The 2016 NFL season is just around the corner. As such, Sportsnaut will be previewing all 32 teams before the games begin in September. Continuing the series, we head to the NFC East to visit the Dallas Cowboys — a team that will live or die based on whether or not Dak Prescott can stay productive.
Before we look ahead, let’s take a glance at some key developments.
Dallas Cowboys 2016 Preview
Head coach: Jason Garrett (six years)
Key arrivals: DE Cedric Thornton, RB Alfred Morris, OG Joe Looney, ILB Justin Durant
Key departures: C Mackenzy Bernadeau, QB Matt Cassel, RB Robert Turbin
1. Is Dak Prescott ready for the limelight?
The Cowboys are without Tony Romo for likely at least the first half of the season. He broke a bone in his back and at this point it seems likely the IR will be utilized.
This puts the onus on the team’s fourth-round rookie to step up and play like he did this preseason during regular-season action.
Prescott was magnificent during the exhibition games, completing 78 percent of his passes for 454 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions. He also added two rushing scores and looked like a veteran when passing under pressure.
Truly, he looks like a gem.
But the regular season is a different animal. Teams will be game-planning, they’ll throw exotic blitzes his way and do everything in their power to rattle the rookie. Can he handle the pressure? It’s going to be fun watching him try.
2. How much better will running game be with Ezekiel Elliott?
Dallas plans on running the ball a ton this year to keep Romo upright. At least, that’s the plan on paper. The flow of games will determine whether or not they can stick to the plan, and the play of rookie Ezekiel Elliott will also have a lot to do with it.
During his three years at Ohio State, Elliott was one of the most dynamic running backs in the nation. He averaged 6.7 yards per carry during his tenure with the Buckeyes and rushed for 43 touchdowns, 41 of which came in his final two years.
The good news for Elliott and the Cowboys is that he will have the benefit of rushing behind one of the NFL’s premier offensive lines. While it seems awfully premature to make such a bold prediction, it’s not crazy to think the rookie could match or better DeMarco Murray’s totals from 2014, when he rushed for 1,845 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Behind Elliott are two veterans who can make big plays on the ground as well. Combining the rookie with Alfred Morris and Darren McFadden creates a potent trio Dallas should used to prolific effect in 2016.
3. How much will Dallas’ defensive suspensions hurt this team?
There are three starting front-seven players opening the season suspended by the NFL for violating the league’s drug policy — two of which are going to be out for at least 10 games.
Second-year pass rusher Randy Gregory, who failed multiple drug tests this past year, is reportedly being considered as a potential lost cause by the team, which fears he may never play again. Rolando McClain failed to show up to training camp and is suspended the first 10 games of the season, and pass rusher DeMarcus Lawrence is suspended the first four games.
These three suspensions could have a tremendous impact on Dallas’ ability to keep opposing offenses from moving the ball at will. The Cowboys shocked many by failing to add to their pass-rushing corps this past draft, and that decision could bite them hard.
Without a strong pass rush and missing a starting inside linebacker, this defense, which already struggles on the back end, could be atrocious in 2016.
Ezekiel Elliott, running back
Barring a tremendously shocking development, Elliott should challenge for the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year award in 2016.
As we mentioned above, he has a track record of putting up big rushing numbers, and he’s heading into a situation where he’ll be running behind one of the NFL’s best offensive lines.
The best part is that Elliott really is a three-down back already. He may need some schooling on proper technique in pass-protection, but he already has quite a solid handle on that aspect of the game.
The Cowboys made a huge commitment, drafting him No. 4 overall, but it should pay off.
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
Even though the defense might be made of Swiss cheese, Dallas’ offense should score points in bunches and move the ball with ease.
The running game could keep the defense well rested, too, and pound opposing defenses into submission. With the ability to control the clock, the defense wouldn’t be so exposed to getting burned on a regular basis.
Oh, and the NFC East is a dumpster fire almost every year.
REASON TO DOUBT
There’s a chance Washington could take control of the division with a strong defense and potentially potent offense, depending on which Kirk Cousins plays this year. Also, Romo’s health is far from guaranteed, and as we detailed there is nobody behind him at quarterback who can lead a winning attack.
And, let’s be honest, even if Romo does come back and the offense stays hot while he’s gone, Dallas’ defense might be ridiculously inept this year.
Prediction: 8-8, second place in NFC East