America’s Team last won a Super Bowl in the 1995 season, back when the Dallas Cowboys were worth just $238 million, Brett Favre won his first of three MVPs, and Toy Story had just come out. 2021 was no different as the Cowboys rebounded nicely from back-to-back seasons without a playoff appearance only to lose in the Wild Card round to the San Francisco 49ers.
Dallas started 6-1 and finished with a solid 12-5 record that saw multiple stars emerge on the defensive side of the ball. The team led the league in points scored during the regular season but quarterback Dak Prescott’s ill-advised run up the middle as the clock expired in the fourth quarter against the 49ers was emblematic of many recent seasons – too little, too late.
QB: Dak Prescott, Cooper Rush, Will Grier, Ben DiNucci
Prescott’s contentious contract negotiations with the Cowboys seem like a lifetime away as he projects to remain at the helm for many seasons to come. At his best, he is a dynamic and mobile passer who has the ability to firmly entrench himself in the NFL MVP conversation, elevating his offense and providing a championship ceiling.
Despite ranking fourth in touchdown passes and seventh in passing yards last season, he showed a floor that truly elite quarterbacks simply don’t have. From Weeks 10-14, he averaged just one passing touchdown and 251 passing yards per game as his production stalled.
He also had by far the worst rushing season of his career in his first year back from a broken ankle, rushing for a career-low 146 yards and one touchdown after averaging 305 rushing yards and five touchdowns in his first four seasons.
Rush was solid in his first career start last season, throwing for 325 yards and two touchdowns in a victory over the Minnesota Vikings but doesn’t project as anything more than an average backup.
RB: Ezekiel Elliott, Tony Pollard, Rico Dowdle, JaQuan Hardy, Malik Davis, Aaron Shampklin
While Elliott took a step back in the second half of 2021, Pollard’s emergence as a dynamic weapon was an exciting development for Dallas. Elliott was still one of just seven rushers to crack the 1,000-yard mark and did rank sixth in rushing touchdowns. His production was more a factor of health, as he played all 17 games, as opposed to talent or explosiveness.
The former Buckeye didn’t top 100 rushing yards after Week 5 and had 11 games where he was held under 55 rushing yards. Pollard topped 1,000 yards from scrimmage on just 30% of the team’s offensive snaps as he averaged an impressive 5.5 yards per rush while proving to be a weapon in the receiving game. The rest of the backfield has just 11 career carries as Davis and Shampklin are both UDFAs.
WR: CeeDee Lamb, Michael Gallup, James Washington, Jalen Tolbert, Noah Brown, Simi Fehoko, T.J. Vasher, Brandon Smith, Dennis Houston, Ty Fryfogle, Dontario Drummond, Jaquarii Roberson
The Cowboys have one of the best young receivers in the league in Lamb, who has had an impressive start to his career despite starting out in Amari Cooper’s shadow and being taken just five picks before Justin Jefferson. With Cooper traded to the Cleveland Browns, Lamb is now the alpha and ready to take a massive third-year leap – fantasy football managers, take note.
Gallup was in line for a big payday this past offseason before a torn ACL in Week 17 though he did still receive a sizeable five-year, $62.5 extension with the Cowboys. If he begins the season on the PUP list, Washington and Tolbert will compete for the second wide receiver spot.
Washington comes over from Pittsburgh, where he had constantly been buried behind talented players on the depth chart – Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, and Chase Claypool. He is a capable receiver in his own right and a talented deep threat and should be able to play more in Dallas.
Tolbert is a third-round rookie out of South Alabama and the reigning Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year. With a big frame and solid route-running, he could be next in the line of talented Cowboys receivers. The loss of Cedrick Wilson to Miami further exacerbates the need for receivers to step up and fill roles on this team.
TE: Dalton Schultz, Jake Ferguson, Sean McKeon, Jeremy Sprinkle, Ian Bunting, Peyton Hendershot
Schultz was the second-leading receiver on the team behind Lamb last season, proving to be a reliable target and red zone weapon for Prescott. He took a positive step forward from his 2020 season and gave the Cowboys enough confidence to move on from Blake Jarwin in the offseason.
After playing over 80% of snaps in 2021, he will once again play a huge role in a post-Amari Cooper world and as Gallup recovers. Behind him, Ferguson is an interesting fourth-round rookie with size while the rest of the room lacks anything notable.
OL: Tyron Smith, Tyler Smith, Tyler Biadasz, Zack Martin, Terence Steele, Josh Ball, Connor McGovern, Braylon Jones, Matt Farniok, Matt Waletzko, Aviante Collins, Alec Lindstrom, Amon Simon, James Empey, Isaac Alarcón
Last season saw flashes of the dominant offensive line that had become this team’s calling card, though the Cowboys did experience two significant departures. Starting right tackle La’el Collins is now in Cincinnati while starting left guard Connor Williams is now a Miami Dolphin.
Both saw significant playing time in 2021 despite battling injuries and will be missed. However, this line still has elite talent up top and solid depth, contributing to a great positional outlook.
Tyron Smith is a potential future Hall of Famer and remains one of the best left tackles in the game. He did miss six games in 2021 (his last full season was in 2015) but when on the field, he is the anchor of this unit. Right tackle projects to be taken over by Steele, who has 27 starts at tackle over the last two years but represents a steep drop-off. Biadasz played the most snaps of anyone on offense for Dallas last season and is an important pivot piece for this team.
On the inside, rookie first-round pick Tyler Smith looks to start at left guard before moving out to tackle later in his career while 2021 first-team All-Pro Martin has the right guard spot locked down. McGovern is an elite depth piece while Waletzko is a fifth-round rookie out of North Dakota with upside as a solid starter.
DL: DeMarcus Lawrence, Neville Gallimore, Carlos Watkins, Dante Fowler Jr., Sam Williams, Tarell Basham, Trysten Hill, Osa Odighizuwa, Dorance Armstrong, Chauncey Golston, Quinton Bohanna, John Ridgeway, Big Kat Bryant, Austin Faoliu, Josiah Bronson, Mika Tafua
A C- grade may feel harsh but a group with decent depth but no reliable difference-makers on the defensive line is poised to be a real problem for the Cowboys this season. Lawrence played in just seven games last year and had just three sacks; he didn’t miss a game the two seasons prior but had just 5 and 6.5 sacks in 2019 and 2020, respectively.
Gallimore played in just five games last season while Watkins failed to make much of an impact in the 15 games he played in. Fowler was signed as the de facto Randy Gregory replacement (who is now a Denver Bronco after a contract kerfuffle with the Cowboys) but has just 7.5 sacks in the last two seasons.
Behind Micah Parsons (who does not factor into the defensive line grade) and Gregory, it was actually Armstrong Jr. who had the most sacks on this Cowboys team in 2021 with 5. He combines with Tarell Basham and rookie Sam Williams to give the team solid depth on the outside. The interior of this line is very thin with Ridgeway the only interesting addition as a burly run-stuffing rookie.
LB: Micah Parsons, Leighton Vander Esch, Luke Gifford, Jabril Cox, Devin Harper, Aaron Hansford, Devante Bond, Damone Clark, Storey Jackson, Christian Sam
This is an exciting group featuring the runaway Defensive Rookie of the Year and a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Parsons. Drafted as a linebacker out of Penn State, the rookie phenom tore up the league to the tune of 84 tackles, an incredible 13 sacks, and three forced fumbles. He is a one-man wrecking crew, a nightmare for offenses everywhere, and by far the best player on this defense.
Vander Esch played more than 10 games for the first time in three seasons and was productive on a more limited snap count; with every year that passes, his rookie season (140 total tackles, two interceptions, second-team All-Pro) feels more like a mirage. Cox and Clark, a pair of LSU Tigers, are the most interesting depth pieces. Cox is recovering from a torn ACL, while Clark underwent spinal fusion surgery that puts the prospect of his talent translating to the league on hold.
CB: Trevon Diggs, Anthony Brown, Jourdan Lewis, Kelvin Joseph, C.J. Goodwin, Nahshon Wright, Kyron Brown, DaRon Bland, Quandre Mosley, Isaac Taylor-Stuart
No player was as polarizing in 2021 as Diggs. He led the league with 11 interceptions, the most since former Dallas Cowboys cornerback Everson Walls in 1981, while giving up 1,051 yards in coverage – the most by any player since 2016. Despite his downside, Diggs remains an exciting player who put together an incredible – if nearly impossible to repeat – season last year.
It will be interesting to see if he plays more conservatively moving forward or if he continues to push his aggressive play style. Brown started across from him in 2021 and played the most snaps of any Cowboys defender as he improved his play.
In a perfect world, the Cowboys hope he will be pushed by Joseph, a sophomore cornerback who was a second-round pick in 2021. Lewis was a solid slot corner last season and showed a willingness to be involved in the run game as well as decent coverage.
S: Jayron Kearse, Malik Hooker, Donovan Wilson, Israel Mukuamu, Juanyeh Thomas, Tyler Coyle, Markquese Bell
Kearse had a breakout year in 2021, his sixth season in the league, as he registered over 100 total tackles and two interceptions while being solid in coverage. The Cowboys resigned him to a two-year deal and he once again projects as a starter. Dallas signed Hooker last offseason and he was able to stay healthy, playing in 15 games behind starter Damontae Kazee (who is now a Pittsburgh Steeler).
Hooker has a great opportunity for a second act in Dallas, though it remains unlikely he becomes a player of significant impact based on his career trajectory. Wilson is solid depth while Mukuamu is an interesting flier with a great frame but a very raw sixth-round pick in 2021.