2022 NFC East Preview: Fantasy Football Outlook, Sleepers, and Busts

Marc Salazar breaks down the NFC East from a fantasy football perspective.

2021 Review

 

Points per Game 30.4 1st
Offensive Snaps 1,153 2nd
2021 Record 12-6 T-5th
2022 Vegas Win Projection 10 T-7th

 

The Cowboys returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2018, winning the NFC East with a 12-6 record. Their season was unceremoniously ended, at home, by San Fran in the Wild Card round 23-17. It was another disappointing outcome for fans of the team, especially after a season that showed so much promise. Dallas lead the league in points per game and yards and dominated opponents for stretches of the season. Dallas scored 35 or more points seven different times, including two 50-point victories in the closing weeks of the season. However, for those watching closely, the offense opened the season on fire and after Week 7, the team was unable to run the ball and offensive coordinator Kellen Moore struggled to adjust. Save for these two scoring outbursts at the end of the season, Dallas was carried by their defense in the second half of the season.

Speaking of the Cowboy’s defense, former Falcons head coach Dan Quinn joined the staff as defensive coordinator and turned this defense into a play-making juggernaut. The Cowboys led the league with 34 turnovers, including 26 interceptions, setting the offense up with extra possessions and better field position. Dallas will need the defense to continue to force turnovers if the Cowboys hope to remain one of the league’s best offenses.

In the offseason, Dallas continued its long-standing philosophy of building in the draft and remaining frugal in free agency. The team traded away star receiver Amari Cooper and released right tackle La’el Collins, a seven-year starter who has dealt with injuries and suspensions in recent years. Cooper played for the team for four seasons, racking up 292REC/3,893YD/27TD, while earning $54 million ($13.5 per). Dallas became frustrated with Cooper, who was unvaccinated and missed games with Covid but also dealt with four separate nagging injuries during the 2021 season. Dallas has spoken of being frustrated with both players because of availability but losing both in one offseason will certainly have an impact on this offense. The team added veteran receiver James Washington in free agency but reports on Monday suggest Washington may have suffered a foot injury that could jeopardize his season. The Cowboys added two young pass catchers in the draft, wide receiver Jalen Tolbert from South Alabama (Round 3, No. 88) and tight end Jake Ferguson from Wisconsin (Round 4, No. 129). Both have flashed at times in the offseason and have a chance to contribute immediately.

Dallas heads into the season with plenty of questions but the offense remains strong and will look to pick up where they left off at the end of last season. Fantasy managers should find plenty of options for a big-time fantasy season on this team.

 

Passing Game

 

Passing Yards per Game 279.4 4th
Passing Touchdowns per Game 2.3 5th
Pass Attempts per Game 38.4 5th

 

Prior to last season, Dak Prescott signed a massive 4-year, $160M contract, just six months after suffering a career-threatening ankle injury. Dak came back strong, throwing for 4,449 yards and 37 touchdowns with just 10 interceptions. Dak finished as QB6 last season with 11 top-12 fantasy weeks. In five healthy seasons, Dak has never finished outside the top-12 fantasy quarterbacks. The absence of Cooper could mean he struggles out of the gate but Prescott is certain to finish as at least a low-end QB1 with the potential for huge spike weeks.

Ceedee Lamb completed his sophomore season with 79 receptions for 1,102 yards. It was a fine season for the Cowboys’ primary target but not quite the dominant fantasy season many managers expected to begin the year. Commonly drafted as the WR12, Lamb finished as the WR19. Hardly a disappointing season but certainly not what many hoped for. Despite this, Lamb’s ADP has climbed this offseason and he is commonly coming off the board as the WR7. There are paths to fantasy gold but they also come with risk. The risk, the Cowboys and OC Kellen Moore do tend to spread the ball around. Lamb earned an 18% target share, a relatively small number for a primary receiver. Lamb also scored just six times and not once in his final seven games. The path, Lamb saw the field on just 72% of team snaps last year, a low number when compared to other top fantasy receivers who hover between 80% to 90%. With a thin receiver corps, more than 200 targets are vacated, and while this stat is not a clear indication of increased opportunity, both of these combined could be enough to vault Lamb to the top of fantasy receivers.

The receiver’s room after Lamb is young and inexperienced, to say the least. The team resigned Michael Gallup in the offseason, a 5-year, $57.5M extension at an average of $11.5M per year. However, Gallup tore his ACL late in the year and is not expected back to begin the season. Gallup’s best season was a year before Lamb arrived and alongside Cooper, a role that he will find himself in when healthy. At full health, he could be a solid WR3 with spike potential but managers should not expect consistency. In four seasons, Gallup has finished as a weekly fantasy WR1 in just 11% of his games and a WR2 in just 13%.

Jalen Tolbert, Noah Brown, T.J. Vasher, and Simi Fehoko round out the receiver room and between them, they have exactly zero career touchdowns. Tolbert, the team’s second-round draft pick, has a good chance to open the season as a contributor. Tolbert, a small school standout, posted a 35% dominator rating as a true sophomore and continued to produce throughout his college career. Tolbert is an explosive downfield target, averaging 17.0 yards per reception in college and his highlight tape is filled with contested catch wins all over the field. After Tolbert however, there does not look to be a solid fantasy contributor on the roster. Vasher, a 6’6″ receiver out of Texas Tech, is an athletic marvel with an 85″ wing span and a catch radius to match. Still, it is tough to see him seeing significant playing time, outside of a few red zone targets.

 

Running Game

 

Rushing Yard per Game 122.0 T-9th
Rushing Touchdowns per Game 0.9 T-15th
Rushing Plays per Game 27.4 12th

 

Heading into training camp and nearly everyone has an opinion on the Cowboys backfield. Should the team rely on Ezekiel Elliott or hand the reins and the majority of the work over to Tony Pollard? For the better part of the past two seasons, Zeke’s fantasy production has seen high highs and low lows. For the first four seasons of his career, Zeke was a fantasy monster and one of the more consistent backs in the league. He finished as a weekly RB1 in 64% of his starts and was at least an RB2 in 901% of his career games. In the two seasons since, Zeke has not been a startable option in 35% of his games. On the field, Zeke looks to have lost some burst; Zeke has just one run of 20+ yards in the last two seasons. However, the team has repeated what they have said for years, Zeke is the lead back and a “keystone player”. Zeke handled 237 carries and saw 65 targets out of the backfield in 2021. In the red zone, he handled 50% of the team’s carries and added 17 targets. Bottom line is that Zeke’s role should remain unchanged, and that makes him a huge value as his ADP continues to fall. Currently, you can draft Zeke at RB16 and Zeke has never finished outside the top 12 backs in five seasons.

Pollard’s role is much less clear. In off-season workouts, there have been multiple reports that Dallas is moving him around the field while lining up in the backfield and as a receiver. Reports throughout the offseason suggest Pollard will be used as a receiver, a position he played in college, and in a variety of ways out of the backfield. Media and analysts alike can see Pollard’s talent jumps off the field but he must be given the chance to lead the backfield. Independent of Zeke, Pollard has carved out a role on this team that will be valuable to fantasy managers looking to add a late running back with upside.

 

Sleeper

 

Tony Pollard, RB

Tony Pollard finds his name on this list for one reason: he has league-winning upside should he find a path to an every-down role. Pollard finished as the RB37 in points per game and produced five top-24 RB weeks. Pollard’s role has increased in each of his three seasons in the league, last year he earned 130 carries and 46 targets, both career highs. He averaged 5.5 yards per carry and 8.6 yards per reception, topping one thousand total yards (739 yards rushing, 337 yards receiving) for the first time. While Pollard only scored three touchdowns, an area he must improve if he is to compete with the top backs in the league. There are paths for Pollard, even if slim. Injuries to the top of the depth chart or even a change in coaching philosophy could give Pollard the opportunity to fantasy managers have been clamoring for.

 

Deep Sleeper

 

Jalen Tolbert, WR

Jalen Tolbert suddenly finds himself in a favorable position. Despite his slender frame, Tolbert took 70% of his college snaps on the outside and profiles as a boundary receiver. With Gallup expected to miss time, the Cowboys have been unwilling to sign a veteran to compete with Tolbert and could open the year as a starter. Even if the team decides to sign a veteran late in camp, this team loves to play multiple receivers. Four Cowboys receivers played at least 50% of the team passing snaps and only one, Lamb, opens the season healthy. In a similar role last season, Cedric Wilson caught 45 balls for 602 yards and six touchdowns, finishing as WR45 and producing four top-24 weeks. Tolbert steps in this role, with little target competition and a top quarterback who likes to spread the ball around. At his draft cost, WR71, Tolbert is likely to be a steal.

 

Bust Candidate

 

Michael Gallup, WR

Michael Gallup suffered his ACL injury on January 2nd, during Dallas’s Week 17 game. He is expected to miss the opening month of the season, if not the first six weeks. ACL injuries are often 9-12 month recoveries but the Cowboys could show caution with Gallup, seeing how they extended his contract this offseason. Add to this the typical expectation of a slow start upon return from an ACL injury, and one can quickly see the obstacles stacking up against Gallup. Since being drafted Gallup has operated as the team’s downfield threat, leading the team with 15.0 yards per catch for his career. Through four seasons, Gallup has not dominated targets in Dallas, never earning above a 19% team target share. All of these red flags add up to a down year for the talented wideout. His current WR49 cost is far too high at the moment when younger, healthier options can be found.

 

 

Feature image by Michael Packard (@CollectingPack on Twitter) / Photography by Ken Murray, Andrew Dieb, Tony Quinn & Andy Lewis / Icon Sportswire

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