Forget Roger Goodell and the maddeningly inconsistent NFL discipline “system”. Ignore the predictions of how much trouble the Dallas Cowboys will have working around the suspensions of Ezekiel Elliott, David Irving, Damontre Moore, and possibly others. It’s time to get out the blue Kool Aid and look on the bright side of things. There are myriad reasons for optimism coming out of training camp and the preseason for the team that wears the Star.
This is a no apologies argument that the Cowboys are poised to be one of the real contenders in the NFL this season. The preseason is the time of over-optimism in the NFL, but unlike teams that are struggling to figure out if they have a quarterback at all or that can neither score nor stop opponents in the exhibition games so far, Dallas looks very close to having answers at just about all positions, ranging from pretty good to elite level. Let’s review - and enjoy.
The biggest positive for the Cowboys so far has to be second year quarterback Dak Prescott. Despite a strangely persistent strain of articles that rank Carson Wentz as a superior prospect for the future (like this one), or a recent article at ESPN Insider that has both Eli Manning and Kirk Cousins ahead of him, Dallas fans know what their eyes are telling them. He is the real deal, and so far in training camp and preseason, he has looked at least as good, if not even better, than in his record-setting rookie year. He has had days like he did on Tuesday all camp long.
Prescott completed 17 of 20 passes in team and 7-on-7 drills and that included a spike to stop the clock, so his only true incompletion of the day came on a throw that was off to Witten.
And of course, there was his perfect passer rating in his two series against the Indianapolis Colts last Saturday. The past year of work has been clearly fruitful, changing him from a player who practiced poorly as a rookie to someone who is focused and incredibly effective all the time. The doubters persist, but they are going to be proven wrong.
Meanwhile, the problem of no Elliott was no problem at all for the running game against the Colts. Whether it was Darren McFadden, Alfred Morris, or Rod Smith, the ground attack was more than solid. And this statistical note may be very important.
Now, it may not have been much of a surprise to see the running backs doing well with the vaunted Dallas offensive line matched up against a suspect Colts defense. However, that same line was the subject of some of the biggest concerns going into the year after the departure of Ron Leary and the retirement of Doug Free. But with La’el Collins now entrenched at right tackle and Jonathan Cooper getting the first extensive work at left guard, they looked as good as they ever have, whether clearing running lanes or protecting the quarterback. The O line is the foundation of the offense for the Cowboys, and there don’t appear to be the cracks so many worried about.
One very pleasant surprise is who may be the most improved player on offense over his performance in 2016 - Dez Bryant. After fighting through some injury issues last year, he has been an absolute beast. All indications are that he is poised to once again be one of the truly elite receivers in the league. And he heads what may be one of the deepest receiving corps in the league, with Cole Beasley still able to get open at will, Terrance Williams quietly having a good camp, and Brice Butler showing tantalizing signs of taking a major step forward. Tight end remains in good shape with Jason Witten, and this year there is healthy depth behind him. And the wild card on offense is Rico Gathers, who, before a concussion put the brakes on, was looking to be nearly as unstoppable as Bryant.
The offense looks primed to be terrific, even if Elliott serves a full six game suspension to start the season. And when he returns, with what may be a massive chip on his shoulder because of Goodell’s suspension - look out, league.
The situation is not nearly as certain on defense, with a lot of young players expected to have to take on the load in the secondary and fighting nagging issues (you really hate the word “hamstring” if you are a Dallas fan). And the pass rush is still a questionable quantity.
But the linebacking corps may be loaded. We all know what Sean Lee brings to the field. Anthony Hitchens is a greatly underrated player. And what should be the biggest story for the Cowboys, and one of the biggest in the NFL, is the simply amazing story of Jaylon Smith. Still recovering from his devastating knee injury, he has done more than many believed would ever be possible. His remarkable debut against Indianapolis showed clearly that he is capable of playing effectively at the NFL level. His deficiencies, which were not really that great, looked to be more a result of rust and getting back into game shape than lingering effects of his still regenerating nerve. With some good depth as well, the linebackers may well be the backbone of the defense.
That pass rush is still very much a work in progress, especially with two players who have looked very good in camp, Irving and Moore, both set to miss games due to those suspensions. But there are signs of hope. DeMarcus Lawrence may finally be living up to his potential. Rookie Taco Charlton is starting to flash some ability. Free agent pickup Stephen Paea is starting to thrive now that he is back in Rod Marinelli’s system. And this may be a real breakout year for second-year defensive tackle Maliek Collins. He goes up regularly against one of, if not the best, offensive guard in the league, Zack Martin. And he wins about as many times as he loses. It remains to be seen if it will all come together, but if Dallas finally has a decent pass rush this year, that will completely change the equation when they go on defense.
While it has been disappointing to see so little work on the field from the bevy of defensive backs the Cowboys took in the draft, the veterans who will be the likely starters have all looked at least solid, and some have done very well indeed. Orlando Scandrick shows every sign of being back at his best. Combine that with his well known case of bad attitude towards receivers and running backs, and he could be a real rock. Byron Jones has just continued his trajectory of improvement since he was drafted and is a great anchor for the safeties. And of course, there is Jeff Heath, who just seems to find ways to make plays.
Don’t forget the specialists. That is largely what happens, because we have become spoiled by the work of Dan Bailey, Chris Jones, and the flawless L.P. Ladouceur. They combine to be one of the most overlooked assets the team has.
There is even the chance that the Cowboys may have finally found a backup quarterback they can have some faith in. Cooper Rush has been very impressive, even given the level of opposition he has faced in preseason games. But that is just a continuation of how he has performed in practices. And don’t discount his gaudy preseason stats. Our own OCC detailed just how unusual Rush’s performance has been, and why the Cowboys will likely have to keep him on the 53 man roster as a result. The Rush vs Kellen Moore debate will rage on this year, but he is an investment in the future that may pay some important dividends in another year or two.
That is the good. And that is all this article is focused on. The Cowboys have some strength at starting positions all over the roster, and the depth is such that the cut down to 53 is going to be hard. As always, we will have to see how it actually plays out in the regular season. But for now, optimism is the word.
Oh, and go Cowboys.