NFL News & Analysis

Dallas Cowboys 2021 free agency & NFL Draft preview

Leading up to the start of free agency on March 17 and the 2021 NFL Draft in April, I’ll be taking a position-by-position look at all 32 NFL teams with a focus on the starting spots that have question marks heading into next season.

Heading into the 2020 season, there was reason to believe that the Dallas Cowboys could become real contenders in the NFC behind a high-powered offense. Unfortunately, season-ending injuries to both starting tackles early, along with the catastrophic loss of Dak Prescott at quarterback, quickly halted the optimism. The offense that took the field for much of the season simply wasn’t explosive enough to make up for what ended up being one of the worst defenses in the NFL.

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Dan Quinn has been brought in as defensive coordinator to begin to correct the issues on that side of the ball. Additionally, Dallas should be getting back a healthy offensive line and quarterback — assuming the team can strike a deal with Prescott in the coming weeks. That will put them in position once again to compete in a weak NFC East.    

Projected cap space (Over the Cap): $20,254,273 (12th in NFL)

Picks in 2021 NFL Draft: 10, 44, 75, 99, 115, 138, 179, 194, 236

Projected 2021 Offense 
Position Player 2020 PFF grade rank 2021 cap hit
QB ?
RB Ezekiel Elliott 49 / 70 $13.7 million
WR Amari Cooper 31 / 127 $22.0 million
WR Michael Gallup 78 / 127 $2.7 million
WR CeeDee Lamb 54 / 127 $3.2 million
TE Blake Jarwin N/A $4.5 million
LT Tyron Smith N/A $14.0 million
LG Connor Williams 8 / 39 $3.0 million
C Tyler Biadasz 33 / 37 $0.9 million
RG Zack Martin 2 / 40 $17.0 million
RT La’el Collins N/A $12.1 million

The Cowboys offense is largely set outside of the most important position on the field. Dallas and Prescott are at odds over a multi-year extension for the second straight offseason, but it appears unlikely that Prescott will be leaving. Whether they work out a long-term deal or the team uses the franchise tag again, he’s the heavy favorite to be the team’s starter on an otherwise loaded offense. 

The two starting spots most likely to change are tight end and left guard.

Jarwin began the 2020 season as the team’s starting tight end before going down with a knee injury in Week 1. Dalton Schultz — who should compete for the starting job this offseason — caught over 60 passes in his absence.

Williams is coming off the best season of his career as the Cowboys starting left guard this past season (70.8 PFF grade), but Connor McGovern could compete for a starting job there after playing 600 snaps in backup duty in 2020.    

Will the Cowboys get a long-term deal done with Dak Prescott?

Dallas got off to just a 2-3 record in the five games in which Prescott played last season, but the fifth-year quarterback out of Mississippi State was playing some of the best football of his career during that stretch. Prescott’s 85.2 PFF grade before going down with injury ranked seventh among all qualifying quarterbacks. He was well on pace for his second consecutive season with an 80.0-plus overall grade. 

There is little debate that Prescott is a quality NFL starting quarterback. The question that the Cowboys have to come to terms with is whether Prescott is closer to the Deshaun Watsons or Kirk Cousins of the world when deciding on how high to go on his next contract. The PFF free agency page currently projects Prescott for a four-year, $158 million deal — a shade under $40 million per year with $115 million of that contract guaranteed. 

Prescott’s peers in the 2016 NFL Draft — Jared Goff and Carson Wentz — signed lucrative, long-term extensions only to have their teams later trade them and eat plenty of dead cap in the process. Prescott projects the best of that trio moving forward, but his overall track record doesn’t make the decision to pay him $40 million per year a no-brainer. His 86.6 PFF grade since 2016 ranks 13th in the league, sandwiched between Derek Carr and Ryan Tannehill.  

Prescott’s contract discussions in Dallas are just one storyline in what is setting up to be a very eventful offseason when it comes to quarterback movement in the NFL. 

How good can this offense be at full strength?

The Cowboys have the firepower offensively to be one of the best units in the NFL. One only has to look back to the 2019 season when Dallas ranked third in EPA per play behind the Baltimore Ravens and Kansas City Chiefs to see the potential that this group has with Prescott playing at a top-10 level, a talented receiving corps and a strong offensive line. 

That offense was only supposed to get better in 2020 with first-round pick CeeDee Lamb added into the fold, giving the Cowboys three potential No. 1 options at wide receiver. All Lamb did as a rookie was rank second in the league in receiving yards when lined up in the slot (877) behind former Cowboy Cole Beasley

Unfortunately, shaky play from a backup cast of quarterbacks and the lowest overall grade from any pair of tackles in the NFL resulted in a disappointing campaign for the Dallas offense. Here’s hoping we get to see this group at full strength in 2021.  

Is it a mistake if Dallas adds to the strength of its offense early in the 2021 NFL Draft instead of going defense?

Defense is the glaring area of need on this roster and, as such, it would be a surprise to see Dallas target an offensive player in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft. However, there are several intriguing prospects on the offensive side of the ball whom Jerry Jones and company could target at 10th overall to strengthen a strength.

Kyle Pitts is one of those players. Top-10 tight ends typically aren’t a great value proposition, but Pitts is not your typical tight end prospect. He has rare receiving ability at the position — fully capable of jumping into the Travis KelceGeorge KittleDarren Waller tier of receiving threats. 

Pitts is coming off a 2020 season at Florida in which he recorded a 96.1 PFF grade and showed improvement as a blocker. At just 20 years old, he is a true blue-chip talent who could create mismatches for years to come for Dallas. 

The other potential “luxury” pick toward the top of the first round offensive linemen Rashawn Slater. His height and arm length may lead to a move inside to guard, but there is reason to believe he can hold up outside in the NFL. At worst, he has the tools of a very good guard in the NFL — someone who could challenge Williams at the left guard spot in 2021. He also gives the added bonus of tackle versatility should Dallas worry about Smith or Collins remaining healthy in the coming years. 

Defense makes a lot of sense for Dallas early in the 2021 NFL Draft, but it wouldn’t be shocking if they continue to build up their offense with someone like Pitts or Slater. 

Potential targets at open spots

Quarterback: Dak Prescott, Justin Fields

Odds are that the Cowboys will bring back Prescott this offseason. It just remains to be seen whether it's on a new long-term deal or another franchise tag. If it’s the latter, quarterback will remain a question mark heading into 2022. 

The other option we'll consider here is Fields — should Dallas lose faith that Prescott is the future of the position. There have been some concerns voiced about Fields’ ability to read defenses in a timely manner, but he's still the kind of quarterback prospect who could go first overall in a draft that didn’t include Trevor Lawrence. He is arguably the most accurate quarterback in this draft and a dynamic threat as a runner, and he's coming off two straight seasons with 90.0-plus PFF grades as the starter for Ohio State. 

If Fields starts to slide outside of the top five, an opportunity could present itself for the Cowboys to turn the page on Prescott and build around another talented quarterback on a rookie deal. 

Projected 2021 Defense
Position Player 2020 PFF grade rank 2021 cap hit
DI Neville Gallimore 101 / 125 $1.1 million
DI ?
EDGE Demarcus Lawrence 4 / 110 $25.0 million
LB Leighton Vander Esch 53 / 83 $3.8 million
LB Jaylon Smith 45 / 83 $9.8 million
LB ?
CB Trevon Diggs 58 / 121  $1.4 million
CB ?
CB ?
S Donovan Wilson 18 / 94 $0.9 million
S ?

When examining the Cowboys roster, defense is where the majority of the focus needs to lie this offseason. 

Along with Lawrence and Gallimore, Trysten Hill and Randy Gregory could have big roles along the defensive line. Dallas will need to make decisions on free agents Aldon Smith, Tyrone Crawford and Gerald McCoy, who was released last offseason because of a quad injury that kept him out of the 2020 season. 

Smith’s name has been thrown around as a potential cap casualty, but there's been some pushback on that idea. Clarence Hill of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram has reported that the team is not considering cutting Smith. He and Vander Esch figure to take the lion’s share of the linebacker snaps when healthy. 

In the secondary, Diggs at cornerback and Wilson at strong safety are the only two players who appear to have relatively strong claims on starting jobs. Anthony Brown could figure into a starting role, along with Reggie Robinson II in a move back to cornerback, but the Cowboys will still need to add cornerbacks and a playmaking free safety in either the draft or free agency. Xavier Woods, Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis are the notable free agents in the secondary who could return on a new deal.   

What went wrong for the Cowboys defense in 2020?

Nearly everything went wrong for Mike Nolan’s group last season outside of being able to generate a decent pass rush. 

Their 4.9 yards allowed per run play ranked 30th in the NFL ahead of only the Cincinnati Bengals and Houston Texans. The biggest problem area there was soft play inside at defensive tackle. The Cowboys’ 2.3 rushing yards allowed before contact per attempt was over a half yard more than any other team in the league last season. 

The secondary — and pass defense as a whole — also took their lumps. Dallas’ 45.5 coverage grade as a team ranked 27th in the league, and they enter this offseason in need of two to three new starters in the secondary with Awuzie, Lewis and Woods hitting free agency. 

The hope in Dallas will be that whatever offseason moves they make in conjunction with Dan Quinn’s new scheme at defensive coordinator will help push them back toward average in 2021.     

Can Randy Gregory put it all together in a starting role in 2021?

Gregory has had an eventful start to his NFL career since Dallas selected him in the second round of the 2015 NFL Draft out of Nebraska. Suspensions have kept Gregory from building any kind of momentum across his first six seasons in the league. He has played over 300 defensive snaps in just one of those years, recording a 61.7 overall grade on 522 snaps in 2018. 

However, Gregory flashed some of the best play of his career this past year in a rotational role after sitting out the entire 2019 season. His 80.5 overall grade was the second-highest of any player on the Cowboys defensive line behind Lawrence, and it was comfortably the highest single-season mark for Gregory since entering the league. He gave the Cowboys quality play against both the run and the pass with 25 pressures on under 200 pass-rushing snaps.  

Aldon Smith’s potential departure could open the door for a larger role for Gregory in 2021 if he can stay on the field. A full season of the kind of play Gregory provided in 2020 would be a welcome addition to this defense.     

How did Trevon Diggs perform in his rookie season for Dallas?

Diggs was thrown into the fire as a starter outside for Dallas following his second-round selection in the 2020 NFL Draft. Things started off shaky: He earned coverage grades below 60.0 in each of his first six NFL starts, and his 385 receiving yards allowed across the first six weeks of the season ranked third-most among all cornerbacks in the NFL behind Isaiah Oliver and Jeff Gladney

While Diggs did miss some time with a foot injury over the back half of the season, he also began to turn things around. Diggs would play in 12 more games over the remainder of the season, and he recorded at least a 60.0 coverage grade in all six of those contests. He began to make some plays on the ball over that stretch, as well. Diggs picked up seven pass breakups and three interceptions in those final six appearances. 

The cornerback group in Dallas has plenty of questions heading into 2021, but the team should feel relatively comfortable in Diggs returning to start outside.  

Potential targets at open spots

Interior defender: Gerald McCoy, Jurrell Casey

McCoy signed a three-year, $18 million contract with the Cowboys last offseason only to rupture his quad prior to the start of the season and subsequently be released by the team. Sports Illustrated’s Mike Fisher recently reported that there is momentum toward a reunion between the two sides in 2021. McCoy maintained connections with the team during his rehab and would bring a much-needed veteran presence on the interior of Dan Quinn’s new defense. McCoy earned a 72.4 PFF grade in his last season of action in 2019. 

Casey is another veteran option on the market following his release by the Denver Broncos in a cap-cutting move. The 31-year-old missed a large chunk of the 2020 season with a biceps injury, but he provided solid play when healthy. 

With young players like Gallimore and Hill currently atop the depth chart, it would be a surprise if Dallas didn’t look to bring in a veteran presence.    

Edge defender: Aldon Smith, Justin Houston 

Smith’s performance in 2020 wasn’t jaw-dropping by any means, but considering that these were his first meaningful NFL snaps since 2015 it was actually one of the more impressive seasons by any edge defender in the league. The former first-round pick played at least 40 snaps in all 16 games for Dallas, ending the year with a 70.0 pass-rushing grade and 50 pressures. It seems as if there should be some interest in a return this offseason following that performance.

Houston is an alternative veteran pass rusher to add to the mix with Lawrence and company. It seems as if Father Time may be beginning to catch up to Houston given his 2020 performance in Indianapolis, but he’s just one year removed from back-to-back grades north of 85.0 in 2018 and 2019. In a rotational role, he could still provide value on the edge for Dallas. 

Linebacker: Brandon Copeland, Pete Werner

I opted for depth and special teams contributors here since it appears that both Vander Esch and Smith will return as the two linebackers on the field for a majority of the snaps in Dallas. 

After playing nearly 1,000 defensive snaps across the 2018 and 2019 seasons with the New York Jets, Copeland returned to primarily a special teams role with the New England Patriots in 2020 before a torn pectoral muscle in Week 7 sidelined him for the remainder of the season. He has experience across multiple linebacker positions and could contribute as a plus special teamer. 

Werner doesn’t have elite athleticism at the position, but there aren’t a ton of holes to poke in his game. He could contribute early in his career in a starting role if necessary and would add some nice depth at a position that has more uncertainty than one might have imagined two years ago.   

Cornerback: Caleb Farley, Richard Sherman

Farley is CB1 on PFF’s Draft Board, and he would make an enticing first-round option for the Cowboys if he's still on the board at 10th overall. From a size and speed perspective, Farley has the measurables you want to see at the position. In 2019 — the last time we saw him — Farley paired those measurables with elite play in coverage. That season, he earned a 90.5 coverage grade while allowing a passer rating of 26.8 on throws into his coverage. 

Sherman, of course, has links to Quinn from the time the two spent together in Seattle. There aren’t too many cornerbacks in the league who have had more success in the Cover 3 defense that Quinn is likely to implement in Dallas, and Sherman still likely has a few more years of quality play left in him. The soon-to-be 33-year-old played in just five games in 2020, but he was PFF’s highest-graded cornerback during the 49ers' Super Bowl run in 2019 (90.3 overall grade).   

Safety: Marcus Williams, Andre Cisco 

Xavier Woods has given Dallas solid play at free safety over the past several seasons, but it seems likely that the team will look to add some more playmaking ability at the position. 

Williams has been one of the more underrated safeties in that regard since entering the league in 2017. His 91.2 PFF grade over the last four seasons ranks fourth among all qualifying safeties behind only Harrison Smith, Adrian Amos and Earl Thomas. Williams has shown proficiency in both single-high and two-high coverages over that time, as well. He is one of the better free agent options at free safety this offseason in a deep free agent pool. 

Cisco isn’t nearly as polished a solution as an incoming rookie out of Syracuse, but he does profile as one of the best playmakers at safety in this draft class. He has more combined pass breakups and interceptions than games played in the collegiate ranks, and his combination of range and size should appeal to a team like Dallas. They’ll just have to work on reining in some of his improvisation on the back end. 

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