The Dallas Cowboys have completed the first quarter of the season, posting a 3-1 record, which means it is a perfect time to hand out some grades.
Here is how all three phases of the game, broken down by position, have performed so far.
We start by taking a look at the Dallas defense. Rod Marinelli’s crew was pegged as the group that was considered the team’s strength coming into the season. The expectations were sky high so the grades reflect that.
While they struggled a bit to get their sea legs in the first couple of weeks, over the last eight plus quarters of game action, the defense has given up zero touchdowns and just 18 points total.
Defensive Line — The defensive line group is starting to come into their own over the last couple of games. A surge in production should come as no shock with the addition of pass rusher Robert Quinn after a two week suspension to begin the season. Quinn is first on the team in sacks and second in quarterback hits in just two weeks of action. DeMarcus Lawrence has also made his presence known with 2.5 sacks and a team-leading six quarterback hits. The duo should only get better as time goes on.
On the inside, the Cowboys have missed the interior play of Antwaun Woods who was injured in Week 2, but 2016 third round pick Maliek Collins has shown his usual ability to be disruptive, adding to the mythical status of the 2016 draft class. The play of free agent signee Christian Covington has been a nice surprise with the injury of Woods. Fortunately for the Cowboys, this team has depth across the board.
The Cowboys defensive line has made some plays as of late but were slow coming out of the gate. Dallas will need to rely on their elevated play as a unit as they head into the meat of their season.
Linebackers — This group provided a lot of optimism heading into the year. In fact, many claimed that the Cowboys had the best linebacker duo in the NFL with Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch. The duo that recorded over 200 tackles between them, has picked up right where they left off. According to Pro-Football-Reference, the pair has already amassed 78 combined tackles, two quarterback hits, two forced fumbles and 1.5 sacks.
The team has good depth behind their linebackers with Joe Thomas and, of course, Sean Lee. However, it has been all about the young guns. A lot has been expected of Smith after signing a five-year extension following his first year as the starting middle linebacker for the Cowboys. Smith has been a solid player this year but for a man with a big contract, the team needs more.
Vander Esch is still showing the ability to read and diagnose plays quickly that was a standout trait from his rookie season. The ability to dissect an offense on the fly is something that his predecessor Lee did for years with the Cowboys. Vander Esch has inherited that role and continues to grow as a player and prove the Cowboys right when they made him their 2018 first round selection.
The linebackers have been solid through four weeks but not quite enough for what this defense will need over the next few weeks. Luckily, Dallas has every reason to believe that they will be able to rise to the occasion.
Secondary — The secondary unit came into the season a young group with four of the five main participants playing on their rookie contracts, the lone veteran being Jeff Heath. Heath is known for his punishing style and knack for coming up with turnovers at the safety position. This year, Heath has missed out on a few turnovers while still delivering knockout blows to opposing receivers. Heath’s safety compadre, Xavier Woods is still a young player in the league trying to become the playmaker in the secondary that this team has not had in some time.
The cornerbacks Byron Jones, Chidobe Awuzie and Anthony Brown, much like Woods, haven’t been able to create turnovers. The lack of interceptions by this unit has been the story for several years now. Defensive passing game coordinator Kris Richard’s squad doesn’t get beat very often but they’re still searching for that ability to get the ball back to the offense in favorable spots.
Awuzie over the last two seasons has had the unfortunate luck of playing good coverage and still having passes completed against him. The play of Brown has been suspect at times, leaving many wondering why Jourdan Lewis still hasn’t received his shot as the slot corner.
We continue with a look at an offense that has been revitalized under the tutelage of new offensive coordinator Kellen Moore. Before a stumble in New Orleans, the Cowboys’ offense was humming along putting up an average of 30 points or more each week. While they will look to bounce back from the 10 point showing against the Saints, the unit has been an overall success with standouts at each position.
Quarterback — Only Dak Prescott has made an appearance, which has been a welcome sight for Cowboys fans. The two-time Pro Bowler has been among the best, not only in the business, but also among the young guns taking over the NFL alongside the likes of Lamar Jackson and Patrick Mahomes.
The stinker in New Orleans in Week 4 impacted his numbers, but Prescott is still second in completion percentage (72.4%), tied for fourth with nine passing touchdowns, has a 9.0 yards per attempt, just 0.7 lower than first-place Mahomes, and has a 113.7 passer rating, third-best in the league among field generals who have started since Week 1.
The most telling stat that demonstrates Prescott's improvement is the sack number: three. Prescott and Tom Brady are tied for the fewest sacks among quarterbacks who have started since Week 1. It highlights that the former 2016 fourth-round pick has learned to get rid of the ball quicker and excise negative plays.
Running back — The preseason holdout coming to an end meant the Cowboys got their two-time NFL rushing champion back in Ezekiel Elliott, which meant they could save rookie reserve Tony Pollard to give Elliott relief or for more explosive plays. Through the first four weeks, Elliott has produced his third-lowest rushing yard total to start a season at 327, though his yards per carry in the same span is the second-highest of his career at 4.4.
Among the rest of the NFL, his yards are seventh, as are his touchdowns (three). Elliott has just two broken tackles thus far, and doesn't seem to be fully in gear yet. As for Pollard, his breakout game in Week 3 against Miami with 103 rushing yards and a touchdown on 13 attempts demonstrated he can be effective in relief, or as a complement to Elliott. The Cowboys may not produce a rushing champion in 2019, but their rushing offense will still be just as dominant with newfound depth.
Fullback — Jamize Olawale has played 39 offensive snaps total for Dallas and had two targets through the first four games. That’s probably what you want out of your fullback in the NFL in 2019. On special teams, the former North Texas product has logged 62 snaps. Olawale has done a decent job as fullback and helped out in the passing game. He won't be as dynamic or memorable as Kyle Juszczyk of the San Francisco 49ers, but Olawale does his job well enough for the Cowboys that no one should remember him the way Chris Gronkowski can never be forgotten.
Receiver — The 12-10 choke-out at the hands of the Saints in Week 4 put a damper on the play of the Cowboys' receivers, but they have been formidable. Amari Cooper is tied for the league-lead with four touchdowns, even after getting locked down by cornerback Marshon Lattimore. Michael Gallup has been the perfect complement to Cooper's skills with 13 catches for 226 yards on 15 targets. If not for missing the past two games, that yardage and catch total would average out to 26 catches for 452 yards, tied for eighth-most and the most in the NFL.
Beyond the Washington game in Week 2 where Devin Smith filled in for Gallup mid-game and produced 74 yards and a touchdown on three catches, the former New York Jet has been silent. Former Green Bay Packer Randall Cobb has the ability to play just about every spot as a wideout, not just the slot, and he has caught 14 passes for 157 yards and a touchdown in the process. However, that key third down grab he failed to haul in on the Cowboys' late fourth quarter drive really might have made the difference between 4-0 and 3-1 had they been able to convert that third down.
Tight end — Who would have thought a 37-year-old coming out of retirement would help the position group so much? Perhaps, with less pressure of having to be a cornerstone part of the locker room, Jason Witten can finally take his mind off keeping the team indissoluble and just play ball. The Mr. Cowboy of the new millennium has the third-most touchdown catches for tight ends in the league with two, and trails Oakland's Darren Waller for the highest catch percentage among tight ends (with at least 15 targets) at 87.5%.
So far, he hasn't just been a walking, playing throwback to the good ol' days, good for a few more jersey sales at the pro shop. Witten has actually been a contributor. In the same vein, Blake Jarwin has really continued to progress despite vying for playing time with a living legend.
Jarwin’s touchdown catch in Week 1 gives him a seat at the table with Tony Curtis, Gavin Escobar (twice) and Geoff Swaim as the only Cowboys tight ends not named "Jason Witten" since 2006 to haul in a touchdown catch through the first four games.
Offensive line — Fun fact: Elliott has the fourth-highest yards before contact in the NFL at 176, accounting for over half of his rushing yards. Don't think that has anything to do with the offensive line? Remember Prescott's three sacks? While some would argue that sacks are a quarterback stat exclusively, they are a good barometer at times. Hurried throws are another good metric, and Prescott has only had 11 of them, which is tied with Philip Rivers and Matthew Stafford for the fourth-fewest in the league among starters since Week 1.
The return of center Travis Frederick has helped anchor the offensive line, which is what happens when an All-Pro gets added back into the mix. Left guard Connor Williams has also taken the next step in his development from year one to year two, which is what having a full offseason in an NFL strength and conditioning program does for a young trench player on either side of the ball.
There is some uncertainty with the offensive line as right guard Zack Martin continues to play with "disc irritation" and left tackle Tyron Smith will be out for at least Week 5 after he suffered a high ankle sprain late against New Orleans. Still, if 2018 wasn't a case study, the Cowboys have tremendous depth to keep the operation running smoothly to let their skill positions flourish.
Kicker — Brett Maher is 75.0% on field goals through four games, tied for the eighth-lowest in the NFL at this point. To be fair, it was a 50-plus yard attempt that he missed. On extra points, he has been perfect, and there have already been 16 missed this season, and Maher missed one himself last year.
The Nebraska product is tied with Brandon McManus and Justin Tucker for the seventh-most touchbacks in the league with 16, and opponents are averaging 24.2 yards per return against Maher, the seventh-highest in the NFL.
Punter — Chris Jones has seen the field just 13 times through four games, tied for the 12th-fewest appearances in the NFL. Having said that, there isn't a ton of data on Jones' punts to this point. For instance, he has the ninth-lowest yards per punt in the NFL at 44.6, but opponents are averaging 16.7 yards per punt return, tied for the absolute middle of the NFL at 16th.
Long snapper — L. P. Ladouceur has done an excellent job of not making a name for himself. Since taking over for Jon Condo in Week 4 of 2005, the Montreal, Quebec native has never looked back with the position. Only the most die-hard of fans would know who he is, or fans who listen to the Dallas Cowboys Radio Network and hear play-by-play Brad Sham describe his setting up a special teams snap.
Interestingly, Condo retired from the NFL this season after catching on with the Oakland Raiders in 2006, sticking around for 12 seasons, and then having a mid-year stint with the Atlanta Falcons in 2018 and a one-game stint with the San Francisco 49ers last month. Meanwhile, Ladouceur keeps on snapping.
MVP — QB Dak Prescott: the whole league is built around his position and he's performing at a very elite level thus far.
Newcomer — DE Robert Quinn: finally, someone is making the opposition pay for double-teaming DeMarcus Lawrence.
Most improved — WR Michael Gallup: he might be leading the NFL in receiving if he hadn't hurt his knee.
Comeback player — C Travis Frederick: not only did he recover from Guillain-Barre, but he also rehabbed from shoulder surgery to return with All-Pro caliber play.
As we saw last season, where the Cowboys were 3-5 halfway through the season and still made it to the divisional round of the playoffs, the NFL season can take a lot of twists and turns along the way. Still, at 3-1 with the defense starting to rev up and an offense that has at least shown the potential to excel, the Cowboys are looking good at the quarter pole.
How do you feel about the how the Dallas Cowboys are performing with one quarter of the season in the books? Share your thoughts with both Patrick (@DraftCowboys) and Mark (@therealmarklane) on Twitter.