NFL Odds: Dallas Cowboys win total a conundrum

The Dallas Cowboys enter the NFL odds market with a win total of 9. Despite one of the more complete rosters in the league, regression could rear its ugly head for the Cowboys this season.

How will the Dallas Cowboys fare in the NFL odds market with a projected win total of 9?

Dallas Cowboys

Win Total: 9 (O +105/ U -125)
2018 Pythagorean Wins: 8.53 (+1.47)
Key Additions: DE Robert Quinn, WR Randall Cobb, S George Iloka
Key Losses: WR Cole Beasley
Early Round Rookies: DT Trysten Hill (rookie), OG Connor McGovern (rookie), RB Tony Pollard (rookie)
Coaching Changes: Fired offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, promoted quarterbacks coach Kellen Moore to offensive coordinator
Jason Garrett Head Coaching record: (not including interim head coaching record from 2010): Straight Up (74-59) Against the Spread (62-67, 48.1%)

Cowboys Offseason

The Dallas Cowboys enter the season with a projected win total of 9 according to the NFL odds market. They outperformed expectations in 2018, with the 4th most wins above replacement according to Rotoviz’s Pythagorean wins formula. A lot of that had to do with a mid-season trade for former Oakland Raiders wide receiver Amari Cooper. The deal helped the Cowboys finish the season 7-2 after a 3-4 start. They were able to advance to the Divisional round before being bested by the Los Angeles Rams.

The talk coming out of Cowboys camp has not been regarding their new offensive coordinator Kellen Moore. Instead, contract talks have shrouded the Cowboys offseason in a cloud of uncertainty.

Dak Prescott and Cooper are slated to be free agents after this season, while Ezekiel Elliot will become a free agent after next season. That has not stopped the Cowboys star running back from already staging a holdout. The holdout has sparked the debate of “do running backs matter?” The answer is no, sadly, they don’t matter all that much. Would the Cowboys be worse without Zeke? Absolutely, but the drop off would not be as significant as you’d think.

My gut feeling is he doesn’t miss a single game. His timing is terrible considering the Cowboys also have to deal with La’el Collins, Robert Quinn, and Byron Jones after the season.

Last but not least, the Cowboys have a new play-caller in former quarterback Kellen Moore. The reports coming out of the Cowboys offseason have been positive. Moore projects to bring a fresh new look to an offense that has been stagnant under former offensive coordinator Scott Linehan.

Defense

The Cowboys defense was one of the top units in the league in 2018.

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Front Seven

The 27th ranking in adjusted sack rate seems off, but they finished 12th in Pro Football Focus’ pass-rush grade, which I feel is more indicative of what the unit brings every Sunday. Dallas locked up their0 star defensive lineman in DeMarcus Lawrence to a five year, $65 million guaranteed deal. Lawrence, along with Robert Quinn, form one of the better pass-rushing duos in the league.

Speaking of locking up your young talen, the Cowboys recently added Jaylon Smith to the list of players signed long term. Dallas signed the star linebacker to a five year, $64 million extension, with $35.5 million guarnteed. PFN Film Room writer Nick Zeller-Singh (@zickster21) believes Smith is worth every penny.

Leighton Vander Esch and the newly extended Smith form the best linebacking corps in the league. They finished 4th and 6th in Pro Football Focus’ LB grades, respectively. Sean Lee is projected to start alongside the dynamic duo as a weakside linebacker. The veteran was promised a starting role to come back for the 2018 season. He may be a starter, but the Cowboys figure to have him as the first one off the field in Nickel sets. With Nickel being a lot of teams’ base defense, the starter role seems a little empty.

When healthy, Lee has been one of the top linebackers in the league. The problem is he’s never healthy. Lee might be playing the last year of his career, but I believe he can still be a factor on early downs and as a back up to either Vander Esch or Smith.

Secondary

5th-year cornerback Byron Jones headlines the secondary. Jones finished as a top 10 cornerback in PFF’s grading scale, earning the first Pro Bowl trip of his career. Aside from signing veteran safety George Iloka, not much else was done to improve the unit. They have plenty of depth at corner, and play behind one of the most talent-laden front sevens in the league, making the overall group a force to be reckoned with this season.

Defensive Strength of Schedule

The Cowboys enter the season with the 10th easiest schedule of opposing offenses according to Warren Sharp.  Overall, the Cowboys’ schedule of QB’s is not daunting.

Brady and Brees will be a tough challenge, but the top 3 QBs they play aside from those two are all at home (Rodgers, Goff and Cousins). September sets up well for them as they face Eli Manning at home, whoever the Redskins QB is away, and either Fitzpatrick or Rosen at home before a date with Drew Brees in New Orleans.

Building some momentum to start the season will be crucial to get the offseason “contract stink” off of the team. The Cowboys schedule sets up to do just that. It will be huge for them to beat their win projection in the NFL odds market.

Offense

There’s no denying Amari Cooper saved the Cowboys offense last season. Despite being 3-4, the team was not putting off a “we’re in it” vibe to start the year. They scored 8, 13, 16 and 17 points in their losses, looking mostly dead in the process. The Cowboys acquired Cooper for a first-round pick, and never looked back.

While the passing game flourished with the addition of Cooper, you could argue missing Travis Frederick hurt more than Cooper helped. Frederick is slated to return this season, which would improve an offensive line that gave up 56 sacks and finished 28th in Football Outsiders adjusted sack rate metric. A healthy Frederick would help them beat the over in NFL odds markets.

With Frederick back, and Cooper having a fill offseason with Prescott, new offensive coordinator Kellen Moore looks to continue the momentum created by the offense last offseason. New additions Tony Pollard and Randal Cobb will look to help Moore in that regard.

Offensive Line

What had been a strength in years past turned into somewhat of a liability in 2018. The absence of Travis Frederick led to the Cowboys giving up a total of 56 sacks, second-most in the league. Frederick was diagnosed with Guillian-Barre syndrome before the season started last year, and had to miss all of 2018 to beat it. He has said he feels “normal” this year, a good sign for the Dallas offensive line, and more importantly, Frederick.

Despite the relative uncertainty of Frederick, the offensive line is the number one reason to be excited to bet this team in the NFL odds market. Frederick will rejoin fellow All-Pro offensive linemen Zack Martin and Tyron Smith to form what many experts project as a top 5 offensive line headed into the season. Rookie Connor McGovern will push second-year guard Connor Williams, who had an up and down rookie season. McGovern can also play center if needed, which provides added insurance should Frederick face a setback.

The unit will enjoy some coaching continuity with Marc Colombo entering his 4th year as an offensive line coach for Dallas. It’s tough to properly evaluate Colombo as a coach seeing as how he has had several All-Pros for the majority of his time in Dallas. That said, continuity is ideal, and the unit has done well under Colombo.

Running Backs

Ezekiel Elliot has decided to take his talents to Cabo this offseason, instead of reporting to Cowboys training camp. His holdout is a very peculiar situation. From a contract standpoint, Elliot has no leverage here. It’s also a slap in the face to the organization that selected him 4th overall and has stood by him during his numerous off-field incidents.

From an on the field perspective, many would say Zeke has all the leverage, as the Cowboys offense starts and stops with him, right? Elliot is a phenomenal running back, arguably the second-best in the league behind Saquon Barkley. That said, he’s just a running back. Running backs rely more on other players for their production than any position on offense. The fact of the matter is, running backs don’t matter, and therefore you cannot pay a running back top dollar. It’s alarming for the position, but it’s also the truth.

Numberfire’s Brandon Gdula projected who will be the NFL’s most efficient running backs and wide receivers in 2019. If you scroll down to the tables, you’ll notice the most efficient runner (Aaron Jones) doesn’t even come close to the 25th most efficient receiver (Christian Kirk) in terms of their net expected points metric. There’s no denying running is not as productive as passing. In all reality, it isn’t even close. The idea that Elliot deserves a massive contract is categorically absurd.

Fourth-round pick Tony Pollard has made some noise in training camp and preseason. Pollard compared his style of play to Alvin Kamara at this year’s scouting combine. Executive vice president Stephen Jones upon selecting Pollard in the 4th round echoed that sentiment. The Cowboys think very highly of him. If Elliot were to miss time, I don’t think they would be all that concerned.

Alfred Morris was signed as an insurance policy for Elliot, but the name to keep in mind is Mike Weber. Weber (ironically) backed up Elliot at Ohio State. He would have a chance at some touches should Elliot miss time. My gut feeling is Elliot doesn’t miss a game. I get more worried as each day passes and Elliot has not reported to the Cowboys facility though. Regardless of what happens, I think the offense will be just fine. Whether or not they beat their projected win total in the NFL odds market won’t depend on the availability of Elliot.

Pass Catchers

Cooper is the apparent headliner here. The star receiver was a massive factor in their second-half turnaround, en route to a playoff berth. Many people say the offense flows through Elliot, but you could argue the Cowboys need Cooper more than Elliot. I would say that is, in fact, precisely the case.

Many believe second-year receiver Michael Gallup is in line for a break out year. I can see how that would happen. With opposing defenses keying on Cooper and the run game, Gallup will get plenty of one on one chances this season. If he can capitalize on them, this offense will be difficult to stop.

Randal Cobb was signed to replace former Cowboy Cole Beasley in the slot. There isn’t much else to say about it other than if Cobb can stay healthy, he should be able to be productive in that role.

Jerry Jones mercifully offered Jason Witten a one-year contract so he wouldn’t have to face the Monday Night Football booth. I don’t know if that is true, but it makes a lot of sense. Regardless, I don’t think Witten contributes much this year. I expect above-average athlete Blake Jarwin to eventually take over the majority of snaps at the tight end position.

Prescott

While the offensive line is a reason to be excited about this team, Prescott remains one of the biggest reasons to bet against them in the NFL odds market. I always thought of Dak Prescott as an average at best QB. That opinion is backed by his league-wide ranks in the following statistics provided by Pro Football Reference.

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However, this Film Room piece from Shane Tyler will illustrate some impressive plays from Dak. Shane believes Prescott is closer to an above-average QB based on what he sees from the film.

Like his backfield mate, Elliot, Prescott is due for a contract. He has already turned down an offer that included approximately $30 million a year, which doesn’t sit well with me. Does he want to win, or does he only want a big payday? He’s telling me he only cares about getting paid. I understand it and more power to him. They’ll just struggle to compete during that time frame.

I see Prescott as more of a “trailer” than a “truck.” He is only as good as the parts around him. We saw him struggle in a three-game stretch in 2017 when he was missing all-pro tackle Tyron Smith. I would expect any QB’s performance to take a dip when you take away an All-Pro caliber tackle, but Prescott was horrible. He needs everything around him to go according to plan to be a functional QB. You will win games with Prescott, but not because of him.

Strength of Schedule

The Cowboys are going to have an easy go at it this season with the 10th easiest schedule in the league according to Warren Sharp. I highlighted their mostly easy schedule of quarterbacks above. They also have a soft schedule of defenses. New Orleans, Minnesota, Buffalo, and Chicago will be the toughest defenses they play. The worst-ranked among that group, in terms of defensive efficiency, is New Orleans at 11th.

I do expect some improvement from their “easy” opponents. Washington, Green Bay, and Philadelphia should see an increase in defensive efficiency. That said, I see only Green Bay as having the potential to be a top 10 defensive unit this year. Given Prescott’s limitations, a manageable schedule of defenses is a welcome site for Dallas. If you like the Cowboys over in the NFL odds market, the schedule will play a key role in winning your bet.

Suggested Bets

Top to bottom, the Cowboys possess one of the more complete teams in the NFL. They have

  • a top 5-8 offensive line
  • a top-10 cornerback
  • the elite duo of Elliot and Cooper
  • best linebacker corps in the league
  • solid pass rush headline by DeMarcus Lawrence

However, there is a reason to believe they will regress this year. The Cowboys finished a robust 9-3 in regular-season one-score games. They also outperformed their Pythagorean win total by almost a win and a half. Both marks are reliable measures in predicting regression year to year.

Their schedule, however, does not support that notion. The Cowboys don’t travel past the Central time zone at all this year. Their toughest stretch is between weeks 11 and 13. They have their only back-to-back road stint when they play the Detroit Lions and New England Patriots, followed by hosting the Buffalo Bills off a short week on Thanksgiving. Other than that, their schedule is pretty tame.

The South Point’s number opened at 9 with juice towards the under. That remains true in the offshore market today. The best NFL odds on the “over” lies with Bookmaker at (+112), while Bovada, Betonline, and My Bookie all have the same NFL odds for the “under” (-130.)

I am going to stay away. I think the regression factors offset their relatively easy schedule. There is the distraction of all the contract talks as well that could play a factor if the Cowboys struggle to start the year. I don’t think they will, but it is a possibility. Plus, I’m just not a believer in Dak Prescott. Our Film Room disagrees with me, and our Data Lab also thinks the Cowboys can win with Prescott. I don’t necessarily disagree with that statement, but when push comes to shove, I’m okay with going against Prescott.

They had the 4th most wins above expectation, and I can’t ignore that 9-3 record in one-score games. That is bound to regress. It is a stay away for me, but I don’t blame you if you like the over. There’s too much juice on the under for me to suggest a bet.

Bets: none

James Aguirre is a writer for PFN covering NFL betting and Fantasy Football. You can follow him on Twitter @PFN_James

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