The Dallas Cowboys are hoping to have a rebound season in 2021. That following a disappointing 6-10 first season under head coach Mike McCarthy. And one where the Cowboys lost their starting quarterback, Dak Prescott, to a season-ending ankle injury in Week Five.
And while several key players like Prescott returning from injuries are expected to give Dallas a significant boost from their woeful performance last year, there are a handful of former Pro Bowlers who need to return to form in 2021. Here are our choices for the top three Cowboys who are rebound candidates this season.
Ezekiel Elliott, RB
Without his offensive line and Prescott under center, the Cowboys offense leaned heavily on running back Ezekiel Elliott last year. And the fifth-year back crumbled under those expectations, posting the worst season of his career.
In 15 games, Elliott recorded career-lows in rushing yards (979), yard per carry average (4.0), and total touchdowns (8). Zeke also tied a career-high with six fumbles. With O-line stalwarts like starting left tackle Tyron Smith and right tackle La’el Collins expected to return, Elliott should see much wider rushing lanes than he did in 2020.
Leighton Vander Esch, LB
Injuries have hindered the young career of former first-round selection, linebacker Leighton Vander Esch. So much so that Hall of Fame former Cowboys executive, Gil Brandt, recently advised the team against picking up Vander Esch’s fifth-year option.
That’s quite a downfall for a player who earned a Pro Bowl nod as a rookie back in 2018. But the 25-year old has missed a total of 16 games over the past two seasons due to injuries. Last year, Vander Esch was only able to record 60 total tackles in 10 games, the lowest amount of his three-year career so far.
With the hiring of Dan Quinn as the team’s new defensive coordinator this offseason and the return to a more familiar scheme, Vander Esch has a strong chance of returning to Pro Bowl form in his fourth season. But only if he can stay healthy.
Aldon Smith, DE
Coming off a four-season layoff due to a long league suspension, former All-Pro pass rusher Aldon Smith made his NFL comeback with the Cowboys last year. And the initial results were fantastic, racking up a quick 4.0 sacks in his first three games back.
Unfortunately, the 31-year old Smith seemed to hit a wall midway through his first season back, resulting in lackluster production and a single sack over his final13 games of last year. Scheduled to hit free agency later this month, the hope is Smith is re-signed by Dallas. And with another offseason training program under his belt, that he’ll put up a much more consistent performance in his second year with the Cowboys.