Washington Football Team: Analyzing the Cowboys’ offseason outlook

SEATTLE, WASHINGTON - SEPTEMBER 27: Aldon Smith #58 of the Dallas Cowboys looks on in the second quarter against the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field on September 27, 2020 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)
SEATTLE, WASHINGTON - SEPTEMBER 27: Aldon Smith #58 of the Dallas Cowboys looks on in the second quarter against the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field on September 27, 2020 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images) /

We’re heading south for our second look at one of the Washington Football Team’s NFC divisional opponents as free agency looms.

The Dallas Cowboys enter the 2021 offseason after a very disappointing 2020 campaign.  Predicted by many to win the division, rather than the Washington Football Team, Dallas began 2020 with a string of horrific defensive performances, and then lost their starting quarterback Dak Prescott for the final eleven games of the season. They managed to win three of their final four games to stay in playoff contention, but ended up 6-10 with far too many unresolved questions.

First, let’s deal with the elephant in the room. The Cowboys have been living in limbo for much of the offseason as they negotiated a deal with one crucial free agent. As of Saturday, Dallas can breathe a little easier now that veteran long snapper L.P. Ladouceur has re-upped for a 17th season.

When I started this article, Dak Prescott had not yet reached a long-term deal with Dallas. Though it was always probable that the Cowboys would franchise-tag Dak, he remained a major question mark. Now, the ink is dry on a four-year deal and a major headache has been quashed. Maybe not as big as the Ladouceur deal, but…

This allows Dallas to move on to an even bigger headache. What do you do when you have a potentially elite offense, and a historically bad defense?

Dallas’ offense should be among the league’s best in 2021 with the return of both starting tackles — Tyron Smith and La’el Collins — along with center Tyler Biadasz. Tight end Blake Jarwin also returns to join Dalton Schultz and a trio of top-tier receivers. With improved line play, Ezekiel Elliott should also rebound from a forgettable 2020.

Dallas may want to bring back free agent center Joe Looney, who filled in for Biadasz after his injury last season. Looney can provide veteran leadership and solid depth. With big money now committed to Prescott, it seems impossible that the Cowboys will be able to retain the services of backup QB Andy Dalton, who will test the free agent waters with an eye toward starting somewhere. So Dallas may be looking to bring in a low-priced developmental QB through free agency or the draft. I see a Buechele in their future. Shane Buechle, that is.

But oh, that defense.

This isn’t the case of a unit with a few holes to fill. Dallas’ defense is filled with underachievers, chronic injury issues, and a general dearth of top-end talent. It was so bad at times in 2020 that it became difficult to evaluate individual players and position groups. Did the secondary look as bad as it did because the front was unable to generate enough pressure? Did that front seem incapable of stopping the run because their linebackers failed to make tackles behind them?

According the Pro Football Focus, of their regular defenders, only three players – edge rushers Demarcus Lawrence and Aldon Smith, and safety Donovan Wilson – had overall scores above 65. As a point of comparison, the Washington Football Team had ten such players.

Aside from Dalton and Looney, Dallas has 12 other unrestricted free agents to consider. The only big name among them is Aldon Smith, and he is emblematic of one major roster problem.

Smith, who entered the league with a bang back in 2011, saw his career almost ended by repeated legal trouble, often stemming from excessive alcohol consumption. His return to Dallas in 2020 had a nice redemptive quality to it, but multiple questions remain. How reliable will he be going forward? And now that he is past 30, how consistently good will he actually be? Dallas has given chances to troubled players like Smith and fellow edge rusher Randy Gregory. They have gotten returns in fits and spurts, but thus far, they have not been able to build a quality defense.

The secondary was not very good in 2020 and three regulars – cornerbacks Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis, and safety Xavier Woods – are all free agents. Though Dallas may not be eager to lose all three, none are certain to return.

At linebacker, which was considered a real strength not that long ago, health questions continue to plague Leighton Vander Esch and veteran Sean Lee, while Jaylon Smith may never quite live up to his pre-injury hype. One of the defining plays in the NFC East this season saw Washington Football Team receiver Terry McLaurin run down Smith after an Alex Smith interception on Thanksgiving Day.

Apart from DeMarcus Lawrence, Dallas has little to boast about along the defensive front. Veteran Tyrone Crawford will probably not return, and Dallas will have to build the interior of the line while hoping Aldon Smith and Gregory can play up to expectations on the edge.

COVID’s dampening effects on league finances will result in a salary cap that is lower than expected for the 2021 season. That could lead more middle-tier players to seek short-term deals, with the assumption that the cap will go up again once the pandemic is behind us. PFF identified a number of players who might fit into the Cowboys’ plans on one-year, prove-it-type deals. That list includes former Washington Football Team cornerback Quinton Dunbar, and you might add another Washington Football Team alum, Beshaud Breeland as well.

There are some bargains to be found in the secondary this offseason. I have already mentioned corner Mackenzie Alexander and safety Rayshawn Jenkins as good fits for the Washington Football Team. I would think Dallas is taking long looks at anyone like that who could help improve the secondary. The recently-released Malcolm Butler would cost more, but might be a good fit in the Dallas secondary.

PFF also noted that interior line help from the likes of Larry Ogunjobi and former Cowboy Christian Covington could be available at bargain prices.  Mario Edwards also seemed like a good option, before the Bears re-signed him. If the Cowboys want to invest a little more in the interior of the line, Dalvin Tomlinson might be available. But the lack of top-tier interior defenders this year might drive the former Giant’s price up too high for the Cowboys.

Most mocks have Dallas taking one of the top cornerbacks – Patrick Surtain II, Caleb Farley, Jaycee Horn – with the number ten pick, and possibly doubling down with a safety like Trevon Moehrig or Richie Grant in the second or third. The last time Dallas spent a first or second-round draft pick on a safety was in 2002, and that was for Roy Williams, who was really a linebacker who happened to play safety.

The fact that Dallas will have a new defensive coordinator – Dan Quinn – in 2021 makes any prognostication a bit suspect. He might favor bringing in players he coached before being fired in Atlanta last year. He certainly should have a good read on free agents like Keanu Neal , Damontae Kazee, or Jacob Tuioti-Mariner. We have seen how that played out for the Washington Football Team, where Ron Rivera brought in a half-dozen former Carolina Panthers.

Dallas needed to put the Prescott situation in the rear-view mirror before being able to move forward. Now that they have resolved that issue, the defensive rebuild should take center stage.

Next. 15 best free agent targets for Washington Football Team. dark

Next up, a look at NFC East 2020 runner-up – the New York Giants.