ESPN writer makes compelling case for this player as Cowboys' X-factor

There's an obvious pick for whom the Cowboys' 2023 X-factor will be.
Indianapolis Colts v Dallas Cowboys
Indianapolis Colts v Dallas Cowboys / Cooper Neill/GettyImages

The Dallas Cowboys' have one of the best rosters in the NFL.

Regardless of the outlet (ESPN, Pro Football Focus, etc.), the Cowboys have consistently ranked within the top 10 -- usually just outside the top-five -- in 2023 roster rankings. Similarly, several players have ranked among the hierarchy of their respective positions, including Micah Parsons, CeeDee Lamb and Trevon Diggs.

That doesn't begin to encapsulate the talent on this roster. With ample high-level talent, it'd be easy for impact players to get glossed over. More importantly, it makes it that much more difficult to identify possible X-factors and breakout players.

Recently, Pro Football Focus named Malik Hooker as Dallas' most underrated player, and Jake Ferguson as the team's breakout candidate. You could certainly argue for other players in those spots, but Hooker and Ferg were worthy picks.

That begs the question of whom the Cowboys' X-factor is. ESPN's Seth Walder believes Stephon Gilmore deserves to carry that mantle.

Is Stephon Gilmore the Cowboys' biggest X-factor this season?

Here's what Walder said of Gilmore.

"Since his first season in New England in 2017, Gilmore has never allowed more than 1.2 yards per coverage snap in a single season (average for an outside CB) and has allowed 1.0 on average in that span, per NFL Next Gen Stats. But he isn't just consistent; he offers upside. He has two seasons with minus-30 EPA allowed, most notably his 2019 DPOY season. A good-to-great Gilmore would take the Cowboys defense from threatening to scary."

Hard to disagree with that analysis. If Gilmore can maintain the level of play he showcased in Indianapolis last year, there's no telling what the ceiling of the Cowboys defense will be. Already a consensus top-five unit, they'll have the potential to leapfrog the 49ers as the premier defense in the league.

It stands to reason that Gilmore should maintain that form, too, considering he'll likely match up against the opposition's secondary receiver. That assumes Trevon Diggs bears the responsibility of covering opposing team's No. 1 wideout.

Gilmore was targeted often on the Colts, but more than held his own as a No. 1 corner. He allowed a lowly 82.6 passer rating in coverage and had a 81.1 coverage grade to show for it, per PFF. That made Gilmore one of four defenders to rank in the top 15 of PFF's coverage grades over the last two seasons.

Additionally, Gilmore allowed just a 64.3% completion rate over 82 targets and made two game-clinching pass breakups.

Of course, there's always potential for Gilmore to begin to show his age. He's entering his age-33 season and he played a combined 19 games spanning the 2020 and 2021 seasons before playing 16 games for the Colts last year.

While Leighton Vander Esch, Michael Gallup and Tyron Smith are honorable mentions for the Cowboys' 2023 X-factor, we're hard-pressed to push back on Walder's Gilmore pick.

If Gilmore continues performing at a high level, he can elevate the Cowboys' defense to a championship-caliber group. If he regresses, Dan Quinn's unit will have unwelcome questions to answer at cornerback.

Nobody else on the roster carries that much influence.

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