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Micah Parsons, a height-weight-speed freak out of Penn State who brings pass rush ability as an off-the-ball linebacker, has the potential to become an All-Pro. Even so, when the Dallas Cowboys selected him with their first-round draft pick, it was hard not to reflect on the setbacks this organization has endured over the past few years.
On the positive side, the Cowboys finally got a deal done with quarterback Dak Prescott, who is on schedule to return healthy after the broken ankle that cut his 2020 campaign short. With his wide receiver group of Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, and Michael Gallup returning, the Cowboys’ offense should have one of the league’s best passing attacks. On the negative side, the Parsons pick was a clear signal that Dallas has lost confidence in Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch, the inside linebacker tandem that was the foundation of this defense when the Cowboys last made the playoffs back in 2018. Vander Esch’s injury issues caused Dallas to decline his fifth-year option, and Smith has been unable to elevate the defense around him.
Dallas handed out massive money to Smith and running back Ezekiel Elliott, and both have been disappointed since signing their contracts. The Cowboys need both of these players, along with a trio of offensive linemen who have been standouts in the past (LT Tyron Smith, RG Zack Martin, and RT La’el Collins) to either bounce back from injury or recapture their previous standard of play, and while it’s fair to be optimistic that a few of them will do that, it’s a long shot to think all five will regain their form.
Prescott’s return should mean that the offense is playoff-caliber, even if the run game isn’t what it once was, which seems likely given the aforementioned injury issues on the offensive line and the fact that backup Tony Pollard was notably more explosive than Elliott in the 2020 campaign. However, there are more questions with the defense, which has a standout in defensive end Demarcus Lawrence, and two players who showed strong upside as rookies last season (defensive tackle Neville Gallimore and corner Trevon Diggs), but few proven commodities behind them.
Safety Xavier Woods, who has been the only consistent presence at that position over the past few years, is gone. New defensive coordinator Dan Quinn has brought two players he coached in Atlanta, safety/linebacker Keanu Neal and safety Damontae Kazee, to help fill the void, and while Atlanta’s defense has not been good the past few years, and was arguably at its worst when Quinn stepped in as defensive coordinator, it could be that these players do more in a new situation and that Quinn is able to post improved results now that he isn’t handling head coaching duties in addition to defensive coordinator duties.
The big variable is whether Parsons, second-round corner Kelvin Joseph, and the three defenders Dallas selected in the third round (defensive tackle Osa Odighizuwa, defensive end Chauncey Golston, and corner Nahshon Wright) are able to contribute early. It would be an additional benefit if Vander Esch regains his rookie form.
Dallas would need several of these bets to pay off to get the defense to rebound from last season’s standard, but it’s certainly a possibility, and if the big three on the offensive line get going again this could be a darn good team. I was initially down on this team, but as I took an additional look at the roster, I came around on the upside of the team, and think they have one of the widest range of potential outcomes in the NFL this season. It will be interesting to see how it plays out, but most importantly for fans around the league, Dak will be back at quarterback, and it’s a better league when he’s behind center.
QB Passing Projections
QB Rushing Projections
Skill Projections, Rushing
Skill Projections, Receiving
Steven Clinton, better known as "The Professor", is a former D-1 Quality Control Assistant (Northwestern, Toledo) who holds a B.A. in Economics and M.S. in Predictive Analytics from Northwestern University. He maintains an end-to-end NFL game projection model and is a film junkie who breaks down the tape of every NFL game.