FRISCO, Texas -- Four NFL teams are playing this weekend for the right to go to Super Bowl LV. A handful of others can now sell hope having hired new coaches, especially the Jacksonville Jaguars with the addition of Urban Meyer, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft and copious salary-cap space.
The Dallas Cowboys find themselves stuck somewhere between the bitter disappointment of the 6-10 finish in 2020 and hope with the returns of several injured stars and a new defensive coordinator in Dan Quinn bringing back a familiar scheme.
In a lot of ways, the Cowboys' 2020 season matched the feelings around a year ago that seemed to be more bad than good. This was a team many believed could contend for a title in Mike McCarthy's first season, but was done in by a virtual offseason, shortened training camp, no preseason, a poorly timed scheme change on defense and multiple injuries to key players -- quarterback Dak Prescott chief among them.
In light of a new year, however, let's look at the positive takeaways, even if you might need to squint a little.
The rookies. The Cowboys might have four long-term starters in their first four 2020 NFL draft picks in wide receiver CeeDee Lamb, cornerback Trevon Diggs, defensive tackle Neville Gallimore and center Tyler Biadasz. Lamb had the most catches by a rookie in team history (74). Diggs led the Cowboys with three interceptions. Gallimore showed flashes with four tackles for loss and should benefit from Quinn's scheme change. Biadasz was on his way to cementing the starting role before suffering a hamstring injury.
Donovan Wilson. The safety never really got a chance as a rookie in 2019 but started 10 games and had 68 tackles, 3.5 sacks, two interceptions, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and four pass deflections in 2020. He has a knack for finding the ball. He needs to work on his coverage responsibilities and deep-safety work. His positive play doesn't mean the Cowboys can ignore the position in the upcoming draft, but they know they have someone to pair with a draft pick or free-agent pickup.
Dalton Schultz. Losing Blake Jarwin for the season to a knee injury in the opener was thought to be a massive blow, but Schultz finished with 63 receptions for 615 yards and four touchdowns. The Cowboys' 2018 fourth-round pick had 12 catches for 122 yards in his first two seasons. He showed he could be a valuable outlet in an offense dominated by the three wide receivers. The return of Jarwin in 2021 makes the offense better, but don't get too far down the road of the Cowboys becoming a two-tight-end team. If they do that, that means less of Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup or Lamb.
Young offensive linemen. With La'el Collins missing every game, Tyron Smith missing all but two games and Zack Martin missing six games because of injury, the offensive line depth was tested this past season. It took some time, but things settled down as the year went on. Brandon Knight and Terence Steele might not be long-term starters for Collins or Smith, but their play might mean the Cowboys don't have to find a veteran to serve as the swing tackle and chew up more cap space than they can afford. Guard Connor McGovern, who did not play as a third-round pick in 2019 because of injury, might become a starter at left guard in 2021. He needs work in protection but more experience would help. He graded out well as a run-blocker.
Randy Gregory. The last time the defensive end had played was the 2018 divisional round of the playoffs before returning after six games in 2020 because of an indefinite suspension. His off-field issues have been well-chronicled, but he has always shown the ability to affect the quarterback. He had 3.5 sacks and 16 pressures after such a long break. With a full offseason program and training camp, the Cowboys believe Gregory could finally tap into his potential next season.
Hunter Niswander. It was that type of season for the Cowboys that a punter makes this list. Niswander took over for the second half of the season after Chris Jones had core-muscle surgery. He averaged 47.2 yards per punt with a 42-yard net average. Ten of his punts were downed inside the 20 and he had two touchbacks. Jones is under contract for 2020 with a $2 million base salary. In an offseason when every cap dollar matters, Niswander could win the job outright in 2021.