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Cowboys will need more from talented trio to compete in 2020

The Dallas Cowboys have star players all over the roster but, for them to take the next big step, they’ll need several of them to elevate their game in 2020
Credit: AP
Dallas Cowboys Dallas Leighton Vander Esch (55) and Jaylon Smith (54) celebrate a defensive play against the Seattle Seahawks during the second half of the NFC wild-card NFL football game, in Arlington, Texas, Saturday, Jan. 5, 2019. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)

DALLAS —

The Dallas Cowboys just missed out on the playoffs in 2019, but they return with high expectations for the upcoming season if such a season is in the cards amidst the looming cloud of uncertainty that is the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Nevertheless, should a season happen, the Cowboys sport a new coaching staff, coupled with good free agent haul and a stellar draft, has put the team in position to return to the postseason.

If things go right for the Cowboys, they have the talent to make a deep run in the playoffs. However, things rarely go perfectly in the NFL and Dallas’ topsy-turvy 2019 is proof of that. For example, some Cowboys who excelled in 2018 then had down years last season, which contributed to their 8-8 record.

Here are three Cowboys who need to have a rebound season if the team is to make a Super Bowl run:

LB Jaylon Smith

Smith’s 2019 season might have been the biggest disappointment for the Cowboys. He lacked explosiveness, his coverage skills appeared diminished, and his change of direction was much slower than it was in his breakout year in 2018. 

However, those issues paled in comparison to Smith’s lack of effort and leadership on defense. Smith was seen as an inspirational figure for his first few years in the league and he overcame a devastating injury in his final college game to come all the way back and play at a high level. Those traits weren’t seen on the field enough in 2019.

The hope is that a better defensive line – especially up the middle – will allow Smith extra freedom to make plays, which could inspire him to play at a higher level. With more room to maneuver, Smith can be used more as a pass rusher, which is one of his best traits. 

LB Leighton Vander Esch

The former first-round stud linebacker wasn’t terrible in his sophomore season, but Vander Esch was much more efficient in his rookie year. A neck injury really derailed Vander Esch’s play and caused him to miss the last third of the schedule, which is perhaps not coincidentally when the team started to take a dip in the standings. 

The injury forced Vander Esch to go under the knife but the hope is that he returns stronger than ever.

Vander Esch is also someone who will benefit from having a stout front four that will allow him to roam to the ball as the new Mike (middle LB). Instincts and athleticism are Vander Esch’s best traits, which should make an excellent fit in new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan’s defense.

WR Amari Cooper

It may seem odd to see Cooper’s name here but he had an issue with drops last year, and has fought it since he entered the league.

The image of Cooper on the sideline during the biggest moment in the de facto NFC East title game against the Philadelphia Eagles is tough to forget.

Despite catching 79 balls for almost 1,200 yards and eight touchdowns, Cooper wasn’t consistent enough. He had nine games with over 80 yards and seven games under 50 yards receiving. That’s not good enough from the No. 1 WR who the team gave a five-year, $100 million contract to this offseason. 

Injuries slowed Cooper down some in 2019, but the time has come to put it all together for an entire season. With an elite WR corps in Dallas, Cooper won’t be counted on to shoulder the whole load, which should help him to stay healthy and on the field. However, he will be the guy that quarterback Dak Prescott should look to at the critical moments of games and he must be ready to make the play when the team needs it.

Do you think these players will be able to rise to the occasion and help the Cowboys reach the playoffs? Share your predictions with Ben on Twitter @BenGrimaldi.

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