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Team Previews

Dallas Cowboys 2021 Fantasy Football Preview

by Denny Carter
Updated On: June 28, 2021, 12:22 pm ET

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2020 Stats (rank)

Total Offense: 5,949 yards (14th) 
Offensive Touchdowns: 42 (19th)
Offensive Plays: 1,113 (2nd)
Pass Attempts + Sacks: 683 (1st)
Rush Attempts: 430 (15th)
Unaccounted for Targets: 16 (31st) 
Unaccounted for Carries: 29 (24th)

Coaching Staff

For all the flack thrown at Mike McCarthy last year after the old dog reportedly learned new analytics tricks that impressed the Cowboys brass, the team (mostly) operated in an analytically sound fashion. 

The Cowboys in 2020 were the ninth most aggressive offense on fourth downs, according to Football Outsiders, well above league average. Probably that fourth down aggression rate would have cracked the top five had Dak Prescott played a full season. No team was more pass heavy than the Cowboys during Prescott’s month-long tear; Dak led the league in pass attempts by a lot and no team was within 300 yards of Dallas’ passing yardage total through the season’s first month. Aaron Rodgers was the only quarterback to throw more downfield passes than Dak from Week 1-4. And McCarthy’s first year in Big D saw the Cowboys finish fifth in two-point conversion attempts, going for two 14.3 percent of the time. 

McCarthy and offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, in short, kept their play calling foot on the proverbial gas. A ghastly defense may have forced their hand in running a hyper aggressive, pass heavy offense. Thankfully, the Cowboys haven't done a whole lot to improve said defense this offseason.

Passing Game

QB: Dak Prescott, Ben DiNucci
WR: Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, Cedrick Wilson
WR: CeeDee Lamb, Noah Brown
TE: Blake Jarwin, Dalton Schultz, Jeremy Sprinkle

This offense was on a record-shattering pace before Prescott’s horrific ankle injury in Week 5. Dak was on pace for a cool 6,760 yards, nearly 1,300 yards more than the NFL single season record. A full 16 games at said pace and Dak would have recorded 548 completions -- 77 more than the league record. In a mind-boggling twist, Dak threw a (relatively) meager nine touchdowns in those four epic games. The result: A career low 4.1 percent TD rate. He has touchdown regression on his side coming into 2021, as if you needed another reason to draft him. 

A fully healthy Prescott once again has overall QB1 in his range of outcomes, assuming he continues tacking on yardage and touchdowns on the ground. Probably we can’t rely on Prescott getting back to his 75 rush attempt 2018 season, as last year saw him pace for 58 rushes, in line with his 2019 numbers. He’ll have another year behind an excellent pass-blocking offensive line. Dallas had the league’s eighth best pass-blocking line in 2020, per Pro Football Focus grades, despite losing Zack Martin for nearly half the season and Tyron Smith for almost the whole year. Prescott faced pressure on 31.9 percent of his drop backs a year ago, the tenth lowest rate among QBs who played at least 20 percent of their team’s offensive snaps. His protection will be better with the return of Martin and Smith.

Below is what we know about how this offense operates with Dak under center and all his pass catchers healthy and upright. 

Player

Targets

Pass routes 

Slot route %

Touchdowns 

Amari Cooper

49

191

27%

1

CeeDee Lamb

28

167

93.2%

2

Michael Gallup

20

200

6.3%

1

Ezekiel Elliott

28

145

5.2%

1

Tony Pollard

7

34

8.2%

0

Dalton Schultz/Blake Jarwin

29

156

50.2%

2

 

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It’s jarring to look back at the team’s target distribution and see Cooper with such a dominant lead over Lamb and Gallup. Lamb was fine for fantasy purposes during Dak’s torrid four-game stretch, but Cooper was otherworldly. He trailed precisely no one in receiver fantasy points during the first month of the 2020 season, and was well on his way to a top-3 fantasy finish, at worst. 

Cooper, reportedly working his way back from a so-called cleanup procedure on his troublesome ankle, is expected to be back for the team’s training camp. His availability is worth monitoring though, as fantasy drafters can’t seem to decide whether Cooper or Lamb is the Cowboys’ No. 1 wideout in 2021. While last year’s target numbers would suggest Cooper is clearly the WR1 in Dallas, reports that Moore will use Lamb across the formation -- not solely as a slot guy -- have raised hopes that the imminently impressive second year wideout can add big play cache to his stat sheet this season. Lining up across the Dallas formation would mean Lamb won’t lose snaps to Cedrick Wilson, as he did through parts of his rookie campaign (and as indicated in his route running numbers above). But fantasy gamers aren’t dumb -- they know Lamb’s upside and are drafting him accordingly. He’d have to go nuclear in 2021 to exceed his heady ADP of WR12. You’re certainly not getting major value with Lamb at that draft spot. 

Gallup proved infuriating for fantasy managers who thought they had nabbed an up-and-coming wideout in an explosive offense. He was limited to deep boundary routes for much of the 2020 season while Cooper, Lamb, and Schultz ate up intermediate targets. Gallup’s every-week fantasy usefulness naturally suffered. Things didn’t get much better when Andy Dalton took over the Cowboys Offense. The good news: Dallas beat reporters say Gallup, like Lamb, is being used this offseason in various spots across the formation, not just the outside. That should be a positive development for Gallup’s chance to produce more consistently in 2021. Fantasy football’s WR21 in 2019, Gallup is being taken after 43 wideouts in early drafts -- lightyears after his teammates. That he won’t out-produce Lamb or Cooper doesn’t mean fantasy managers should turn up their noses at the 2020 disappointment. Gallup, unlike Lamb, is being drafted at (or below) his fantasy floor. 

Dak likes his tight ends. It’s true -- look it up. Actually, don’t. I did, since I’m paid to do so. In 2019, we saw Prescott target tight ends -- primarily late-stage Jason Witten -- on 21.53 percent of his attempts. The 2020 season saw Dalton Schultz become a passable streaming candidate thanks to plenty of route running -- only Travis Kelce and Logan Thomas ran more routes than Schultz -- and a solid target share (14.5 percent) with and without Prescott. Blake Jarwin, expected to be back to form after tearing his ACL in the 2020 season opener, is set to return as the team’s starter, and with that, he becomes the cheapest pass catcher in Dak Prescott’s offense. A full season as the starting tight end in a pass-heavy Cowboys Offense could easily put Jarwin among the NFL’s top five or six most targeted tight ends. Schultz -- no one’s idea of a target-demanding pass catcher -- saw the ninth most tight end targets last season. Uncertainty about Jarwin’s ACL recovery and his hold on the starter’s job has made him a late-round dart toss. That won’t be so if or when we know for sure he’ll be the team’s primary pass-catching tight end. 

Running Game

RB: Ezekiel Elliott, Tony Pollard, Rico Dowdle 
OL (L-R): Tyron Smith, Connor Williams, Tyler Biadasz, Zack Martin, La’el Collins

The Cowboys’ pass blocking, per Pro Football Focus, was far superior to their run blocking last year. Only the Chargers, Dolphins, and Steelers had worse PFF run-blocking grades in 2020. Losing Tyron Smith for almost the entire season and Zack Martin for six games didn’t help matters. Those run blocking struggles were reflected in Elliott’s numbers: He eclipsed 100 rushing yards just twice, while failing to reach 70 yards ten times. Some of that statistical falloff could be written off to various injuries and wildly negative game script. 

Elliott remains the unquestioned workhorse in the potent Dallas offense. As long as that holds, Pollard will require big plays on precious few touches to prove fantasy viable in 12-team leagues. Fantasy managers were rightfully captivated by Pollard’s explosiveness, vision, speed, and pass catching chops in his lone 2020 start -- in which he took 18 touches for 132 yards and a touchdown -- but he likely won’t be usable for fantasy purposes unless and until Elliott misses time. Is Pollard better than Zeke? Maybe. Probably. Does that matter? No. 

Elliott once again has a shot to lead the league in running back touches in an offense designed to pour on the points. Pollard, meanwhile, saw seven carries and seven targets in Dak’s four full games last season. Elliott racked up 98 touches in those four games. Fantasy managers who draft Pollard in the ninth round are probably passing up value at other positions in exchange for a lottery ticket. Pollard is a far more viable selection in drafts where he falls into the 11th or 12th rounds. 

The return of Martin and Smith is an understated boon for the team’s running backs and Prescott. 

Win Total

The Cowboys’ Vegas win total of nine -- in the league’s new 17-game season -- seems on the modest side if Prescott is truly back to his 2020 form and new Dallas defensive coordinator Dan Quinn can turn the team’s defense-heavy draft into a reasonably decent unit. The team's win total is the 13th highest in the NFL. 

We saw just enough aggressive play calling last year to believe McCarthy and Moore understand the run-establishing, tough-nosed Dallas teams of yesteryear aren’t going to win in today’s NFL. We thank every deity for that. The Cowboys aren’t the Steelers -- they’re not going to get stubborn about running the ball as an atonement for their pass-heavy ways. That’s why I like the Cowboys to eclipse their win total this season. 
 

Denny Carter

Denny Carter is a fantasy football analyst for NBC Sports EDGE and co-host of Living The Stream. He specializes in kickers. He can be found on Twitter @cdcarter13. He never logs off.