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“Sauer Notes” NFC East Breakdown: Dallas Cowboys

Dallas Cowboys

The Cowboys did a face plant in 2015 after flashing upside in 2014 when they went 12-4 with their first playoff berth since 2009. Their failure was tied to the loss of Tony Romo and Dez Bryant. Dallas was expected to have the greatest offensive line since the creation of football, but it couldn’t cover up the weakness at the QB position. They went 4-12 last season while only scoring 275 points (31st), which was 192 points fewer than the prior year. The Cowboys finished 22nd in offensive yards after ranking 7th in 2014. Jason Garrett returns for a sixth season as head coach despite a 45-43 record and one playoff appearance. If he fails in 2016, you have to really wonder if he will return for a seventh season. Scott Linehan will get a second shot as the offensive coordinator after his battleship was stripped down to a lifeboat after all of the injuries. Over three years as a head coach, Scott went 11-25 with the Rams. He has 17 seasons of experience as an offensive coordinator. The Cowboys’ defense was about league average in points allowed (374 – 16th) and yards allowed (17th), which was somewhat in line with 2014. Ron Marinelli returns as the defensive coordinator for the third straight year. He also failed in his chance at being a head coach in the NFL (10-38).

2015 NFC East Standings

  1. Washington Redskins 9-7
  2. Philadelphia Eagles 7-9
  3. New York Giants 6-10
  4. Dallas Cowboys 4-12

2015 Statistical Recap

Offensive

Points For: 275 (31st)

Total Yards: 5360 (22nd)

Rushing Yards: 1888 (9th)

Passing Yards: 3472 (27th)

Turnovers Committed: 33 (31st)

Defensive

Points Against: 374 (16th)

Total Yards Against: 5567 (17th)

Rushing Yards Against: 1931 (22nd)

Passing Yards Against: 3636 (5th)

Turnovers Forced: 11 (32nd)

2016 Dallas Cowboys Draft

Round 1 (4): Ezekiel Elliot, RB, Ohio State

  • smithFor just the third time since 1967, the Cowboys have selected a running back with a top-20 pick. The previous two made the Hall of Fame. One is the NFL’s all-time leading rusher. In 1977, the Cowboys used the second overall pick to take Tony Dorsett. In 1991, the Cowboys used the 17th overall pick to take Emmitt Smith, who went on to rush for 18,355 yards. When it comes to the Cowboys, expectations are big for quarterbacks (Troy Aikman, Roger Staubach), wide receivers (Michael Irvin, Drew Pearson, Bob Hayes) and running backs (Smith, Dorsett). Elliott will arrive with big-time expectations. Can he handle them the way Romo and Dez Bryant have? Last season, the Cowboys had eight total rushing touchdowns with underwear-stealing Joseph Randle leading the team with four despite only playing in six games before being released. The Cowboys are hoping Elliott will be able to produce like DeMarco Murray did behind one of the best offensive lines in the league when we witnessed him rush for 1,845 yards in 2014. If Elliott can do so, he will help Tony Romo and his collarbone stay in place, but more importantly the improved offense could  enable the defense to get a breather. Although the NFL has become a passing league, and the RB position has become more volatile in the fantasy realm, Elliott should be the number one rookie taken off the board, and the guy to own in dynasty leagues.

Round 2 (34): Jaylon Smith, OLB, Notre Dame

  • First off, let’s be aware that the Cowboys were trying to take some risks again in 2016 as they tried to move back up into the first round to select QB Paxton Lynch, but nothing came to fruition. They were even more aggressive in the second round by taking Smith, knowing he will need a redshirt year. Smith suffered a torn ACL and LCL in Notre Dame’s January 1 bowl game, but it is nerve damage that is keeping him off the field in 2016. The Cowboys are confident the nerve will regenerate and have the knowledge of the team doctor, Dr. Daniel Cooper, who performed the surgery. This move is usually reserved for a team with something of a finished product on defense. The Cowboys are far from that, but at linebacker they have Rolando McClain, who is set to be a free agent in 2017. It’s possible Smith could be the starter in 2017, provided that the knee is healthy. It’s a big risk, but one the Cowboys were comfortable taking. Last year the Cowboys were hailed on draft night when they took defensive end Randy Gregory in the second round. His stock fell because of a failed drug test and off-field concerns. Those worries were well-founded since Gregory, who did not have a sack last season, will miss the first four games this season because of a substance-abuse suspension. The team’s 2014 second-rounder, DeMarcus Lawrence, is also facing a four-game suspension after violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. Lawrence led the Cowboys with eight sacks last year. If Sean Lee were to get injured like he often has in the past, this defense could resemble a piece of swiss cheese having all of those holes.

Round 3 (34): Maliek Collins, DT, Nebraska

  • collinsThe Cowboys will be without Randy Gregory for the first four games and are also expecting to be without DeMarcus Lawrence for the first four, so it would have made more sense to go after a defensive end. The Cowboys value position flexibility and could look to play Tyrone Crawford, a starter at tackle the last two years, at defensive end more in the first month of the season. Free-agent signing Cedric Thornton could also play end more than expected when he joined the Cowboys.

Round 4 (101): Charles Tapper, DE, Oklahoma

  • Perhaps the Cowboys received the message: They need pass-rush help. Like third-round pick Maliek Collins, Tapper has what Rod Marinelli wants in a defensive end, and that is speed. He ran a 4.59-second 40-yard dash at the combine, which is incredible considering his 271-pound frame. Tapper had 15.5 sacks in his career at Oklahoma. He needs some work but he has the traits to be successful. He was a first-team All-Big 12 pick last season. The Cowboys will miss Randy Gregory and DeMarcus Lawrence for the first four games due to suspension, so Tapper will have a chance to earn significant playing time right away.

Round 4 (135): Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi State

  • prescottFor everybody who wanted the Cowboys to select a quarterback this year, there has to be some relief. The Cowboys wanted Paxton Lynch in the first round but were thwarted in their attempt to trade back into the round. Prescott is similar in size to Tony Romo. He can make plays with his feet, like Romo, and he improved greatly from the pocket. As a senior he threw for 3,793 yards with 29 touchdowns and five interceptions. He also ran for 10 scores. Is he the successor to Romo? Time will tell, but he will have ample time to be ready. The last quarterback the Cowboys drafted came in 2009 when they took Stephen McGee in the fourth round. He started one game for Dallas.

Round 6 (189): Anthony Brown, CB, Purdue

  • The Cowboys re-signed Morris Claiborne in free agency and got Brandon Carr to accept a pay cut earlier in the offseason, but they are set to be free agents in 2017. The Cowboys are looking for some cornerback depth, which is why Brown fits. Brown had four interceptions last season (the first four of his career) and he had 9.5 tackles for loss and 15 pass breakups. His greatest trait is speed, as he ran a 4.35-second 40-yard dash at the combine, which was second fastest among the cornerbacks. The only interceptions the Cowboys had last year from their cornerbacks came from Deji Olatoye and Terrance Mitchell. Three of Brown’s interceptions came against Nebraska.

Round 6 (212): Kavon Frazier, S, Central Michigan

  • frazierThe Cowboys closed the defensive needs by taking Frazier. In the second round they took a linebacker (Jaylon Smith). In the third they took a defensive tackle (Maliek Collins). In the fourth they took a defensive end (Charles Tapper). To start the sixth round, they took a cornerback (Anthony Brown). Frazier started 13 games in 2015 and finished with a team-high 108 tackles. He had 4.5 tackles for loss and one interception. He finished his career with five interceptions, including three in 2013.

Round 6 (216): Darius Jackson, RB, Eastern Michigan

  • While the running back room might seem crowded with Elliott, Darren McFadden, Alfred Morris and Lance Dunbar, the Cowboys are likely going to have Dunbar open the season on the physically unable to perform list because of knee surgery. Jackson had a school-record 16 touchdowns last year and ran for 1,110 yards on 207 carries. What may have been more important for the Cowboys were his 21 catches for 201 yards and two touchdowns. Without Dunbar, the Cowboys don’t have a pass-catching runner, although they are high on Elliott as a possibility there.

Round 6 (217): Rico Gathers, Power Forward/TE, Baylor

  • gathersThe Cowboys held a private workout with Gathers and loved what they saw. Not only does he possess the long arms and big hands that helped him become one of the nation’s best rebounders the last few years, his 276-pound frame leads them to think he can be more than just a basketball player playing football. Stephen Jones said the hope is Gathers can be an in-line tight end and put his hand on the ground. He will get to learn from one of the best in Jason Witten. But there has to be caution put into this move because he has not played football in a long time.

2016-17 Cowboys Schedule

Last season’s disappointing 4-12 finish did have it’s bright side: the Cowboys drafted star running-back Ezekiel Elliott fourth overall. This year’s schedule lets them face-off against other division’s bottom-feeders.  Life is not all bad.  We have to remember that the team played without QB Tony Romo (3-1) for 12 games last season. That span saw Matt Cassel, Kellen Moore, and Brandon Weeden go for a combined 1-11 record. The Cowboys are tied with Lions and Bengals for the 27th easiest schedule heading into the 2016-17 season as their opponents have an average .425 winning percentage. The Packers, Bears, and division-rival Giants are the only teams with easier schedules. Nevertheless, you could easily make a case for the Cowboys to go from worst to first in the NFC East division, and secure a playoff spot that way.

Week 1: vs. New York Giants

Week 2: @ Washington Redskins

Week 3: vs. Chicago Bears

Week 4: @ San Fransisco 49ers

Week 5: vs. Cincinnati Bengals

Week 6: @ Green Bay Packers

Week 7: Bye

Week 8: vs. Philadelphia Eagles

Week 9: @ Cleveland Browns

Week 10: @ Pittsburgh Steelers

Week 11: vs. Baltimore Ravens

Week 12: vs. Washington Redskins

Week 13: @ Minnesota Vikings

Week 14: @ New York Giants

Week 15: vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Week 16: vs. Detroit Lions

Week 17: @ Philadelphia Eagles

Team Breakdown

Quarterback

Tony Romo– romo2015 was a tough season for Tony. He opened up with 356 yards and three TD against the Giants in Week 1, but his season turned in the wrong direction in his second game when Romo suffered a broken bone in his left shoulder. After missing seven games, Tony only played two more games with minimal success (333 yards and two TD) before re-injuring his left shoulder. For some reason, he didn’t have surgery on his left shoulder until early March. Romo should have no limitations when the lights go on in training camp. The Cowboys’ quarterbacks threw for 3677 yards with 16 TD in 2015, which was a complete mess with Dez Bryant injured as well for a good part of the year. The previous year Tony was one bad call away from a possible Super Bowl berth in 2014 (WR Dez Bryant TD against the Packers in the division playoff game). He led the league in yards per pass attempts (8.5). As well as Romo played in 2014, he had the 31st ranked passing opportunity in the NFL due to only 29 pass attempts per game. He only had one game with 300+ yards with 11 games with fewer than 30 pass attempts in his 17 starts. His value was created by his ability to throw TD (seven games with three TD or more). Tony threw a career-high 37 TD while leading the league in completion rate (69.9). In his career, Romo has thrown more than 30 TD in four different years. The 2016 Cowboys are built to run the ball, which will be important to keep Tony healthy all season. He’ll start the season at 36 with only one elite receiving option. Romo will be a solid game manager with some big game ability while offering an edge in TD. His floor should be 4000 passing yards with 30 TD.

Running Back

Ezekiel Elliott– elliottOver two seasons at Ohio State, Elliott rushed for 3699 yards with 41 rushing TD while also catching 55 passes for 426 yards. His game is going to be a perfect fit for the Cowboys’ offense. He has great vision and lateral acceleration to find the opening to break free into the second level of the defense. His finishing speed will lead to some long scoring TD plus his power will result in a high volume of TD in his rookie season. In 2015, the Cowboys’ RBs had 378 rushes for 1758 yards (4.65 yards per rush) with eight rushing TD plus 79 catches for 657 yards. A fantasy owner has to look no further than DeMarco Murray in 2014 with Dallas (2261 combined yards on 449 touches with 13 TD and 57 catches) to see the exciting opportunity for Ezekiel in his rookie season. The Cowboys will run the ball over 500 times this year and Elliott should have 300 carries at the minimum. I believe he’ll average over 5.0 yards per carry with a chance to lead the NFL in rushing TD plus Ezekiel will be serviceable in catches. I’m all in on him this season, but I don’t want to overpay in the early draft season. I expect 1900+ combined yards with 20+ TD and 35+ catches, which is worth 345 fantasy points in PPR leagues.

Darren McFadden– Over the three seasons before arriving in Dallas, McFadden averaged only 3.3 yards per rush. This number jumped to 4.6 with the Cowboys leading to his best season since 2010. Darren finished with 1417 combined yards with three TD and 40 catches. In his 11 games with a chance at starting snaps, McFadden had five 100 yard rushing games and six games with 20 touches or more. This season his opportunity drops down a notch with Elliot added to the roster. The Cowboys will run the ball a ton plus Darren will be involved in the passing game. He should get between 150 and 175 touches for 750 yards with minimal TD and a chance at 40+ catches.

Alfred Morris– Morris has seen his yards per rush drop in each season in the NFL (2012 – 4.8, 2013 – 4.6, 2014 – 4.1, and 2015 – 3.7). His failure last year led to him being signed by the Cowboys in March. His opportunity changed on a dime when Dallas decided to invest in Elliott in the 2016 NFL Draft. Alfred has three 1000 yards seasons on his resume in four seasons with 29 TD in 64 games. In 2016, Morris will provide veteran insurance off the bench with no real upside in playing time without an injury. He offers no credibility in the passing game either, as he only has 47 receptions for his career.

Wide Receiver 

Dez Bryant– bryanyDez crushed Fantasy owners in 2015 due to a broken bone in his right foot that required surgery plus his subpar play over eight games when he returned to the starting lineup. Over nine games, Bryant caught 31 passes for 401 yards and three TD on 72 targets. He had his lowest catch rate (43.1) of his career thanks to weak QB play after Romo went down with an injury and lack of explosion as a result of his foot issue. Dez only had one game with over 100 yards receiving while never catching over five passes in any game. His season ended in Week 16 with a recurring foot injury. Bryant had a second surgery on his right foot in early January, which was a bone graft, plus a cleanup issue with his ankle to remove a bone spur. In early June, Dez was given clearance to step up his offseason work. This puts him on track to be ready for the start of training camp. In his career, Bryant has three years with over 1200 yards receiving while averaging 91 catches in those three seasons with 41 TD in 46 games. Dez is a special player, but his opportunity is a step below the elite WR in the game due to Dallas’ offensive structure. He’ll offer an edge in TD with an outside chance at 100 catches for 1300+ yards. His targets will fall 30 to 50 below the top WR in the game.

Terrance Williams– With Dez out of the lineup for much of the season, Williams was unable to step up his game to offer winning value in the Fantasy world. He set career highs in catches (52), receiving yards (840), and target (93), which led to him producing WR4 value in PPR leagues. Terrance had his best game of the season on Week 17 (8/173) to somewhat mask his disappointing results. In his other 15 games, he never had more than five catches in any game with two games with double-digit targets. Over three years in the league, Williams has 133 catches for 2197 yards and 16 TD in 233 targets. His results will be short in most weeks, but his TD ability will be serviceable at times with Romo behind center while also offering some big play ability. The explosiveness of Elliot at RB should create more open-field for Terrance. In his fourth season in the league, Williams may make another small step forward. I don’t see enough targets to offer playable value in Fantasy leagues, and he tends to be tough to time as a bye week cover. His next step may be 60 catches for 900+ yards and about seven TD.

Cole Beasley– beaselyOver four seasons in the NFL, Beasley has 143 catches for 1452 yards and 11 TD on 202 targets. His catch rate (70.8) is in a strong area due to working the short areas of the field. Over the last six games of 2014, Cole was developing some chemistry with Romo. He caught 21 passes for 277 yards and four TD on 28 targets..  Over 16 games, this would have projected to 56 catches for 739 yards and 11 TD on 75 targets. His targets (75) fell in line with these projections.  But he had fewer catches (52) and was unable to  sustain his  TD rate.  Hi season started last year with 22 catches for 214 yards on 27 targets over the first five games of the seasons. Over his last 11 games, Beasley had one impact game (9/112/2) and one serviceable game (5/53/2). In between, he only had 16 catches for 157 yards and a TD in nine games. Cole is a poor man’s Wes Welker without the opportunity. If Romo plays for a full season, Cole has a chance to average four catches per game leading to about 700 yards with occasional value in TD. If Dallas throws the ball fewer than 30 times per game (as expected), there just aren’t enough chances for a second or third WR to have Fantasy value in this offense.

Tight End

Jason Witten– wittenWitten led the Cowboys in receptions (77) in 2015 leading to 713 yards and three TD on 104 targets. His value is trending downward over the last three seasons (2013 – 111 targets, 2014 – 90 targets, and 2015 – 104 targets) and he’ll start 2016 at age 34. In 2014, with Dallas playing at a high level offensively, Jason tied a career low in catches (64) while setting a career low in receiving yards (703) since earning the starting job in 2004. His slight bounce back in value was created by the injury Dez Bryant. Witten has three 1000 yards receiving seasons on his NFL resume plus three years with 90+ catches. He has very good chemistry with Tony Romo while never missing a game in his last 12 seasons. Jason has lost a step for sure, but he still has a high floor even with a declining draft value. We can expect about 65-70 receptions for about 650 yards and about five or so TD, which is worthy of a low-end TE1 in 12-team PPR leagues.

Kicker

Dan Bailey– baileyBailey is one of the best kickers in the NFL. Last season he made 30 of his 32 field goals (93.8 percent), which improved his career success rate to 90.6 (Best in NFL history). He made all 25 of his extra-point chances. His leg has high value from long range (16-for-22 over the last three seasons from 50 yards or longer). In 2014, Dan had 85 scoring opportunities (56 extra points and 29 field goal attempts). I expect Dallas to regain their offensive upside in 2016 and I believe the Cowboys will have success scoring TD in the red zone. This will limit Bailey’s field goal chances in many games. Overall, I love his leg, and I hate it when kickers miss scoring chances. Dan has an opportunity to be a top five kicker in 2016.

Defense

The Cowboys finished 22nd in the NFL in rushing yards allowed (1934) with 16 rushing TD. Ball carriers gained 4.2 yards per rush, which was about the league average. Some of their downside against the run was created by game score as opposing teams averaged 28.8 rushes per game.

Dallas ranked 5th in NFL in passing yards allowed (3532) with 19 TD and only eight Ints. They sacked the QB 31 times. As great as their success may look on paper, the Cowboys did allow 7.6 yards per attempt which was the 10th highest total in the league.

The best player on the Cowboys’ defense in 2015 was LB Sean Lee, who offered upside in pass coverage with success against the run. Lee has minimal value rushing the QB (2.5 sacks). LB Rolando McClain graded as below the requirements needed for a starting player at his position as a result of his weakness against the run. LB Anthony Hitchens had risk as well against the run while falling short in his responsibilities in pass coverage.lee

DE DeMarcus Lawrence is expected to miss the first four games of the season due to failing a drug test. Lawrence was the Cowboys’ best defensive linemen in 2015  with eight sacks. DE Randy Gregory will face the same fate as DeMarcus as a result of his violation of the NFL’s substance abuse policy. Gregory was a backup player with limited upside in 2015. DT Cedric Thornton played well against the run with no upside rushing the QB. DT Tyrone Crawford had shoulder surgery in the offseason. Dallas may move him to defensive end earlier in the season with Lawrence out of the lineup. His game doesn’t offer an edge in any area at this point in his career. DE Benson Mayowa looks to be a negative asset.lawrence

S Byron Jones lived up to expectations after Dallas selected him the first round in the 2015 NFL Draft. His best success came in pass coverage while still needing to upgrade his value in run support. S Barry Church was very good against the run with risk in coverage. CB Orlando Scandrick played at a high level in 2014, but he missed all of the 2015 season due to a torn ACL in his right knee. Orlando will have almost a full season to recover, which puts him on track to be 100 percent healthy when the season starts. Both of the other options to start at the other CB position (Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne) have high risk in the passing game.claiborne

This defense is loaded with risk while possibly having four players with upside. I don’t expect the Cowboys’ defense to have any Fantasy value.  This season incoming rookie class will need to hit the ground running for Dallas to make a run at the playoffs.

Conclusion

If Tony Romo stays healthy for the whole season, I do not see why the Cowboys can not go from worst to first in their division. This is not so much of an endorsement of the Cowboys or any drastic changes they made besides drafting Ezekiel Elliott in the first round.  It is rather an acknowledgment that the other three teams in the division did not make any real impact changes to their rosters either. We know how Cowboys have a good O-line. Add in a possible pro-bowl type runner behind them in Elliott and you’ll see defenses get worn down rather quickly with Romo being able to eventually take advantage over the top.  They are the best team in this division and will win four out of six games easily.  This them a clear cut shot at  making the postseason. My final prediction will have Dallas finishing 10-6 and making the playoffs via the Wild Card. I am going to make a bold statement:  If Dallas is healthy come playoff time, they will make it to the Championship game and fall one game shy of making the Super Bowl.

Find me on twitter: @zaksauer

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Major League Fantasy Football Weekly: Join Lou LandersZak Sauer, and Corey D Roberts live Saturday June 25th, 2016 from 1-2:30pm EST for episode #24 of Major League Fantasy Football Weekly. We will run our show on Saturday until August 27th, and then move back to Tuesday nights from 8-10pm EST on September 13th. This is a live broadcast and we do take callers at 323-870-4395. We will discuss the AFC West  from a NFL and fantasy football perspective.

You can find our shows on I-Tunes. Just search for Major League Fantasy Sports in the podcasts section. For Android users go to “Podcast Republic,” then download that app, and search for “Major League Fantasy Sports Show”

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Major League Fantasy Baseball Weekly: Join Corey D Roberts and Kyle Amore live on Thursday June 30th, 2016 from 8-10pm EST for episode #20 of Major League Fantasy Baseball Weekly. This will run every Thursday as a live broadcast that will take live callers at 323-870-4395. Press 1 to speak with the host. This is part 2 of our MLB Draft coverage that will wrap up with the N.L. side of the draft.

Our guests are Coach Andy Macuga and Bryan Luhrs. Andy is the Head Baseball Coach at Borrego Springs H.S. in southern California as well as a seasoned veteran in MLFS leagues. Bryan is the owner of Real Deal Dynasty Sports, and a writer with majorleaguefantasysports.com

You can find our shows on I-Tunes. Just search for Major League Fantasy Sports in the podcasts section. For Android users go to “Podcast Republic,” then download that app, and search for “Major League Fantasy Sports Show”

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