Are the Dallas Cowboys inevitably going to take a step back in 2024?

2HE57RY Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA. 8th Jan, 2022. Dallas Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy looks on during the NFL game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Christopher Szagola/CSM/Alamy Live News

• All in? Maybe not: Despite owner Jerry Jones' words painting a different picture, the Dallas Cowboys lacked aggressiveness during the NFL offseason.

• Will Dak Prescott maintain MVP-caliber play from a year ago?: Prescott's chances of backing up a career year with another are probably lower than the chances that he regresses to some degree the following year. If the most important player on the team has a worse year than he did the season before, Dallas will be up against it to even maintain its level from last season, let alone take a step forward.

• Get a head start on fantasy football: Use PFF's fantasy football mock draft simulator to create real live mock draft simulations to get ready for your live draft!

Estimated Reading Time: 6 minutes

The Dallas Cowboys have won 12 games in three consecutive seasons, losing short of the NFC Championship Game on each occasion. 

In each year, CeeDee Lamb was the team’s leading receiver while Dak Prescott was the quarterback and Mike McCarthy was the head coach. All three are still there, but each is entering the final year of their contracts with no long-term extension agreed.

The focus has been on whether they have done enough to take a step forward and if this trio can generate the payoff for all that regular season success, but the Cowboys have had the kind of offseason that makes you question whether they can even get to 12 wins again.

Since giving McCarthy one more chance to get over the hump, “all in” has been Jerry Jones’ motto during the offseason, but the team’s offseason moves belie that sentiment.

Teams that are “all-in” tend to make aggressive moves with a short-term focus, often mortgaging the future for immediate success. Dallas has done almost nothing with a short-term outlook and made zero splash in free agency.

In fact, departures were the feature of the team’s offseason rather than any additions of significance. Tyron Smith left for the New York Jets in free agency. Tony Pollard will now line up for the Tennessee Titans while edge rusher Dorance Armstrong will still play in the NFC East, but for the Washington Commanders, following Dan Quinn to his new team.

Center Tyler Biadasz, cornerback Stephon Gilmore, safety Jayron Kearse and defensive linemen Neville Gallimore and Dante Fowler Jr. all represent significant pieces of last season’s roster that departed in free agency.

Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch also was forced to retire due to neck injuries.

The additions coming the other way have been few and far between. Eric Kendricks is perhaps the most significant addition, and he may replace what was lost in Vander Esch, but the majority of the replacements for key members of last year’s team have been sourced from the draft.

The NFL draft presents a fascinating dichotomy between the concept of building through younger, cheaper players or paying a premium for proven NFL commodities. 

Theoretically, building through the draft is a good thing, but the draft remains a high-risk environment for immediate-impact players. Smart teams load up on draft picks to try and maximize the chance that they can solve needs with at least one swing of the bat, and other smart teams try and avoid entering the draft with any needs at all, allowing them to truly draft the best players available so that any immediate impact is just gravy.

Dallas has always been a team happy to go into the draft with serious needs that they expect rookies to solve, and to their credit, they have been one of the best drafting teams in recent years, but that is a high-risk strategy. Tyron Smith is still one of the best left tackles in football when he is on the field. Last season, he posted an 89.3 PFF pass-blocking grade, allowing just 21 total pressures across 14 games including the playoffs. Injuries have meant that Smith regularly misses time — the last time he played a full schedule without missing a game was 2016 — but replacing him in the lineup with a rookie is still a huge step.

Oklahoma’s Tyler Guyton now has to come in and be solid immediately at a position that typically has a slow developmental curve. That would be a big enough challenge for any tackle prospect, but almost any profile you find on Guyton will highlight the fact that he is a raw prospect with potential rather than the finished article. Guyton’s highest PFF grade over the last two seasons was just 66.2 overall, and his pass-blocking grade in true pass sets last season was just 59.0.

Again, Dallas has drafted well when it comes to offensive linemen — even ones seen as raw (Tyler Smith) — but this is a very small target for them to stick the landing on at a critical position on the offensive line.

Versatile interior linemen Cooper Beebe may be called upon to replace Biadasz in the lineup in addition to Guyton while defensive linemen Marshawn Kneeland and Justin Rogers will likely pick up the majority of the 1,047 snaps available from the offseason departures on the defensive line.

There is absolutely a potential outcome where Dallas had an outstanding draft and the rookie class steps into the breach to pick up the slack from the offseason departures. If that happens, Dallas will have gotten younger, cheaper and possibly healthier all at the same time. But those draft classes are few and far between and typically transformative when they hit.

A far greater chance is that one or more of the rookies expected to replace quality veterans will not be able to match that performance or production and the Cowboys end up a weaker roster overall.

Adding to the concern is that 2023 was arguably Dak Prescott’s finest season. Looking strictly at the data, Prescott had the best MVP case of any quarterback. That case only took a hit when you started to factor in the quality of the opponent or the narrative storylines that ultimately secured the award for Lamar Jackson.

Prescott's chances of backing up a career year with another are probably lower than the chances that he regresses to some degree the following year. If the most important player on the team has a worse year than he did the season before, Dallas will be up against it to even maintain its level from last season, let alone take a step forward.

In a season that has been termed “all-in” by Jerry Jones, and is obviously a critical season for the future of the organization as a whole, it’s difficult to paint a picture where the Cowboys are in an obviously better position than they were 12 months ago. By contrast, it is easy to imagine a scenario where they are worse in multiple areas.


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