FRISCO, Texas -- In the middle of a four-game losing streak and on pace to tie the second-worst record of the Jerry Jones era (4-12 in 2015), there are some positives for the Dallas Cowboys (2-7). You just might have to squint to see them.
The rookies have stepped up
When a season is going unexpectedly in the wrong direction, one immediately begins to look at the younger players who could offer hope for the future.
Cowboys wide receiver CeeDee Lamb, No. 17 overall pick, and cornerback Trevon Diggs, No. 51 overall pick, offer that hope. Lamb needs three receptions (he has 44) to break the team record for catches in a season by a rookie, held by Bob Hayes (46). Lamb, who has 595 receiving yards, is on pace to break Hayes' mark for yards (1,003) by a rookie in a season, too. He's doing that with four different starting quarterbacks.
Had quarterback Dak Prescott stayed healthy, perhaps Lamb could have been in the NFL Rookie of the Year discussion, but for now, he is a key building block for Dallas.
Diggs, whose season is in jeopardy because of a broken foot that could sideline him for four-to-six weeks, is also a player the Cowboys can build upon. His two interceptions lead the Cowboys. He has shown a willingness to be physical, and coach Mike McCarthy has praised his ball skills. Diggs' technique needs work, which has played a part in some of the big plays he has given up, but the Cowboys can feel secure, knowing they have at least one starter in the secondary for 2021.
Third-round pick Neville Gallimore is finally turning a corner and giving the Cowboys some production at defensive tackle. He had his best game against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 9. Tyler Biadasz, the Cowboys' fourth-round pick, started four straight games at center and was on his way to keeping the job for the rest of the season until he suffered a hamstring injury in warm-ups before the Pittsburgh game.
Four starters in one draft? That's something every team would want.
Martin still the best
Zack Martin might seem like the last man standing on the offensive line. Travis Frederick retired. La'el Collins did not play a snap this season because of hip surgery. Left tackle Tyron Smith played two games before a neck injury shut down his season.
Martin, the Cowboys' 2014 first-round pick, missed one game because of a concussion, but he has been his normal, dominant self, especially in the Philadelphia game against Fletcher Cox. He also was able to swing out to right tackle in the Week 3 game at Seattle. The Cowboys believe Smith and Collins will be back to normal in 2021; Biadasz has the look of a starter, and Martin is still Martin. Although Smith's recurring injury problem is a concern and might warrant a look at his successor in April's NFL draft, the line might not be as far off as some think.
"You see the impact of having Zack Martin as opposed to not having him," McCarthy said. "He brings that to your offensive line. He keeps that group tight. He's definitely an excellent leader. I've been very impressed with that. His level of play is extremely consistent, and he makes players better around him. ... You don't get into the National Football League being an average player. To me, they're all good players, and the great ones make people around them better, and Zack Martin is definitely that guy for us."
The unit had a difficult time counting to 11 at the start of the season. At times, the Cowboys had 12 players on the field; at other times, it was 10. And remember the two failed fake punts in one game?
But the past few weeks, the Cowboys' special-teams unit has come around with key plays.
Let's start with place-kicker Greg Zuerlein. He has made 17 of 20 attempts, with all three misses coming from 50 or more yards. That's a little disconcerting when his nickname is "Greg the Leg," but he has three games with three field goals, and both wins have come on his last-second kicks. Zuerlein has had inventive onside tries as well, including the watermelon kick that led to the Week 2 win against the Atlanta Falcons.
The coverage units have been better. The return game has settled down after some uncertainty from Tony Pollard on kickoffs. The 73-yard punt return against the Steelers from C.J. Goodwin on a throwback from Cedrick Wilson was perfectly set up. Rico Dowdle's 64-yard kickoff return against Pittsburgh was also good to see.
Cowboys special-teams coordinator John Fassel is inventive. Sometimes maybe too much so, but the group has improved.
"More practice at situational football and just getting to know each other, me just getting to know the strengths and limitations of our players and what I think we can do best is what I've learned and what we're trying to focus on," Fassel said. "There was definitely some process and a lot of practice that we needed and still need. In the meetings, they've been so locked in. On the practice field, they work hard. ... I'm optimistic that we're going to get even better."
Making the most of their opportunities
Cowboys tight end Dalton Schultz has bettered his career totals in the first nine games, with 35 catches for 383 yards and two touchdowns. He had 13 catches for 122 yards his first two seasons.
When Blake Jarwin went down for the season in Week 1 with a knee injury, Schultz stepped in, and he has produced. "It makes you feel good about the tight end position moving forward," executive vice president Stephen Jones said.
Defensive end Aldon Smith had not played since 2015 because of off-field problems. Although he leads the Cowboys in sacks, his production has slipped some in recent weeks. Maybe that is his getting used to the rigors of a season again, but he has been dealing with a knee injury. Defensive end Randy Gregory's level of play keeps going up. If he could avoid penalties, things would be better, but he constantly brings pressure.
Pollard is showing some burst in the running game behind Ezekiel Elliott. Will he ever supplant Elliott? No, but he brings juice to an offense in need of it since Prescott's injury.
Undrafted right tackle Terence Steele has started every game with Collins out. Is he starting because he has earned the spot or because the Cowboys don't have other options? He has had some poor moments, which should be expected from an undrafted player, but perhaps he could be a swing tackle in the future behind Smith and Collins.