2016 cheat sheet: Dallas Cowboys
The Dallas Cowboys endured a season to forget in 2015, but they will be banking on the fact that a healthy Tony Romo instantly makes them contenders again in the NFC East. Dallas will feature the best offensive line in football, and invested heavily in a running back to pound the ball behind that. The offense should be formidable—the only question is whether the defense can do enough to match it.
Three biggest things to know
1. Dallas owns the NFL’s best offensive line—and it may still be getting better.
With the money and draft picks invested in the O-line, Dallas’ unit should be the best in the league, and it has been for the past two seasons. The scary prospect for the rest of the NFL, however, is that it could get even better. La’el Collins was a rookie last season, and while he flashed all-world dominance on blocks, he also made plenty of mental mistakes and errors. With a year in the system, he could take a huge leap forward in 2016.
2. Suspensions and off-field issues are mounting.
The Cowboys are currently without three defensive starters because of off-field issues, including both defensive ends. DeMarcus Lawrence is suspended four games, as is Randy Gregory, while LB Rolando McClain if facing a 10-game suspension after failing to report to camp, and his entire career could be in jeopardy. Dallas took chances on character, and it’s cost them key personnel with little depth to cover the losses.
3. LB Sean Lee is among the best in the league when healthy.
Now 30 years old, Sean Lee hasn’t played 16 games in a season once during his NFL career. He played in 15 games in the 2011 season, and 14 this past year, and both were elite campaigns, hinting at how good he could be if he wasn’t constantly beset by injury. He ended last season with an overall grade of 92.3, third-best among linebackers behind only Luke Kuechly’s otherworldly 99.1 and Anthony Barr’s 93.4.
Key arrivals and departures
Top three draft picks: RB Ezekiel Elliott (Round 1, pick No. 4 overall, Ohio State), LB Jaylon Smith (Round 2, pick No. 34 overall, Notre Dame), DT Maliek Collins (Round 3, pick No. 67 overall, Nebraska)
Signed in free agency: RB Alfred Morris (Redskins), DT/DE Cedric Thornton (Eagles), DE Benson Mayowa (Raiders), C Joe Looney (Titans)
Left via free agency: DE Greg Hardy (UFA), DE Jeremy Mincey (UFA), RB Robert Turbin (Colts), FB Tyler Clutts (UFA), G Mackenzy Bernadeau (Jaguars), QB Matt Cassel (Titans), DT Nick Hayden (UFA)
Cut: S Donte Foster
Rookie to watch:
Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Ohio State (Round 1, pick No. 4 overall)
Behind the best offensive line in football, Ezekiel Elliott should find substantial production in year one, but can also add value on top of that with his own skill set. He topped 1,000 rushing yards for Ohio State last season after contact, broke 54 tackles, and is already a three-down player, having surrendered just a single pressure in 108 pass-blocking snaps in 2015.
Highest-graded player of 2015
Tyron Smith, LT, 93.3 overall grade
If Joe Thomas remains the pinnacle of left tackle play in the NFL, Tyron Smith has now joined him at that level. There is very little—if anything—separating the two players now, and while Thomas might be the slightly better pass blocker, Smith is the better run blocker of the two, which is perfect in this offense. Maybe 2016 is the year Smith becomes the best tackle in the game and unseats Thomas as the best in the business.
Breakout player watch
Bryon Jones, CB/S
Making the transition to the NFL is tough enough for a rookie defensive back already without asking him to play multiple positions like the Cowboys did with Jones last season. He played well as both safety and corner, and could really emerge as the best player in a poor secondary this season. Jones allowed 63.2 percent of passes thrown his way to be caught last year and didn’t record a single pick, but only allowed two touchdowns from 68 targets and broke six passes up.
Base defense (2015 season grades shown)
Offense with three receivers (2015 season grades shown)