys and the Carolina Panthers will have a game plan and path to success. The one that is able to execute their plan and win their matchups with greater regularity is going to be the team that comes out on top.
Who has the advantage at each position group? Well, to decide, let’s go to the Tale of the Tape.
Also, be sure to check out this week’s Inside The Numbers as I breakdown the stats that will have an impact on this week one matchup.
Generally speaking, I don’t think that Cam Newton is a great quarterback. He’s an average passer at best, but is made better by the work he does with his legs. Despite my opinion of Cam, he has been to the Super Bowl and won a lot of games. He isn’t as accurate of a passer as Dak Prescott, but a lot of weeks he finds ways to win the football game.
Through his first 24 games, Dak Prescott was playing really well and was showing signs of developing into one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL. The last eight games of 2017 seriously hindered that development as Dak was under pressure a lot and had a hard time going through his progressions. Obviously he still has some things to work on.
In 2017, they had identical passing touchdown and rushing touchdown numbers (22 and 6). Dak has a better career completion percentage and quarterback rating, but Cam Newton has more experience and some playoff success to lean on.
Running Back: Dallas Cowboys
Christian McCaffrey is a good running back with some potential to be a really good to great running back. He’s got a dual threat ability that is reminiscent of Marshall Faulk. Problem is the Carolina Panthers never give their best running back a full workload. They love to split carries and they won’t be any different this year when they give CJ Anderson a good amount of snaps and touches as well.
Ezekiel Elliott, on the other hand, is one of the four best running backs in the NFL. I don’t care how you rank Elliott, the Los Angeles Rams’ Todd Gurley, the Arizona Cardinals’ David Johnson, or the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Le’Veon Bell, Elliott is in the conversation.
Ezekiel Elliott averages nearly 130 total yards and a touchdown per game over the course of his 25 career games. He has the tools to take any handoff to the end zone on any play. His combination of size, speed, elusiveness, and patience make for one of the most entertaining players in the NFL. If there is one are where the Dallas Cowboys could get him even more involved, it’s in the passing game. Despite averaging more than 10 yards per reception for his career, he’s only caught on average 2.3 passes per game.
Wide Receiver: Push
I think the Dallas Cowboys wide receivers are going to be good enough to win games this year. They are a solid group of players that have a variety of skills, which, if used correctly, can make Dak look really good in 2018. Despite how I feel, there is still a bit of a question about how they’ll do when the ball gets snapped. The don’t have much name value, but there is some talent there.
Cole Beasley is the guy to watch for the Dallas Cowboys. He had a career year in Dak Prescott’s rookie season. How teams play him could decide how effective the Dallas Cowboys offense is in 2018. In 2017, Beasley saw a lot of double coverage, which disrupted a lot of what Dak Prescott wanted to do on offense with quick efficient passes and Cole Beasley saw his numbers take a tumble.
The Carolina Panthers wide receiver group seems very similar to the Dallas Cowboys. Devin Funchess and Allen Hurns seem like very similar players. Solid number two receivers.
Torrey Smith was once a good player who is at his best with a big armed quarterback who can throw him open down the field. The problem is, as I outlined in this week’s Inside The Numbers, Cam Newton isn’t very good at throwing downfield.
The guy for Carolina to keep an eye on is first round draft pick from 2018, Wide Receiver DJ Moore from Maryland. He is a talented wide receiver who can win with route running and athleticism and ball skills. He was on the draft radar for Cowboys Nation this offseason and there was some gnashing of teeth when they passed on him for Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch.
Overall, I feel like both teams have wide receiver groups that are good enough to win, but aren’t going to blow anyone away on paper.
Tight End: Carolina Panthers
This one is simple.
In 139 games started, Greg Olsen has 639 career receptions for 7,556 yards receiving, and 53 touchdowns.
Geoff Swaim is the only Dallas Cowboys tight end who has recorded a catch in the NFL. He has nine catches for 94 yards and no touchdowns.
Olsen is one of the 10 best tight ends in the NFL at the moment and will be an important guy for the Dallas Cowboys to neutralize to secure a victory this Sunday.
Offensive Line: Dallas Cowboys
Despite Travis Frederick being highly unlikely to suit up on Sunday, the Dallas Cowboys offensive line is still vastly superior to what the Carolina Panthers will be trotting out there on Sunday. The Dallas Cowboys will be starting two players who haven’t started a game for the Dallas Cowboys on the offensive line; Center Joe Looney, who steps in for Frederick and rookie Guard Connor Williams who will start at left guard. Tyron Smith and Zack Martin are arguably the best at their positions in the NFL. La’el Collins is an improving talent at right tackle and has the strength and athleticism to continue to improve. He along with Tyron Smith provide excellent bookends along the Dallas Cowboys offensive line.
The Carolina Panthers have already lost two tackles to IR and have a guard and two tackle listed as questionable on this week’s injury report. To say that the Carolina Panthers are struggling with health along the offensive line is an understatement. Ryan Kalil is a good center who will likely win his matchups with the Dallas Cowboys interior defensive lineman.
All that said, the edge here goes to the Dallas Cowboys.
Defensive Line: Carolina Panthers
DeMarcus Lawrence is one of the premier pass rushers in the NFL. Randy Gregory has a lot of talent on the EDGE as well. They have really good depth along the edge with Tyrone Crawford, Taco Charlton, and Dorance Armstrong, but their interior defensive line has question marks. Maliek Collins is the best defensive tackle on the roster, but has some questions to answer after only securing 2.5 sacks in his second season after a five sack season his rookie year.
But overall along the defensive line, the Carolina Panthers have the edge. Kawann Short and Dontari Poe make up a really formidable interior defensive line. Julius Peppers and Mario Addison may not have the upside that Lawrence and Gregory have, but they did both have 11 sacks in 2017. Short’s 7.5 sacks, per Pro Football Reference, were the forth most in the NFL among interior defense line players.
The Dallas Cowboys offensive line and the Carolina Panthers defensive line is the matchup to watch this week.
Linebackers: Dallas Cowboys
The Carolina Panthers’ Luke Kuechly is one of the best linebackers in the NFL. That is a fact. Sean Lee of the Dallas Cowboys is also one of the best linebackers in the NFL. That is also a fact.
The Carolina Panthers will start David Mayo at weakside linebacker in place of Linebacker Thomas Davis (suspended four games for violating the league’s policy on PEDs). Mayo has only started one game in his four year NFL career. Shaq Thompson is a capable strong side linebacker, but he only played about 67% of the Carolina Panthers defensive snaps in 2017. Outside of Kuechly, the Panthers don’t have a player that can play every down.
Where the Dallas Cowboys have the edge at linebacker is in their depth with linebackers Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch, Joe Thomas, and Damien Wilson. All are capable of starting a game for you or playing meaningful snaps. A starting lineup of Lee, Smith, and Vander Esch could be one of the best 4-3 trios in the NFL.
Panthers QB Cam Newton on what he’s seen from the Cowboys’ secondary: “Very talented, rangy guys. And they’re not afraid to come up and challenge you. … They are helped by a very cerebral-esque linebacker corps.
Defensive Backs: Dallas Cowboys
In 2017, Pro Football Focus ranked the Dallas Cowboys defense as the 15th best coverage unit. The Carolina Panthers graded out as the 27th ranked coverage defense.
In passing yards allowed, the Dallas Cowboys ranked 11th and the Carolina Panthers ranked 18th.
The depth chart for the Panthers is very similar to 2017.
The Dallas Cowboys defensive back group is pretty much the same as well, but the addition of Passing Game Coordinator and Defensive Backs Coach Kris Richard will bring a hole new mentality to a talented group of players.
His aggressive approach is only going to help Byron Jones and Chidobe Awuzie excel in this scheme. No longer will we be watching the Dallas cornerbacks sitting back with eight yard cushions on 3rd and 5. I expect them to be improved even off of a pretty solid 2017 season.
Aside from Xavier Woods sitting out, they’re going into week one healthy and ready to roll.
Special Teams: Push
Based solely on history, Graham Gano, kicker for the Carolina Panthers, has the advantage over Brett Maher. He’s got a career 81% field goal percentage. Maher has yet to attempt a kick in his NFL career. He’s got some leg, but regular season attempts are different than the preseason.
On the flip side, Chris Jones punter for the Dallas Cowboys has a massive advantage over Michael Palardy of the Carolina Panthers. Jones is one of the best punters in the NFL. His tackling and ability to run fakes make him the most exciting punter in the NFL.
Coaching: Carolina Panthers
Ron Rivera is three more games over .500 than Jason Garrett is. Rivera’s won more games in the playoffs and has a better regular season winning percentage than Garrett.
Before taking the head coaching mantle, Rivera was considered one of the better defensive coaches in the NFL. Oh, and he’s been to a Super Bowl.
I like Jason Garrett as a head coach, but Rivera has had more success in his seven years coaching the Panthers than Garrett has for the Dallas Cowboys.
It seems like a fairly even matchup, but I think the area where the Dallas Cowboys will be able to take advantage is the Cowboys defensive line vs the Panthers offensive line. That matchup is going to dictate the game and I think the Dallas Cowboys are much better in that matchup.
My Prediction: Dallas Cowboys 27 – Carolina Panthers 16.
Who you got?