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2021 Stats (Rank)
Total Offense: 6,919 yards (1st)
Offensive Touchdowns: 55 (4th)
Offensive Plays: 1,153 (2nd)
Pass Attempts + Sacks: 680 (5th)
Rush Attempts: 473 (12th)
Unaccounted for Targets: 205 (9th)
Unaccounted for Carries: 36 (23rd)
Well guess what? It’s Mike McCarthy. You may remember him from such events as “punting on fourth-and-2 in the third quarter of a playoff game they were trailing by 16,” or maybe “kicking a field goal to take a one-point lead in the season opener and thus giving the ball back to Tom Brady.” He’s a head coach who, barring the franchise quarterback getting hurt, somehow always manages to win 10 games and be hilarious whilst doing it. Football America loves to say very nasty things about Mr. McCarthy and note he fooled the Cowboys based on visiting PFF headquarters and reading off a script that he mostly lied about. I say that we aren’t talking enough about the job he’s done in Dallas as a content creator. There are some amazing long-form video series out there these days – I’m a big fan of What Makes This Song Stink and Summoning Salt’s speedrun history videos. Nobody quite does Dopey But Somehow Ultimately Successful like McCarthy does today. It’s an unparalleled run.
Kellen Moore took head coaching interviews this offseason but will return to try to beat the rap that his offense falls apart whenever everyone isn’t perfectly healthy. Dak Prescott’s hamstring injury was a major turning point for the offense, but without Amari Cooper, the team is out of luxury items to overcompensate for schematic problems. This year, Moore and Prescott will be breaking in two new wide receivers while hoping Michael Gallup can get back from his late-season ACL tear in time to get the whole unit on the same page by October.
Dan Quinn also took head coaching interviews this offseason and was regarded as a frontrunner early on in some spots before settling down with the Cowboys. His defense returns every player who played 500 or more snaps last season besides Damontae Kazee and Keanu Neal and should benefit from more snaps from DeMarcus Lawrence and the drafting of Sam Williams in the second round. It’s never easy for the No. 1 fantasy defense to repeat – too much has to go right in the first place, too many defensive touchdowns are pure random chance, and so on – but the Cowboys have another cupcake schedule with the AFC South and NFC North and are definitely a top-five D/ST entering the season.
Dak Prescott Weeks 1-6 (pre-hamstring injury): six starts, 1,813 yards, 16 touchdowns (three or more TDs in five of six games), four interceptions. 22 carries, 70 yards.
Dak Prescott Weeks 8-14: seven starts, 1,785 yards, nine touchdowns (zero games of three or more TDs), six interceptions. 17 carries, 35 yards.
It was a tale of two fantasy seasons, and one you likely had to pivot from quickly if you were hoping to actually go somewhere in the playoffs. Prescott and the Cowboys have teased us for two years now with extremely productive starts that look like fantasy gold, then fade into nothingness due to injury. Prescott turns 29 in July and has all the franchise quarterback tools but has yet to really put them all together into the one transformative season that we know he can create. It may never happen, but the fact that it could happen continues to keep his ADP in the lower end of the QB1 tier. He hasn’t quite taken on Ezekiel Elliott levels of stock tanking, but he’s pretty affordable and you can reasonably argue that he’s worth the investment as compared to an unknown like Trey Lance or coming-off-elbow-injection Matthew Stafford. Just know Prescott comes with injury issues and be ready to either back up your investment or pivot quickly depending on the league size. Cooper Rush’s one start in 2021 was successful by the standards of Cooper Rush, but if Prescott goes down with a major injury again, he will again tank the entirety of the rest of this offense’s stock.
The trade of Amari Cooper opens up CeeDee Lamb as an easy WR1. Lamb received 13 targets in Week 13’s win against New Orleans during Cooper’s first game back from a bout with COVID-19, and it’s hard to believe he won’t be a consistent threat for 10 or more targets without Cooper. Putting Lamb into Cooper’s flanker role and letting him be the motion man is going to open up his game. I have seen some analysts down on Lamb because of his disappearing role at times last year. I don’t believe that will hold up in 2022. I would be comfortable and confident taking him at the turn as a WR1 and think he’s about on par with Davante Adams. If Lamb had already been shown a stretch with 10-plus targets a game, he would be going in the first 10 picks in my estimation.
In comparison to most tight ends inside the top 12 in ADP at the position, there is nothing sexy about Dalton Schultz. He’s not a unicorn like Kyle Pitts and he doesn’t have the top-of-position-upside of most of the top five players. He wasn’t as strong of a prospect as T.J. Hockenson and doesn’t play on an offense as amazing as Dawson Knox. He’s a boring, safe pick. He’s Zach Ertz minus ten years, and the Zach Ertz we have at home can’t play against man coverage anymore. It’s a bet on a receiver for an offense that has lost a lot of targets, has the potential of losing even more if Gallup is out for extra time, and has more above-average moves in the open field than obvious highlight reel plays. I’m never excited to take Schultz, but especially in PPR, I’m often happy I did when the draft is over.
It’s easy to understand Dallas’ bet on Gallup over Cooper if you look at the two cap figures and decide Cooper isn’t a No. 1 wideout – even if we laugh at how Dallas got played by trying to jump the wideout market, we must admit that the difference between the two isn’t that great. But Gallup is rehabbing the late-season ACL tear, and whenever reporters have asked someone about the idea of him starting in Week 1, Cowboys coaches and management hem and haw. The floor here is touchdown-or-bust starter, and Gallup essentially did that in his best stretch of last season. Targeted an average of nine times a game from Weeks 11-14, he returned just 246 yards on 20 catches with a single score. He was coming off an injury then, yes, but guess what he’ll be doing this season? I’m bearish on Gallup until we start seeing some weeks that would actually qualify as a boom.
James Washington and Jalen Tolbert are the third and fourth wideouts that figure to get major target run while Gallup is still out and/or adjusting. Washington is a home run threat who played with Ben Roethlisberger over the last two years, which means he was about as useful as the number nine on a microwave panel. Prescott’s 2021 offseason shoulder Non-Injury But Maybe An Injury didn’t wind up limiting his deep ball in a similar way, but I like the bet on Tolbert a little better, and OTA reports have him doing everything from catching punts to scoring in the red zone. I think Tolbert will ultimately prove to be a third-round steal for Dallas, and it was surprising he made it there given the extra emphasis some teams put on wideouts in this year’s draft. He had production, timed speed, and played well against real competition. The only reason there wasn’t more production against top competition was because of the lack of games South Alabama was able to schedule against the SEC.
You can safely ignore the TE2s here. Jeremy Sprinkle is a journeyman tight end and Sean McKeon is a blocker-first. If fourth-rounder Jake Ferguson somehow gets some early run, he might actually be a legitimate threat to catch some targets. I’d be surprised if that happens and currently believe in him more as a 2023 problem for Schultz-reliant managers.
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This is a section where I’m going to introduce some dissonance into your heads, for it is I, the Ezekiel Elliott believer.
Elliott played in four games before hurting his PCL last season. In those four games, he had a 26.1% rushing DVOA, was eight DYAR behind Austin Ekeler for first in the NFL, and finished above average in NFL Next Gen Stats’ yards above expectation in three of four games. The outlier week, the opener against the Bucs, was a game where Tampa exploited the fact that they have Vita Vea and dominated the line of scrimmage.
Then he hurt his PCL, and the Cowboys, being the Cowboys, punished us all by playing him hurt. His interests certainly weren’t advanced by playing hurt. Tony Pollard lost a chance to establish himself as one of the NFL’s best backup running backs. The Cowboys lost games by relying on Elliott between the tackles. And because Elliott’s contract was already an anchor on the Dallas salary cap, it was incredibly easy to just transition to him being an all-around anchor as a narrative. Running backs don’t matter, things of that nature.
But let’s take a step back from that: The fact that he played hurt tells you a lot about how much Dallas trusts him. None of the offseason rhetoric we’ve seen has shown us anything other than Dallas wanting Elliott to be a major part of the offense, something that they’ve backed up with a strong monetary investment. Stephen Jones says “he’s a damn good running back and I think he’s going to help us win.” The natural reaction to a public that has been force-fed 200 injured Elliott carries that felt more like 600 is to pshaw that away, and I get it. But the fantasy of getting Pollard more involved is reliant on things that NFL teams just don’t do, like use two backs, or make their running backs slot receivers. It is a dream to never be realized without Elliott sitting.
I think Pollard probably does deserve a real chance, my triggered Pollard stans. But he’s not as good as a healthy Elliott. And just because it would have been the right call last season doesn’t make it one this year. I like Elliott to retain RB2 value at worst with a chance to be a real RB1. I think Pollard remains a backup. I understand why the market has gone where it has, I just think it’s double-counting Elliott playing through injury.
La’el Collins is gone to Cincinnati, but Terence Steele improved from almost unplayable in 2020 to mediocre in his snaps at right tackle last year. I laugh about the Tyler Smith draft pick because the Cowboys, who led the NFL in penalties last year, drafted someone who committed 16 penalties in college last year in 12 starts. But Smith clearly has the physicality and athleticism to play inside – he might be the long-term successor to Tyron Smith outside. Dallas will have an upper-level offensive line until Martin and Tyron finally fall off the cliff, whenever that is.
PointsBet over/under: 10.5 wins
It’s very easy to root against the Cowboys – fun, too – but even as scrappy as teams like the Giants and Lions on the schedule look this season, it’s hard to see Dallas seriously pushed by most of their schedule. The NFC’s other first place teams? Sure. Philadelphia? I can see an argument. But the AFC South, NFC North, and four games against the Giants and Commanders? I think Dallas returns enough to take the over again this year. May it lead to another McCarthian masterpiece.