If history is any sort of an indicator, the Cowboys won’t be winning the NFC East title in 2017. Not since the Eagles won four straight titles between 2001-2004 has an NFC East managed to capture the division in consecutive seasons.
History isn’t always an accurate guide for the future, however, and that’s why they play the games. So what does Dallas need to do in 2017 in order to buck this division-wide one-and-done plague?
It’s the topic we dive into on today’s edition of CowboysCast (LINK). Here are the five most important factors for the Cowboys as they begin their defense of the NFC East crown.
5. Jaylon Smith
The Cowboys won 13 games without Jaylon Smith in 2016, which is why he’s further down this list. He’s not completely off the list though, as the Cowboys really need better play out of the middle linebacker spot.
Before his devastating injury against Ohio State 18 months ago, Smith was considered a lock to go in the top five. His skillset was most often compared to Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly, who is widely regarded as the game’s best Mike linebacker. The Cowboys don’t need Smith to be Kuechly (though that would be nice), they simply need him to be a better player than Anthony Hitchens. If Smith can provide that, Dallas’ chances of contending for a Super Bowl in 2017 will trend up.
The question surrounding Smith at this point is whether he and the Cowboys are blowing smoke about his ability to play with the AFO brace. I think we’d all like to believe there’s no reason for the Cowboys to be deceptive about Smith’s health, but it wouldn’t be the first time.
4. Guarding Against the Sophomore Slump
Part of the reason the 2016 Cowboys steamrolled opponents for the better part of three months is because of their impressive rookie class. Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Anthony Brown, and Maliek Collins combined for 55 starts for Dallas last season, and all four of them played at a high level for the majority of the season. If the Cowboys hope to win a second consecutive division title, they can’t afford any Sophomore slumps.
The problems presented by the potential regression of Prescott and/or Elliott are obvious, but Dallas is counting on Collins and Brown as well.
Collins played more snaps than any defensive lineman on the Cowboys last season, and finished second on the team in sacks. With David Irving missing for the first four games of the season, and lingering questions about how effective DeMarcus Lawrence and Tyrone Crawford are ever going to be, a decline in performance from Collins would be one too many headaches along the front four.
Brown started 10 games last season and was arguably the best corner when factoring health and consistency. With aging veterans Nolan Carroll and Orlando Scandrick making up one half of the remaining corners, and completely unproven rookies Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis making up the other half, Brown enters 2017 as Dallas’ surest bet at corner. Brown taking a step back could spell disaster for the secondary.
3. Right Tackle and Left Guard
Doug Free had become the offensive line whipping boy for fans the last few years, but he was a solid player who will be missed this season. The evidence of that is in the fact that Dallas still doesn’t seem totally comfortable with rolling La’el Collins outside.
Yesterday we spoke about how impressive Larry Allen’s move from right guard to left tackle was in 1998 due to the degree of difficulty. Not only was Allen being asked to change positions, he was going to have to do a 180 on his footwork with the directional change. That was impressive when Allen, the Pro Football Hall of Famer, was asked to do it. Collins hasn’t even played a full season in the NFL at this point.
For Dallas to keep its hold on the division, Collins’ move to right tackle has to be a successful one. Collins’ new gig naturally means Dallas will need a new left guard as well. Chaz Green, Jonathan Cooper, or Byron Bell will have to give Dallas average play at the very least. That may not sound like too difficult of a task, but Green has injury issues, Bell has been out of football for two years, and Cooper has yet to channel his ability into production.
2. Growth in the Secondary
The Cowboys have loads of potential in the secondary this season, but Dallas won’t be going anywhere this season if April scouting reports are the most exciting thing we see from the young group.
Lewis or Awuzie will need to lock down the nickel spot with Scandrick now in decline. The other will need to show an ability outside so that the Cowboys aren’t relying on Nolan Carroll to be Brown’s help on the other side. Byron Jones played better football in 2015 than 2016. He wasn’t bad last year, but the Cowboys need him to be even better than the player they had at 4-12 two seasons ago. The Cowboys have shown a world of confidence in Jeff Heath and Kavon Frazier, and it’s up to both of them to ensure the personnel department doesn’t end up with egg on its face. Xavier Woods will need to bring his highly touted ball skills to the big leagues, and show he can catch more than just off target wobblers from UTEP.
The Cowboys allowed 1,116 passing yards combined to Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Washington during a brutal three week stretch last year. That was the most passing yards the Cowboys had ever allowed in a three game period. The players comprising Dallas’ roster have combined for just 11 interceptions in the last three years.
The secondary was rightfully blown up, and Dallas believes they now have better players in place. That opinion needs to become fact in 2017 if the Cowboys hope to fend off division challengers.
If Dallas stays healthy they will win the NFC East in 2017. Almost any other point worth discussing will either naturally resolve itself because of good health, or will pale in comparison to the value of the team staying healthy.
The most talented teams win their divisions. When they don’t, it’s most often because injuries depleted the roster, and they’re no longer fielding the most talented team. Vitriolic NFC East rivals will growl at the notion, but Dallas is pretty clearly the division’s most talented team. When you look over the rosters, from each team’s number one quarterback all the way down to the game day inactives, no other team in the division matches up with Dallas’ overall talent and positional balance.
If injuries are limited, the Cowboys should repeat as NFC East champions in 2017.