Thursday, May 26, 2022

Cowboys stock up, stock down after Week 2: Micah Parsons skyrockets, Greg Zuerlein rebounds, backup OL shines

Craving a rebound in Week 2 to the likes of which would make Dennis Rodman jealous, the Dallas Cowboys answered their narrow loss to Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with a narrow three-point victory over Justin Herbert and the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday. The more egregious errors that cost them in the season opener were absent at SoFi Stadium. That’s not to say they were perfect — they were not — but key drops from a week prior became big catches for receiver CeeDee Lamb this time around, and whiffs on easy kicks by Greg Zuerlein in Tampa morphed into a 100% accuracy rate and a game-winning kick in Los Angeles. And those were just two examples of correction.

Now sitting at 1-1 on the year, the Cowboys are in a promising space as they ready for a critical early-season matchup with the NFC East rival Philadelphia Eagles, which will start a three-game homestand for Dallas and likely prove to have an impact on how the division shakes out later this year. Escaping LA with a victory despite being without starting right tackle La’el Collins and starting defensive ends DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregorythe latter expected to return in Week 3 — meant a lot of players had to step up, and did, to the point where there aren’t a lot of needles pointing south this week.

In the latest iteration of the CBS Sports “Stock up, Stock down” series for Dallas, it’s all about pointing out just how many players they have trending in the right direction: north.

Stock up

Hold onto to anything not nailed to the floor, because Parsons is an F5 tornado. The rookie first-round pick excelled in camp and carried that over to Week 1 but blew the roof off of his stock in Week 2. A former defensive end converted to linebacker at Penn State, Parsons was asked to channel his past and combine it with techniques learned from Lawrence and future Hall of Fame linebacker DeMarcus Ware in the absence of the former Sunday. And all he did was tie for the most QB pressures in the league (eight) to go with a 90.8 pass rush grade, per PFF, and a game-changing 18-yard sack on Herbert. 

He’ll now take his talents to Week 3, where he’ll have a chance to make Jalen Hurts the latest believer.

From villain to hero, Zuerlein is having the best possible week after suffering through the opposite a few days prior. The veteran kicker left four points on the field in a two-point loss in Tampa but added a total of eight points to the scoreboard in Los Angeles — including the aforementioned game-winning 56-yard kick that sent the Cowboys to 1-1 on the young season. In all, he made two field goals and both PATs after missing one of the latter last week as well. 

His lowly performance forced the Cowboys to re-sign kicker Lirim Hajrullahu to the practice squad as insurance, and whether that motivated Zuerlein to excel and/or if it’s simply a matter of rust falling off after spending camp on the PUP list with a back injury is mostly irrelevant, because when they called his number, he answered the bell.

When news broke of La’el Collins’ five-game suspension, there was a tangible sense of panic outside of the organization regarding the right tackle position. That sense of dread wasn’t aided by the Cowboys’ decision to keep perennial All-Pro Zack Martin at right guard and naming Steele as starting right tackle against Joey Bosa and the Chargers. With Ty Nsekhe suffering a heat-related issue that forced him into the hospital and onto the inactives list for Sunday, all eyes were on Steele to see if he not only made progress over a suspect rookie season, but if that progress was enough to keep Bosa at bay — a tall task for even seasoned starters in the league. 

All Steele did was play 62 snaps and allow just three pressures, finishing with a 95.5 pass rush efficiency rate, per PFF, while Bosa left with a loss to go along with zero sacks, zero QB hurries and zero tackles for loss. Needless to say, no one’s panicking now, with Steele set to start against an Eagles defensive front that won’t have defensive end Brandon Graham, who is done for the year with a torn Achilles.

If you want balance, go watch a high-wire act at the circus. If you want wins, you adapt to what an NFL defense is giving you, and offensive coordinator Kellen Moore is mastering the latter in a big way. One week after scheming a game worthy of defeating the Buccaneers, he did the same against the Chargers, but this time it wasn’t an aerial assault that got the job done. In the wake of losing Collins, Moore went to quick passes and a heavy dose of the run game to keep the Chargers’ pass rush at bay, and it led to Pollard having one of the best days he’s had as a pro. Elliott also threw his own set of haymakers — including converting two third downs on the Cowboys’ eventual game-winning drive.

In all, the two combined for 237 combined yards from scrimmage with two touchdowns, and the stock on both in 2021 has now achieved takeoff. It’s a one-two punch in the run game for Dallas, one they’ve been trying to design since the failed attempt at making Lance Dunbar the lightning to DeMarco Murray’s thunder.

As noted in last week’s version of this list, the chances of Lamb seeing his name appear on the wrong side of this article in coming weeks was/is slim-to-none. A dynamo who challenged for Rookie of the Year in 2020, Lamb had an uncharacteristically poor showing against the Buccaneers that was littered with drops on key possessions, but that was then and this is now, and currently he’s back to form. The former 17th-overall pick was the leading receiver for Dallas in Los Angeles, grabbing eight of his team-high nine targets and adding a team-high 81 receiving yards to the winning effort. 

And in doing so, Lamb’s stock has returned to its rightful place in the upper echelon of the roster after a momentary dip to start September.

What manner of sorcery is this? The Cowboys have … *checks notes* … another playmaker at the safety position? ‘Tis true, and Kazee is proving to be one of their good free agency decisions as he continues to show he’s back in prime form after tearing his Achilles as a member of the Atlanta Falcons in 2020. Now fully healthy and reunited with Quinn, Kazee has been the driver behind two red zone takeaways for the Cowboys in as many weeks, forcing a key fumble on receiver Chris Godwin in Week 1 that was recovered by cornerback Jourdan Lewis, and then intercepting Herbert in the end zone Sunday to halt a drive that likely would’ve resulted in a touchdown (given the ease in which Herbert was moving the ball on that possession). 

The Cowboys went on to add a field goal in a point swing that gave them a 17-14 lead, and the Chargers only scored three additional points after Kazee punched them in the face. For a second consecutive week, Kazee pushes his stock north.

Speaking of safeties making plays for the Cowboys, they suddenly have several who can. Kazee was the headline signing at the position at the time he inked his deal in the spring, but Kearse joined the roster at the same time and has flown under the radar to this point. But when starting safety Donovan Wilson was ruled out against the Chargers due to a groin injury suffered in practice last week, the onus was on Kearse to step up and take advantage of the opportunity. He went on to log 69 defensive snaps — the third-most behind only cornerbacks Anthony Brown and Trevon Diggs — and was extremely productive, flying all over the field like a man with his hair on fire.

Kearse also landed his first interception for the Cowboys after creating his own tip drill, but the magnificent play was deleted by what many argue to be a bad officiating call. The veteran safety finished with six tackles (t-3rd), a quarterback hit on Herbert and a pass breakup, officially. But, unofficially, he showed he can hawk the ball, too, and/or go after the QB’s head when asked to.

Like Kazee above, Diggs makes the “stock up” portion of this list for a second week in a row. Diggs picked off Herbert in Week 2 and nearly had a second — the second week he nearly had a second INT in a game — raising his career interception tally to five in his first 15 NFL games. As the Cowboys begin to discover others in the secondary who have the ability to take the ball away in 2021, they do so knowing the top dog in that category is Diggs, a former second-round pick who plays the ball like a wide receiver when it’s in the air. That’s because he not only used to be one, but also because he trains in the offseason against his brother Stefon Diggs, a guy you might be familiar with. 

At this point, you’d probably be foolish to not bet on at least one interception per game from Diggs, regardless of who the opposing quarterback is. He now has one on Brady and one on Herbert, nearly punishing them both twice in that category, and he’s looking to remind Hurts of his abilities. After all, he picked off Carson Wentz twice in their first meeting last season and Hurts in the other.

It was an uneventful first week for both Smith and Vander Esch, but that changed in their second outing. With Lawrence out, Quinn needed to adjust in a big way, and that meant more pass rush duties for both Parsons and Vander Esch, which put Smith in primarily coverage duties against receivers, tight ends and a talented running back in Austin Ekeler. In 54 snaps, Smith logged a meaningful team-high nine tackles and rarely missed, landing a tackling grade of 80.0 from PFF. For Vander Esch, it was about making more with less, because while he was tasked with only 37 snaps, he finished with seven tackles (second-most on the team) along with two tackles for loss, a quarterback hit and a sack — his pass rush grade standing at a robust 83.1 for his efforts there, per PFF.

The Cowboys will need more of this in Week 3 if they’re going to rattle Hurts and Co. And for Smith, continued good play will go a long way in keeping talented fourth-round pick Jabril Cox at bay.

Honorable mentions

Hooker made his debut for the Cowboys in Week 2 and had an impact tackle early, while Kamara and Odighizuwa showed what the rookie defensive linemen are capable of under the tutelage fo Quinn — Odighizuwa himself hurrying Herbert on two separate occasions. Armstrong, who is now battling an ankle injury, got the bulk of the reps at left defensive end and performed admirably while Anae showed he has some serious potential in how he taught first-round pick Rashawn Slater a lesson on at least one occasion to get pressure on Herbert (see below). 

As for the offense, seeing Jarwin recover nicely from a Week 1 error that cost them a touchdown and Schultz continue to make key grabs can only make Prescott and Moore smile from ear-to ear.

Stock down

While some others have been on the upside of this column for two weeks now, Brown continues to struggle to break out of the doldrums. He’s proven to be a capable starter for the Cowboys in the past, but he mostly looks out of sorts in 2021, and his struggles have cost them some big plays defensively. Calls to see more reps from rookie cornerback Nahshon Wright and/or veteran cornerback Maurice Canady are warranted, and it’ll be interesting to see just how long the Cowboys stick with Brown as a starter. 

The slate of quarterbacks isn’t one to overlook in the next couple of games — namely Hurts and a red-hot Sam Darnold — and the return of rookie second-round pick Kelvin Joseph from injured reserve looms in the near future. Can Brown step up before he potentially gets the hook from Quinn?

Fortunately for Wilson, he’s not seeing his stock decline a bit here because of anything he’s done wrong. Unfortunately for him, the Cowboys inserted Hooker into the lineup and Kearse turned in a breakout game in Wilson’s absence. (Wilson missed Sunday’s game with a groin injury.) It would be a reach to say he’s lost his starting role, but not to say he’s now locked in an intense battle to keep it if he’s not 100% and Kearse continues to play like a rabid animal. It’s a fantastic problem for the Cowboys to have, and at a position where they so rarely have it.

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Excited for the new Cowboys season? We are too! Follow along on the CBS Sports app and get the latest insights from Patrik Walker, who’s on the ground in Dallas. Plus, get the latest Dak Prescott news, Ezekiel Elliott predictions, and much more from our team of experts. If you already have the app, you need to set the Cowboys as your favorite team for up-to-the-second news and analysis.

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