My goal with the Offseason Preview series is to get caught up with each team’s 53-man roster, offensive and defensive schemes, team needs, and offseason capital within a 10-minute read. The basics will be at the top -- cap space, draft picks, cut candidates, notable departures -- and the film and analytics takes will be at the bottom. I hope to write these in a way that they’re referenceable throughout not just free agency and the NFL Draft, but also the 2021 season as we look into weekly matchups. The offseason is the time for me to get outside of our fantasy football bubble and learn more about what’s going on at the other positions. You can read the rest of my 2021 Offseason Previews here and can follow me on Twitter (@HaydenWinks).
Cowboys 2020 Recap
The Cowboys averaged 32.6 points in the five games Dak Prescott played in, but the defense was a disaster from the jump -- they finished 20th in passing EPA and 28th in rushing EPA -- so Dallas started 2-3. Prescott’s Week 5 broken ankle effectively ended the Cowboys’ season, and injuries across the offensive line only added to the fire. The end result, despite having the starting three-receiver set healthy all year, was the No. 25 passing EPA offense. On the ground, Ezekiel Elliott’s contract looked worse with every carry. He was the RB73 out of 74 qualifiers in PPR points over expected per game (-3.7), leading to the team’s No. 20 rushing EPA rank. Getting a healthy Prescott back in the lineup will mask a lot of the issues the Cowboys have (as will playing in the NFC East), so it just comes down to the front office getting the checkbook out.
Cowboys 2021 Offseason
Cowboys Cap Space
$18.3 million (13th) without Dak Prescott under contract
Cowboys Draft Picks
1.10, 2.44, 3.75, 4th, 6th, 7th, plus compensatory picks
Cowboys Cut Candidates
Cowboys Depth Chart
% of Passes
Dak Prescott (if tagged)
RB (Early Down)
RB (Third Down)
Offensive Coordinator: 32-year-old Kellen Moore has designed an offense made for fantasy production. The Cowboys were second in neutral offensive pace and total plays last season, and were averaging an absurd 32.6 points in the five games with Dak Prescott. Moore utilizes pre-snap motion, the play-action pass (28% of Prescott’s passes were play action), and spreads defenses out with their three-receiver sets (81% of their passes came in 11-personnel). Prescott and the offensive line just need to get healthy for the Cowboys to flirt with a top-five scoring offense. Most of that production will come through the air.
Passing Offense: Among 35 quarterbacks with at least 500 plays over the last two seasons, Dak Prescott ranks fifth in EPA per dropback (+0.214) and 15th in completion percentage over expected (+0.8%). He’s a borderline top-five quarterback if he’s close to 100% in 2021, particularly in this offense with these weapons. Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and CeeDee Lamb are all under contract at receiver, as are Blake Jarwin and Dalton Schultz at tight end. Cooper, the X receiver, has averaged 16.6 PPR points in the 30 games with Prescott despite some injuries sprinkled throughout. Lamb is the next best bet for production as the primary slot receiver (35% of his targets came over the middle), while Gallup runs a lot of clear out routes on the perimeter (18% over the middle). With these three, it’s possible that the Cowboys have a top-10 passing EPA offense in 2021 after ranking 25th last year.
Rushing Offense: The Prescott injury made the headlines, but don’t forget about the offensive line injuries that Cowboys dealt with in 2020. RT La’El Collins (0 games), LT Tyron Smith (2 games), RG Zack Martin (10), and free agent C Joe Looney (10) all missed time and played through ailments when active. With better injury luck, the Cowboys could have a top-10 line. Four starters return and the fifth projected starter, 2020 fourth-round C Tyler Biadasz, played in eight games and was getting Round 1 buzz before a collegiate injury. At running back, Ezekiel Elliott is the overwhelming favorite to keep his lead back duties over Tony Pollard. Zeke may not average the 24.4 expected PPR points he had with Prescott last year, but he should see an RB1 workload even if Pollard mixes in on passing downs. Expect the Cowboys’ No. 20 rushing EPA offense to push towards top-12 status in 2021.
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% of Plays
Defensive Coordinator: Mike Nolan barely lasted 16 games before being fired this offseason. Enter DC Dan Quinn, who’s 2020 Falcons Defense ran Cover 1 man at the second highest rate (46.2%). That means Dallas will be keeping their single-high base defense despite the coaching change. Unless Quinn is that much of a coaching upgrade over Nolan, there’s no reason to expect a massive change in Dallas’ defensive metrics. They were 20th in passing EPA and 28th in rushing EPA last season. Perhaps getting more games out of CB Trevon Diggs (12 games), S Donovan Wilson (11), EDGE Randy Gregory (10), and LB Leighton Vander Esch (10) brings Dallas into average territory.
Passing Defense: A Cover 3-heavy defense shouldn’t rank 28th in 40-plus yard passing plays allowed (11), but that was the Cowboys in 2020. Dallas is facing a lot of potential turnover in the secondary, too. CB2 Chidobe Awuzie and slot CB Jourdan Lewis are free agents, and there’s room for improvement over current starting FS Darian Thompson who is heading into the last year of his contract. The two locked in starters in the secondary are 2020 second-round CB Trevon Diggs and 2019 sixth-round overachieving SS Donovan Wilson. Expect Quinn to look for a deep safety and CB2 to round out his single-high looks. Up front, the Cowboys have $25 million DE DeMarcus Lawrence (7.0 sacks) and speedy OLB Randy Gregory (4.0) sacks. That’s their defensive strength on paper, although they ranked 25th in adjusted sack rate in 2020. Overall, Dallas’ pass defense should remain a below-to-average unit.
Rushing Defense: The Cowboys’ run defense was so bad that opposing offenses were opting to run against them at top-10 rates in neutral situations even though the pass defense was suspect. The defensive line struggled to get push, but the true culprit of Dallas’ No. 30 yards per carry defense (5.0) was their linebacker play. Jaylon Smith (5 for $64M) and Leighton Vander Esch (2018 19th overall pick) love to fill the wrong hole and don’t have the same athleticism as they did prior to their injuries. Their names don’t match their production. At defensive tackle, the Cowboys will be playing two inexperienced players in 2019 second-rounder Trysten Hill (333 career snaps) and 2020 third-rounder Neville Gallimore (416), the latter showing far more promise as a potential long-term starter. Gallimore, a 23-year-old prospect out of Oklahoma, will need to take a step in year two for the Cowboys to climb out of their No. 28 rushing EPA ranking from last season.
Cowboys Team Needs
1. Free Safety - The entire secondary was bad in 2020. They ranked 20th in passing EPA defense, and the safety that logged the most snaps (Xavier Woods) is set for free agency. Right now, 2019 sixth-round SS Donovan Wilson is the only project worth continuing at safety. New DC Dan Quinn will be looking for his starting single-high safety this offseason. Dorian Thompson is a depth option and special teams contributor.
2. Outside Corner - Slot corner Jourdan Lewis is a free agent, and the Cowboys still have work to do on the outside around 2020 second-rounder Trevon Diggs. Career backup Anthony Brown is slated to start at CB2 right now. The Cowboys need to address both CB2 and slot corner, plus need Diggs to take a leap in his second season to even be an average pass defense in 2021. This will likely take time.
3. Defensive Tackle - The Cowboys might have a long-term starting defensive tackle in 2020 third-rounder Neville Gallimore, but it might already be time to move past pre-draft expectations for 2019 second-rounder Trysten Hill. He only has 10 tackles and 0.0 sacks in 12 career games. Part of the blame for the Cowboys’ No. 28 rushing EPA defense can be attributed to the interior line. Perhaps Gerald McCoy (quad) returns coming off his zero-snap 2020 season.
4. Slot Corner - Read my second team need.
5. Linebacker - There’s theoretical upside with Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch, but 2020 was as concerning as it gets. Both players have dealt with significant injuries and simply may never recover. Smith is contractually tied to the team long term, but LVE’s contract is up after the 2021 season. To get ahead of the curve or to simply find Sean Lee’s one-for-one replacement, a Day 2 or Day 3 draft pick at linebacker would make sense.
2021 Fantasy Football Rankings
Consider these my way-too-early 2021 fantasy football ranking ranges ahead of free agency and the 2021 NFL Draft, and here’s where each player ranked in PPR points, expected PPR points, and PPR points over expected last year.
Dak Prescott (QB1) - Over the last two seasons, Prescott’s 22.5 fantasy points per game ranks third among quarterbacks only trailing Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes. His ankle surgery appears to be on schedule, meaning he’s likely to have a semi-normal training camp leading into Week 1. With the entire offensive line expected back, Prescott belongs inside the top-five conversation. Dallas averaged 32.6 points in his five starts last season.
Amari Cooper (WR1/2), Ezekiel Elliott (RB1/2), CeeDee Lamb (WR2/3), Michael Gallup (WR3/4), Tony Pollard (RB4) - Instead of breaking each player down, it’s easier just to show their on/off splits with and without Prescott. All of these players are set to return, and there’s no great reason to expect any of them to perform much differently in 2021. The full splits column is here.
Blake Jarwin (TE3) - A Week 1 torn ACL ended Jarwin’s 2020 season but should give him enough time to be ready for 2021 training camp. Jarwin will be 27 years old and in year two of a 4-year, $22 million contract next season. He could be cut after June 1 ($3.5M cap savings) if the Cowboys like 2018 fourth-rounder Dalton Schultz enough. Schultz was the TE18 per game last year on TE18 fantasy usage. If both are on the roster, it’s unlikely one emerges as more than a TE2 streaming option.