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2018 NFL Preview: The Cowboys might be screwing up their biggest advantage

Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2018 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 1, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

Perhaps the biggest advantage an NFL team can have is a good quarterback on his rookie contract.

The Seattle Seahawks played it to perfection, building a championship roster as Russell Wilson was underpaid. The Los Angeles Rams are following that blueprint. They had a remarkable offseason, and wouldn’t have been able to give Ndamukong Suh $14 million if Jared Goff was eating up more than $20 million of salary-cap space.

The Dallas Cowboys might be screwing it up.

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Dallas hit the lottery drafting Dak Prescott in the third round two years ago, but aren’t taking full advantage of it. Prescott’s cap hit of $725,848 ranks 62nd among NFL quarterbacks, just behind Cody Kessler. 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo’s cap hit is almost 51 times larger than Prescott’s cost to the Cowboys.

Still, the Cowboys have a bad cap situation. They have $25.5 million in dead money, second only to the Buffalo Bills’ unfathomable $46.9 million. Part of that came from the constant restructuring of Tony Romo’s contract. Dez Bryant’s release added $8 million more to the dead money pool. When Dallas couldn’t work out an extension with end DeMarcus Lawrence, they had to spend $17.1 million to franchise tag him.

So even though Prescott’s cap number is less than guys like Tyler Bray and Connor Cook, the Cowboys barely did anything in free agency. Allen Hurns (two years, $12 million) was the only player who got more than $3.6 million total from Dallas in free agency. Unless you’re a big Hurns fan, there was not one impact free-agent addition. And after this season, Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott are eligible to sign huge extensions (star guard Zack Martin just signed an $84 million extension).

With more cap space, the Cowboys could have given Prescott better weapons. Few teams have a worse pass-catching group than Hurns, Terrance Williams, rookie Michael Gallup and whoever replaces retired Jason Witten at tight end. With better cap management maybe they could have added a No. 1 receiver, or an impact defender like Suh or cornerback Trumaine Johnson. At very least they might not have had to cut Bryant or cornerback Orlando Scandrick. The Cowboys aren’t bad, but they had a golden opportunity to build something great.

The Cowboys could still be Super Bowl contenders. They were two years ago. Last season was a mess with the Elliott drama. He wasn’t the same player he was as a rookie, and the six-game suspension for a domestic violence accusation had to play a part. The Amazon documentary “All or Nothing” showed how all of the off-field stuff wore him out. Without Elliott being the same player he was as a rookie, the entire offense suffered. Perhaps if Elliott has a clear mind, the Cowboys can quickly recapture the magic they had during a 13-3 season in 2016.

The top-end talent is still there. The offensive line is still fantastic, even if it’s not quite as good as it was at its peak. Elliott can carry an offense and make life easier for Prescott, who won’t be burdened by the premature hype that followed him last offseason. The Cowboys’ defensive line is a strength and the linebackers will be even better with first-round pick Leighton Vander Esch.

But if the Cowboys are merely good and don’t make it back to the Super Bowl for the first time since the 1995 season, it will be another wasted year before the Cowboys have to make Prescott one of the richest men in the NFL.

It’s hard to like what the Cowboys did. Dez Bryant isn’t the receiver he once was, but he’s better than anyone the Cowboys have now. I like Allen Hurns well enough, but he’d be better suited as a second or third option. Maybe third-round pick Michael Gallup has an instant impact, but it’s asking a lot. And while Jason Witten wasn’t what he used to be either, Dallas has no proven replacement after he retired. The Cowboys did trade for Tavon Austin and are talking up a big role for him, but I need to see that to believe it after Austin was a bust with the Rams. The draft was fine, with Leighton Vander Esch to help the defense and guard Connor Williams to help a line that has shown some cracks (though I refuse to believe they wouldn’t have drafted tight end Dallas Goedert had the Eagles not traded up ahead of them). The Cowboys didn’t have the cap flexibility to do anything meaningful.

GRADE: D

Before last season, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said he wanted to get a “war daddy” pass rusher. He already had one on the roster.

DeMarcus Lawrence played well in 2015 with eight sacks, then went through a rough 2016 with suspension and injuries. He had one sack in nine games. Lawerence has impeccable timing, because his breakout came in a contract year. He had 14.5 sacks last season, made a Pro Bowl and the Cowboys had to use the franchise tag on him. Not every team has a dominant one-on-one pass rusher like Lawrence, and now that he has established himself as a star, it’s a huge advantage for the Cowboys.

If you want reading material for the next week, search for “Jason Garrett hot seat.” Garrett has been the Cowboys’ coach since 2010, and Dallas has won one playoff game with him as head coach. That win came in the wild-card round. Garrett is a better coach than he’s given credit for – he has one losing season, which came in 2015 with Matt Cassel, Kellen Moore and Brandon Weeden starting 12 games at quarterback after Tony Romo got hurt – but it doesn’t matter because Garrett hasn’t won enough in an NFL-crazy market. Fairly or not, people have put the heat on Garrett, and he took responsibility for missing the playoffs last season.

“It’s pilot error. Right here, Jason Garrett, pilot [expletive] error,” Garrett said in the Cowboys’ final team meeting, as shown on the Amazon “All or Nothing” series. “The only way we’re going to advance, take the next step, the way we all want to, is we take ultimate accountability. If we’re all honest with ourselves with how we got to this point, not playing ball this coming week, if we look at ourselves and say ‘Pilot error, I didn’t do my part, that’s why it crashed,’ we got a hell of a chance.”

The constant attention on Garrett’s job status can’t be healthy, though winning big would eliminate it. With a slow start, the theme of the Cowboys’ season will become how much time Garrett has left running the Cowboys.

The buzzword around the Cowboys was “Dak-friendly offense.” It seems to mean we’ll see more run-pass options and designed runs for Prescott. He is tremendous throwing on the move, so that should be a bigger part of the offense as well. Prescott was the subject of the “build him up just to tear him down” cycle in 2017. People spent all offseason hyping him up last year, just to rip him when he couldn’t live up to it. He wasn’t going to improve upon his rookie season, but he had a good first half of last year (16 TDs, 4 INTs, 97.9 rating). Then in Dallas’ last eight games he had six touchdowns and nine interceptions for a 74 rating. You don’t hear MVP hype anymore, but Prescott is still a very good quarterback. Dallas will tweak the offense to take advantage of everything he does well, and hopefully that makes up for a lack of quality targets.

Over a two-game stretch last season, it became clear Dallas’ best player is left tackle Tyron Smith. He missed two games last season, and the Cowboys lost 27-7 at Atlanta and 37-9 vs. Philadelphia. Dallas went a respectable 3-3 without Ezekiel Elliott, but were horrible without Smith. In the Falcons game, defensive end Adrian Clayborn got six sacks. Clayborn has 24 in his other 80 NFL games. Dallas already knew Smith was one of the best players in the NFL, but its struggles without him hammered the point home.

From Yahoo’s Brad Evans: “After Courtland Sutton, Michael Gallup was my favorite wide receiver in this year’s draft class. He possesses the size, route acumen and consistency to step in and potentially deliver WR3 results from the get go. After recently talking to him face-to-face, he definitely doesn’t lack confidence. People will shy away due to his lackluster athletic profile (28th SPARQ percentile) and average speed (4.51 40-yard), but the opportunity is seismic. With Jason Witten, Dez Bryant and Brice Butler off to greener pastures, just over 52 percent of last year’s targets are available. Though the Cowboys will be largely conservative, someone has to catch the ball.

“Impress in training camp and it’s entirely conceivable Gallup becomes Dak’s weapon of choice. It’s not like Allen Hurns or Cole Beasley are all that intimidating. And I don’t believe in the Tavon Austin nonsense. Put it all together and he could be this year’s JuJu Smith-Schuster, a wideout capable of finishing around 70-1000-7. Expect his 170.6 ADP (WR65) to climb steadily during peak fantasy draft season.”

[Booms/Busts: Fantasy outlook on the Cowboys.]

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Jason Witten and Dez Bryant combined for 1,683 receptions, 19,907 yards and 141 touchdowns. Neither player was in his prime anymore, but that doesn’t make them easy to replace. Witten was a captain since the NFL asked teams to assign permanent ones in 2007, and he’ll be missed in the locker room. The top candidates to replace Witten are Geoff Swaim (nine career catches), Blake Jarwin (zero catches), Dalton Schultz (zero catches) and Rico Gathers (zero catches). Witten had nine or more receptions in a game 20 times over his career. Bryant couldn’t separate like he once did, but he would still be the Cowboys’ best receiver if he was still on the roster. They leave some big shoes to fill.

IS THE COWBOYS’ OFFENSIVE LINE STILL GREAT?

At its peak this decade, the Cowboys’ offensive line looked like it could take its place among the best groups the NFL has ever seen. It still has three elite players: center Travis Frederick, guard Zack Martin and tackle Tyron Smith. Each of them has been first-team All-Pro. But the losses of tackle Doug Free to retirement and guard Ronald Leary to Denver in free agency have affected the group. La’el Collins didn’t have a great 2017 season transitioning from guard to right tackle, and the Cowboys didn’t adequately replace Leary last season. Perhaps rookie second-round pick Connor Williams can solidify the left guard spot, and Collins can improve in his second season at tackle. Dallas is no longer the obvious No. 1 offensive line in the NFL, but the talent is there to reach that level this season.

There have been some changes since 2016, but not too long ago Dallas was the No. 1 seed in the NFC and had an inside track to the Super Bowl before Aaron Rodgers broke their hearts in the playoffs. Even with adversity last season the Cowboys were 9-7. While the Eagles took a huge jump last season, you can talk yourself into Dallas winning the NFC East. The Cowboys have the blue-chip talent to be a Super Bowl contender again, if Dak Prescott plays like he did through the first half of last season and some of the complementary players make a big leap.

The NFL is a passing league and the Cowboys haven’t done enough on the personnel side to help out Dak Prescott. He’s coming off a bad second half of last season and Dallas is asking him to bounce back without a No. 1 receiver or proven tight end. If defenses don’t need to respect the pass, that makes life tougher for Ezekiel Elliott. The defense is fine, but not good enough to carry the offense if it struggles. If the Cowboys fail to reach the playoffs in a very tough NFC, you have to wonder if Jerry Jones continues to be patient with Jason Garrett.

My problem really isn’t with the Cowboys, who have good talent, but with the competition they face. The Eagles will win the NFC East. The competition for wild-card spots is going to be insane. If you picked your six NFC playoff teams right now, you’d notice a few really good teams aren’t on that list. Ultimately that’s where Dallas lands, as a good, talented (albeit flawed) team that loses the game of musical chairs in the NFC playoff race.

32. Cleveland Browns
31. Indianapolis Colts
30. New York Jets
29. Arizona Cardinals
28. Buffalo Bills
27. Cincinnati Bengals
26. Chicago Bears
25. New York Giants
24. Miami Dolphins
23. Washington Redskins
22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
21. Houston Texans
20. Seattle Seahawks
19. Oakland Raiders
18. Denver Broncos
17. San Francisco 49ers
16. Detroit Lions
15. Tennessee Titans
14. Baltimore Ravens
13. Carolina Panthers

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Frank Schwab is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!