In the NFL, one of the most important factors to success is who you have to go up against. Look at the New England Patriots, who only had to beat Brock Osweiler in order to reach the AFC Championship game. Yes, the Patriots got the number one seed, but even their 14 wins weren’t that difficult.
New England had the easiest schedule in the NFL by DVOA and faced quarterbacks like Matt Moore, Jared Goff, Osweiler, Trevor Siemian, Cody Kessler, Colin Kaepernick, Ryan Fitzpatrick (twice), and Landry Jones. Give credit to the Dallas Cowboys for going 13-3 against the eighth-hardest schedule ...
But I don’t think the Cowboys can win 13 games next year. They may have a difficult time winning 10.
In Dallas’ return to prominence behind an elite offensive line, and great rookies at quarterback and running back, you can see how the offense could only get better next season. The Cowboys were fifth in scoring, third in DVOA, and second in rushing yards. They were 30th in pass attempts, and you would expect that as Dak Prescott grows, so will his moments to win games with his arm, just as they would be wise to cut down on Ezekiel Elliott’s 322 carries. However, there’s still a chance that the offense gets worse and with a defense that is already average-to-below-average, Dallas finds themselves in an offseason bind to keep the band together and add good players despite having no cap room.
Like literally less than zero cap room.
Even after trading Tony Romo, the Cowboys are set to be $3.5 million over the cap per ... overthecap. Trading Romo, or him retiring, or outright releasing him, does nothing to change the $19.6 million in dead money for 2017. If they don’t free up cap space, then they could lose free agents Ronald Leary, Morris Claiborne, Brandon Carr, Barry Church, Terrance Williams, Jack Crawford, Brice Butler, Terrell McClain, and JJ Wilcox.
These are really significant losses.
I give it zero chance that Leary returns. He wanted a trade last year when it looked like he wasn’t going to start and then he did and looks great next to three All-Pros. Some team will give him $9+ million per year and it simply can’t be Dallas. Of course, they have La’El Collins still, but will he stay healthy after missing 17 games in his first two seasons? At what level will he be able to play at? They may not be able to replace him with Jonathan Cooper, who they acquired recently, as he is also a free agent.
Claiborne and Carr had been disappointments for much of their time with the Cowboys, but it’s similar to the issue the Carolina Panthers faced a year ago with their starting cornerbacks: Who are you going to replace them with? Especially when you have no money and are picking 28th. Right now Dallas is going to have Orlando Scandrick, who is a serviceable two or three who has missed time in four of the last five seasons, and Anthony Brown, a sixth round rookie who was forced to start 10 games this season after an injury to Claiborne. The secondary could be further weakened by the loss of safeties Church and Wilcox. I am highly skeptical that the Cowboys could even have one of the 25 best secondaries next season.
Which is even more of a problem when you’re already sporting one of the worst pass rushing units in the NFL. Which could also be hurt by the loss of McClain, who is maybe their best defensive tackle, and Jack Crawford, who may just be a body at defensive end, but is still 16 games and 11 starts that they need to replace and hope the next guy is better. I wouldn’t count on Randy Gregory to return any time soon.
I’m also wary of the loss of Williams. An inconsistent receiver, Williams and Prescott connected immediately, and he went from a guy who caught about 57% of his targets to one who caught 72.1% this season. He was reliable for Prescott and now that’s probably going away. Butler is not a huge loss, but again, is the replacement going to be better?
That’s two corners, two wide receivers, two defensive linemen, two safeties, and two guards. And about seven starters. They’ll also probably lose Rolando McClain, should his suspension be lifted. Role players Lance Dunbar, Gavin Escobar, Darren McFadden, and Justin Durant are also free agents. Oh and they need to find a backup quarterback after they trade Romo: Mark Sanchez and Kellen Moore are free agents.
Have I mentioned that at this point the Cowboys are still over the cap?
In scanning potential cap casualties, I don’t find many great options. Cutting injured tight end James Hanna saves $1.5 million. (The June 1 designation is $2.25 million.) Alfred Morris, $1.7 million. Kyle Wilber, $1.25 million. And you could find some <$1 million guys too. This gets Dallas to being under the cap, but they still need to sign rookies and find replacements for all of the players they have lost.
Of course, the Cowboys will go to Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and start moving money back to save cap for 2017. This will help them put a roster together for next season while also just putting off the problem until later years, potentially harming their chances for immediate and long-term success.
They won’t be picking fourth like they were a year ago. They’ll be picking 28th and continue to pick at the back end of every round instead of the front end. They also traded down from the fifth round to the seventh in their deal with the Buffalo Bills for Matt Cassel.
And next season they’re going to have to come back and face a potentially even harder schedule than they just went up against: Giants, Redskins, Eagles, Seahawks, Packers, Chiefs, Chargers, Rams at home. Giants, Redskins, Eagles, Cardinals, Falcons, Raiders, Broncos, 49ers on the road.
I mean, are you seeing what I’m seeing?
New York made the playoffs with a defense that is much more talented than the one the Cowboys have. Washington was one win away from the playoffs. Philadelphia was a much better team than their record indicated and will look to get better in the second year under Carson Wentz. They have seven games against 2016 playoff teams, plus the 2015 Super Bowl champion, two against the Redskins, the Chargers should be better, and an Arizona team that most expect to rebound.
When I look at the entire picture, I don’t see a team that’s going to go 13-3 next season. I may not see a team that goes 11-5. I could buy into an argument though that they’re doomed for 8-8 or worse. On the positive side is Dak, Zeke, Dez, Witten, and the offensive line. On the negative side: So many other things. I’ve also written in the past, and specifically about Dallas and their over-usage of DeMarco Murray, how harmful it is to give a player 350+ touches in a season. Zeke had 322 regular season carries, 22 postseason carries, and 33 total receptions. 377 touches for a rookie. A lot of guys don’t come back the same the next season. And if Zeke goes, the whole thing could come crumbling down. Who is his backup next season? Who knows. They could all be leaving town.
That is the 2017 Dallas Cowboys. A favorite to repeat the number one seed? I don’t even think they’re the favorite to win their own division.