Our 2018 Regular Season Preview shifts to the NFC, or more specifically, the NFC East, where the Dallas Cowboys look to rebound from a disappointing 9-7 Campaign that was marred by the Suspension of sensational Sophomore Tailback Ezekiel Elliott. After going a surprising 13-3 in 2016 largely on the strength of then Rookies Dak Prescott and the aforementioned Elliott, Dallas came crashing back down to Earth before salvaging a 9-7 showing last season, which ultimately left them outside of the Playoffs. While Jason Garrett and Co. welcome Elliott back into the fold, this remains a team that will be going through a good deal of transition, particularly in the form of the departures of longtime stalwarts Jason Witten and Dez Bryant, with the former retiring in favor of the Broadcasting Booth and the latter having been outright released as a “Cap Casualty”. Replacing their productivity in the Passing Game and leadership in the Lockerroom will be no easy task, for this team has had difficulty over the past few years in acquiring adequate replacements via Free Agency due to their lack of Cap Space. So with that said, let’s take a look at three key storylines that will ultimately conclude whether or not this team is closer it’s 2016 incarnation, or the one that proved to be wildly inconsistent a year ago.
Welcome Back Zeke
It won’t take much research to explain why Dallas struggled through a disappointing Midseason Swoon that ultimately proved to be too great to return from, for all fingers would point to the long-delayed Six-Game Suspension of Ezekiel Elliott (242 CAR, 983 YDS, 7 TD in 2017) as the culprit. The Cowboys stood at 5-3 before the NFL finally brought the hammer down and punished the Pro Bowler for violating the league’s Personal Conduct Policy, and could manage only a 3-3 record without him. Just look at the numbers, folks; before his suspension, they were averaging a healthy 28.3 Points per Game on 370.5 Total Yards, with Elliott churning out 783 Rushing Yards and Seven Touchdowns in those Eight Games, while reeling in another Nineteen Receptions for 210 Yards and a pair of Scores. However, without him in the Backfield, the Offense could only muster a miserable 16.0 Points on just 294.1 Total Yards per Game. The notion that just about anyone can run successfully behind Dallas’ vaunted Offensive Line is a fallacy, for while Alfred Morris (115 CAR, 547 YDS, 1 TD in 2017) had his moments, replacing the game-breaking potential that Elliott brings to the table is nearly impossible. For the second year in a row, the former Ohio State Buckeye led the NFL in Rushing Yards per Game (98.3), while also proving to be a lethal weapon catching passes out of the Backfield, and not to mention a real asset in Pass Protection. Needless to say, there may not be a more well-rounded player at his position. Garrett absolutely needs to keep this guy on the field as much as possible, for he is the difference between this Offense being an average one and a dynamic one. And given the massive overhaul to their Receiving Corps, the Cowboys will lean on No. 21 more than ever before. With the aforementioned duo of Witten (63 REC, 560 YDS, 5 TD in 2017) and Bryant (69 REC, 838 YDS, 6 TD in 2017) exiting Northern Texas, their replacements are uninspiring to say the least; Dallas acquired Allen Hurns (39 REC, 484 YDS, 2 TD in 2017) and Deonte Thompson (38 REC, 555 YDS, 2 TD in 2017) in Free Agency, while hoping that Terrance Williams (53 REC, 568 YDS, 0 TD in 2017) and Cole Beasley (36 REC, 314 YDS, 4 TD in 2017) can rebound from poor seasons and bolster a struggling Position Group. Tight End could be a real problem too, with Garrett looking to sort out the mess with a number of young players aiming to get their chance to shine. Either way, this spells many opportunities for Elliott to catch passes in 2018, provided he can stay on the field.
“Dak” to the Future
As much as the Cowboys missed Ezekiel Elliott in 2017, they also missed the Dak Prescott that emerged as the Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2016, for last season should be described as nothing short of a sophomore slump for the young Quarterback. In fact, one could argue that Prescott missed the presence of Elliott in the Backfield more so than anyone else on the Offense, for his weekly performance really declined once his Draft Classmate was suspended. Overall, Prescott attempted Thirty-One more passes than he did in his Rookie Campaign, and saw his Completion Percentage drop from 67.8% to 62.9%, his Net Yards per Attempt fall from 7.28 to 6.01, and his Quarterback Rating decline from 78.8 to 66.3, while throwing Nine more Interceptions than he did in 2016. And here’s the numbers from the second half of the term in which Elliott was suspended for all but two contests: Prescott competed 62.8% of his Passes for an average of 188.3 Yards on just 5.89 Net Yards per Attempt, while tossing Six Touchdowns in comparison to Nine Interceptions. He was also sacked on twenty-two occasions opposed to the mere ten he suffered throughout the first eight games of the year. Simply put, though Jerry Jones and his Hype Machine would love to make this kid out to be the next great Quarterback to dominate the NFL, Dak Prescott is far more along the lines of a Game Manager who needs to be supported by a strong Running Game afforded to him by arguably the finest Offensive Line in the league in order to thrive. This is NOT someone who is going to be successful throwing the football thirty times a game. In essence, less is indeed more, though it could be very intriguing to see how he performs given all the aforementioned changes to the Receiving Corps. We have a feeling that in 2018, we’re all going to see the real Dak, for better or for worse.
Where’s the D?
Given the question marks littering the Offense, it’s high time that the Cowboys’ Defense rises up and assumes a heavier load of responsibility. And quite frankly, there’s no reason they can’t do exactly that. It’s been quite a while since Dallas had a Defense it could be proud of, but in 2018 veteran Defensive Coordinator Rod Marinelli and newly-minted Defensive Backs Coach Kris Richard have enough talent, depth, and continuity to ignite some serious improvement in a unit that has been middling at best for years now. The Defensive Line has a wealth of Pass-Rushers led by Demarcus Lawrence (58 TKL, 14.5 SK, 1 PD, 4 FF, 2 FR in 2017), who amassed 14.5 Sacks and Seventy-Nine Pressures, and David Irving (22 TKL, 7.0 SK, 6 PD, 1 FF in 2017), who made the most of appearing in just eight games, registering Seven Sacks and Thirty Pressures. Veteran Linebacker Sean Lee (101 TKL, 1 INT, 1 PD in 2017) is a lock to miss at least three or four games, but when he is on the field, this unit plays at a much higher level, while big things are expected out of Jaylon Smith (81 TKL, 1.0 SK, 2 PD, 2 FF in 2017), as the former Notre Dame star is another year removed from that horrific knee injury suffered in his final collegiate game. Dallas used their First Round Pick on another Linebacker, Leighton Vander Esch out of Boise State, and plan to insert him into the middle of the formation, though he was used predominantly on the edge in college. And then there’s the Secondary, where young Cornerbacks Chidobe Awuzie (25 TKL, 1 INT, 7 PD, 1 FF in 2017), Jourdan Lewis (54 TKL, 1 INT, 10 PD in 2017), and Byron Jones (71 TKL, 1 INT, 1 TD, 5 PD, 1 FF in 2017) bring plenty of size, length, and athleticism to the table. The bottom line is that this is a young Defense who should improve upon the solid numbers they posted in 2017, ranking Thirteenth in Points Allowed (20.8 P/G), Eighth in Total Defense (318.1 Y/G), Eleventh against the Pass (214.1 Y/G), Eighth in Net Yards per Attempt Allowed (5.7 NY/A), and Eighth against the Run (104.0 Y/G).
2018 Outlook: 9-7
While there’s always plenty of hype surrounding the Dallas Cowboys, we would encourage you to look past that smokescreen of bull!@#$ that the Jones Family continuously encases their franchise with. Can Dallas return to the Playoffs? Absolutely. Could they flop yet again? It’s not unlikely. We see a team that will develop an overreliance on their Rushing Attack, almost to the point where they become dangerously one-dimensional, unless someone in the Receiving Corps can emerge as a playmaker. However, given the players that they brought in, it will be a genuine surprise to see that happen. Fortunately, their young Defense should show marked improvement this season, particularly if they can get a (mostly) healthy campaign out of Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith returns to being the player he was with the Fighting Irish. With that said, that is an awful lot of ifs, particularly in what looks to be a very competitive AFC East, featuring the defending Champion Eagles and the rebuilt Giants. Look for the Cowboys to grab plenty of headlines this season, but then again they always do. Though that number will in all likelihood exceed the number of victories that they earn.