If the Dallas Cowboys prove to be successful in the 2020 NFL season, it will be more than just their stars who determine how far the team goes in coach Mike McCarthy’s first season.
The Cowboys are led by familiar names in quarterback Dak Prescott, running back Ezekiel Elliott, wide receiver Amari Cooper, linebackers DeMarcus Lawrence, Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch and Sean Lee, offensive linemen Zack Martin and Tyron Smith and defensive lineman Gerald McCoy, among them.
But, however you want to define success — a trip to the Super Bowl or making the playoffs — will be determined by the Cowboys’ players who are not thought of right away.
The Cowboys’ top 10 salary-cap figures for 2020 total $131.175 million. That’s the fourth-highest top-10 total in the league, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The Indianapolis Colts ($142.65 million), Kansas City Chiefs ($142.29 million) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers ($134.8 million) are Nos. 1 through 3.
A team’s foundation is about the core of its roster.
Beyond the recognizable names mentioned above, let’s look at some of the less-heralded players who need to step up their games for the Cowboys to be a postseason threat in 2020.
Tyrone Crawford: The defensive lineman has long been critiqued outside the team, mostly because of the five-year extension he signed in 2015. But, inside the team, Crawford is highly valued. After undergoing double hip surgery, he missed 12 games last season. His on-field value is his ability to play multiple positions, which can affect his own statistics but it helps others make plays. In the locker room, Crawford is a steady influence on his teammates. For the 2020 season, he appears to be healthy and will help at right defensive end in base defense situations and move inside in passing situations.
Jourdan Lewis, Anthony Brown and Chidobe Awuzie: They are the holdover cornerbacks from the past few seasons and will have to produce more in 2020. Lewis’ production per snap has been fine and an argument can be made he should have been playing more. Lewis is also the second-leading returning sacker to the defense in 2020 after having four in 2019. Brown’s season was cut short because of a torn triceps, but he returns to the Cowboys on a three-year deal. Awuzie, who has three interceptions in three seasons, has to go from being in position to make plays to actually making the plays. With more coverages and techniques being used with coordinator Mike Nolan, Awuzie has to make a jump for the defense to improve.
Joe Looney, Connor McGovern and Connor Williams: These offensive linemen are the primary candidates to replace retired center Travis Frederick. Fourth-round pick Tyler Biadasz could get into the mix, but with such little practice time, the impact of most rookies will be affected. Looney has the experience and started 16 games in Frederick’s absence in 2018. He did the job well enough and can communicate to the rest of the line. McGovern did not play as a rookie because of a pectoral muscle tear. McGovern played center at Penn State and the Cowboys drafted him in the third round in 2019 because of his position flexibility. His smarts and physicality were considered positive traits. Williams is coming back from a torn ACL and has never played center, but there are some who believe this could be his best position. The “losers” of the center battle will then have a chance to claim the left guard spot.
Blake Jarwin: By giving the tight end a $22 million extension the Cowboys clearly believe he is ready to replace longtime star Jason Witten. Jarwin made big plays as a secondary piece to the offense, but things change when you become the primary player. Jarwin’s growth will not be about his ability to make plays down the seams; it will be about what he does on third-and-6 in a key drive to move the chains as well as the improvement he makes as a blocker at the point of attack. As of right now, Jarwin remains something of a projection.
Xavier Woods: Safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is the biggest name added to the Cowboys’ secondary. Clinton-Dix played for McCarthy in Green Bay and he has shown the ability to take the ball away. Woods is entering his third season as a full-time starter at safety and has been on a favorable trajectory. Consistency in his game will be key. Woods can make hits and has at times shown the ability to get the ball away, but he needs to make more impact in every game. Like the aforementioned cornerbacks, he should be helped by Nolan’s use of more coverages and the disguising of those coverages.