For the second week in a row, the Dallas Cowboys are all smiles, and this time they didn't need heart medication to achieve it. There would be no need for a game-winning field goal attempt to take down the Philadelphia Eagles on Monday night, or any at all, because Dak Prescott led an offensive onslaught with the help of running back Ezekiel Elliott and tight end Dalton Schultz to put Jalen Hurts and Co. in a casket fairly early, aided by former second-round pick Trevon Diggs having his way with his former Alabama teammate for the second time in their two meetings at the professional level.
Diggs' efforts didn't only produce a pick-six that fulfilled a pregame promise to his young son, but it also put the finishing touches on a stellar September en route to landing him honors as NFC Defensive Player of the Month. It's the first time a Cowboys defensive back has ever landed the honor, per the team's PR, and only the third time a player from Dallas was awarded it -- previously going to DeMarcus Lawrence in 2017 and Sean Lee in both 2011 and 2013.
So as we dive into the latest iteration of the CBS Sports "Stock up, Stock down" series for Dallas, it's clear who's leading the way. But Diggs is far from the only talent digging into 2021, and they'll look to keep the good times rolling when Sam Darnold and the Carolina Panthers stroll into town Sunday afternoon.
[Note: This list is unranked.]
We're three weeks into this and Diggs has not only been on the right side of this column in each of them, but he's finding ways to push his stock higher -- avoiding a plateau or a dip of any sort. The reigning NFC Defensive Player of the Month and former second-round pick is off to an All-Pro caliber start to Year 2 with an interception in each of his first three games -- the first Cowboy to accomplish this feat since legendary defensive back Everson Walls in 1985. He's also proving he's more than simply a ballhawk, delivering key tackles and pass breakups in critical situations, both of the latter being put on display in the Cowboys' dismantling of the Eagles on Monday night.
Diggs has become an absolute terror for opposing quarterbacks, routinely shadowing the opposite team's best receiver and having now intercepted Tom Brady, Justin Herbert and Hurts this season. He's already racked up six interceptions in his first 14 career starts, including four in his last five games.
That's what Elliott proclaimed this week after sending the message that he himself was not incapable of enjoying the Cowboys' offensive buffet -- as his critics suggested. Following a strong outing that helped the Cowboys escape with a narrow win over the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 2 -- which led to Elliott seeing his stock rise for 2021 with critical third-down conversions and other timely plays -- all he did was build upon that success by hammering the Eagles into submission in the Dallas home opener. His runs were dirty, punishing and fruitful, with the two-time rushing champ finishing the day with 95 yards and two touchdowns to go along with 21 receiving yards on three catches.
As you can see from the clip below, there was little the Eagles could do to stop Elliott, even after they put hands on him. He'd go on to tally 58 of his scrimmage yards after contact to the tune of 3.41 yards after contact per touch, making it known that while Tony Pollard is a dynamic complement, there's still only one RB1 in Dallas.
There's a reason Prescott is just now making his debut on this list, and one reason only: his stock was already way up and has yet to dip in 2021. It's the penalty of greatness, I suppose, but I'd be remiss to not point out what he's been able to do through the first three weeks -- notwithstanding. The two-time Pro Bowler ended any and all speculation of if his ankle and shoulder were OK when he threw for more than 400 yards with three touchdowns against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 1, basically outplaying Tom Brady in every way and only losing by two points because of an abysmal outing by kicker Greg Zuerlein and a controversial non-call against Chris Godwin on the Bucs' game-winning drive.
In Week 2, he scaled back his throws and instead fed Pollard and Elliott to do away with the Chargers, showing he knows how to take what the defense gives him. This made the Week 3 victory that much more impressive, because the Eagles showed him everything was for the taking -- so he took it. Elliott finished with two rushing touchdowns and Prescott added three passing touchdowns to the effort, finishing with a 143.3 quarterback rating and missing on only five of his 26 attempts. A frontrunner for NFL Comeback Player of the Year, don't rule Prescott out as an MVP candidate as well.
OK, the Cowboys might have something lovely cooking at backup tackle -- finally. It's still a small sample size, but don't be afraid to acknowledge what Steele is doing in the absence of starting tackle La'el Collins, who missed the second of his five-game suspension Monday night. Yes, he's receiving help, but that doesn't discount what he's doing in his own right, i.e., being key in shutting down All-Pro pass rusher Joey Bosa in Week 2 and following it up with another stout performance against the Eagles' defensive front in Week 3. And with veteran tackle Ty Nsekhe missing a second game in his recovery from a heat-related illness, the onus to deliver has been on Steele, and he's answered the bell.
Steele allowed no quarterback hurries and zero sacks in 77 snaps against Philly, pushing his two-game tally to zero sacks, the lone three QB hurries from Week 2 and only one hit on Prescott. Furthering his point as the potential definitive swing tackle in Dallas, when Prescott dropped back to find tight end Dalton Schultz for one of the their two touchdowns on the evening, look at how Steele turned a grown man into a child. It was as if they were on the playground, with the defender finding out the hard way that getting on the merry-go-round would require giving up his lunch money.
The question of who'll be TE1 for the Cowboys in 2021 is being answered by Schultz, and in impressive fashion. In 2020, he was tasked with stepping up in the absence of Blake Jarwin after the latter went down with a torn ACL in the regular season opener -- leading to a breakout season for the former. And with Jarwin back in the fold this season, Schultz hasn't slowed a step, instead taking what to continue winning matchups in an all-important contract year for the fourth-year talent.
With wideout Michael Gallup still on injured reserve and four-time Pro Bowl wideout Amari Cooper nursing a cracked rib, Schultz led the Cowboys in receiving yards in Week 3 (80) on a team-high six catches on seven targets, and his two touchdowns marked a career-high outing for the former Stanford Cardinal. And it's one thing to score on a great throw and catch, but it's quite another to do it on a play like the one below, a YAC play usually seen from Jarwin but now having been added to what Schultz brings to the table. Schultz put four (!!) defenders on skates before sliding into the end zone to cap a fantastic day for himself and the Cowboys.
Wilson was a promising talent in 2018 when the Cowboys gave him the nod as their sixth-round pick, but injuries paused his progress for much of his rookie contract. He broke out in the first few games of the 2020 season once healthy, only to stumble again due to a myriad of poor quarterback play following the season-ending injury to Prescott. But with Prescott now back under center, the two are reigniting the chemistry they established last season, and in a big way. Wilson is often overlooked by many and that includes the opposition, and the latter often pays for treating him like he can't make a game-changing reception.
Such was the case for Philly, which found itself on the receiving end of Wilson's toe-drag swag in the fourth quarter on a critical 4th-and-2 play from the Eagles' two-yard line that turned out to be the turning point of the game. Why? It's because the Eagles were trying to build momentum at that point, but Wilson's touchdown was the equivalent of eating their Girl Scout cookies in their face and then washing it down with the last swallow of milk in the container.
Last week, Odighizuwa earned his way to honorable mention on this list, but he's now deserving of more. The rookie third-round pick has become a revelation for the Cowboys and is another nod to what defensive coordinator Dan Quinn brings to the team: an ability to scout as well as coach. Trysten Hill remains on the team's PUP (physically unable to perform) list as he recovers from the torn ACL suffered in 2020, Tyrone Crawford retired this past offseason, starting defensive tackle Neville Gallimore hasn't played a snap yet this season due to an elbow injury that landed him on injured reserve in August, and veteran defensive lineman Carlos Watkins missed Monday night with a knee injury. Still, the Cowboys have not seen a drop-off whatsoever on the interior of their defensive line -- largely thanks to Odighizuwa.
This isn't an easy feat to achieve for a rookie, but he's doing it, and it's amazing to watch such an instant impact in the face of roster adversity. Odighizuwa led a party at the quarterback when he took down Hurts in Week 3 for a 12-yard loss, giving him 1.5 sacks through the first three games along with four quarterback hits and despite averaging just 57.7% of defensive snaps. It makes you wonder what he could do with more snaps, and seeing as Gallimore is still likely a week or two away, don't discount the odds of Quinn awarding them to him.
Hinting at this in last week's column, Kearse is becoming a problem for opposing offenses. Starting safety Donovan Wilson missed a second consecutive game with a groin injury, so that meant another go for Kearse. And for a second straight week, he was flying all over the field like Sonic the Hedgehog trying to defeat Robotnik. A penalty erased his first interception for the Cowboys in Week 2, while he didn't grab one in Week 3 against the Eagles, he led the defense in tackles, added a pass breakup, played every defensive snaps along with a couple special teams reps, and was seen letting the entire Eagles' sideline know they weren't leaving with anything but a shattered ego and validated parking.
Kearse joined the Cowboys in the same breath as Damontae Kazee -- who continues to impress and was included on the "stock up" portion of this list following the previous two outings -- and is making quite the name for himself in the safety rotation, one that also now features former first-round pick Malik Hooker. When Wilson is finally healthy, he'll find Kearse waiting to make it difficult for him in the race for reps.
It's rapidly becoming a year dominated by the defensive rookie class, Diggs' efforts to lead the way in his second year notwithstanding. It's not only about what Micah Parsons is doing, but also the impact of Odighizuwa and also Quinton Bohanna, and as Bohanna continues to improve, the Cowboys will likely hit on his pick as well. Golston is looking to join the mix as well after impressing in OTAs/minicamp before losing all of training camp and the preseason to injury. He made his debut for the Cowboys in Week 3, and although he didn't create any highlights, his film was crisp en route to playing in 30 defensive snaps and landing three tackles.
Hooker's second game saw him make at least one impact tackle for the second straight week, while Pollard again provided an electric mix to the hammer Elliott was dropping. As for Brown, who has been on the wrong side of this article for the previous two weeks, grabbing his first interception of the season is definitely enough to elevate him out of the basement for now. He still struggled in coverage for much of the evening, but his INT set an early tone for the defensive unit.
With Brown's struggles have come calls to unleash rookie cornerbacks Nahshon Wright and Maurice Canady, and rightfully so, but Canady didn't do himself any favors Monday night. He took the field for only 13 snaps in Week 3 and didn't make the most of them, instead doing the opposite -- giving up a 41-yard pass to Quez Watkins that drew a flag for both defensive pass interference and defensive holding. Both penalties were obviously declined, because the catch was made for the biggest offensive play of the Eagles' day, and it breathed life back into a dying Philly unit. Hurts would go on to find tight end Zach Ertz for a touchdown on that same drive, shrinking the Cowboys lead to 13 points late in the third quarter.
Prescott and Co. overcame that mistake with the aforementioned drive that ended with Wilson's toe-drag touchdown, but Canady is a veteran who dominated training camp, and that's the form the Cowboys need from him going forward.
Will the real Zuerlein please stand up? From villain in Week 1 to the hero of Week 2, the veteran kicker bounced back when he added eight points to the Cowboys' victory over the Chargers at SoFi Stadium, capped by his 56-yarder as the clock expired in the fourth quarter. But in his third swing of the foot Monday night, he missed a PAT following Elliott's three-yard touchdown. That marks his second missed PAT in only three games, and it makes you wonder what kind of night he would've had if the Cowboys needed to rely on him for field goal attempts.
Thankfully, they didn't, as the offense blitzed the Eagles to the point they attempted no field goals whatsoever. That said, going into Week 4, the questions that plagued Zuerlein following the regular season opener are back.
Wilson is doing what he can to get healthy, but groin injuries are tricky. And the longer it takes him to recover and return to the field, the more chances Jayron Kearse will have to continue doing what he's doing. Wilson has proven himself a playmaker for the Cowboys, so it's tough to consider he won't regain his starting role when he's healthy. But to presume it now won't be an outright duel with Kearse would be disingenuous.
The good news for the Cowboys is between Wilson, Kearse, Hooker and Kazee, they now have a ton of talented depth at the safety position -- something they haven't been able to boast in a very long time. However, the stock on Wilson is being pushed down right now by the play of Kearse.
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