Owning: 3 Cowboys who need to bounce back in 2021, including how one struggling LB can turn things around

Iamtdg

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The dirty secret in the NFL (and almost any sport at the elite level) is that development is not done in a linear fashion.

By John Owning

10:19 AM on Jul 18, 2021 — Updated at 9:00 AM on Jul 19, 2021


You probably don’t need to be reminded that last season didn’t go according to plan for the Dallas Cowboys, as the team with preseason Super Bowl aspirations stumbled and bungled to a disappointing 6-10 record amid an injury-riddled season.

That disappointment caused the Cowboys to make myriad changes to the roster and coaching staff. However, it’s still vital for the roster holdovers who had down years last season to bounce back in 2021. The dirty secret in the NFL (and almost any sport at the elite level) is that development is not done in a linear fashion with year-over-year growth; instead, careers are often filled with many ups and downs where, hopefully, the former outweighs the latter.

Let’s discuss some players who need to have some ups in 2021 after a lot of downs in 2020:

Jourdan Lewis, CB

While 2020 was supposed to be the year for Lewis to breakout as Dallas’ defense transitioned to a new scheme, it was actually a year filled with disappointment.

Lewis’ struggles last year started before the season even began, as an ankle injury suffered in late August forced him to miss weeks of practice in addition to the Week 1 contest against the Los Angeles Rams. When Lewis returned, he performed like a player who hadn’t practiced in quite some time and unfortunately, that didn’t get too much better as the season wore on.

He finished the season with career-lows in interceptions (zero) and pass breakups (two) but had a career-high in penalties (eight; two more than he had committed in his three previous seasons combined) and missed tackles (five) per Pro Football Focus (PFF).

In coverage, When Lewis was able to be physical and land his hands in press, he still did some good things. But when that didn’t happen (either by design or because Lewis missed with his jam) he struggled to stay in phase with his man, especially on routes that went across the field.

Moreover, in the past, one of Lewis’ best traits was his ability to defend the run, but that even took a step back last year, as he was a much less consistent tackler in addition to missing his run fits at times (which was a defense-wide problem).

Entering the final season of his rookie deal in 2020, Jourdan Lewis picked a poor time to have a down year, as his play last year almost certainly reduced what he could get in free agency this offseason.

Still, I think Lewis has the mental makeup and skill set to have a bounce-back season in a more familiar scheme under Dan Quinn. And with the lack of established talent in the secondary on the Cowboys roster, it’s would be a huge boon to the defense if Lewis could have a bounce-back year.

Jaylon Smith, LB

While I’ll continue to say that Jaylon Smith gets too much blame for the Cowboys’ poor defense last year, 2020 was unquestionably a down season for the Notre Dame product.

With abysmal interior defensive line talent in front of him, Smith frequently had to deal with offensive lineman in his face once the ball was snapped, as Dallas’ defensive tackle failed to slow offensive linemen from climbing to the second level. As a consequence, Smith’s run fits were often late or to the wrong gap, enabling opposing offenses to create big gains on the ground and forcing the lion’s share of Smith’s tackles to happen farther downfield than he’d like — his average depth of tackle (4.9) was the second-highest of his career in 2020 (behind 2017, when he was essentially a rookie), which means he was making tackles, on average, further from the line of scrimmage than he had in previous years (4.0 in 2019 and 2.8 in 2018).

And it didn’t get any better in the coverage department, either, as he gave up career-highs in reception yards and yards per catch when targeted in 2020, per PFF. Smith’s inability to effectively change direction made him a liability when matched up with tight ends detached from the formation in man coverage, and opposing offenses repeatedly took advantage.

Having said that, there are reasons to believe that Smith could see a bounce-back year in 2021. With a, hopefully, improved interior defensive line in front of him, Smith should have more time to key and diagnose before blockers are in his face, which should help clean up his run fits and enable him to make plays closer to the line of scrimmage. Additionally, I expect Quinn to do a much better job of preventing offenses from isolating Smith one-on-one in man coverage, which should make him much less of a liability on passing downs.

A bounce-back season from Smith would not only be huge for the Cowboys defense this year but also for his Cowboys career beyond 2021, as Dallas can save money on next year’s cap by cutting Smith next offseason, which has become much more palatable with the additions of Micah Parsons and Jabril Cox to Dallas’ LB corps.

Ezekiel Elliott, RB

While Ezekiel Elliott wasn’t “bad” per se in 2020, he definitely didn’t perform up to expectations last season, as he finished with career lows in rushing yards (979), rushing TDs (six), 15-plus-yard runs (five) and yards per route run (0.87) while posting career highs in fumbles (six) and drops (eight).

Now, of course, Elliott’s down year wasn’t only his fault, as Dallas’ offensive line was ravaged with injuries, making it difficult for Elliott to find the space to make positive runs. Still, when a team commits to pay a running back $90 million over six years, it’s probably done with the expectation that he will still produce at a relatively high level regardless of the circumstances around him, and the fact that Elliott did not is the clearest sign the Dallas made a mistake ponying up the big money in 2019 (but that’s a discussion for another day).

Luckily for the Cowboys, Elliott seems motivated to put forth a bounce-back campaign in 2021, as he looks in as good of shape heading into training camp as he’s looked in his entire NFL career. If that hard work translates to better ball security and ball skills in addition to a little more speed and explosiveness, then there’s a chance Dallas once against boasts one of the most productive backfields in the NFL, especially if Dallas’ offensive line can avoid catastrophic injury.

That backfield production would only make Dak Prescott’s life easier in the passing game, as it will bring front-sevens closer to the line of scrimmage, creating bigger voids for the receivers to exploit in the intermediate and deep portions of the field. Passing is king in the NFL. However, it’s much easier for a passing game to be successful when it’s complemented with an efficient and effective backfield as well, which is why a bounce-back year from Elliott would be huge for the Cowboys’ offense in 2021.
 

Chocolate Lab

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Eh, none of those players are "developing" anymore. The first two are spares and are what they are at this point. Elliott might be better if he's truly dedicated to his offseason training as it appears he might be, and he can still be very good, but even then I think his best days are behind him.
 

Shiningstar

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Score more points than the other team.

Get the defense to solid,

Quinn has 1 job , get at the qb.

KM has 1 job, settle for TDs over FGs. Get after that red zone.


Its sad how not just the franchise has allowed a culture of mediocrity but the fans have embraced it.
 

boozeman

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Score more points than the other team.

Get the defense to solid,

Quinn has 1 job , get at the qb.

KM has 1 job, settle for TDs over FGs. Get after that red zone.


Its sad how not just the franchise has allowed a culture of mediocrity but the fans have embraced it.
Not sure what your post meant in response to what was posted.

But good. Glad to see you laid out your manifesto.
 

NoDak

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Not sure what your post meant in response to what was posted.

But good. Glad to see you laid out your manifesto.
If you just do the first thing on his list, the others don't matter. :art
 

Shiningstar

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Not sure what your post meant in response to what was posted.

But good. Glad to see you laid out your manifesto.

my point was, his 3 were stupid, its like lately everyone has to do a number thing, they need to write good articles and dont worry about the number aspect. i know i know we know journalism is dead, but you think even by accident someone might do a good job
 
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