As they entered their Week 8 bye week, the Dallas Cowboys sat at a disappointing 3-4 off a tough loss to division rival Washington and in need of a spark. The subsequent trade for Oakland Raiders WR Amari Cooper for a 2019 1st round pick certainly raised some eyebrows regarding the price they paid yet Jerry and the Boys got the last laugh. The arrival of Cooper helped ignite the Cowboy offense and propelled them to wins in 7 of their last 9 games en route to a division title and a home win over the Seahawks in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs.
The 2019 version of the Cowboys will feature many of the same faces from the previous year and are expected to compete with the Eagles in the top-heavy NFC East for another division title. Despite the fact that a repeat champ of the East hasn’t happened in 14 seasons, there’s a lot of optimism in Dallas as a young core of talented players believes it has the necessary pieces to take the next step.
This Cowboys team is not without its question marks. The impact of new OC Kellen Moore, as well as the status of former All-Pro C Travis Fredrick a year removed from treatment for Guillain-Barre Syndrome, will likely be seen early on. A larger theme, however, is how will the team and HC Jason Garrett perform under the heightened expectations of last year’s success and the understanding that is the final season with many of the core young players under contract as franchise defining cap decisions will be required in the offseason. The answers to these key questions will likely be the story of the 2019 Cowboys season.
Super Bowl Odds: +2500
Odds to win the NFC: +1200
Odds to win the NFC East: +125
Season Win Total: 8.5 (O -160 / U +140)
(Lines Weeks 2-16 from CG Technology as of May 16, 2019)
(Personal NFL model lines based on expected starting Week 1 lineup as of June 13, 2019)
|Week||Opponent||CG Tech. Line||Expected Wins||NFL Model Line||Expected Wins|
|1||New York Giants||-7.5||.78||-4||.66|
|4||@ New Orleans (Sunday Night)||+7||.25||+7.5||.22|
|6||@ New York Jets||-2||.54||-1||.51|
|9||@ New York Giants (Monday)||-2||.54||-3||.59|
|10||Minnesota (Sunday Night)||-3||.59||-1.5||.53|
|12||@ New England||+6||.29||+7.5||.22|
|14||@ Chicago (Thursday)||+4||.33||+2.5||.45|
Expected Wins (CG Technologies): 9.12
Expected Wins (Personal NFL Model): 8.28
Given the upcoming paydays for a number of important Cowboys players including QB Dak Prescott, RB Zeke Elliott, WR Amari Cooper, CB Byron Jones, and LB Jaylon Smith, Dallas stuck to just a few short term deals in free agency aimed at filling holes for the upcoming season. The one exception was the new contract given to DE Demarcus Lawrence. The Cowboys front office avoided the franchise tag designation for Lawrence by signing him to a record contract for a non-quarterback. Entering his 6th season with the team this resigning was a no brainer for the Cowboys as Lawrence has blossomed into a high-level defensive end. A Pro-Bowler the past two seasons, DLaw has accrued 25 sacks, 29 tackles for loss, and 49 QB hits over those years. Pro Football Focus has ranked him as an elite DE with grades of 91.6 and 88.0 over the past two seasons as well.
Former Rams and Dolphins DE Robert Quinn was acquired in a trade and signed to a one year contract to provide balance and upgrade the talent pool of the Cowboys defensive line. While not the force he was earlier in his career, Quinn will be a solid player on the opposite side of the line. It is worth noting that this move was partly necessary due to the indefinite suspension of DE Randy Gregory and the lack of improvement from former 1st round pick DE Taco Charlton but otherwise is a low cost, low-risk move. Former Lion DL Kerry Hyder and ex-Texans DT Chris Covington were also signed to add depth and improve the run stopping ability of the Cowboy line.
The only major positional move for the Cowboys offense this offseason was the signing of former Packers WR Randell Cobb. Cobb will be asked to man the slot WR position which had been occupied by Cole Beasley the past seven seasons. The Cowboys will be looking for a bounce-back season from Cobb who has had some very productive seasons throughout his career however 2018 was Cobb’s low point for games played, receptions, and TDs over the past five seasons while also marking his lowest PFF grade (60.2) of his career.
The most impactful move for the Cowboy offense may not involve a player but rather the promotion of former backup QB Kellen Moore to offensive coordinator. Ironically, Moore replaces Scott Linehan who was his OC during his tenure as a Cowboys backup and also backed Moore to replace Wade Wilson as the quarterbacks’ coach last season. While short on coaching experience, Moore is expected to tweak the offense rather than massively overhaul it. Reports out of minicamp so far are positive regarding Moore’s effect on the offensive play calling and a more efficient and dynamic offense will go a long way toward influencing how far Big D goes in 2019.
Due in part to the Cooper trade, the Cowboys had 8 draft picks in 2019 but only 2 picks within the top 100. Their 1st selection was DT Trysten Hill with the 58th overall pick in the 2nd round. Out of Central Flordia, Hill oddly only started one game for the Knights last season due to apparent disagreements with the new coaching staff. The Cowboys brass was seemingly content with Hill’s supposed coachability issues and he will likely serve as a rotational player along the line this season.
None of the remaining 7 players selected are expected to have a major impact this year however depth along the lines was addressed and forward-thinking choices regarding the contracts of current secondary players were reflected in the later 2019 draft choices.
According to Football Outsiders Offensive DVOA, the 2018 Dallas Cowboys slipped from 3rd in 2016 to 10th in 2017 and plummeted down to 24th last year. Other metrics support this decline as they ranked 22nd in Points Scored, 21st in Yards per Play, 22nd in Net Yards per Pass Attempt, and surprisingly only 15th in Yards per Rushing Attempt this past season. It would be interesting to examine the splits before and after Amari Cooper’s arrival, however, the numbers were apparently enough for the Dallas front office to move on from OC Scott Linehan.
Kellen Moore’s offense should be similar next season but incorporate more motion and better design in an effort to improve efficiency. Whether or not that actually comes to fruition lays most squarely on the shoulders of QB Dak Prescott. After an impressive 2016 rookie campaign, Prescott fell off midway through his 2017 season and continued his mediocrity through the beginning of last year. In fact, Prescott only threw for over 250 yards once and had a Quarterback Rating over 100 just five times from the 2017 bye week (Week 6) to the 2018 bye week (Week 8). His PFF grades over the past 2 seasons have been a solid 74.8 and 72.2 but not as good as his rookie season of 83.7. Overall he has presented as a very capable QB and proficient enough to win a Super Bowl however he has yet to show the ability to carry his team with his talent alone like the elite QBs of the league.
Primarily, Prescott has been the beneficiary of a solid running game led by All-Pro RB Ezekiel Elliott. The 4th year Ohio State product has led the league in rushing for 2 of his first 3 seasons (he was suspended for 6 games in 2017) and been the catalyst of the offense. There is no reason to believe his play will decline anytime soon. Surrounding Zeke are WRs Amari Cooper, 2nd-year player Michael Gallup, and the newly acquired Randall Cobb. Together they form a solid group that is complemented by the return of future Hall of Fame TE Jason Witten. After a forgettable year in the Monday Night Football booth, Witten joins young TEs Blake Jarwin and Dalton Schultz to play about 20-25 snaps a game and provide veteran leadership. Together this group of skill position players has some high-level talent in Elliott and Cooper yet is surrounded by replacement level individuals. They are currently ranked 24th in the NFL model.
As has been the case over the last few seasons in Big D, the offensive line continues to be amongst the league’s very best. Ranked #1 overall in the NFL model, the o-line should continue to dominate early and often in games especially against below average defensive lines. Of the few questions regarding this group, the health of Fredrick should be answered early on but even if he is slow to return to form, it is assumed he will be an upgrade over his replacement from last season, Joe Looney. Paired with the 2nd year G Connor Williams, the core group of Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, Fredrick, and Collins should key the running game and provide ample time for Prescott to find open receivers.
For a number seasons in the not so distant past, it seemed like much of the media chatter regarding Dallas was how poor their defense was and how it was holding Tony Romo and the Cowboys offense back. While reports of how abysmal the past Dallas defenses had been may be overblown, they hadn’t finished with a negative (negative in this case is good) Defensive DVOA since 2009. Well, that finally changed this past season as the Cowboys finished 9th overall in the metric with a Defensive DVOA of -3.5 and also saw top 10 numbers in the categories of Points Allowed (6th), Yards Allowed (7th), Yards per Play Allowed (T-9th), 1st Downs Allowed (9th), and Yards per Rush Attempt Allowed (4th). 2018 marked a major improvement that should carry over to next season.
The strength of the Dallas defense can be found in their defensive lineman and linebackers as they rank 4th overall according to my model in that metric. At linebacker, the young duo of Jaylen Smith and Leighton Vander Esch may be the best every down tandem in the league. Both Smith (84.5) and LVE (85.7) are elite according to PFF and combined for 261 tackles. That’s great production for a bargain price and kudos to the Cowboys front office for their recent selections of these players. Playing in front of Smith and Vander Esch is a solid defensive front that boasts the talents of Pro-Bowler DE Demarcus Lawrence and his 25 sacks over the past two seasons. As discussed earlier Lawrence and the Cowboys agreed to a new contract this offseason to keep this premiere defensive end in town. Surrounding Lawrence is a mix of veterans and young talent in DE Robert Quinn, DT Tyrone Crawford, and DT Maliek Collins. With DE Randy Gregory suspended indefinitely, DEs Taco Charlton and Dorance Armstrong will likely be asked to play an expanded role and more snaps in 2019.
CB Bryon Jones stands out as the lone top-end player in the Cowboys secondary. The 2015 1st round pick, has been a reliable player in the backend of the defense (12th ranked CB according to PFF) and is on the final year of his rookie deal this season. Pairing with Jones at the cornerback position are Chidobe Awuzie and Anthony Brown. Both players have shown some flashes in their young careers but have been inconsistent at times. At safety Xavier Woods has shown promise in his first two seasons in Big D while Jeff Heath has been below average and could be targeted for replacement during the season via a trade for a more talented player. Overall the Cowboys secondary ranks 25th in the NFL model.
News & Nuggets
One of the Cowboys most glaring needs this offseason was at the Safety position. Despite numerous reports of a match between former Seahawks All-Pro S Earl Thomas and the Cowboys, this turned out to simply be “fake news” as the deal never solidified and Thomas moved on to Baltimore. Whether it was due to concerns over Thomas’s health, age, or price we will not know but the Cowboys appear content going into the season with Jeff Heath, Xavier Woods, and Kavon Frasier manning the deep secondary as the position was not truly addressed in either free agency or the draft.
The Dallas Cowboys have the biggest difference between the implied season win total according to the CG Technologies lines (9.12) and those of my personal NFL model (8.28). The most likely reason for this nearly one game difference can be attributed to my Cowboys Home Field Advantage number. While this number is certainly variable from game to game and any attempt to calculate it presents a host of issues, it is difficult to argue the Cowboys lack of HFA over the past 10 years.
Over that span, Dallas holds a .550 vs .563 home/road win percentage split and has averaged a greater average point differential on the road vs home in 6 of those 10 seasons. My metric gives Dallas a raw HFA of -1.19 (lowest in the NFL). This translates into a Home Field Advantage of .5 points for home divisional games (which is actually the same for all NFC East teams) and only 1 point for all non-divisional games. If we assume an average HFA of 2.5 across all NFL teams and situations the Cowboys poor home/road splits and HFA would reduce their total point spread by about 13.5 points over the course of the season which is equal to a reduction of about .89 wins and is almost exactly the difference between the model’s expected wins and those of current sportsbooks.
There’s a lot to be excited about in Dallas this upcoming season. The franchise made a big step last year by winning the NFC East and advancing to the divisional round. They have a host of homegrown, young talent at key positions and a division that looks to have only one other team competing for the playoffs this year.
Some metrics suggest that last season’s 10 wins was a bit higher than statistical expectations and some regression is due. Pythagorean Wins is a formula used to determine the number of wins a team “should have won” in a given season and this metric lists the Cowboys as having the 4th highest Pythagorean Wins last season (1.47). This suggests they should have won 8.53 games rather than 10. Additionally, outside of the loss of Fredrick, the Cowboys were rather fortunate with regard to injuries last season in comparison to divisional rival Philadelphia (78.5 Adjusted Games Lost to 118.5).
Most handicappers would bet any team in any situation depending on the number and that holds true with the Dallas Cowboys win total this season. Given the relative weakness of the NFC East this season, CG Technologies’ -160 juice on the Cowboys’ win total of 8.5 would be a very hesitant over. However, when combining the look of the Cowboys as a possible regression candidate in 2019, along with a 1st place schedule, and the pressure of a head coach on the hot seat, this team’s ideal ceiling looks to be about 10 wins. Therefore at the more widely available total of 9 wins, this would be an under bet from me.