NFL preview 2017: Dallas Cowboys

CANTON, OH - AUGUST 03: Dez Bryant
CANTON, OH - AUGUST 03: Dez Bryant /

We are on the verge of the 2017 NFL regular season. What are the expectations for the defending NFC East champion Dallas Cowboys?

It’s been a rollercoaster ride for “America’s Team” these past three seasons. From 12-4 in 2014 and an NFC East title to 4-12 and forced to utilize four different starting quarterbacks one year later. But when it comes to this most recent campaign, it was bounce back time for Jason Garrett’s squad. And thanks primarily to a pair of exceptional rookies (as well as that superior offensive line), the Dallas Cowboys finished 13-3 and earned the top playoff seed in the NFC.

Unfortunately, the team’s postseason run came to a quick end in one of the better games of the 2016 season. Thanks to some late heroics by Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, tight end Jared Cook and placekicker Mason Crosby, the Cowboys bit the dust in the NFC Divisional Playoffs. The franchise still hasn’t been back in the conference title game, much less a Super Bowl, since 1995.

Of course, this is now a new era for the team and Garrett. The second-longest tenured head coach in Cowboys’ history behind Pro Football Hall of Famer Tom Landry now has an offense spearheaded by 2016 fourth-round pick Dak Prescott and fourth overall selection Ezekeil Elliott. The former garnered NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors and his play progressed as the season unfolded. The latter led the league with 1,631 yards rushing and finished second in total yards from scrimmage.

Supported by a Pro Bowl-laden offensive front of left tackle Tyron Smith, center Travis Frederick and imposing right guard Zack Martin, Dallas finished second in the league in rushing and fifth in total offense. Wide receiver Dez Bryant overcame a slow and hampered start and looked like the Pro Bowler he had been in the past. And steady tight end Jason Witten was…Jason Witten.

So why didn’t the Cowboys parlay all that into a Super Bowl title? Because the team’s shortcomings on the other side of the football once again proved costly. And now many of those performers are scattered around the league. That includes a huge chunk of the secondary as cornerback Morris Claiborne (New York Jets) and Brandon Carr (Baltimore Ravens), as well as safeties Barry Church (Jacksonville Jaguars) and J.J. Wilcox (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) left the franchise via free agency.

The Cowboys also lost some performers on the defensive front in Terrell McClain (Washington Redskins) and Jack Crawford (Atlanta Falcons). And that’s a big-time concern when you add in the fact that a series of suspensions have end Randy Gregory gone for the year and teammates David Irving (first 4 games) and Damontre Moore (first 2 games) out for a spell. Fortunately, the franchise spent a first-round pick in April on University of Michigan defensive end Taco Charlton. Dallas added two more defensive linemen in the latter stages of the draft and veteran Stephen Paea was an offseason free-agent addition as well.

So how will Rod Marinelli’s unit fare with all this upheaval? Is this indeed a case of addition by subtraction? It’s almost impossible to tell at this moment. And the team is hoping that youth can also be served in the secondary as Dallas used four selections in this year’s draft on defensive backs Chidobe Awuzie (2-Colorado), Jourdan Lewis (3-Michigan), Xavier Woods (6-Louisiana Tech) and Marquez White (6b-Florida State).

There’s also one other area that bears watching and it’s pretty crucial to say the least. This offseason, veteran right tackle Doug Free opted for retirement. That means former left guard La’el Collins moves over to take his spot, with veteran Jonathan Cooper and 2015 third-round selection Chaz Green vying for a fulltime job. Last season, Collins was sidelined for a substantial time but this group didn’t miss a beat with former starter Ronald Leary taking over at left guard. However, he’s now moved onto the Denver Broncos and Dallas could have an issue between Smith and Frederick if either Cooper or Green can’t rise to the occasion.

So can the Dallas Cowboys be the first team to repeat as NFC East champions since the Philadelphia Eagles reeled off four straight titles from 2001-04? That’s a tall order considering Garrett’s club was swept by the rival New York Giants this past season. And this is a division in which only the Eagles posted a losing record in 2016. With the exception of Ben McAdoo’s club, the other three teams among this quartet worked this offseason on improving their defenses. The Cowboys have the offensive formula to win a championship. But they’re going to need a much better performance from its defensive unit to hoist a Lombardi Trophy for the first time in more than two decades.


Who could make or break the season? It’s stating the obvious but the availability of Elliott is crucial. Yes, the Cowboys have experienced runners in relief in the form of Darren McFadden, Alfred Morris and 2017 addition Ronnie Hillman. But none of the three can do what the NFL rushing leader of a year ago can. Then again, we were still awaiting word as of this writing on whether the league would overturn or reduce Elliott’s six-game suspension following an appeal by the young performer.

While teammate/quarterback Dak Prescott who won NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors, it was the aforementioned star running back that carried the load early in the season

Best case

Rod Marinelli’s defensive unit melds well, overcomes the early-season suspensions and injuries and winds up being one of the better units in the league. A year ago, Dallas finished near the middle of the NFL pack (14th) in terms of fewest total yards per game allowed. But the numbers were uneven as teams didn’t get a chance to exploit the team on the ground and instead took to the air. Hence, the Cowboys gave up the fewest rushing yards in the league but only six clubs in the league surrendered more real estate to opposing passers.

So if the Dallas’ defense can established a much more consistent pass rush and also do a much-better job coming up with opponent’s miscues (20 takeaways in ’16), this would make for a very dangerous team because of their ability to kill the clock late in the contest. That’s a lot of wishing thinking but far from impossible if some of the rookies step to the forefront.

Worst case

If Dallas’ talented offensive line can’t maintain its superior performance level for the entire season, this could be a team in trouble. Add in the fact that Elliott could miss anywhere from zero to six games to start the season and the Cowboys wind up digging themselves some early holes. And we mean that in terms of the game and not the schedule. We are not totally convinced that Prescott and the passing attack is ready to carry the offensive load if need be. That’s not a knock on the 2016 fourth-round draft choice. Rather, it’s how this team plays football these days.

Yes, we certainly expect the Cowboys’ second-year quarterback and the Dallas’ aerial attack to have a bigger impact this year. But the difference between wanting to throw and having to throw is huge. And it’s safe to say that Marinelli’s defensive unit still has some splainin’ to do before they can be the unit to carry the load.

Final word

There’s such an air of uncertainty surrounding this divisional champion. Are the Cowboys capable of being better than they were a year ago? Because that’s what it’s going to take to get by the Giants, Packers and Falcons and a few more teams in the conference if they are going to make the franchise’s ninth Super Bowl appearance.

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Look for Prescott’s star to continue to rise. And Garrett’s defensive unit to suffer through its share of growing pains. Regardless of how long the Cowboys have Elliott, this is a team capable of doing some damage once again.