Every year around the end of a season in any sport you can think of, a debate rages on regarding that particular league’s MVP award. Some believe it should go to the best player on the best team. Other’s take the, “if you remove (a certain player) from their team, what would the team look like?” route. And others still, argue that it should go to the best player in a given league. When we talk about team sports, it’s nearly impossible to have a clear definition of what “Most Valuable Player” means. In the NFL, where 46 guys can have an impact on a given week and 53 or more make contributions throughout the season, that discussion becomes even more difficult. Then you take a team like the Dallas Cowboys who have talent at all of the premium positions and then the discussion becomes even more convoluted.
On Tuesday, Jean-Jacques Taylor of 103.3 ESPN, threw out his 5 most important Dallas Cowboys. Important is certainly subjective, but his list is a good one and certainly creates debate.
I’d argue that his list is a bit flawed in that it doesn’t include the second most important position for any team, offensive tackle. But instead of ripping apart his list, I’ll give you my own.
1. Dak Prescott, Quarterback
The starting quarterback to any team is generally the most important player determining success in the NFL. You can win games despite having good play at the position, but sustained success is very difficult in the NFL without good quarterback play. Teams that want to contend in the modern NFL have to have a player at the quarterback position that can make plays in the passing game.
Dak Prescott isn’t a perfect quarterback and not even a top 10 quarterback, but he’s a player that makes plays in the passing game and keeps his team in a position to win the game ar more often than he hasn’t. Sure he’s had some clunker games, but he’s had some great games as well. His ability in the running game pretty much helped the Dallas Cowboys seal the win over the Seattle Seahawks in the Wild Card round of the playoffs.
For 2019, a lot of what will determine the Dallas Cowboys success will be the play of Dak Prescott. If he’s able to recreate the back half of 2018, after Amari Cooper arrived, then the Cowboys will have a lot of success despite the appearance of a difficult schedule.
2. Tyron Smith, Left Tackle
Though he’s struggled with back issues each of the last three seasons, Tyron Smith is still one of the best players in the NFL regardless of position. You only have to look at how the Dallas Cowboys have performed without Smith manning the left side to see how valuable he is, in particular in 2017.
The 2017 season was derailed in the Atlanta Falcons game when the Cowboys had to play Chaz Green at left tackle for the injured Smith. By now, we know what happened that night. The Dallas Cowboys allowed Dak Prescott to be sacked eight times by rather no-name defensive players because Chaz Green and Byron Bell couldn’t hold up on that side of the field.
In Smith’s three game absence that season, the Dallas Cowboys averaged only seven points per game. In the other 13 games, the Cowboys averaged 25.5 points per game. That’s a tremendous difference. Many people would like you to believe that Ezekiel Elliott‘s suspension was the reason the Cowboys suffered in 2017. In games with Elliott, the Cowboys averaged
3. Amari Cooper, Wide Receiver
Whether you want to take a statistical look at the impact Amari Cooper had once arrived in Dallas or look at the game film, you can’t deny that the Dallas Cowboys offense looked radically more explosive after his arrival.
Cooper’s elite ability to get open quickly and make plays after the catch, combined with his size as well as his reputation, provided an element that had been missing since Dez Bryant was still doing Dez Bryant things in 2016.
Though he struggled at the end of his time in Oakland, a change of scenery showed why he was so highly regarded coming out of Alabama and why the Dallas Cowboys were willing to give up a first-round draft pick for Cooper’s services.
After Amari Cooper arrived, Dak Prescott went from a passer rating of 87.4 in the seven games of the season to a passer rating of 103 in the nine games after Cooper came on board. Prescott saw his pass yardage per game jump from 202 yards per game to 274. Even if you take out the 455 yard game against the Philadelphia Eagles and the 387 yard game against the New York Giants in the regular-season finale, Prescott still averaged 232 yards per game over the other seven games. Still, that’s a significant jump from 202 yards per game in the first half of the season.
Amari Cooper’s impact goes beyond Dak Prescott though. Ezekiel Elliott went from 88.4 rushing yards per game to 101 yards per game after Cooper arrived. His yards per carry and yards per reception both went up over the second half of the season.
Much of how we expect the offense to go in 2019 will depend on the Dak to Amari connection being as explosive as it was in 2019. With Cooper’s ability and the rapport already established, there’s a reason for optimism that this offense can go to the next level.
4. DeMarcus Lawrence, Defensive End
There’s a reason you’re seeing the top edge players in the league now being paid as the second most important position in the NFL behind the quarterback position. Because creating pressure in the passing game is such an elusive trait that every team is looking for it. It’s why the Chicago Bears sent a huge package to the Oakland Raiders for premier pass rusher Khalil Mack. Believe it or not, DeMarcus Lawrence fits right into that discussion with as one of the top edge players in the NFL.
Lawrence’s ability to play the run and pass to an equally elite level makes him one of the best defensive linemen in the NFL. Per Daniel Houston of WFAA, and @CowboysStats on Twitter, the only defensive lineman who was more productive according to playmaking EPA (expected points added) was Los Angeles Rams Defensive Tackle Aaron Donald.
Sure, Khalil Mack and Von Miller may be more productive players when it comes to sacks, but nobody, other than Aaron Donald plays the run and creates pressure to as great of an extent as DeMarcus Lawrence.
His impact on defense is similar to that of Amari Cooper on offense. When Lawrence is in the game, he opens everything up for the rest of the defense. Opposing offenses are sending double teams and give their tackles help with running backs and tight ends to combat Lawrence. That opens up opportunities for the rest of the defensive line. Randy Gregory is a good, ascending player, but does he record six sacks if Lawrence isn’t taking some of the attention? Do the linebackers have as much effectiveness without Lawrence setting the edge on the left side of the defensive line? The answer is probably not.
He’s an insanely disruptive player, who’s still in his prime and a huge reason for the Dallas Cowboys success on defense over the last couple of seasons. Even after getting paid, you don’t have to worry about Lawrence experiencing a drop off in production. He’s a player that brings so much intensity to the playing field that you’ll never see a drop off in effort. His leadership and that intensity helped propel the Dallas Cowboys to their biggest win of the regular season last year against the New Orleans Saints.
It’s wildly important that he’s healthy for the Dallas Cowboys in 2019. If he’s unable to start the season on the active roster, it will certainly hurt the Dallas Cowboys chances of repeating as NFC East champions.
5. Jaylon Smith, Linebacker
Another player who’s become an emotional and on-field leader for the Dallas Cowboys is Linebacker Jaylon Smith. Even for the most optimistic of Cowboys fans, there was always a little bit of doubt that Jaylon Smith would return to his All-American form that he displayed out of Notre Dame.
In 2017, that doubt grew into concern when Smith did take the field and looked to struggle with lateral movement. While those outside of The Star may have had doubts, Jaylon never lost faith that he would make a significant impact in the NFL.
Not only did Jaylon Smith make an emotional impact as an on-field leader for the Dallas Cowboys, his impact, though largely unnoticed, might have been bigger than fellow Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch.
As you can see from the graphic above, Jaylon Smith was far more disruptive than Leighton Vander Esch when it comes to playmaking EPA. Here’s an excellent definition of playmaking EPA, again from Daniel Houston.
Daniel Houston – WFAA.com
Traditional statistics liked Leighton Vander Esch’s 2019 more, but more advanced analytics liked Jaylon Smith more. Combine that with the leadership he brings to the table, his ability to rush the passer, and the physicality with which he plays and to me, he’s a more important player to the Dallas Cowboys success than Leighton Vander Esch.
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A lot of people would probably have Ezekiel Elliott in their top five. He’s an important player for me, but not quite there. He’d probably rank six or seven if I extended this list. I’m not a “running backs don’t matter” guy like some are, but I do believe the value of running backs is diminishing and not as important to team success as the guys listed above.
If the Cowboys for some reason didn’t have Elliott, I think they could get productive games out of the running back position from a combination of Tony Pollard, Mike Weber, and Jamize Olawale. They wouldn’t be as productive as Elliott, but they don’t need to be.
Elliott’s a great player and I would like to see the Dallas Cowboys work out a contract extension with him this offseason to keep him around through his prime years, but as we inch closer to training camp, it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen.