The Cowboys come into 2017 with heavier expectations than ever. After a surprising and successful campaign last year, America’s Team haven’t had as much buzz around them in years. If they fall short then heads could roll, but isn’t that always the threat in Jerry World?
A preseason injury to Tony Romo seemed to put the entire season in doubt, only for fourth-round rookie Dak Prescott to swoop in and put him out of a job. Prescott, together with running back Ezekiel Elliott and a stellar offensive line, put the league to the sword. Scoring an NFC-leading 421 points on their way to a 13-3 record and the #1 seed.
The only bump in the road were the New York Giants, who found an answer to their offense and held them to just 26 points across two games en route to beating them both home and away.
Come the playoffs though, they ran into a Green Bay buzzsaw and were bounced in their first game 34-31 by Aaron Rodgers.
|Nolan Carroll, CB||Ron Leary, G|
|Stephen Paea, DT||Doug Free, OT|
|Demontra Moore, DL||Tony Romo, QB|
|Byron Bell, OT||Lucky Whitehead, WR/KR|
|Robert Blanton, S||Brandon Carr, CB|
|Ronnie Hillman, RB||JJ Wilcox, S|
|Barry Church, S|
|Jack Crawford, DE|
|Lance Dunbar, RB|
The Cowboys were extremely cash-strapped coming into the offseason, and as a result had to watch their starting secondary disappear in free agency, along with guard Ron Leary and tackle Doug Free.
While they are the least well known and least impressive parts of the offensive line, Leary is still a quality guard, and the loss of 40% of the line will affect the continuity and understanding the group had which was part of what made them so good.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom though. The Cowboys added a few useful role players in Nolan Carroll, Byron Bell, and Stephen Paea, however they are light in depth.
|1||New York Giants|
|2||@ Denver Broncos|
|3||@ Arizona Cardinals|
|4||Los Angeles Rams|
|5||Green Bay Packers|
|7||@ San Francisco 49ers|
|8||@ Washington Redskins|
|9||Kansas City Chiefs|
|10||@ Atlanta Falcons|
|12||Los Angeles Chargers|
|14||@ New York Giants|
|15||@ Oakland Raiders|
|17||@ Philadelphia Eagles|
The Cowboys strength of schedule opponents are perhaps the only two NFC teams better than them, the Packers and Falcons. Then there is the fact that they face the toughest AFC division, having to visit the Raiders and deal with the Broncos defense at altitude.
They do have the Rams and 49ers on their schedule, but their divisional opponents are hard to read this year, with all of them having potentially deadly units but also obvious limitations. Then there are the Seahawks and Cardinals who pose a challenge as well.
In short then, while the official strength of schedule for the Cowboys is tied for the 10th toughest, there is a good chance that it ends up being one of the hardest going by year’s end. Their closing stretch of visiting the Giants and Raiders, then hosting the ‘Hawks and traveling to Philadelphia could scupper their season.
Three players to watch
Every year there are a few surprise players who step up and contribute in major ways for their team. With the Cowboys, while the obvious pieces at quarterback, running back, and wide receiver will garner a lot of attention, who are the players that could creep up and be key pieces come the end of the season?
La’el Collins, Guard/Tackle
Collins is expected to fill the right tackle spot this season, but has previously lined up at guard for the Cowboys, starting 14 games there over the last two years. His game is one of brutal power, he is arguably the best run blocker on this roster, which is saying something given the trio of All-Pro blockers the Cowboys boast.
Moving him back to tackle, where he played in college, is an experiment worth trying, he has the athleticism to excel there, but after struggling in pass protection at guard it’s tough to see how giving him more space to defend will help. Still, with an offseason to prep and great support inside from Zack Martin, he could excel. And if he does then this line could be even better than before.
Taco Charlton, Defensive end
The Cowboys’ first round pick in the 2017 Draft, Taco Charlton has all the physical tools you could want. Measuring in at 6’6”, 277lbs, with impressive explosive numbers, however he was only a one-year starter at Michigan and fairly inconsistent on a snap-to-snap basis. Still, the Cowboys are bereft of pass rushers, and with legendary defensive line coach Rod Marinelli in charge of the D in Dallas, Charlton could turn into one of the elite young edge defenders in the league.
Byron Jones, Corner/safety
Jones has been a mobile chess piece in the Dallas secondary for a while now. Acting as a nickel corner, a high safety, and even a hybrid linebacker type. While they had the likes of Brandon Carr and JJ Wilcox they could do that, but now that the entire secondary is gone he will have to settle into one role and perform consistently, something he couldn’t do when he first arrived at the Cowboys. If he can’t lock down a safety or corner spot then it will not only be an indictment of his development but a real concern for a Cowboys defense that only needs to be average and allow the offense to do its thing.
It’s really hard to place the Cowboys this year. There is no doubt that Dak Prescott was very good in 2016, but the test now is if with an offseason to pick apart his tape the league can catch up with him or if he can keep his nose in front of defensive coordinators. Any sophomore slump from the quarterback position will pile more pressure onto Elliott and the run game, where the new offensive line could make it less efficient than in 2016.
I don’t think there’s any doubt that this Cowboys team is thinner top to bottom than last season, and that more pressure rests on the shoulders of Prescott. Where last year him not screwing up was enough, this year the expectations and pressure is all there. It’s his team and it’s his show. If he can’t rise to the challenge then the team will struggle.
The ceiling for this team, probably 12 wins. Green Bay, New York, Atlanta, Oakland… They are all tough games and ones that I can easily see Dallas losing. I think in the end they will end up around 10-6, and probably win the division, but they will be run close this season, and one or two injuries at certain positions could really scupper them.
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