This article is part of our Team Previews series.
Despite Ezekiel Elliott's suspension, the Cowboys barely missed the playoffs. The front office continues to build through the draft, and now is the time for that plan to pay off. With DeMarcus Lawrence leading the way, it might be the defense, and not the offense, that becomes the difference maker.
THREE THINGS TO KNOW
NEW TARGETS ACQUIRED
Over the course of two seasons, the Cowboys offense has experienced an incredible amount of turnover. While the offensive line got stronger with the addition of Connor Williams in the second round of this year's draft, skill players Jason Witten and Dez Bryant have now followed Tony Romo out the door. Bryant never quite seemed to be on the same page as Dak Prescott, but Witten was his quarterback's always-reliable safety valve, and their departures leave a huge amount of snaps and targets up for grabs. Terrance Williams and Cole Beasley, both of whom disappointed in 2017, remain to provide some continuity to the receiving corps. They'll be joined by free-agent additions Allen Hurns and Deonte Thompson, trade pickup Tavon Austin and third-round selection Michael Gallup. None of them profile as either a physical No. 1 receiver in the Bryant mold or as a field-stretching threat, which could result in a repeat of the issues the Cowboys experienced last year in generating big plays. As a group, however, they give Prescott and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan versatility and the ability to create mismatches through deception. With a strong run game from the get-go, the Dallas passing attack will only need to be dangerous enough to keep opposing defenses guessing in order to put points on the board.
WHO'S THE REAL DAK?
In 2016, Dak Prescott was a fourth-round rookie with no expectations, but a giant chip on his shoulders. He shocked the football world with his poise and maturity while making Tony Romo suddenly expendable. Last season, Prescott looked more like a player who slipped in the draft for a reason, as his accuracy and decision-making both took steps backwards. With Jason Witten and Dez Bryant no longer around to provide a security blanket, the Cowboys' passing game is now solely in the young quarterback's hands, but it remains to be seen which version of Prescott will be the template for the rest of his career. Prescott's struggles from 2017 largely can be written off as him trying to do too much in tough situations. Bryant wasn't playing the way he had in his prime, and while Ezekiel Elliott's suspension played out there was no one Prescott could get the ball to who made the defense nervous, forcing the Cowboys offense to try and grind out long drive after long drive. Not surprisingly, Prescott wasn't up to the task. The turnover in the team's receiving corps will force an even heavier reliance on the running game. If Prescott is going to solidify his role as the team's franchise signal-caller, he'll need to prove he can find the occasional target down the field, rather than moving the ball exclusively on shorter routes or with his legs.
D-DAY FOR THE DEFENSE
For the first time in recent memory, the Cowboys appear to have an abundance of talent on the defensive side of the ball. DeMarcus Lawrence broke through in 2017 with 14.5 sacks, adding some teeth to the pass rush, and last year's first-round pick Taco Charlton also will be expected to make a bigger contribution. Sean Lee remains effective when he's actually healthy while Jaylon Smith also showed flashes of his pre-injury ability. The duo will be joined this season by Boise State standout Leighton Vander Esch, potentially giving Dallas one of the best linebacking groups in the league if they play up to their potential. On the back end, Byron Jones will make the full-time shift to cornerback as new secondary coach Kris Richard tries to replicate the success he had in Seattle with big, physical coverage options, which could include 2017 second-rounder Chidobe Awuzie. If the team can find an impact player at safety, either through the development of second-year player Xavier Woods or via a long-rumored trade for Earl Thomas, the Dallas defense could emerge as not just an adequate complement to a high-octane offense, but instead the team's calling card. The talent is there; it's just a question of whether coordinator Rod Marinelli can make all the pieces fit together.
PIVOTAL PLAYER: Ezekiel Elliott
With the receiving corps in flux, Dallas will be leaning heavily on Elliott. The team averaged 24.4 points last year when he was on the field but only 18.3 points while he served his suspension. The Cowboys bolstered their already-fearsome offensive line in the draft, giving Elliott a chance to put together a truly monstrous campaign.
RISING: Dak Prescott
Prescott struggled last year but still posted solid passing numbers while doing damage with his legs. With more experience and Ezekiel Elliott alongside him for a full season, Prescott should be able to find another gear.
FALLING: Terrance Williams
Williams is coming off his worst season, failing to find the end zone even one time. If he's miscast as the team's No. 1 receiver, he may not be able to break free from the additional defensive attention.
SLEEPER: Rico Gathers
Gathers missed the 2018 season with a concussion, but his athleticism and basketball pedigree make him the team's best option to replace Jason Witten if he can improve his blocking enough to get regular snaps.
KEY JOB BATTLE – STARTING TIGHT END
With Jason Witten gone and getting fitted for his gold jacket, the Cowboys have a wide-open competition in camp for the No. 1 tight end spot. Geoff Swaim has the most experience, both in the NFL and in Scott Linehan's offense, but he also only has nine career catches in 28 games and likely is better suited for a depth role. Second-year player Blake Jarwin, a 2017 undrafted free agent, has the size to be an effective blocker and red-zone target but is completely unproven, spending the first half of his rookie season on the practice squad and not getting a single snap the one time he was on the game-day roster. Selected in the fourth round this year, Dalton Schultz has a similar skill set to Jarwin, and while he does come from a college tight-end factory in Stanford, he didn't get used much as a receiver. The one player in the battle who has significant upside as a pass catcher is Rico Gathers, a sixth-round pick in 2016 and converted college basketball power forward. Gathers still hasn't proven to the Dallas coaching staff that he can handle blocking assignments or that he's developed his football skills enough to be trusted in an NFL game, but his impressive performance last preseason (seven catches on 10 targets for 106 yards and two TDs) could keep him in the picture if the Cowboys find they need more big-play options in the passing game.
Tavon Austin – WR (from Rams)
Could find a niche as a gadget player and return man in Dallas.
Dez Bryant – WR (FA)
Declining numbers and huge contract forced him out the door.
Jason Witten – TE (retired)
Future Hall of Famer leaves a big hole on the depth chart.
Anthony Hitchens – LB (to Chiefs)
Versatile linebacker got starter money in free agency.
THE INJURY FRONT
Terrance Williams, WR – While Williams' 2017 campaign was bad, his offseason has been worse. The sixth-year receiver underwent foot surgery that limited his participation in OTAs, minicamp and eventually training camp. He also faces potential league discipline after being arrested in a drunk driving incident in May. In theory, he's the new No. 1 wideout in Dallas following Dez Bryant's departure, but Allen Hurns seems more likely to emerge with that role even if Williams is 100 percent to begin training camp, which isn't guaranteed.
Sean Lee, LB – Health is always a concern for Lee, who has never played a full 16-game schedule in his NFL career. The 32-year-old's workload was very carefully managed during OTAs and minicamp, a pattern that likely will continue through training camp and the preseason. When he's on the field, Lee remains an elite IDP producer, but his snap count could be moderated during the regular season as well with Leighton Vander Esch joining Jaylon Smith as talented young apprentices for the veteran tackling machine.
Leighton Vander Esch, LB – The 2018 first-round pick injured his ankle in OTAs and missed all of minicamp as a result, but Vander Esch is expected to be ready to go for the start of training camp. Of more concern are neck issues that cost him more than half of his 2016 campaign at Boise State, which may have caused him to drop to 19th overall in the draft despite his impressive athleticism and college production. All three of the Cowboys' starting LBs have question marks when it comes to their health, so banking on any of them for all 16 games and a full workload in any one game could be folly.