5 Cowboys poised to have unexpected big seasons in 2022

Much is expected of a handful, but there are others who may surprise. @KDDrummondNFL makes predictions for what kind of statistical output many fans might not see coming.

Whether it be an emergence or a comeback story, nothing captivates the sports world like an unexpected big season from a player. Of course team championships are the ultimate goal, but those don’t happen unless a large percentage of a team’s roster plays above their pay grade and turns in high-quality performances. As the Dallas Cowboys descend upon Oxnard, CA for training camp so they can begin their journey in the 2022 season, there are some players who are expected to have big years.

Quarterback Dak Prescott will be two years removed from his horrific leg break. WR CeeDee Lamb has ascended to No. 1 status and is expected to see an uptick in targets. LB Micah Parsons has a full season under his belt and fresh to the league came in second place for Defensive Player of the Year; the sky is limitless. Although no one expects CB Trevon Diggs to reach double-digit interceptions again, he’s only played the position for four years and should be better even if the stats drop. But what about those players who aren’t necessarily expected to have big years?

Here’s a look at five players who could have surprising seasons in 2022.

Elliott

Osa Odighizuwa

Jabril Cox

Every NFL team’s most underrated player heading into 2022

Most of these players don’t get the recognition they deserve in the NFL. For the Cowboys? That starts in the fan base. Bring it.

The NFL has no shortage of superstars who are the face of the league. But there are plenty of impact players in the NFL who don’t necessarily get the recognition they deserve.

Whether overlooked or ignored all together, these players are significant contributors for their respective teams. They’ve had proven success but haven’t necessarily gotten the praise they deserve.

Our NFL Wire editors examined the most underrated player for each team heading into the 2022 season, highlighting why they’re deserving of recognition.

Ranking NFC East teams by their stable of running backs in 2022

Perhaps no division crystalizes the RB don’t matter argument than the NFCE. @CDPiglet looks at how each team approaches the situation and how they rank.

Ranking the running back position is tricky. There is a big difference between the best rushing teams in the NFL and the best running backs. An offense’s ability to run has a lot to do with the quality of the back, but also the offensive line, the scheme they run, the opponents they face, and the ability of the defense to keep their team in the game so the opportunity to run stays available.

If the rankings went squarely by the best rushing attack statistically, without context, then the Philadelphia Eagles would have the best running backs in football as they ended the season with the league’s top rush attack. Their running back wasn’t even their top rusher on the team though; the running quarterback was.

Being able to control the game with an ability to run the ball can demoralize the opponent, it can wear them down and put them away. Running the ball efficiently is a key to winning in the NFL. This series is a position-by-position breakdown of what each organization is bringing to the competition and the key for this article will be running back.

What went wrong, right in Cowboys RB room config

Are they maximizing the position? @NoHuddle takes a look at the Dallas Cowboys running backs heading into the 2022 NFL season.

The Dallas Cowboys have a long lineage of stellar running backs through franchise history. From Don Perkins to Tony Dorsett to Emmitt Smith and everything in between, there may be no team known more for the player toting the rock on a regular basis. In 2022, they enter the season with a duo that can match up with any in the league. They also pay out the nose for half of it.

This is part two of the off-season series reviewing what’s gone right, or wrong, with each position on the depth chart.

Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott one of many players trying out futuristic new helmet for 2022

Riddell’s new Axiom model is custom-designed for each player and features a more integrated facemask and visor for improved protection. | From @ToddBrock24f7

Ezekiel Elliott, now fully recovered from a partially torn ligament in his knee, is hoping to get back to looking like the same running back who won the league rushing title in two of his first three seasons.

But there could be something different about the way he looks in 2022, at least to sharp-eyed Cowboys fans.

Elliott is rocking a new lid.

Photos taken during media portions of the team’s OTAs thus far have shown Elliott to be sporting new helmet. He’s worn the Riddell Speedflex since coming to Dallas in 2016, albeit with a couple different facemask configurations over his six seasons.

But the 26-year-old is now trying out the company’s newest helmet, the Axiom.

 

“Umm, I changed my shoulder pads one year,” he explained to reporters last week. “So I mean, this is probably like the biggest change I’ve had.”

But according to the helmet manufacturer, the new model is about more than a futuristic aesthetic.

Rather than position-specific headgear, the Axiom is designed and made specifically to fit each individual player, created from a high-tech digital scan of the player’s head. The helmet is then custom-built for a perfect fit.

Flex panels and internal liners help absorb impact, and Elliott says his new helmet is “lighter” and “has the same safety rating,” but the most obvious change from traditional helmets may be in the facemask.

 

Instead of what has previously been, for all intents and purposes, a cage fastened to the shell of the headgear, Riddell says the Axiom features “a panoramic elliptical” mask that is better integrated into the helmet itself.

Gone is the top bar that encircles the upper face opening and the raised corners that are bolted to the exterior of the helmet. The result is a stronger facemask that also dramatically increases the player’s peripheral view of the field.

The Axiom also comes standard with a factory-installed, optically-correct visor to aid in eye protection. Elliott’s visor is darkened; J.J. Watt and Budda Baker of the Arizona Cardinals have been seen wearing the Axiom with a clear visor. The visor can also be removed entirely.

Cowboys backup Tony Pollard has also been using the Axiom in early practice sessions, as have several other players from squads across the NFL.

The Axiom will be seen all over college fields this fall, too, after three years of testing. Ohio State, Florida, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Texas A&M, Arkansas, Texas, Houston, Penn State, Florida State, Stanford, SMU, and UCLA are just a few of the programs who have already tried out the Axiom with their players.

But the ultimate goal is improved player safety at all levels of the game. The Axiom contains impact-sensing technology that collects and transmits data from the field in real time, allowing coaches and training staffs to better monitor player safety, even during practices and games.

Athletes tend to be creatures of habit (or superstition), especially when it comes to their personal gear. But with the release of what the industry’s top manufacturer is calling “a great leap forward” in helmet tech, look for more and more players to start a new habit with the Axiom.

Even if it’s just because so many other players are wearing it.

“They come out with the new Ford F-150, you know what I’m saying?” Elliott joked. “You got the old one, you want the new one.”

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Metrics suggest Elliott’s days as Cowboys’ top back done, Pollard deserves shot

Forget yards or even yards per carry. Rush Yards Over Expectation shows the Cowboys’ RB workhorse has gotten worse for 4 years running. | From @ToddBrock24f7

Cowboys fans waiting for running back Ezekiel Elliott to return to the form that made him the league’s leading rusher in two of his first three seasons may be waiting in vain, says one of ESPN’s senior writers.

Bill Barnwell explored the disappointing 2021 seasons of four of the NFL’s highest-paid ball carriers to get a sense of whether it was fluke, bad injury luck, or something more troubling.

And while he predicts bounceback, mostly-strong campaigns for Christian McCaffrey, Derrick Henry, and- to a lesser extent- Alvin Kamara, the stats and metrics suggest that Elliott’s best days are behind him.

Actually long behind him, as the numbers indicate he’s been tapering off for four years running.

Elliott racked up 1,002 yards on the ground last season, but played most of the year with a partially torn PCL. That alone might imply that a fully-healthy Elliott will perform even better in 2022. Even coach Mike McCarthy said this week that the 26-year-old “looks great” in voluntary offseason workouts.

But Barnwell uses Rush Yards Over Expectation (RYOE) to temper that report. RYOE is an NFL Next Gen Stats model that predicts how many yards a runner will gain given the speed and location of all 22 players on the field when he gets the ball.

Over four years of RYOE data, Elliott has declined every year.

He posted 0.5 RYOE in 2018, when he led the league in rushing attempts, overall touches, and rushing yards. That figure dipped to 0.4 in 2019, 0.1 in 2020, and actually fell into negatives last season, to -0.1 RYOE.

A declining Cowboys offensive line can shoulder at least some of the blame. And an increased dependence on quarterback Dak Prescott plays a part; the team simply doesn’t run as often as they did when Elliott first came into the league.

But, Barnwell points out, “you might argue the Cowboys have leaned more on the pass because Elliott has been less efficient as a runner.”

And then there’s Tony Pollard. The speedster entering his fourth pro season has surpassed Elliott in categories like yards per carry, target rate in the pass game, and yards per route run. To the eye, the backup has plainly been more explosive.

Elliott will make $12.4 million in 2022, suggesting that the Cowboys will continue to feed him the ball. The front office will likely want to try to get their money’s worth before what seems to be his inevitable release next offseason.

Barnwell projects 802 rushing yards for Elliott this season, which would be a career low.

Given the clear trends shown by the numbers, Dallas coaching staff would do well to consider shifting responsibilities in the backfield somewhat, utilizing Elliott’s still-stellar blocking skills on passing downs and bruising running style in key situations. A reduced role would give extra touches to the more effective Pollard, while also keeping Elliott himself fresher for his more strategic opportunities.

Because, as Barnwell concludes, “the days of [Elliott] competing for rushing titles appear to be over.”

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Cowboys’ offensive breakdown: Run-game plus/minus, red-zone shares, personnel tendencies

Who helped the most blocking? Who sabotaged the run game? Who soaked up red-zone targets and who disappointed? @ProfessorO_NFL takes a look at the Cowboys performance on offense in 2021.

The 2022 NFL season will officially begin its league year on March 16 at 3:00pm CT. At that time, any player on an expiring contract will officially become a free agent and hit the open market.  When it comes to the offense, the Dallas Cowboys will need to make a decision on whether to re-sign Dalton Schultz and Connor Williams or not. Those two decisions could have ripple effects on the team determines how the makeup of the starting line will look for 2022.

Those decisions need to be predicated on performance beyond the eye test, and the proof is in the pudding. This analysis will review run-game plus/minus, personnel grouping success rate, red zone targets, and other important stats to evaluate which parts of what information head coach Mike McCarthy and offensive coordinator Kellen Moore need to focus on as they enter a critical 2022 season.

Could Cowboys, Ezekiel Elliott, have handled the RBs knee injury better?

Our @StarConscience feels Elliott playing through a PCL tear since Week 4 is indicative of putting the team’s interests above protecting a warrior from himself, and hurting themselves in the long run.

Ezekiel Elliott has been incredibly durable during his NFL career. Besides missing six games in 2017 due to a suspension, Elliott has only missed the season finale for the Dallas Cowboys in 2016 and 2018, both as pre-playoff rests, and one game with a calf strain in 2020.

The 2021 season was the fourth 1,000-yard campaign for Elliott in six seasons. However, after two 100-yard performances and averaging 90.4 yards per game with five rushing touchdowns in the first five weeks, Elliott registered just 45.8 yards a contest in the last 12 games, and the reason why was because he played with a partially torn PCL for most of the season which was revealed after the Cowboys playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the wild-card round.

Elliott’s dedication and commitment to his teammates are admirable and he should be respected for it. Also, it’s understandable why he would want to remain on the field and protect his spot on the depth chart with a guy like Tony Pollard behind him who showed his worth by gaining 719 yards on 5.5 yards per carry in 2021.

In this case, though, the Cowboys dropped the ball, failing to protect the player from himself.

A partially torn PCL is considered a Grade 2 sprain, treated without operation as long as there is no other damage to the surrounding ligaments or tendons in the knee. A Grade 3 requires arthroscopic surgery and since Elliott announced he would not be going under the knife, it’s a fair assumption he has a Grade 2.

Grade 2 sprains are normally treated with a knee brace (which Elliott started wearing midway through the injury), physical therapy and anti-inflammatories.

Another important factor in recovery? The RICE Method: Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation. Almost every orthopedic website discussing partial PCL tears identifies a recovery period ranging from several weeks to several months.

If the Cowboys would have gone the route of sitting Elliott for a few games they may have gotten a more productive and certainly a more well-rested version of him to close out the season and even into the playoffs. Perhaps the Cowboys doctors could not guarantee that a few weeks of rest would not have significantly aided Elliott’s return to form, that his situation was one that would require the far end of the spectrum, but it’s certainly noteworthy that a few weeks off wasn’t even attempted.

During the last 12 games, not only did Elliott’s production go down but it was noticeable he was playing hurt. Although Pollard hasn’t shown capable of carrying the load Elliott can for a full season, he was more than capable of holding down the fort for a few weeks while Elliott got to rest.

This potential mishandling of Elliott’s injury falls squarely on the Cowboys as an organization. Yes, winning games is what any team’s main objective is but it should never come before the health and well-being of a player. Most injuries a player attempts to play through run the risk of related injury to that part of the body, or another through compensation.

It should be noted Elliott avoided further injury here, and that’s part of the delicate balance of being a professional player and the ridiculous gamut they put their bodies through to be among the best at their trade.

The days of Elliott leading the league in rushing may be behind him but he proved during the early part of this season he’s still capable of being a very productive runner. That’s what makes the Cowboys’ decision to keep putting him on the field egregious, in my estimation. The risk, although it worked, could have been disastrous not just for this season but for the rest of Elliott’s career.

Regardless of the reason why the Cowboys didn’t decide to sit Elliott for a while this situation is a bad look for them and paints the picture that they are willing to risk a player’s long-term health just to win games. It’s highly doubtful that’s the case, but the optics are not good.

 

Cowboys RB Elliott played majority of season with torn PCL

After the end of the campaign, Ezekiel Elliott cleared the air about the injury he fought through all season long. | From @CDBurnett7

Heading into the 2021 season, the hype around the Dallas Cowboys offense was at an all-time high. While the offseason was filled with questions about  quarterback Dak Prescott in his return from his ankle injury and training camp shoulder injury, running back Ezekiel Elliott’s slimmed down  rejuvenated form had fans excited over the possibilities.

Elliott lived up to the hype, starting with 422 rushing yards and six total touchdowns in the first five games, averaging 5.2 yards per carry. As the season progressed though, Elliott’s efficiency began to slow down. He had injured his knee and following the team’s 23-17 elimination from the playoffs on Sunday, he revealed the extent of the injury. Elliott suffered a torn PCL, but still managed to play in all of Dallas’ 18 games.

Elliott’s leadership and relentless drive to win is exemplified by his playing with such an injury. There is a discussion of why the club didn’t rely more on backup Tony Pollard with Elliott not at his best. Pollard’s touches increased with Elliott being hampered, but then the backup suffered a torn plantar fascia in his foot, leaving the club with two hobbled running backs.

It was declared prior to Sunday’s game that Pollard was as close to 100% as the coaching staff had seen him, but he saw just four carries and two targets on the game.

Elliott didn’t have a strong day rushing the ball, totaling 31 yards on 12 carries, but he made a highlight play in pass protection, leveling two blockers to set up a first down. Dallas fell in a nail biter after coming inches and milliseconds from executing the comeback on multiple occasions. Elliott expressed his frustration after the game.

For Elliott, it was another 1,000-yard rushing season but that’s never what mattered for the former All-Pro and he sacrificed his own health for a chance. Elliott relays the injury won’t require surgery but now he begins a long offseason of recovery and rebuilding after a heartbreaking end to the 2021 season.

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Advanced stats say surging 49ers present formidable foe for Cowboys

Cowboys scored over 100 more points and allowed less points than SF, but the 49ers hold a slight edge in key win indicators. @ProfessorO_NFL dives into DVOA, EPA, ANY/A and Toxicity.

The 2021 NFL regular season officially ended with the 12-5 Dallas Cowboys dominating the Philadelphia Eagles in a record-breaking night for quarterback Dak Prescott. The Cowboys were short-handed due to injuries and COVID-19 cases but able to win on Saturday then watch to see if they could move up in NFC seeding. With the Seattle Seahawks beating the Arizona Cardinals and the San Francisco 49ers upsetting the Los Angeles Rams, the Cowboys were able to move from the four seed to the three and will have their sights on the 49ers this Sunday in the opening round of the playoffs.

The 49ers ended their season on a high with a come-from-behind victory. They finished the season third in their division with a 10-7 record but with the sixth seed. They will fly into Dallas with similar momentum as both teams have won four of their last five games.

This matchup features several intriguing storylines, however the one that is sure to garner a lot of attention will be the matchup of Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn facing off with 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan. Shanahan was the offensive coordinator for Quinn’s Atlanta Falcons during their best days that included a trip to the Super Bowl. Their knowledge of each other’s schemes and thought processes presents an interesting meeting.

Each week we open up the Advanced Stat Notebook to analyze how each team ranks in EPA, DVOA, ANY/A and Toxic Differential. These four key metrics have a high correlation to win probability.