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State of the 2023 Dallas Cowboys: Heat is on Mike McCarthy, Dak Prescott to lead deep playoff run

Where does your squad stand in 2023? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Members of the Cowboys organization, Cowboys fans around the world and those who have "How ‘bout them Cowboys" as their ringtone ...

Dallas is coming off a second straight playoff berth, but a loss at long-time nemesis San Francisco in the Divisional Round overshadowed strides made last season. Are the Cowboys ready to take that next step this season? Well, before we look forward, it's always important to take a look back.

2022 rewind

One high from last season: The Cowboys were actually good last year. And I know saying "actually" is kind of a low-key diss because I seemed surprised. But they were actually good. A lot of people also thought the Cowboys would lose in the opening round of the playoffs to the host Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Tom Brady. Instead, they went out and smoked them, 31-14, in Brady's last game ever.

One low from last season: Ezekiel Elliott lining up at center for the final play of the game against the 49ers. You can close your eyes and picture it right now. It wasn't bad, in theory -- much like Crystal Pepsi wasn't bad, in theory. Actually, it was a bad idea.

2023 VIPs

Quarterback: Dak Prescott. I love Dak. I do. But he can be frustrating at times. He was absolutely brilliant against the Buccaneers in the playoffs, racking up five total touchdowns and 305 yards passing. The following week, Dak threw for just over 200 yards with one TD and two interceptions in the loss to the 49ers. Not that one should be expected to light up a defense like San Francisco's unit, but Dak needs to avoid mistakes like the picks, especially the one in the red zone to Fred Warner. That was exceptionally exasperating. Maybe the switch to Mike McCarthy as play-caller will give us a more consistently great Dak. We're about to find out.

Projected 2023 MVP: Micah Parsons, linebacker. Parsons has 26.5 sacks in his first two seasons. He's the third player to post 12-plus sacks in each of his first two NFL campaigns since individual sacks were first recorded in 1982, joining Aldon Smith and Reggie White. Quinn changed how the 'Boys deployed Parsons in his second year. He played 82.6 percent of the snaps on the line of scrimmage in 2022, per Next Gen Stats (49.7% in 2021). He's one of just three players with 25-plus sacks and 30-plus tackles for loss since 2021.

New face to know: Stephon Gilmore, cornerback. The Cowboys traded for the 2019 Defensive Player of the Year this offseason. Is this like adding Deion Sanders to the squad in 1995? It's not. But Gilmore ranked sixth among cornerbacks with a coverage grade of 81.1 last season, according to Pro Football Focus. And really, he's just here to work along with Trevon Diggs, who leads the NFL with 14 interceptions and 35 passes defensed since 2021. Now, Diggs has gone 10 straight games without a pick, but he's probably going to see more opportunities with Gilmore on the other side. And don't forget that DaRon Bland was quite a pleasant surprise for the Cowboys last year, too. Dallas might have one of the best secondaries in the league.

2023 breakout star: Sam Williams, defensive end. It's hard to make a big impact when you're stuck behind Parsons and Demarcus Lawrence. But that's what Williams did during his rookie season. Like Zayn Malik playing behind Harry Styles in One Direction, sometimes you have to just wait for your chance. Though Malik was the first one to leave the band, so maybe Williams is Styles. Point is, Williams had four sacks despite playing less than a third of the defensive snaps for the Cowboys. They have to find more ways to get him on the field.

2023 braintrust

Table inside Article
Head coach Mike McCarthy
Owner/president/GM Jerry Jones
Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer
Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn
Special teams coordinator John Fassel
  • It's Mike McCarthy's fourth year in Dallas, and the Cowboys are coming off consecutive 12-5 seasons. But do you feel like they are any closer to the Super Bowl? That's probably why McCarthy made the decision to mutually part ways with offensive coordinator Kellen Moore and take over play-calling duties himself. I mean, if my job were on the line, I would also want to take the reins myself. This will be the first time McCarthy has called plays since 2018. It's not like the league has changed much since that time or anything. I'm sure he'll be fine. The Packers had a top-five scoring offense in seven of his 13 seasons in Green Bay.
  • DC Dan Quinn has been a head-coaching candidate the past two seasons, and the Cowboys are fortunate to still have him around. He's a valuable person to have on the staff, especially if the heat on McCarthy gets turned up. If you know what I mean. And if you don't know what I mean, Quinn would be the most obvious in-house option to turn to if things go south in a hurry for McCarthy. The Cowboys led the NFL in takeaways for the second straight year with 33 last season. They have a lot of great talent all over the D and made some additions in the offseason, including drafting Mazi Smith to anchor the interior defensive line. The strength of the Cowboys will again be the defense. Yet, nobody seems to talk about that.
  • The Cowboys always seem to draft well, which is a credit to Jerry Jones. There was that time back in 2014, when Jones was reportedly set on drafting Johnny Football but had the card snatched away from him and Dallas went with future Hall of Famer Zack Martin instead. Now, that story might be a little embellished. And the evidence shows the Cowboys tend to kill the draft every year. Jones has been great.

Roster reshuffling

Below is a rundown of the Cowboys' most notable roster developments for the 2023 season, including this year's draft class, as well as key acquisitions and departures via free agency and trade.

Table inside Article
Draft class (round-pick) Key additions Key departures
Mazi Smith, DT, Michigan (1-26) Ronald Jones, RB Ezekiel Elliott, RB
Luke Schoonmaker, TE, Michigan (2-58) Brandin Cooks, WR Noah Brown, WR
DeMarvion Overshown, LB, Texas (3-90) Stephon Gilmore, CB T.Y. Hilton, WR
Viliami Fehoko Jr., DE, San Jose State (4-129) Dalton Schultz, TE
Asim Richards, OL, North Carolina (5-169) Jason Peters, OT
Eric Scott Jr., CB, Southern Mississippi (6-178) Connor McGovern, OG
Deuce Vaughn, RB, Kansas State (6-212) Carlos Watkins, DL
Jalen Brooks, WR, South Carolina (7-244) Anthony Barr, LB
Anthony Brown, CB
Brett Maher, K

2023 roadmap

Three key dates:

  • Week 1 at New York Giants (Sunday night). The Cowboys are facing high expectations, as per usual. They kick off the '23 campaign against the division rival Giants, who made a surprise run to the playoffs last season. Also, this is the first week of McCarthy calling plays for Dallas. Should be fun.
  • Week 5 at San Francisco 49ers (Sunday night). The Cowboys return to the spot of their humiliating playoff demise. There will be no Ezekiel Elliott playing center, though I'm sure the Cowboys fans are sick of hearing about that play. However, you're going to see that highlight around 1,000 times that week, so get used to it.
  • Week 9 at Philadelphia Eagles. This will be the Cowboys' first crack at the defending NFC champions. Dallas split the season series with the Eagles last year, beating them at home but losing on the road.

Will the Cowboys be able to ...

... count on the offensive line? Dallas has fielded a strong offensive line for as long as I can remember. It's one of the great things about the team's player-personnel department. The Cowboys always seem to find great linemen. Like last year, when they selected Tyler Smith out of Tulsa in the first round. He was great as a rookie, starting every game while Dallas dealt with O-line injuries, including one to Tyron Smith. When healthy, the Cowboys have a top-10 O-line. Can they stay healthy, and do they have enough depth if they don't stay healthy?

... figure out what to do with Tony Pollard? I know a lot of fantasy heads have been asking for Pollard to be the feature back for years. We also asked for a series devoted solely to Boba Fett, and did you see how that worked out? I'm not sure there is a Mando cameo that can help save this Cowboys backfield situation. I like Tony. He's good. But he's not the same kind of back that Ezekiel Elliott was. (And I'm straining, STRAINING to not make an Elliott at center joke.) The Cowboys need a complementary running back here. It's the way the NFL works. The days of Emmitt Smith are gone. Hell, the days of DeMarco Murray are gone. Who is the guy? The team signed Ronald Jones and drafted Deuce Vaughn. And after all of that, they could end up bringing back Zeke.

One storyline ...

... people shouldn't overlook: Brandin Cooks is kind of good. Cooks and Eric Dickerson have commanded like, what, 100 first-round picks in trades during their respective careers? And I'm not saying Cooks is going to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But he's posted at least 1,000 receiving yards in six of his last eight seasons. Only Mike Evans (8) and Travis Kelce (7) have more over that span. The Cowboys need somebody to help CeeDee Lamb, who ranked among the top six in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns last season. The Cowboys also need to replace tight end Dalton Schultz, who left via free agency during the offseason. Both Jake Ferguson and Peyton Hendershot had their moments last year. (Trust me, as a guy who did the "That Helps No One" sketch on NFL Fantasy Live.) The Cowboys also drafted Luke Schoonmaker in the second round to add to their collection of pass-catchers.

For 2023 to be a success, the Cowboys MUST:

  • Reach the NFC Championship Game. I know what you were expecting. You were expecting me to say the Super Bowl. Because expectations are always high in Dallas. You understand that. But the Cowboys haven't reached the NFC title game since the 1995 season, let alone the Super Bowl. Let's take some baby steps here. What I would really like to see for the Cowboys is making the playoffs and maybe beating a team they aren't expected to beat. Nobody thought the Cowboys would beat the 49ers in the 1992 NFC Championship Game. (Well, I did. But I'm a genius.) They did and it sparked a dynasty. Dallas needs that kind of signature win again.

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