Machota: Ranking the Cowboys’ 15 most important players during their 5-1 start

Iamtdg

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Sep 27, 2021; Arlington, Texas, USA; Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) celebrates after making a touchdown pass to tight end Dalton Schultz (not pictured) against the Philadelphia Eagles during the fourth quarter at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

By Jon Machota 3h ago

FRISCO, Texas — NFL coaches often break a season down into four quarters. They judge their team on a larger scale off of those four stretches of four games each. Unfortunately for them, the NFL schedule threw a wrench into their old way of doing things. Adding a 17th game has forced coaches to change things up.

The Cowboys, for example, are now breaking this season into three segments. The first segment ended Sunday. The second segment will consist of six games: Week 8 through Week 13. The final segment will be the final five games, four of which are against NFC East opponents.

With the first third of the season in the books, it’s a good time to take a bigger picture look at how Dallas has gotten off to an impressive 5-1 start. There is plenty of credit to go around, from the front office to the coaching staff, but for this exercise, we’re focusing on the players. More specifically, who has been the most important during the first segment.

Here is a top 15 ranking.

15. Tony Pollard, RB. This final spot came down to Pollard and wide receiver Cedrick Wilson. Both are deserving of being on this list. Wilson has been excellent filling in for an injured Michael Gallup as Dallas’ No. 3 wide receiver. The Cowboys would not have won Sunday at New England if not for Wilson’s clutch catch on fourth-and-4 with 90 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. Pollard has played well enough to be a productive starting NFL back, averaging six yards per carry on 61 rush attempts and catching 15 passes for 115 yards, but he just happens to be behind a standout in Ezekiel Elliott on this roster. Pollard has shown that he’s capable of carrying the full load for Dallas if needed.

14. Anthony Brown, CB. Brown is one of the team’s most criticized defenders. The Cowboys went into this year’s draft targeting a cornerback with their first-round pick, hoping to pair Jaycee Horn or Patrick Surtain II with Trevon Diggs on the outside. Many fans seem to be counting down the days until second-round pick Kelvin Joseph can return from his groin injury and compete with Brown for his starting spot. But Brown has clearly exceeded expectations. No Cowboys defender has played more snaps than Brown’s 376, which is 97.4 percent. Of NFL cornerbacks who have played at least 150 snaps this season, Brown ranks eighth among all players in Pro Football Focus’ grades through six weeks. Brown is tied for ninth in the NFL with six passes defended and tied for sixth with two interceptions.

13. Terence Steele, OT. When it was announced after the season opener that La’el Collins would be suspended five games for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy, the immediate thought was that Dallas was in serious trouble. Steele did not play well in Collins’ absence last year and the Cowboys haven’t exactly excelled at backup offensive tackle play in recent years. But Steele has proved everyone wrong. He has faced some quality edge rushers and more than held his own. The best compliment might just be that his name is rarely heard during a game broadcast because his protection has been so solid. The second-year undrafted free agent has been called for holding once and for a false start once while playing every offensive snap in the past five games.

12. Osa Odighizuwa, DT. Not knowing when Trysten Hill was going to return from last year’s season-ending knee injury and then losing Neville Gallimore with a dislocated elbow in the preseason, it looked like defensive tackle was going to be the weakest position on the roster. Odighizuwa has clearly been the most impactful player at that position. The rookie third-round pick is third on the team with eight quarterback pressures, second with five QB hits and third in sacks with two. His 233 defensive snaps are the most by any defensive lineman on the roster and 72 more than any other defensive tackle on the roster.



Jayron Kearse (Kirby Lee / USA Today)

11. Jayron Kearse, S. When the Cowboys signed Kearse to a one-year, $1 million contract in late March, not many were expecting him to become the team’s leading tackler and play the second-most defensive snaps through the first six games of the season. The Cowboys have played more “big nickel” defense this year and Kearse has been the beneficiary. The 6-4, 220-pound Kearse can come down and stop the run or defend bigger wide receivers and tight ends in the passing game.

“I knew what I was brought here for and what my role was going to be,” Kearse said a few weeks ago. “We had a vision. I guess everybody else is just seeing the vision now. It’s actually pretty similar to the way I was used in Minnesota. Just now I’m having more opportunities. I’m definitely loving it.”

10. Amari Cooper, WR. He doesn’t lead the team in targets, receptions or receiving yards, but Cooper has been his usual steady self throughout the start of this season. He is on pace to have 85 catches for 1,056 yards and 11 touchdowns. Despite playing through multiple injuries, Cooper has been on the field for over 80 percent of Dallas’ offensive snaps. The four-time Pro Bowler remains one of the league’s best wide receivers and a big reason why the Cowboys have the NFL’s top overall offense and top-five passing offense.

9. Dalton Schultz, TE. He continues to build on his breakout season from a year ago. Schultz has become one of the team’s most reliable receivers, elevating himself into the No. 1 tight end role. It’s clear that Dak Prescott trusts Schultz in any situation, whether it’s a designed play or an adjustment made while extending a play. Travis Kelce, Mark Andrews, Darren Waller and T.J. Hockenson are the only tight ends who have caught more passes than Schultz this season. Kelce, Andrews and Waller are the only ones with more receiving yards. Let’s just say the Cowboys tight end has made a lot of money for himself as he’s in the final year of his rookie contract.
8. Ezekiel Elliott, RB. There was probably a lot of eye-rolling from critics when Elliott was receiving so much positive attention for his offseason work heading into training camp. He looked to be in excellent shape and ready to have a bounce-back season. Elliott has backed it up with his play, rushing for 521 yards and scoring six touchdowns in six games. Only Derrick Henry (783) and Nick Chubb (523) have more rushing yards. Only Henry (10), Cooper Kupp (7) and Austin Ekeler (7) have scored more touchdowns.

“I’d say this year a lot of it was about my body,” Elliott said last week of his offseason work. “A lot of it was just making sure that I was ready to come in and make up for my shit show last year.”



Randy Gregory (Mark J. Rebilas / USA Today)

7. Randy Gregory, DE. Without even watching a game, it’s easy to see Gregory’s impact on the stat sheet with his team-high four sacks and 14 QB pressures. Since DeMarcus Lawrence has been sidelined with a broken foot, Gregory has been Dallas’ most impactful defensive end. Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn pointed out this week how important Gregory has been, not only hitting the QB but drawing important holding calls against opponents, one of which erased a Patriots touchdown on Sunday.

“I thought over the last month, he’s been so consistently relentless, staying in the approach of doing what he’s doing,” Quinn said. “I think it’s a good example for all the players that some days it just doesn’t come your way by the nature of the call or the scheme they’re using, but if you stay consistent and you stay relentless, you have opportunities when they come. That’s one thing I think Randy has really learned during the course of this season. Just stay consistent in your approach, man, and good things will happen. He’s really done that.”

6. CeeDee Lamb, WR. Having a full normal offseason has been a big boost for the second-year star wide receiver. During his rookie season, the Cowboys didn’t want to overload his plate, so Lamb mostly played in the slot. Everything is on the table now, and Lamb is making defenses pay on the outside. He had the best game of his young career on Sunday, catching nine of 11 targets for 149 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winner in overtime. There’s no questioning that he has the all-around game and athletic ability to be one of the NFL’s best wide receivers for a long time.

5. Micah Parsons, LB. He has played so well during his rookie season that he was visibly angry after Sunday’s game because he didn’t make more plays. Parsons’ impact has been much bigger than making a noticeable sack or tackle for loss. He has seemingly changed the identity of the defense by the way Quinn can move him around and keep opposing offenses guessing on where he might try to wreck a game. The Cowboys might have gotten lucky that Parsons, who is the favorite to win NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, ended up being their pick instead of the cornerbacks that were drafted with consecutive picks before Dallas went on the clock.

4. Tyron Smith, LT. According to PFF, the only offensive tackle who has played better this season is San Francisco’s Trent Williams. Health is the only concern with Smith, who has dealt with neck and ankle injuries this year. As long as he’s healthy, he lines up on the left side and Prescott knows his blindside is protected. Smith looks well on his way to this being his eighth Pro Bowl season.

“He’s just a freak athlete that’s a technician at left tackle,” Chargers DE Joey Bosa said. “He’s a guy that if you’re hesitant and you don’t bring a plan and good get-off every time, you’re just gonna get locked down because once he gets those clamps on you, it’s game over.”

3. Zack Martin, RG. His work often goes unnoticed and he’s just fine with that. But Martin has been so good this season that he probably should be even higher on this list. Elliott probably summed it up best last month when he called Martin “the best player on our offense,” before adding that most of their run plays come behind him.
“The guy is playing as good as anyone in the National Football League,” Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore said two weeks ago. “He plays right guard. I know it’s not the sexiest, coolest position in the world, but he’s amazing.”

2. Trevon Diggs, CB. There is no defensive back playing at his level this season. Diggs leads the league in interceptions (7), with more than twice as many as anyone else, and passes defended (11). He’s firmly in contention for NFL Defensive Player of the Year. According to BetMGM, he has the second-best odds of winning the award behind only Cleveland edge rusher Myles Garrett, who has a league-high eight sacks. Diggs has set the bar so high that you just expect an interception every game.
“You certainly can’t count on it because if it was it wouldn’t be so rare,” Quinn said Monday of Diggs’ streak of games with an interception. “To say you count on it, I wouldn’t say that. I would say just keep pedaling downhill. He’s in a good space. He’s right where his feet are.”


1. Dak Prescott, QB. This is an obvious choice. He might be No. 1 if this was a ranking of the entire league. He’s currently among the favorites to win NFL MVP. Prescott’s numbers are up there with all of the other elite quarterbacks, but he means even more to the Cowboys’ overall success because of his leadership as the unquestioned face of the franchise. His overtime stats on Sunday: 5 for 5 passing, 71 yards, 1 touchdown, 158.3 passer rating.

“He’s playing at as high of a level as anyone in the NFL,” Moore said Monday. “He’s doing a tremendous job. Obviously like all quarterbacks each and every year, you’re growing. There’s no better lesson than through experience. He’s played a lot of football over time. I think where he’s at right now is really, really special. I think just his command and presence and confidence within the offense. The confidence that everyone has collectively, and the command he has out there on the field is second to none.”
 

ZeroClub

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It has been such a wonderful season so far with an unusually large number of players coming up big. I personally don't care how some columnist ranks the players individually; all are important. The entire team is being raised to a new level. And the return of guys like Lawrence, Gallup, and Gallimore could/should lift this team even higher. Depending on health, this team is capable of catching lightening in a bottle this season. It isn't difficult to see how this could go right, so long as not too much went wrong.
 

UncleMilti

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I move Steele into the top 5 because of the quantum leap the guy has made, and the simple fact he’s done a tremendous job keeping Dak upright.
 

Iamtdg

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hey, lets make it fun and pick everyone. top 15 lol
1. Prescott
2. Diggs
3. Parsons
4. Zach Martin
5. Gregory
6. Tyron
7. Terrence Steele (yes, I'm serious)
8. Zeke
9. Lamb
10. Cooper
11. Pollard
12. Schultz
13. Osa
14. Kearse
15. A. Brown
 

data

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1-5. OL
6. Prescott
7. Lamb
8. Zeke
9. Schultz
10. Parsons
11. Gregory
12. Diggs
13. Amari
14. Pollard
15. Cutting Jaylon
 

Iamtdg

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1-5. OL
6. Prescott
7. Lamb
8. Zeke
9. Schultz
10. Parsons
11. Gregory
12. Diggs
13. Amari
14. Pollard
15. Cutting Jaylon
I think you have Diggs way too low. We don't win a couple of those games without him.
 

shoop

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1. Prescott
2. Diggs
3. Parsons
4. Zach Martin
5. Gregory
6. Tyron
7. Terrence Steele (yes, I'm serious)
8. Zeke
9. Lamb
10. Cooper
11. Pollard
12. Schultz
13. Osa
14. Kearse
15. A. Brown
Can’t find much to disagree with there. If we were talking about what has won us games, kearse might be higher than Coop. Our safety plan may not be stellar this year but we definitely don’t have as much to complain about as years prior and that is letting the guys up front win some more.
 

Shiningstar

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1. Prescott
2. Diggs
3. Parsons
4. Zach Martin
5. Gregory
6. Tyron
7. Terrence Steele (yes, I'm serious)
8. Zeke
9. Lamb
10. Cooper
11. Pollard
12. Schultz
13. Osa
14. Kearse
15. A. Brown

I think more than just the players, I think Dan Quinn brought a lot to this team. Yes we have good talent, but hes utilizing it well. I think Kellen Moore is doing better but RZ is still an issue, but i give him credit for using Dak better.

Just for me, Yes i agree with you on Steele, hes come around well. That whole line has been playing better. Each player has allowed other players to do their thing. I know Parsons has been the best pick in a while, yes, even bigger than Lamb. Probably back to the center we just lost, sorry my mind isnt as sharp has it once was. He was instrumental in locking down that position, and Parsons has really gained a lot of respect already. I think EE coming back to his old ways really helped . I dont believe in this topic as much for Dak because i feel this is where Dak would be and yes qb is important and all that, but i already had him here as long as Garrett was gone.

Cooper has been Cooper and hes just been a good dynamic for the WR corp, but i dont know if hes been above and beyond. I could be wrong. A Brown offers nothing and would be replaced if we had someone to replace him. Either that or Quinn is stubborn on him, i cant make that call just yet.

Lets bee honest, this article isnt written if we arent at our record at this time. And once again Cowboy fans would be in their comfortable zone.

Personally i feel teh coaches have made the difference and the players have responded. Now its up to them to find their peak or be their peak, Cooper and help teh team achieve the one goal that as not been Jones goal for a long time.
 

Sheik

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1-5. OL
6. Prescott
7. Lamb
8. Zeke
9. Schultz
10. Parsons
11. Gregory
12. Diggs
13. Amari
14. Pollard
15. Cutting Jaylon

You’re just jealous of mine and Diggs relationship.
 
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