Cowboys Players with Most to Prove Ahead of 2021 Season

Alex Ballentine@Ballentine_AlexFeatured ColumnistMay 26, 2021

Cowboys Players with Most to Prove Ahead of 2021 Season

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    The Dallas Cowboys are a franchise with plenty to prove in the 2021 season. Few teams faced more adversity in 2020 and have bounce-back potential like Jerry Jones' squad. 

    Mike McCarthy's inaugural season as head coach didn't go as planned in any regard. The defense was among the worst in the league, Dak Prescott went down and was followed in short order by a large chunk of his once-great offensive line. 

    In short, if something could go wrong, it did. 

    It sets up the Cowboys as one of the most intriguing teams in the league. It's going to be an important season for the franchise as a whole but especially important for several players on the roster. 

    Here's a look at three who should be looking to prove doubters wrong in 2021. 

LB Leighton Vander Esch

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    David Berding/Associated Press

    When a defense struggles as badly as the Dallas Cowboys did last season, the higher the profile, the more criticism they receive. As a former first-round pick, there was plenty of scrutiny for Leighton Vander Esch. 

    For the second consecutive season, Vander Esch missed a chunk of games. In total, he's missed 13 over the last two seasons. He wasn't all that impressive when he was on the field either, missing 16.7 percent of his tackles, struggling in pass coverage and registering few impact plays (one sack, one forced fumble).  

    It came as no surprise that the Cowboys elected not to pick up the fifth-year option on his contract. It would have paid him $9.1 million in 2022. Instead, he'll be playing the final season of his current contract for $2.1 million this season. 

    Every indication from the Cowboys offseason moves this year has Vander Esch halfway out the door. They drafted Micah Parsons in the first round and followed it up by picking Jabril Cox later in the draft. They also signed Keanu Neal who figures to play some Will linebacker in subpackages if not full time. 

    The team will also have a decision to make on Jaylon Smith. He signed a massive extension in 2019, but it has an out in 2022. The likelihood both linebackers come back next season seems slim. 

    Vander Esch has to have a big year if he's to either earn his spot on the roster again or improve his value elsewhere. 

RB Ezekiel Elliott

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    Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

    With great money comes great expectations. That means no one should have higher expectations than Ezekiel Elliott. He was the second-highest paid running back in 2020 and is set to be the highest-paid in 2021 and 2022. 

    From that perspective, Elliott's 2020 campaign was a bust. He failed to eclipse 1,000 yards rushing, set a career-low in yards per reception and failed to elevate the offense when Dak Prescott went down with his season-ending injury. 

    There are legitimate reasons for that dip last year. The offensive line was decimated by injuries, and Prescott's absence allowed teams to stack the box while the game script rarely favored a run-heavy approach. 

    All of those reasons are gone in 2021. Tyron Smith, La'el Collins and Zack Martin should all return to the lineup, Prescott is back and the Cowboys have too many weapons in the passing game for defenses to sell out on the run. 

    It's going to be up to Elliott to deliver a great season with all the opportunity he will have. 

OT Tyron Smith

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    Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

    Tyron Smith has been one of the best left tackles in the league over the last decade, yet he still has something to prove in 2021. Entering his age-31 season he'll be coming off season-ending neck surgery after playing just two games in 2020. 

    Smith has been relatively durable throughout his career but he's missed three games in each season going back to 2016 with an assortment of knee and back issues. 

    Given his age, it's easy to see 2021 as a crossroads for Smith. There are left tackles who play well into their 30s. Andrew Whitworth, Jason Peters and, most recently, Trent Williams have set a precedent that blindside protectors are capable of aging well. 

    That doesn't guarantee that Smith will be one of those guys, though. How he bounces back from the neck injury will be key in determining how much faith the Cowboys can put in him going forward. 

    Smith is signed through the 2023 season, but 2022 becomes the first year they would save money by cutting him. If he regains his form from 2019, he will continue to be a value as far as the salary cap is concerned. 

    Should he falter, he could be an unfortunate cap casualty in 2022. It's a big season in a "what have you done for me lately" league.