ITB NFC East Outlook: New Regime To Help Cowboys Break Through?
The perpetual two-team race for NFC East supremacy is expected to be another closely contested battle between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Dallas Cowboys.
On the heels of a turbulent 8-8 campaign, the franchise opted to fire its head coach of nine years in Jason Garrett, replacing him with Super Bowl champion Mike McCarthy.
McCarthy, who brings a 125-77-2 regular season and a 10-8 postseason record with him to Dallas, returns to the NFL refined and revitalized after a year away from the gridiron. Among McCarthy’s chief coordinators, fresh-faced offensive coordinator Kellen Moore is perhaps the most prominent holdover, while well-traveled defensive coordinator Mike Nolan comes over from the New Orleans Saints.
McCarthy brings a certain savvy and structure that the Cowboys haven’t had in nearly a decade, and although his antiquated style and predictability proved to ultimately be his downfall in Green Bay, his experience and concepts should blend harmoniously with the innovative Moore.
With an explosive offense poised to fight, and with a new defensive mind in charge who has a knack for developing pass rushers, let’s take a closer look at the Cowboys in 2020.
(The Cowboys hired Super Bowl champion Mike McCarthy as head coach to help bring fresher offensive concepts and play calls.)
Here’s what we know about McCarthy: his inability to adjust to the prevalent offensive trends likely cost the Packers multiple trips to the Super Bowl. While the long-time Packers head coach opted to retain offensive coordinator Kellen Moore as offensive coordinator, McCarthy is expected to sprinkle his own ideas and concepts into Moore's playbook.
McCarthy, who spent the 2019 NFL season away from football and delving into the benefits of analytics, is expected to bring a version of the West Coast concepts with him. Historically, McCarthy’s offense’s have largely revolved around short-to-intermediate timed routes rather than aggressive, downfield shots -- solely predicated on efficiently moving the chains and sustaining drives. The former Green Bay play-caller wasn’t nearly as reliant on his ground game as his predecessor was, but that figures to change as he joins forces with Kellen Moore, who's ability to scheme receivers open rather than depend on them winning 1-on-1s – an often-ineffective hallmark of McCarthy’s Packers days – is a subtle tweak that I believe will complement McCarthy’s ideologies.
Accompanying McCarthy is veteran defensive mind Mike Nolan, who spent the past three seasons as the Saints’ linebackers’ coach. While Nolan has presided over various schemes over his 17-year career overseeing the defensive side of the ball, he's cut his teeth on 3-4 alignments. With Dallas expected to stick to the 4-3 base, Nolan will get his preference of size along the interior – Dontari Poe and Gerald McCoy – rather than the quicker, lighter prototype coveted by the previous regime.
Nolan’s calling card has been developing edge rushers, and he has a bevy of talent to mold, starting with Demarcus Lawrence and recently-reinstated Aldon Smith, fifth-round pick Bradley Anae, and two promising undrafted rookies who have next-level ability in LaDarius Hamilton and Ron’Dell Carter. With an emphasis on edge pressure, Nolan’s defenses have ranked in the top 10 in takeaways 10 times in his 21-year coaching career.
On paper, and I write this because it will be largely dependent on how quickly CeeDee Lamb can get up to speed, the Cowboys have assembled perhaps the most complete receiving trio in the NFL – on paper. All three pass-catchers (Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, Lamb) provide the skill-set to work all three levels of the field, the size to defeat press coverage and win in contested-catch situations, and the ability to manufacture yards after the catch. Teams will have tough time scheming up ways to slow dow this talented group of playmakers if all three stay healthy.
Defensively, you’d be hard-pressed finding a stronger trio of second-level defenders, led by three-down centerpieces Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith, who both offer range, coverage acumen, and astute football intelligence. Don’t forget mainstay Sean Lee, who will be 33 years old at the start of training camp and comes off an 86-tackle season. While the aging Lee is better at attacking downhill, there isn’t much Vander Esch and Smith can’t do. Under Nolan, who worked wonders on Demario Davis and Alex Anzalone in New Orleans, both players should be in for career seasons.
You have to delve beneath the surface a bit to find a glaring weakness on the Cowboys offense – the ground game is electric, the offense line is dominant, and the receiving corps has a chance to be special. That puts a spotlight on the tight end position, where Blake Jarwin and Dalton Schultz have combined for 71 career catches. Jarwin, who turned 41 targets into 31 catches for 365 yards a season ago, is an unknown commodity who will be counted on as Dak Prescott’s security blanket. Schultz, a fourth-round pick in 2018, has only mustered 13 receptions in 27 games. By not addressing the position over the offseason, the Cowboys are taking a leap of faith that both players will elevate their play in 2020.
Like the Eagles, the Cowboys’ secondary doesn’t lack for quantity, but it remains to be seen if the names can provide quality. Fourth-year pro Chidobe Awuzie will assume the role of top cornerback, but his game is largely flawed. A move to safety would best suit his skill set. Jourdan Lewis is a fine nickel defender that has held up admirably when tasked with shadowing the Alvin Kamara’s of the world, but his best fit is undoubtedly inside. The steady Anthony Brown is back on a three-year deal, but is coming off a season-ending triceps injury. Trevon Diggs and Reggie Robinson II are likely a year away from being weekly contributors. Absent a bonafide playmaker on the third-level, Nolan might need to get creative with his pressure schemes. On the Rise Sewo Olonilua/FB: Along with South Carolina’s Rico Dowdle, Dallas managed to come away with two upside-laden running backs as priority free agents. While both runners possess NFL talent, Olonilua brings an intriguing blend of size (6’3”, 240), quickness, balance, burst, and change of direction to the Cowboys’ backfield. Last season, Olonilua rushed for 537 yards and eight touchdowns and caught 24 passes in TCU’s two-man timeshare, giving him 2,184 all-purpose yards for his career. Currently listed as a fullback, Olonilua’s versatility to play running back, H-back, tight end and special teams could make Jamize Olawale expendable during roster cutdowns.
Francis Bernard/LB: The Cowboys added another athlete to their linebacking contingent at the conclusion of draft weekend. Bernard, who spent his freshman season at BYU as a running back, made a seamless transition to linebacker the following season. Bernard redshirted the 2017 season following an off-field issue before ultimately resurfacing at Utah. Last season, Bernard accumulated 83 tackles (7.5 for loss) and two interceptions for the Utes, earning first-team All-Pac-12 honors.
I had a fifth-round grade on the uber-athletic linebacker, and there is a strong chance that Bernard’s fast-flowing play style, short-area quickness, and special teams acumen earns him a coveted final roster spot.
Luther Kirk/S: Surprisingly left on the outside looking in on draft weekend, I consistently listed Kirk among my top late-round safety prospects throughout the pre-draft process. When I reported that the Illinois State product agreed to terms with Dallas as a post-draft signing, I felt the team had stumbled on tremendous value.
A lengthy defensive back with an impressive wingspan and skill set, Kirk enjoyed a stellar week of East-West Shine Bowl practices, which ultimately culminated with Defensive MVP honors in the game. Kirk’s range, ball skills, and versatility to play single-high, in the box, or defend the slot will set him apart from his competition.
I asked Kirk about which NFL player he most compares his game to: “I’d say I’m more of a Tyrann Mathieu type of dude.”
Matchup Problem for Birds
On paper, the Eagles appeared to have fortified their maligned secondary. Darius Slay comes over from Detroit to give Philadelphia the elite cover man they've been searching for since Asante Samuel, and the team boasts a host of young defenders poised to take a step forward. But until the Eagles prove that their retooled pass defense is equipped to slow some of the formidable aerial attacks on their 2020 docket, however, consider the optimism as more of a projection. The explosive Dallas passing attack added Lamb to a receiving corps that already featured Cooper, Gallup, Devin Smith, and Ventell Bryant. With a diverse contingent of pass-catchers that can win a myriad of different ways, the Eagles’ secondary must elevate its play if they expect to reclaim their spot atop the NFC East this season.
Best Matchup for Birds Byron Jones’ free agent departure left a sizable void at cornerback that is still unsettled. Newly-appointed top cover man Chidobe Awuzie, who NFL.com recently listed as the Cowboys’ most under-rated player, lacks the requisite instincts to flourish on the boundary and could benefit from a move to safety. Trevon Diggs and Reggie Robinson II are two rookies who I was high on throughout the pre-draft cycle, and while both players project as long-term starters, they -- like the vast majority of rookies -- will be behind the curve due to the shortened offseason. The safety duo comprised of Xavier Woods and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is merely a notch above replacement-level starters.
Over the offseason, the Eagles placed an emphasis on speed and vertical presence. If the prominent members of their passing attack remain healthy, the Eagles could spell trouble for an expectedly overmatched Dallas secondary.
Most Underrated Player
It’s third-year pro Michael Gallup, who will have the opportunity to entrench himself among the top receivers in the NFL in 2020. The Colorado State alum quietly amassed 1,107 receiving yards and six touchdowns in his sophomore season, and has demonstrated the ability to find success on the inside or lined up on the perimeter. The 23-year-old is what I consider an advanced route-runner who can separate with regularity and win in contested-catch situations. With an added emphasis on Amari Cooper and now first-round pick CeeDee Lamb, another 1,000-yard campaign for Gallup seems feasible.
Most Overrated Player
Although he projects as a clear-cut upgrade over Jeff Heath, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix has had his bouts with inconsistency. Clinton-Dix, who McCarthy drafted in the first-round in 2014, signed with the Cowboys in April, making it his fourth team in three years. The former Crimson Tide defender is an instinctive centerfielder with plus ball skills, but his over-aggressive, undisciplined style of play will result in ill-timed coverage lapses and missed tackles. Nolan will be tasked with unlocking the innate physical traits that once made the 27-year-old safety a blue-chip prospect.
Outlook The much-needed regime change has likely sparked a great deal of optimism among Cowboys fans, and rightfully so. An immensely talented roster that was routinely plagued by questionable play calls and undisciplined errors is now fronted by a proven winner who has reached the pinnacle at the professional level.
With the joint effort of McCarthy and Moore expected to transform Dallas into an offensive juggernaut, fourth-year signal caller Dak Prescott will be armed with an embarrassment of riches of offensive weaponry. On the other side, expect a physical, attacking front seven under Mike Nolan.
While Dallas should have no problem keeping pace with the NFL’s elite on the scoreboard in 2020, I suspect they’ll give some games away late due to lapses on the back end.
Andrew DiCecco (@ADiCeccoNFL) is a contributor to InsideTheBirds.com. He also writes for Pro Football Network. Listen to the latest Inside the Birds podcast right here: