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Sleepers, Busts and Bold Predictions: The 2023 Dallas Cowboys

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Welcome to Sleepers, Busts and Bold Predictions for the 2023 fantasy football season. All summer, our analysts, two at a time, will preview all 32 NFL teams for the upcoming season. We’ll pick a pair of sleepers, a pair of busts and a pair of bold predictions. Sometimes they’ll be the same pick! Sometimes they will directly disagree! And that’s fine. Today: The Dallas Cowboys.

 

Below, Dan Fornek and Daniel Kelley tackle the Cowboys, starting with their picks in “The Answers,” then expanding on their picks in “The Explanation.”

2023 Sleepers, Busts & Bold Predictions: Dallas Cowboys

The Answers

Favorite Sleeper

FornekMichael Gallup
Kelley: Michael Gallup

Biggest Bust

FornekDak Prescott
Kelley: Tony Pollard

Bold Prediction

FornekTony Pollard Is Fantasy’s RB1
Kelley: The Cowboys Are Top-10 in Pass Attempts

The Explanations

Sleepers

Fornek: Michael Gallup

Michael Gallup’s return from an ACL injury led to a rocky 2022 season. Gallup played in 14 games for the Cowboys last season but caught just 39 of his 74 targets for 424 yards and four touchdowns. The Cowboys seemed to understand his limitations as well: During the 2019 and 2020 seasons, Gallup averaged 7.2 targets per game. That average dropped to just 5.2 last season. The lack of target share, along with a clear drop in explosiveness, resulted in just three top-36 wide receiver weeks for the veteran receiver in 2022.  

By all accounts, Gallup is feeling healthy again and looking explosive over a year removed from his knee injury. While he will have to compete for targets against offseason trade acquisition Brandin Cooks, Gallup should hopefully see a return to form and efficiency on his downfield targets. Gallup saw his yards per route run drop from 1.47 before his injury in 2021 to 1.08 in 2022. His yards per target also took a hit, dropping from 7.2 to 5.7.

Michael Gallup Dallas Cowboys 2023 Fantasy Football Sleepers, Busts & Bold Predictions

A healthy Gallup should once again return to form as a contested-catch weapon who wins down the field and is a target in the red zone. He’s currently being drafted as the WR61 in fantasy drafts with pick 173.9, which is 81 spots behind Brandin Cooks. That is far too much of a divide for a player who has familiarity with Dak Prescott and the ability to win downfield.

Kelley: Michael Gallup

By all rights, 2022 should have been Michael Gallup’s year. After first being the only name worth knowing in the Cowboys’ receiver room, he had been shuttled behind Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb in the pecking order. But with Cooper gone, Gallup should have had his chance to shine as a 26-year-old in one of the league’s more explosive offenses. Except for that torn ACL he suffered in Week 17 of the 2021 season, which cost him the first three weeks of 2022 and seemed to clearly hinder him all year.

I haven’t gone as far as saying “Invest in every guy the year after he returns from an ACL tear” yet, but I’m definitely leaning that way. Your first year after the injury is for getting your legs back under you (literally and figuratively). Your second is for being the guy you used to be. And that goes doubly for a guy like Gallup who suffered the injury so late in the season before. Gallup is 27, coming into his prime. Meanwhile, his competition for the WR2 role in Dallas is Brandin Cooks, who will be 30 by the end of Week 3 and has seen his yards per route run drop in consecutive years (from 2.05 to 1.96 to 1.64). In truth, I think there will be enough passing work in Dallas for Lamb, Gallup and Cooks to produce, but if I’m only choosing two, it’s Lamb and Gallup.

 

Busts

Fornek: Dak Prescott

The Cowboys’ offense will look very different in 2023. Veteran running back Ezekiel Elliott and tight end Dalton Schultz are no longer with the team. The Cowboys traded for Brandin Cooks to provide another element to their passing game and to serve as their WR2 in the passing attack. Offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, the architect of the Cowboys’ fast-paced, run-heavy offense is also no longer with the team. The expectation is that the new play caller (head coach Mike McCarthy) will try to incorporate the run game more into the offense.

The Cowboys’ offense was actually more balanced than expected in 2022 with a 52% pass rate throughout the season. Prescott played in just 12 games thanks to a thumb injury, but still finished as the QB13 in fantasy points per game (17.8) and attempted 32.8 passes per game despite the injury to his throwing hand. The one area where the Cowboys could feel the loss of Moore is in terms of their pace of play. Over the last three seasons, Dallas has averaged the ninth-most plays per game in the NFL (65.0). This has allowed the Cowboys the opportunity to air the ball out while providing ample rushing opportunities to Elliott and Tony Pollard in the backfield.

Prescott doesn’t offer much of a rushing floor (3.8 carries per game in 2022), so he needs to get his value as a passer. If the team becomes more methodical instead of fast-paced, the effect will likely be felt more in Prescott’s passing volume than in the team’s overall rushing attempts. In today’s NFL, fantasy quarterbacks need to have ridiculous passing volume (Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert) or rushing ability (Jalen Hurts, Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson and Justin Fields) to provide league-winning upside. It seems likely that Prescott provides neither this year, which makes him difficult to draft as the QB12.

Kelley: Tony Pollard

Tony Pollard Dallas Cowboys 2023 Fantasy Football Sleepers, Busts & Bold Predictions

It’s not that I don’t think Tony Pollard can hold up to a full-time workload. (I more or less don’t, but A, I’m open to being wrong, and B, it’s not about that.) It’s that I don’t think the Cowboys think he can hold up to it. Yes, the departure of Ezekiel Elliott and the only arrivals being Ronald Jones and Deuce Vaughn (sorry, distracted by his size) might indicate more work for Pollard. But Jerry Jones and the Cowboys’ brass have said about a hundred different times this offseason that they are open to a reunion with Ezekiel Elliott. From here, it reads to me that the only thing delaying the inevitable is Zeke’s desire for a bigger role (and bigger paycheck) elsewhere. But with (especially) Dalvin Cook, Leonard Fournette and Kareem Hunt still seeking work as well, here’s betting Zeke ends up back in his old haunt on a one-year, small-money prove-it deal. And as much as he’s lost a step, he’s still a good pass-blocker and a goal-line threat, and that’ll undercut Pollard.

But let’s say that doesn’t happen! In that case, we have a smaller (6-foot-0, 209 pounds) 26-year-old who will be under 8 months removed from a scary-looking fractured fibula, who despite being seen as a passing-game dynamo has never topped 40 receptions, and whose team just added a third big-name receiver this offseason. Mike McCarthy can say what Mike McCarthy has said about the offensive scheme this year, but his history tells us he likes to throw the ball, and his acquisition of Brandin Cooks says the same.

 

Bold Predictions

Fornek: Tony Pollard Is Fantasy’s RB1

The Cowboys releasing Ezekiel Elliott signals that the team is ready to fully commit to Tony Pollard as their lead running back. Even if the Cowboys bring Elliott back (as rumored), it is hard to imagine a situation where the team doesn’t prioritize getting Pollard touches over any other options in the backfield.

The veteran running back ascended in 2022, keeping his typical efficiency as a rusher with a career-high workload. Pollard saw the most carries (193) and targets (55) of his career last season and maintained his career yards per carry (5.2) and set a high in yards per reception (9.5). His 12 total touchdowns (9 rushing and 3 receiving) were also high marks for his career. One of the biggest arguments against Pollard is the fact that the Cowboys won’t feed him the same volume as Ezekiel Elliott. As seen in FTN’s Splits Tool, Pollard has functioned in this offense without Elliott over the years, and he’s shown that he doesn’t need 20-plus touches to have a major impact.

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A lot of the running backs being drafted ahead of Pollard have pitfalls to their path to RB1 overall status. However, Pollard finds himself behind a top offensive line in an offense that wants to run the ball with little competition (as of now) to his role in the offense. Those factors, combined with his career efficiency, make him a legitimate contender for the RB1 overall in 2023.

Kelley: The Cowboys Are Top-10 in Pass Attempts

I alluded to this above, but in the wake of the departure of Kellen Moore, Mike McCarthy kind of threw his old OC under the bus, saying that Moore just wanted an explosive offense while McCarthy wanted a whole team and to rest his defense. And … I mean, sure, whatever. The problem with that is McCarthy’s entire thesis appears to be based on the premise that the team will score the same number of points (or at least points per drive) using either method, and you might as well choose the most restful one. And … that’s comical. Every defensive player in football would rather play for the Chiefs (fifth in passing attempts, first in points) than the Titans (30th, 28th), even if playing for the Chiefs made them breathe a little heavier.

The Cowboys have nine career 1,000-yard seasons in their receiver room and Tony Pollard and the Pips in the backfield. (Yes, I think Ezekiel Elliott returns eventually, but I also don’t think that changes much here.) And they should expect to have Dak Prescott healthy all year, unlike last season. Dallas, despite McCarthy’s criticisms of Moore, were only 19th in pass attempts a year ago, at 556 (32.7 per game). The Lions were 10th, with 588 (34.6 per game). Two more pass attempts a game, 34-ish on the season, and the Cowboys crack the top 10, and that’s where this team is headed, despite what their head coach would have you believe.

 
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