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What the Ezekiel Elliott suspension means for Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys

The Ezekiel Elliott suspension has been announced. So, what next?

NFL: NFC Divisional-Green Bay Packers at Dallas Cowboys Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The news finally broke.

The long, drawn out NFL investigation into Ezekiel Elliott has finally reached its end point. ESPN’s Adam Schefter announced on Twitter that the 2016 rushing champion will miss the first six games of the 2017 football season. Zeke is expected to appeal the decision, but for now, the Cowboys head into the season with a hand tied behind their back.

Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys head into a critical stretch of games against quality opponents right out of the gate without the league’s leading rusher. Dallas opens the season with a NFC East showdown versus the New York Giants on a primetime stage. After that contest, the Cowboys are set to travel to Denver and Arizona before opening October against the Rams and Packers back home in Jerry’s World. The Cowboys then have a bye week before traveling back to San Francisco for the second straight season.

What does this mean for Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys?

The Cowboys lost four games last season. One in heartbreaking fashion versus the Packers, one in a throw-away game in Philly, and two against the Giants. While the Cowboys had opportunities to win both games against their NFC East rival, the Giants’ defense caused headaches for Dak and Scott Linehan. Without Zeke, that likely amplifies in week one.

The reigning NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, Dak Prescott, has been doubted as much as any successful rookie can be. After a full offseason of hearing skeptics and doubters claiming he will fall off in his second season, Prescott has the opportunity to prove to the world that he is for real — with or without Zeke. He has a chance to knock off the Giants for the first time in his early NFL career. He opens against three high quality defenses that will be salivating to prove that they can stop the Cowboys’ phenom. Defensive coordinators have been studying the 2016 fourth-round selection all summer and are anxious to throw new things at him. These are the kind of moments that Dak Prescott thrives in.

The Cowboys will likely rely on a backfield featuring veteran one-thousand-yard rushers Darren McFadden and Alfred Morris. McFadden eclipsed the 1k mark in 2015, but he only reached the end zone three times. Morris, meanwhile, rushed for over one thousand yards each of his first three seasons, but he hasn’t had such a season since 2014.

While neither possesses the explosiveness of Zeke or can break a game open like the Ohio State product, both rushers have experience in the system and are able to carry the load for a few games. However, defenses won’t feel the pressure of needing to fill up the box in the same way they game planned for no. 21. They will let their defensive backs sit back in coverage to make life difficult for Prescott.

Dak will be asked to do more as soon as the season begins. While Scott Linehan and Jason Garrett were likely already going to throw more Dak’s way, he will be asked to carry the team immediately against some of the best defenses that the league has to offer for three consecutive weeks. Defensive coordinators will attempt to make Dak as uncomfortable as possible by blitzing in unique ways, changing coverages after the snap, and giving him looks that he simply hasn’t seen in his young professional career.

The Cowboys open against a defense that features one of the best defensive line units in football. 6-foot-5 defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul is back to cause havoc. Olivier Vernon looks to build on a huge 2016 season. The 6-foot-2 defensive lineman is coming off of a 63 tackle, 8.5 sack campaign. Damon Harrison controls the interior and the Giants drafted Alabama’s Dalvin Tomlinson in the second-round. Oh yeah, and the secondary includes the likes of Janoris Jenkins, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Landon Collins, and Eli Apple. This defense made life hard on Dak and the Cowboys last season.

After that, the road doesn’t get any easier. Dak will be asked to carry the load against a Broncos defense that features Von Miller rushing off of the edge and with both Chris Harris and Aqib Talib roaming the secondary. It helps that Wade Phillips is off to Los Angeles, but Denver will still feature one of the league’s best units. Then in week three, Dak and the Cowboys face Patrick Peterson, Tyrann Mathieu, Chandler Jones, and the Arizona Cardinals on the road in a hostile environment.

Speaking of Wade Phillips, the Cowboys host the Rams in week four. The Rams also possess a quality defense that features All-Pro defensive lineman Aaron Donald, interior lineman Michael Brockers, and edge rusher Robert Quinn. Needless to say, the Cowboys’ offense won’t have a chance to catch a breath at any point during the first four games.

Dak, meanwhile, finished the 2016 season playing his best football. After his lackluster performance in New York in bitter conditions, Prescott completed 32 of his 36 passes for 279 yards and a rushing score versus a hot Buccaneers team. Then, he followed that up with a 15-for-20, 210 yard, and three touchdown game against the Lions on Monday Night Football. He ended the season throwing for 302 yards and three scores against the Packers in a game he nearly led a dramatic come-from-behind victory in. He became the first rookie starting quarterback to throw three touchdowns in a postseason game in the Super Bowl era, per ESPN Stats and Info.

Dak will be asked to carry a heavier load to start off his sophomore season in the NFL. Throughout his debut season, Prescott showed incredible poise no matter what was thrown at him. Tony Romo’s injury didn’t knock him. Romo’s potential return didn’t shake him. His performance against the Giants didn’t cause him to lose any confidence. He even nearly led his team back from a 21-3 deficit against Aaron Rodgers in a playoff game. If anything, he uses each circumstance as an opportunity to prove outsiders wrong. He looks to do that again.

For those that still aren’t sold on Dak after a legendary rookie campaign, he will be judged by many during this stretch of games — fairly or unfairly. Luckily for the Dallas Cowboys, these are the moments that Dak Prescott was born for.