Training camp is only a few short weeks away and it will finally provide an opportunity to answer this summer’s biggest questions. Can Tony Romo stay healthy? Wait no, that was last year...and the year before that. Anyways, it’s a brand new season and with it will be some brand new questions. Here are three of the most captivating story lines heading into training camp.
Is Jaylon Smith Healthy Enough?
This one is obvious and shared by so many Cowboys fans and you’re probably tired of hearing about it, however it’s important to understand it’s significance.
So much is made about the complete remodeling of the Cowboys secondary that this position group has garnered the most discussion when it comes to what to expect this season. Four defensive backs who contributed a heavy amount of snaps are gone - Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Barry Church, and J.J. Wilcox. And while that would seem like something that could have a huge effect on the defense, it’s not. Sure, the play of these rookies can fluctuate from good to not-so-good, but how hard is it to supplement the skills of a bunch of middling players? Don’t get me wrong, the players lost aren’t terrible players, but neither are these new additions. Players like Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, and Nolan Carroll will offer something similar to 2016, whether it ends up being a little better or little worse.
But where the team could see a big change is at the linebacker position. The health of Jaylon Smith is huge when it comes to what he can give the defense. If he’s not as mobile as many of us were hoping, then he offers very little value this season and the team is essentially stuck with the 2016 version of linebacker. Anthony Hitchens is a good enough player where he’s not going to be jumped by an ailing Smith.
However, if Smith is moving well, this makes him an exciting player on defense. He is a phenomenal athlete and can be extremely disruptive if he’s at full heath. But regardless of what Dr. Byron Jones says, he won’t be, however that doesn’t mean he won’t be at a point where he’s extremely effective on the field. Only time will tell, but the upside of this situation can really change just how good the Cowboys defense is. And with the recent issue with Damien Wilson, the value of healthy Smith becomes even more important.
Is Dak The Real Deal?
The rookie season of Dak Prescott has brought forth a breath of fresh air as it pertains to the future of this franchise, however many are concerned that one young season isn’t enough to know what the team has in their quarterback. After one-hit wonders like Robert Griffin III and Nick Foles flamed out quickly, fans know that the worm can suddenly turn and huge disappointment follows. Terms like “fluke” and “sophomore slump” are thrown around loosely, but only have relevance after the fact. And even then, they’re just labels and have no merit when it comes to predicting a future performance.
Whether you are worried or not about how legit Prescott is as a quarterback, it’s going to be a pleasant sight to watch him continue his success. He’s got a lot of things working in his favor that have people very optimistic about his future. First and foremost, he takes really good care of the ball. This isn’t your typical hero-type quarterback who takes a lot of chances and just airs it out and hopes for the best. Prescott is very disciplined and shows a level of maturity that usually doesn’t show up until they’ve been in the league a few years. He has the physical tools, but he has the intangibles as well; the “it factor” if you will. A player with his talent combined with the overwhelming desire and preparation to win is a great combination to have. The Cowboys coaching staff has recognized that. A team is not going to move aside a quarterback as important as Tony Romo for a player that still has a lot to prove. He’s the real deal in big D and it’s going to be wonderful when that becomes clear for all to see.
Has The Defensive Line Improved Enough?
Ever since the departure of DeMarcus Ware, the Cowboys have been looking for answers along the defensive line to help improve the pass rush. Draft resources like DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory have severely disappointed. Free agent signing, Greg Hardy didn’t work out as planned. And the team has moved around their most expensive investment, Tyrone Crawford, to where he hasn’t been able to contribute at the level they were hoping. All of this paints a gloomy picture for the Cowboys defensive line.
But things aren’t as bad as they seem. While it isn’t jaw-dropping, the defensive line has gradually improved over the last few years. Here are the sack totals courtesy of ESPN.com:
2014 = 28 sacks (ranked 28th)
2015 = 31 sacks (ranked 25th)
2016 = 36 sacks (ranked 13th)
And there is reason to believe that this position group will continue to improve, albeit not at the show-stopping rate that some fans are hoping for. Still, this unit continues to get better.
Maliek Collins has the physical tools to be a force in the middle. He had a great rookie season and will be looking to break out even further. This guy could be a star in the making.
David Irving may be suspended for the first four games, but this is a player who has shown substantial improvement and has benefited greatly from his coaching. He’s long, he’s strong, and he’s down to get his pass rush on.
Taco Charlton has the most raw talent of any player they’ve drafted in recent years. It will be a development process, but the kid gets better ever year so expect more of the same as he begins his pro career.
I’m not going to try to sell you on Tyrone Crawford or DeMarcus Lawrence. Maybe they play well, maybe they don’t. Maybe health has been hindering their production and they’re able to bounce back. It wouldn’t surprise me if either of these guys had a great season this year, but it’s not something I’m holding my breath for.
And then there are players like Charles Tapper, Damontre Moore, and reigning team sack leader Benson Mayowa. None of these players assure of being good, but they all provide a glimmer of hope that something promising could come. There’s a chance at least one of them offers the team some solid snaps rushing the edge.
The opportunity to improve their pass rush is there. And this will help an already good defense become better. You hear things like “the Cowboys are going to have to score over 30 points to win games with this defense,” but where are they coming up with this silliness? Check out these fun facts:
- In all 16 regular season games a team never scored more than 30 points on the Cowboys. Never.
- In half of their games, the defense held their opponents to 17 points or less. Half.
So if you take these little tidbits of information and add a slightly improved defensive unit, you’d be happy, right?
Those are the three biggest story lines I’ll be keeping a close eye on. What about you? What will have your attention the most once camp begins?