As teams head to training camp and the NFL season approaches, The 33rd Team asks its experts to preview every team's outlook for the 2023 season. In this installment, Ronde Barber takes a deep dive into the Dallas Cowboys.
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Cowboys Team Preview
What To Know: Offense
The decision to move on from offensive coordinator Kellen Moore and have head coach Mike McCarthy and Brian Schottenheimer run the offense is easily the biggest story here.
We'll see Dak Prescott thrive in a "Texas Coast" offense, whatever that means. McCarthy is really, truly taking over. He's done playbook install and will call plays with important guidance from Schottenheimer, who was in an analytics role last year.
So, what does this mean? It means they're going to be more conservative. No more leading the league in interceptions, Mr. Prescott. Schottenheimer's teams have finished top five in rushing in four of his years as offensive coordinator. The change means less emphasis on Prescott as a passer and more on the ground with Tony Pollard as the lead character.
Which begs the question: After moving on from Ezekiel Elliott, which running back on the roster shares the load with Pollard, who is recovering from a broken fibula last year? That is either some combination of Malik Davis, free agent Ronald Jones or my favorite guy, who was drafted last year, the diminutive Deuce Vaughn out of Kansas State. One of those guys has to fill the gap.
What To Know: Defense
If the biggest storyline on defense doesn't involve Micah Parsons, then it's not No. 1 when it comes to the Dallas defense. Anything that makes him more impactful helps the entire defense. Moving him from less of a hybrid role to a more dedicated defensive end role should help increase production. This move also sets the stage for contract negotiations in a year.
The defense should improve because of some of their key additions. The Cowboys drafted Mazi Smith, a 6-foot-3, 330-pound nose tackle out of Michigan in the first round. Then they traded for CB Stephon Gilmore to solidify a secondary that was depleted last year by injury. His addition fulfills a need defensive coordinator Dan Quinn saw.
These moves only help the best defensive player in football — Parsons — get better.
Biggest Off-Field Storyline
Just like the Giants and Saquon Barkley, the Raiders and Josh Jacobs, the franchise tender for running back Pollard has been the consistent story this offseason. Unlike the other two, Pollard signed his tender back in March. Though the deadline to extend has already passed, he's at least guaranteed to play in 2023. I don't know what that means for his long-term prospects.
Is this his last year in Dallas? We'll see. At the least, he's making $10.1 million and will be the primary runner this season.
Breakout Player Prediction
Predicting the breakout player for this team was fun because I didn't know who the breakout player was going to be. They have plenty of great talent on the roster that's already been showcased. However, after reviewing this roster, it became pretty easy. I'm going to go with tight end Jake Ferguson.
Dalton Schultz signed with the Texans, and this tight end room is pretty wide open. Ferguson started eight games last season and played in 16. If you're into advanced statistics, no tight end was more open than him.
Prescott loves working in the middle of the field and targeting talented receivers like CeeDee Lamb, Michael Gallup and trade acquisition Brandin Cooks. It will be easy for teams to overlook the second-year tight end.
They drafted Luke Schoonmaker in the second round this year, but he's more of a tight end who stays on the line of scrimmage. This is a good year for Ferguson to be the next big thing in Big D.
Move the Cowboys Should Make
They may like some of their depth at wide receiver, but there's nothing really proven behind Lamb, Gallup and Cooks. Jalen Tolbert and Simi Fehoko caught five passes last season. Behind them are a collection of free agents, seventh-round pick Jalen Brooks and second-year return man KaVontae Turpin. None have any experience playing wide receiver, and injuries are a fact of life in the NFL.
If they don't have any proven options, it could be a problem. So look for the Cowboys to consider signing a veteran once camp cuts start, possibly sooner rather than later.
2023 Season Expectations
The key for the Cowboys is to have a healthy offensive line. Tackle Tyron Smith hasn't started a full season since 2015. They had a rookie, Tyler Smith, who moved to left tackle last season, and it forced Tyron Smith to play right tackle when he came back because of the injury to Terence Steele.
Expect a combination of those three will be the left tackle, left guard and right tackle. If they survive 17 weeks, this group will be dominant.
The Cowboys are a clear contender in the NFC, though the East is a beast as always. New York got better. Washington is presumably ascending if it can find a quarterback. But of the three teams not wearing green in this division, Dallas possesses the most complete roster.
The Cowboys won 12 games for the second year in a row, and they made all the right moves in the offseason. We'll definitely see these guys when the calendar turns to 2024.
Ronde Barber is a former NFL cornerback for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers whose resume includes a Super Bowl title, three All-Pro teams, five Pro Bowls and a spot on the NFL’s 2000’s All-Decade Team. Follow him on Twitter at @rondebarber.