Preseason projections run gamut from doom-and-gloom to end-of-season-celebrations, we know that. It happens every offseason. This year started with dire warnings that unless Dallas was able to secure a Pro Bowl caliber passer to serve as Tony Romo's back up all would be lost. Not very realistic, but there were those who swore up and down that QB2 was a matter of the highest priority. Now that Dak Prescott has put matters to bed (for now) as far as the quarterback situation goes, we have projections reflecting the other end of the spectrum.
Many of us feel that Dallas might have gotten there two years ago if the NFL understood the definition of what a catch was. That is a point that we will debate from now until Armageddon without any resolution. That team may or may not have experienced further success, but it does give us a measuring stick with which to compare the current edition of the Dallas Cowboys.
Let's take a moment and see how this year's team stacks up against the best Dallas team in recent memory.
2014 Tyron Smith, Ronald Leary, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, Doug Free
2016 Tyron Smith, La'el Collins, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, Doug Free
Each quintet is a formidable force to be reckoned with, but the fact that Collins has beaten out Ron Leary for the starting role at left guard while the other positions remain the same should give a clear indication that the 2016 unit should be even better than the group that was arguably the best in the game during the 2014 campaign. To that add the experience gained by the younger members, Frederick and Martin, plus the continuity of playing together, and there should not be any question about this position group. Should a guard go down, they should barely miss a beat when Leary steps in to fill the void.
RUNNING BACKS & TIGHT ENDS
2014 DeMarco Murray, Lance Dunbar, Joseph Randle
2016 Ezekiel Elliott, Alfred Morris, Darren McFadden
No question here. The 2016 backfield is loaded with talent. The biggest question is - Will the team move McFadden in a trade which will allow Darius Jackson to fill the role of the third back? Even if they are able to do so, this year's trio should outperform the group from a couple seasons back. Don't forget about Dunbar. He might find himself in the mix somewhere as well.
2014 Jason Witten, James Hanna, Gavin Escobar
2016 Jason Witten, Gavin Escobar, Geoff Swaim
The ageless one returns as the top TE for the Dallas Cowboys. It can be argued that he has lost a step, but Witten is still the man his quarterback can rely upon when things break down for the offense. Hanna was the unquestioned #2 man in the pecking order until his knee surgery elevated Gavin Escobar to that slot. Neither man is Jason Witten but they are not asked to be. All told, it would be fair to say that the 2014 group would appear to have an advantage.
2014 Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley
2016 Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley
The top three wide receivers remain the same. Mr. Bryant has returned and he is starting to do Dez things on the field which should eliminate all doubt about his ability to return to form. Williams has progressed with each passing season, and he is in a contract year which should provide some added motivation for his game. Nothing needs to be said about Beasley. He just gets the job done for the team and is sort of like the Jason Witten of wide outs, just another reception to move the chains. Choosing to err on the side of caution I am going to call this one a wash simply because I suspect Scott Linehan and Jason Garrett may look to protect Bryant just a little bit to start the season.
As for the down roster receivers, I would give an edge to this year's grouping although Dwayne Harris was magical as a return man and all-around special teams guy.
2014 Tony Romo, Brandon Weeden
2016 Tony Romo, Dak Prescott
Tony's back and he has a top-notch offensive line in front of him, running backs who are capable of turning in 1,000-yard seasons, and a reliable corps of targets for his passes. Throw in that special Romodini element and you have a recipe for success. The Cowboys are only going as far as Romo will take them, but the same could be said for 31 other teams and their starting quarterbacks. Should Tony go down there might be a chacne of success behind Prescott, but at least in that situation a talented young passer will gain valuable experience. That is more than what Weeden was able to provide in 2015.
2014 George Selvie, Nick Hayden, Henry Melton, Jeremy Mincey, Tyrone Crawford, Terrell McClain, Davon Coleman, Jack Crawford
2015 DeMarcus Lawrence, Tyrone Crawford, Terrell McClain, David Irving, Ryan Russell, Cedric Thornton, Jack Crawford, Benson Mayowa
Once DeMarcus Lawrence returns from doing his Roger Goodell imposed penance and if Randy Gregory can put aside the demons that have plagued his brief career and get back to playing football the defensive front has a chance to play better than expected. For starters the defensive tackles are doing a solid job, and if they can be coupled with ends that can get home on the passer, Rod Marinelli might just put together another defensive line rotation that is better than the sum of its parts. He did that in 2014, and for that reason alone I will give the edge to that squad. They did something that this year's unit will still have to prove. 2016 may have more potential, but that and a dollar will get you a cup of coffee (maybe).
2014 Bruce Carter, Rolando McClain, Justin Durant
2016 Sean Lee, Anthony Hitchens, Kyle Wilber
It would be nice to have a dedicated McClain in the middle, but even so his suspension issue would be a factor. A healthy Sean Lee is the key to making this group and the defensive unit go. Lee will make the plays we expected Carter to make. That is the biggest factor in making this unit a success. Hitchens will be solid in the middle and now Wilber is ahead of Durant in the pecking order. This unit will be better than the one that took the field in 2014
2014 Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Orlando Scandrick, J J Wilcox, Barry Church
2016 Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Orlando Scandrick, Byron Jones, Barry Church
Looking at the two lists, Byron Jones seems to be the only change. Nothing could be further from the truth. The cornerback play from Carr and Claiborne has been much improved under the new secondary coaches. Because of their progress alone, the defensive secondary has a chance to be the most improved unit on the team. Well that and Byron Jones is an upgrade over Wilcox as well. The 2016 secondary will be far better than the 2014 unit.
2014 Dan Bailey, Chris Jones, L P Ladouceur, Dwayne Harris
2016 Dan Bailey, Chris Jones, L P Ladouceur, Lucky Whitehead
OK this one comes down to Harris vs Whitehead. Dwayne Harris threatened to serve up excitement on every kick he returned. Those are big shoes for Lucky to fill. I have to give the edge to the 2014 unit until Whitehead can become a threat to take every kick to the house.
There you have it; a head-to-head match up of this year's Dallas Cowboys with the team that came within a bad call of earning a trip to the NFC Championship in 2014. On paper most position groups stack up to be as good as or better than the ones from two seasons ago. There are some questions that remain to be answered, primarily along the defensive front, but there is reason to be optimistic about the Cowboys chances this year. Regardless of how things look, football is not played on paper it is played on grass. (Well, it used to be anyhow.) Starting the week of September 11th the team will have to go out and get the job done for 16 weeks to see how it will play out.