Which Cowboys need to step up for finals push?
It's a changing of the guard in North Queensland as premiership coach Paul Green steps aside and Todd Payten takes over in Townsville.
With a fresh start and a little bit of luck, can the Cowboys return to their finals heroics of last decade?
CHRIS HONNERY runs his eyes over the squad.
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Todd Payten returns to the Cowboys as head coach in 2021, following an impressive season guiding the Warriors after Stephen Kearney was sacked.
Despite the turmoil of living away from home, New Zealand managed an 8-12 win-loss record in 2020, which earned Payten high praise for his mentorship. It's not a completely new move for Payten, who was previously an assistant coach with North Queensland during their 2015 premiership-winning year.
He has teamed up with former Bulldogs interim coach Steve Georgallis to be his assistant in a completely refreshed football department, led by Cowboys great Micheal Luck. Dean Young and Ben Rauter have also been brought on as assistant coaches.
THE GAME PLAN
Michael Morgan and Scott Drinkwater are North Queensland's go-to men but both were hampered by injury in 2020 and therefore couldn't build any consistency.
Morgan is recovering from issues in his shoulder, and the pressure will be on him to lift the Cowboys in 2021. They haven't made the finals in three years and Morgan needs to justify his hefty salary.
The Cowboys will benefit from Drinkwater's ballplaying ability, especially with a sustained run in the side, but his defence remains an issue.
After a year in the US, Valentine Holmes started to find some form at fullback in the latter stages of 2020. Having also spent time in Queensland's winning Origin squad, it should bode well for him, having dusted off the cobwebs, but he still has a way to go to reach the lofty heights of Kalyn Ponga or James Tedesco as the game's best No.1.
"From where we are to where we need to get to, we need all hands on deck in terms of our playing roster to be able to develop our own style and have everyone on the same page with that," Payten said.
"We just have to get some work done, we have to change a lot of things with the way we play footy. Our skillset, our catch and pass, draw and pass. A lot of the stuff we do in the tackle needs to improve."
THE FREE AGENTS
A top-heavy roster meant recruitment was quiet in Townsville, and they'll have to improve from within. Lachlan Burr provides handy cover for the outgoing crop of forwards in North Queensland. The 28-year-old comes from the Warriors, where he has played for the past two years, including a season under Payten in 2020. The journeyman has played 61 NRL games since making his debut for the Bulldogs back in 2013, with stints at the Titans and in the English Super League. The middle forward will add some extra punch in the North Queensland engine room alongside the likes of Josh McGuire and Jason Taumalolo.
Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow has already proved to be an attacking spark in the Cowboys' backline and expect more again in 2021. The speed machine is still only 19 and, despite being very raw, he has the potential to be a future star of the game.
Ben Condon and Wiremu Greig are two big bodies who could help fill the void left by Cooper and Asiata, but they will need to prove themselves over the pre-season.
Daejarn Asi got a taste of NRL in 2020 and the Cowboys have high hopes of him continuing his progression to regular first-grader.
Recruited in 2020 to add some star power on the edge, former Tiger Esan Marsters failed to fire. The former Kiwi international was dropped midway through the year on poor form and could have been on his way out of North Queensland, but incoming coach Todd Payten is hoping to use him as part of his 2021 campaign. Marsters needs to sharpen up in defence after he was caught out on several occasions during the 2020 season.
THE STEP UP
Scott Drinkwater is coming into his third year with North Queensland and has proven himself to be a game-breaker. 'Drinky' has the potential to score points all across the field and should partner up well with fullback Valentine Holmes now the two have spent a season together. The 2020 season was turbulent for North Queensland's halves pairings, but the 23-year-old looks suited to complementing Michael Morgan's game management style.
THE BEST 17
1 Valentine Holmes
2 Kyle Feldt
3 Justin O'Neill
4 Esan Marsters
5 Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow
6 Scott Drinkwater
7 Michael Morgan
8 Josh McGuire
9 Reece Robson
10 Jordan McLean
11 Coen Hess
12 Mitch Dunn
13 Jason Taumalolo
14 Jake Granville
15 Lachlan Burr
16 Francis Molo
17 Peter Hola
Daejarn Asi, Michael Bell, Lachlan Burr, Jake Clifford, Ben Condon, Reuben Cotter, Scott Drinkwater, Mitchell Dunn, Kyle Feldt, Thomas Gilbert, Jake Granville, Wiremu Gregg, Ben Hampton, Coen Hess, Peter Hola, Valentine Holmes, Corey Jensen, Connelly Lemuelu, Heilum Luki, Esan Marsters, Josh McGuire, Jordan McLean, Francis Molo, Michael Morgan, Ieremia Nanai, Justin O'Neill, Emry Pere, Reece Robson, Tukimihia Simpkins, Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow, Murray Taulagi, Jason Taumalolo, Shane Wright
Ins: Lachlan Burr (Warriors)
Outs: Gavin Cooper (retired), Tom Opacic (Eels), John Asiata (unsigned), Dan Russell (unsigned)
Players in the 2020 Rich 100: 6 -7. Michael Morgan ($1 million), 9. Jason Taumalolo ($1 million), 33. Valentine Holmes ($750,000), 42. Jordan McLean ($700,000), 59. Josh McGuire ($650,000), 85. Coen Hess ($550,000)
Fox Sports Lab's Aaron Wallace says: "Defence was the key issue at the Cowboys in 2020. Only basket case Brisbane conceded more points. They let in 20 points in all but five games. Almost half of their losses (seven of 15) were by 16 points or more.
New coach Todd Payten will be hoping for more luck with injuries in 2021 - most of the Cowboys' key players missed at least four games in 2020."
THE PAST FIVE YEARS
4th, 8th (GF), 13th, 14th, 14th
$23 TAB premiership odds, $6.50 top-four finish, $2.40 top-8 finish, $13 most losses
Originally published as Which Cowboys need to step up for finals push?