As we count down the last few days until the Dallas Cowboys open training camp in Oxnard, it is hard to stay grounded in reality. That is something that can happen with all teams. With the players and staffs all taking their last time off before the long grind of the NFL season takes over, we have nothing but old, rehashed data to work with. Mostly, fans lean towards the optimistic. Every draft pick is a potential rookie of the year, every free agent signing is going to make the front office look brilliant, and all the returning veterans are just going to be better than ever.
We all know how that can turn out after last season.
The Cowboys have a lot of players they are depending on. Some of them are almost certainly going to step up, but there are probably going to be disappointments as well. Here are players that would cause the most agony for us as fans if they don’t live up to our (admittedly lofty) expectations.
This is flirting with heresy. Dallas has made the rookie one of the four corners of their offensive plan, along with Tony Romo, the receiving corps (specifically Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, and Cole Beasley), and the offensive line. Given his college career and what has been observed in the limited work of OTAs and minicamp, it is very, very hard to imagine him being any kind of bust. The problem is that the expectation for him is basically that he leads the league in rushing and is the rookie of the year. Anything less is going to be seen as somewhat disappointing. Even if he has a very good year, say 1,200 yards rushing, 300 receiving, and eight touchdowns, some will wonder why it wasn’t more (remember, Darren McFadden projected out to about 1,400 yards rushing if he had started all season). This will be ameliorated if the Cowboys win their division and go on a run in the playoffs - but if that is not what happens, then Zeke’s selection in the first round is going to be heavily criticized, and he will be seen as a disappointment, fairly or not.
Surprisingly, the sixth-round running back has been generating a lot of buzz lately, even though he came to the team in Elliott’s shadow. But the uncertain status of Lance Dunbar has seemingly opened up an opportunity for Jackson. Unlike Elliott, he is a really big risk to disappoint his supporters, because that is just how things go with sixth -ounders. If Dunbar comes back faster than is anticipated, and Jackson struggles at all, he may be looking at a practice squad spot, at best.
Benson Mayowa and Cedric Thornton
The Cowboys opted to hold back from the bidding for top free agent pass rushers like Vernon Olivier and Mario Williams. Instead they signed Mayowa to help out at end and added Thornton to shore up the middle (and replace the reliable Nick Hayden, who was mostly reliable at being plodding and showing little penetration). Now, with the tiresomely familiar suspensions of Randy Gregory and DeMarcus Lawrence, the two free agents are expected to help carry some of the load rushing the passer. Hopes for Mayowa are running especially high at the moment, but there is not much to base them on. Thornton at least has a strong resume from his time with the Philadelphia Eagles, but Mayowa was taken based on superior athleticism and a handful of good snaps with the Oakland Raiders. If the pass rush continues to be feeble, especially early in the season, there is going to be disappointment with both these free agents, but especially Mayowa.
Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. The team is looking for Carr and Claiborne to put it together on the field and help out the pass rush by covering receivers for a tick or two longer. They especially need to start getting some interceptions, which were nearly nonexistent for Dallas in 2015. Which is pretty much exactly the same expectations they have had for this pair every year since both came to the Cowboys. And every year, the team and the fans wind up feeling let down. Perhaps we should just expect the failure. But to be honest, many do, and still feel a bitter sense of disappointment in them.
In the mention of the corners the offense is being built on above, Bryant, Witten, and Beasley were named as receivers, because they are all extremely reliable when healthy. But the Cowboys also need the backup wide receivers to step up, and right now things are a bit murky. Terrance Williams has had success, but he was certainly not what we might have hoped for when Bryant was out. Brice Butler is expected to challenge him, but he doesn’t have much of a pedigree yet. Lucky Whitehead may be more a return man than a real receiving threat. As good as Bryant is, he needs a legitimate receiving threat lined up across the formation from him. Right now, the credibility of whoever winds up there is somewhat iffy.
Here is a player that almost everyone assumes is going to thrive in his second season. But despite some flashy highlight plays, Collins was still very much learning how to play in the pros last year. And the sophomore slump seems to be very real in the NFL. So much of the plans in Dallas are predicated on that star-studded offensive line, and that line is only as good as its weakest link. Doug Free is just assumed to be that weak link, but Collins is the only member of the line that has not fully proven himself. If he doesn’t progress as so many think he will, it will be downright depressing.
Those are some candidates for the most likely to disappoint this year. This list left other names that are just not seen as likely to let the team down, but that does not mean that others do not deserve inclusion. And some other players just did not have much in the way of high expectations, like Alfred Morris, who is becoming more of an afterthought in the running back group than anything. Feel free to chime in with your own candidates for heartbreak in the comments.