The Cowboys Have Filled Some Holes, Created Others This Offseason
The Cowboys were as talented as any team in the NFL in 2021, and they entered the offseason with few holes to fill. But due to cap constraints and some long-term planning, they created even more holes by trading Amari Cooper, releasing La’el Collins, and failing to re-sign Randy Gregory.
At very least, Dallas did address their biggest need entering the offseason by drafting Tulsa’s Tyler Smith in the first round. The Cowboys’ inability to move defenders stalled the run game for the final two-thirds of last season, leaving the offense one-dimensional and inconsistent down the stretch. That weakness was particularly glaring in their playoff loss to the 49ers.
So how exactly will Smith address that need? While he played left tackle at Tulsa, it seems clear that he’ll be used inside this season at left guard. At 6’5”, 325 pounds, Smith is a big and physical blocker who plays with an edge:
That type of physicality is exactly what Dallas needs to revive their run game and be able to handle the types of teams that gave them trouble a year ago. Smith will be able to move defenders and improve the effectiveness of double-teams inside. And while zone-run concepts are what the Cowboys use the most (about 50% of the time), they use gap-concepts on more than one-third of all runs. Their linemen need to be able to block down effectively, and that’s an area where Smith will thrive.
As many of you know, I break down Cowboys film over at The Dallas Morning News. You can check out the rest of my in-depth Tyler Smith breakdown there.
Replacing Randy Gregory: Dante Fowler
The Cowboys signed defensive end Dante Fowler to a low-risk, one-year contract with the hopes that they’ll be able to turn him back into the pass rusher that racked up 11.5 sacks with the Los Angeles Rams in 2019.
Fowler’s last two seasons in Atlanta suggest that version of himself might be hard to find. He finished with just 7.5 sacks in 28 games with the Falcons. Many of those 7.5 sacks weren’t that impressive either, with several occurring either late in the play, when he was left unblocked, when he was matched on a tight end, or when another pass rusher generated the initial pressure.
So what does Fowler bring to the Cowboys’ defense? At his best, he wins with his speed and athleticism. Most of the sacks that he does generate on his own come as a result of his ability to win quickly off the edge:
From a physicality standpoint, however, Fowler doesn’t come close to matching Randy Gregory. He doesn’t have a ton of ability to win off of contact, often getting swallowed up by stronger offensive tackles if he can’t use his speed to get past them:
Replacing Randy Gregory: Sam Williams
With the 56th overall pick in the draft, the Cowboys took a 6’4”, 265-pound edge rusher out of Ole Miss with the straight-line speed of a wide receiver. Williams ran a 4.46 forty-yard dash at the combine, which was actually a tad faster than the time of the wide receiver Dallas took in the third round (Jalen Tolbert - 4.49 seconds). Williams is the epitome of raw talent, with the athleticism to immediately give NFL offensive linemen problems. Just watch him win off the edge in an instant on this sack:
Williams does still need to refine many elements of his game. He needs to develop more pass-rushing moves and improve in his ability to win with physicality. Against the run, he doesn’t always maintain gap integrity and is sometimes too easily moved. That’s not great for a Cowboys defense that struggled against the run a year ago.
None of this deterred Dallas from drafting Williams. They took him for his athleticism and pass-rushing ability. Dan Quinn wants defenders who are fast and can fly around the field, and he’ll have that in spades with Williams.
Replacing Amari Cooper: James Washington
Washington’s skillset doesn’t necessarily jump off the screen. He can be considered a viable deep threat, but his speed isn’t game-changing. He spent nearly 40% of his snaps in the slot last season with the Steelers (a career high), but he’s not your prototypical shifty slot who can regularly get open on short routes in tight spaces. He’s got good hands and can make contested catches, but at 5-11, he’s not tall enough to be a big-bodied possession receiver that can act as a security blanket for Dak Prescott.
Washington also doesn’t consistently create a ton of separation against press-man coverage, something the top receivers in the NFL generally do. Instead, he is at his best when he has a free release and can use his stem to set up defenders in off coverage:
Washington consistently uses his hands instead of his body to bring in passes, and he’s comfortable catching the ball away from his frame. That helps him makes lots of those contested catches I referenced above. And because he is so comfortable snatching the ball out of the air, he’s often able to control his defender with his hands until the last possible moment:
Replacing Amari Cooper: Jalen Tolbert
With the 88th pick in the draft, the Cowboys added a 6’1” receiver in Tolbert who fits what Kellen Moore likes to do with his passing game — that is, attack using vertical routes:
That’s exactly how Tolbert was able to win most of the time in college at South Alabama. And he was very productive doing it (82 receptions, 1474 yards, 8 touchdowns in 12 games last season).
The other trait of Tolbert’s that stood out was his ability to make difficult and contested catches:
He’s no Calvin Johnson, but he does have good ball-tracking skills and some ability to play above the defense.
The downside to Tolbert’s game is that, while he does have good athleticism, it’s tough to tell how much of his success on vertical routes was due to the competition he faced at South Alabama. Tolbert isn’t a quick-twitch player who explodes off the line or out of his breaks. He takes a little time to build up speed off the line. And this prevents him from creating separation on a consistent basis.
For the same reasons, his ability to win against press-man coverage (whether against a corner who jams or mirrors him) is a big question. There wasn’t a lot of tape of Tolbert seeing press-man in college, but when he did, the results weren’t always great:
Still, Tolbert’s good traits are enough to show that he should be able to contribute this season. He’ll fit right into that rotation of receivers with CeeDee Lamb, Michael Gallup, and James Washington.
Why CeeDee Lamb’s Productivity Shouldn’t Decrease with Cooper Gone
The prevailing wisdom seems to be that Amari Cooper’s absence will put more pressure on CeeDee Lamb. He’ll face a team’s best cornerback more often and/or see more situations where the coverage rolls to his side.
Theoretically, this makes sense. However, I don’t necessarily think it will make a difference in the way Lamb is used or in how productive he’ll be in 2022.
Lamb isn’t going to move to the outside permanently now that Cooper is gone. He’s also not going to become a stationary X-receiver charged with winning against 1-on-1 coverage down after down.
Like Micah Parsons on the other side of the ball, the Cowboys don’t want to align Lamb in one spot and make it easier for defenses to assign their best cover-corners and help defenders.
Don’t take my word for it. The way Kellen Moore used Lamb in 2021 tells you everything you need to know about how the Cowboys view him.
After keeping him primarily in the slot during his rookie season (more than 93% of his snaps!), Moore moved Lamb around the formation last year. In fact, Lamb’s time in the slot dropped substantially to just under 40% in 2021, according to Pro Football Focus. And when he aligned on the outside, he did so as both the X and Z receiver. He even aligned in the backfield on a handful of snaps.
So what does this mean? It means Lamb will likely continue to be used as a moveable chess piece in 2022.
How DeMarcus Lawrence Might See His Role Evolve in 2022
As their roster stands right now, Lawrence is the best pass rusher and run defender on the defensive line. Dallas is banking on him playing more than just the 7 games he played in 2021. And if he can play a full 17, the Cowboys should be able to get after the quarterback with similar production to last season. They’ll almost certainly improve against the run as well.
Lawrence will obviously get plenty of opportunities off the edge as a pass rusher in 2022, but we’ll likely see him move inside more often in obvious passing situations. It seemed like Lawrence was trending that way last year. In fact, according to Pro Football Focus, Lawrence aligned between the tackles on 38 of his 320 total snaps played (11.9%). He had played just 39 total snaps between the tackles in his entire career entering 2021. That’s 4,226 total snaps, a 0.92% rate.
The idea behind giving Lawrence more time inside would be to allow the Cowboys’ speedier pass rushers like Fowler and Williams (and sometimes Micah Parsons) to get more opportunities rushing the quarterback off the edge. But it will also give Lawrence some great 1-on-1 matchups against less athletic guards as well.