Hard to believe, but 21 seasons have now gone by since the Cowboys last made it to the SuperBowl. So will the 2017 season see a return…
Based on the evidence of last season the answer could well be in the affirmative. However, a great deal has happened since last year’s epic 13-3 regular season and not all of it good. Although the draft and free agency have offered opportunities to improve the team, off the field issues involving suspensions and two retirements have made things much harder than they should be. Add into the mix a competitive NFC East and a tough schedule, it is easy to understand why Vegas expects the Cowboys to win just 10 games, down on last year. This might not be enough to win the division.
On offense the Cowboys have the talent to score heavily. Much rests on the shoulders of Ezekiel Elliott who as I write has not been hit with a suspension, although one is likely to be forthcoming as the NFL conclude their year long investigation into his off the field behaviour. Darren McFadden will be the back up but Cowboys fans will hope any ban for Elliott is short. Scott Linehan will look to involve Elliott in the passing game more this year. At wide receiver Dez Bryant will look to justify his price tag as the highest paid in the NFL this year at $25 million. Expect him to be targeted heavily in certain match ups. Behind him Terrance Williams was re-signed at a bargain price with Cole Beasley and Ryan Switzer likely to offer outlets in the short passing game. Bryce Butler will likely make the team but Noah Brown a rookie might have to settle for the practice squad. At tight end Jason Witten returns but now in the twilight of his career he will be more of a safety valve.
Where the Cowboys could have problems is ironically along the offensive line. Last year widely regarded as the best in football, two key pieces have departed. Doug Free at right tackle surprisingly retired, whilst Ronald Leary took the money on offer in Denver. The Cowboys have responded by moving La’ell Collins from guard to replace Free (at training camp early reports are that it has not gone smoothly) and seem undecided as yet who should replace Leary with former Cardinal 1st round pick Jonathan Cooper a possibility. There is not much to decide at Quarterback with second year Dak Prescott now firmly established. With Tony Romo retiring, Prescott is now considered a franchise Quarterback whom the Cowboys hope can lead the team for the next decade. Despite preferring Paxton Lynch and Connor Cook the Cowboys got lucky that Prescott fell to them. Expect Prescott to open up the playbook more when necessary.
Whilst there is continuity on offense, defense is a different matter. All 4 starters were let go in the secondary with the Cowboys ownership deciding that neither Carr, Church, Wilcox or Claiborne were worthy of further investment. Injuries affected Claiborne’s time with the team, but it is worth noting that when scouting the player before the 2012 draft the Cowboys gave him the highest grade they have given a player since Deion Sanders back in 1989. The Cowboys hope the corners drafted this year will be better. Chidobe Awuzie (2nd round) and Jourdan Lewis (3rd round) will compete with veterans Scandrick, Carroll and Brown. Much will be expected of former first round pick Byron Jones at free safety (some interceptions would be nice!) with Jeff Heath expected to man strong safety. Along the defensive line, co-ordinator Rod Marinelli will once again rotate players into the lineup in the hope of generating that all important pass rush. No Cowboys player has produced double digit sacks since 2013. Much will be expected of Taco Charlton. Taken at the end of the first round the Cowboys had higher ranked players on their board but felt the need to draft at the position was imperative. He will join a rotation of players that must improve including DeMarcus Lawrence (one sack last year), Charles Tapper (injured reserve last year) and Tyrone Crawford. At linebacker Sean Lee leads the team and was an All-Pro last year. Anthony Hitchens with play middle linebacker and there is cautious optimism that Jaylon Smith who would have been a Top 5 pick in the 2016 draft, is ready to begin his Cowboys career after a dreadful injury with Notre Dame.
At kicker and punter the Cowboys are set with Dan Bailey and Chris Jones both at the top end of their positions.
Looking at the schedule, 2017 looks much tougher than 2016. As always the Cowboys will need to have a positive record against division opponents if they are to make the playoffs. Apart from that they have to travel to Oakland, Atlanta, Denver, Arizona, San Francisco and face home games against the LA Rams, Green Bay, Kansas City, San Diego and Seattle. It could go down to the wire. They have not been helped by multiple suspensions to various players which will make the start to the season even harder. As always injuries will play there part and the Cowboys will hope to avoid being hit by any at the offensive line and quarterback positions in particular. Can they win the division? Yes! Will they win the division? Probably not. They will be competitive and they will win games but they may have to settle for a wild card into the playoffs this time.