The Dallas Cowboys entered this offseason on the heels of quite the disappointing 2020 season. The Cowboys finished the season second in the NFC East with a record of 6-10. Fans of "America's Team" have many reasons to believe the team will bounce back in a big way in 2021, however, and in this article, I will go over the three biggest reasons for optimism.
The return of Dak Prescott
The biggest derailment to the Cowboy's season was when franchise quarterback Dak Prescott suffered a gruesome season-ending ankle injury against the New York Giants in Week 5. Although Dallas had only won a single game before his injury, Prescott was the last to blame. While it was a small sample size, Prescott was on pace to shatter the single-season record for passing yards -- throwing for more than 450 yards in three consecutive games before his last game. Prescott was just shy of 2,000 passing yards in under five total games. In those games, the Cowboys put up 37, 38, 31, and 39 points respectively.
In a division that saw The Washington Football Team emerge on top with a measly 7-9 record, it is fair to say that Dallas would have been in their place instead with a healthy Prescott. After all, they finished with just one less win than Washington without him. Prescott will now return to one of the best wide receiver trios in the NFL with Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, and Michael Gallup. Behind him in the backfield is the solid duo at running back of Ezekial Elliott and Tony Pollard. Paired with a healthy offensive line, the sky will be the limit for the Cowboy's offense in 2021.
A healthy offensive line
Aside from losing their star quarterback, losing multiple offensive linemen to season-ending injuries was the next biggest blow to Dallas' offense. This included right tackle La'el Collins before the start of the season, left tackle Tyron Smith following just two appearances for the season, and guard Zack Martin after 10 appearances. All of this came after losing longtime center Travis Frederick to retirement during the offseason. Veteran Joe Looney replaced Frederick at center to start the season, but he too was lost to injury for a few weeks, forcing rookie fourth-round pick Tyler Biadasz to step in. Biadasz faired well in his short time as the team's starting center for four games before a hamstring injury suffered during warmups ended his rookie campaign in Week 9. Despite only starting in four games, Biadasz earned a spot on the PFF All-Rookie Team.
Conner Williams at left guard was the consistent bright spot along the offensive line last season. The former second-round pick was ranked as the No. 21 guard in the NFL heading into the 2021 season by PFF. Williams earned a PFF grade of 70.8 for the 2020 season. With Williams ascending as one of the better young guards in the NFL and the return of multiple Pro Bowl linemen, the Cowboys' offensive line should once again be a strength this season. This should help pave the way for a bounceback season for running back Ezekiel Elliott as well following career-lows in rushing yards and yards per attempt.
An improved defense
Another major issue for Dallas last season was their defense which ranked in the bottom 10 of the NFL in total yards allowed and next to last in rushing yards allowed. The unit has since seen many changes. From several new players to a new coordinator, there is reason to believe that the Cowboys will have an improved defense in 2021. The biggest addition was the hiring of Dan Quinn as defensive coordinator. Quinn was fired by the Atlanta Falcons following the first five games of the 2020 season. Before being hired as the head coach of the Falcons in 2015, Quinn was the defensive coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks during The Legion of Boom era which saw the team appear in two Super Bowls, winning one.
The most notable player added on defense was Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons. Dallas selected Parsons with the No. 12 overall pick in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft. Parsons was widely regarded as the best linebacker in the draft and potentially the best overall defensive player. The Cowboys spent their first six picks on defensive players. After Parsons, Dallas selected cornerback Kelvin Joseph, defensive lineman Osa Odighizuwa, edge rusher Chauncey Golston, cornerback Nahshon Wright, and linebacker Jabril Cox.
Through free agency, the Cowboys brought in safeties Keanu Neal, Malik Hooker, Jayron Kearse, and Damontae Kazee, as well as defensive linemen Brent Urban, Tarrell Basham, and Carlos Watkins. This new influx of talent and potential jumps in performance from notable second-year players such as cornerback Trevon Diggs and defensive lineman Neville Gallimore should pay dividends for one of the NFL's worst defenses from a season ago.