Let’s do a little ranking of some of the many things that have happened for the Cowboys this offseason.
1 - Dak Prescott is entering year two
After posting arguably the best rookie season for a quarterback in NFL history, what can Dak do for an encore? He can lead the Cowboys to the Super Bowl, of course! Indeed, while we love stats, NFL quarterbacks are judged on playoff wins, Super Bowl appearances, and mostly, Super Bowl victories. That’s how Troy Aikman made the Hall of Fame, despite not having the greatest stats. It’s what colors the perception of Eli Manning and Joe Flacco, who have stats that are either pedestrian or downright bad. Russell Wilson took the Seahawks to the Super Bowl his second year. Dak could do it too.
2 - Suspensions for Ezekiel Elliott, David Irving, and Damontre Moore
At the moment, Zeke is facing six games lost, while Irving will be out four games, and Moore two. This ranking is based on the Zeke suspension holding. Whether it is reduced or not, we are going to find out just how important Zeke is to the Cowboys offense. The team might survive without him, just as it did when Dez missed three games last year, and Tyron Smith missed two, but the offense won’t be quite the same.
3 - Two new offensive linemen
Left guard Ron Leary left to free agency and right tackle Doug Free retired. We still don’t have a final answer on who will play left guard, though it is looking more and more like Jonathan Cooper will be there. La’el Collins is the new right tackle, but it’s a new position for him. The offensive line is the engine for the Cowboys offense, which is the engine for the team. It needs to run smoothly and powerfully.
4 - Defensive back overhaul
This might have ranked higher, but so far, due to camp injuries, the Cowboys haven’t really seen their rookie defensive backs play much. Chidobe Awuzie got into the Hall of Fame pre-season game, and hasn’t been around much since. Jourdan Lewis hasn’t practiced or played. Marquez White has been in and out and is fighting just to make the roster. Xavier Woods had one nice preseason game, but missed the other two, and also lots of practices. Fortunately, the Cowboys signed Nolan Carroll to cover for the loss of Brandon Carr, Orlando Scandrick looks fully healthy again, Anthony Brown will be ready for year two, and Jeff Heath looks to take over at safety.
5 - Defensive line changes
In addition to a defensive back overhaul, the Cowboys will have several changes on the defensive line. Maliek Collins is in year two, with a training camp under his belt. His growth may be the biggest change. Or, that honor may go to DeMarcus Lawrence, who has looked great in practice now that his back seems healed. The Cowboys also added first rounder Taco Charlton, and Stephen Paea and Damontre Moore in free agency. Meanwhile, Terrell McClain and Jack Crawford moved on. Should be a better unit. Just how much better remains to be seen.
6 - Dez looks like a monster again
Dez had an off year in 2016, missing three games to injury, and taking time to sync with Dak Prescott. If training camp and pre-season is any indication, however, the Dak to Dez link may be as strong as it was in the playoff loss to Green Bay, when Dez dominated.
7 - Tony Romo retired
Remember this? Seems like a long time ago, but it clarified the path for the Cowboys going forward, released a ton of cap space, and kept Romo away from the competition.
8 - Jaylon Smith is healthy and playing
This might have ranked higher if Jaylon looked ready to dominate in the middle of the Cowboys defense. Off 12 plays against the Colts, it looks like he’ll be ready to contribute right away as he continues to regain his explosiveness and form. It’s just difficult to know how much more time this might take before he becomes a major difference maker.
9 - Rico Gathers looks like a player
While many still questioned whether Rico would be ready to make the roster, he ripped off two pre-season touchdowns and other catches and looked awesome doing it, with defenders looking overmatched. He’s already the most explosive tight end on the roster, and with reps should just get better and better.
10 - Terrance Williams and Brice Butler re-signed
Going into the offseason, the Cowboys faced the prospect of losing the receivers who held down the fort when Dez was out. Had they moved on, Dallas might have needed to draft someone, or bring in a free agent unfamiliar with the Cowboys. Instead, both returned on team-friendly deals. And Butler, at least, has shown a real uptick in his game this training camp.
11 - Who is this Cooper Rush kid?
The Cowboys have been blessed to find some quality quarterback talent without having to spend a lot of draft capital. Roger Staubach was a late round pick due to his Navy commitment. Danny White came in as a free agent signee from the World Football League. Tony Romo was a UDFA. Dak Prescott was the 135th pick in the draft. And now Cooper Rush signed with the Cowboys as a UDFA. Hopefully, he won’t see a snap this season, but he is looking like a four year solution to the Cowboys backup quarterback position who could save the Cowboys money and allow them to devote that third quarterback roster slot on another player.
12 - Running back depth steps up
With Zeke facing a suspension, this position is more critical than it was last year. The good news is that Darren McFadden is healthy, Alfred Morris slimmed down and looks rejuvenated, and Rod Smith has suddenly become a violent running back. The three of them should be able to cover for Zeke’s potential absence reasonably well.
13 - Ryan Switzer arrives to rejuvenate the return game
At least this is the hope. Due to hamstring issues, we haven’t seen much of him since OTAs. He still has a couple of weeks to get ready for the regular season. It shouldn’t take long for him to step in as a punt returner. Assimilating him into the offense will take longer.
14 - Cowboys extend some contracts
We’re still waiting on the big news - an extension for Zack Martin. But in the meantime, the Cowboys extended La’el Collins and Chris Jones, the punter.
15 - James Hanna and Geoff Swaim are back
Both were lost last year to injury; Hanna for the season, and Swaim about half way through. With their loss, the Cowboys run blocking took a hit. With Gathers now on board too, the Cowboys have the depth they need at tight end.
16 - Jerry Jones was inducted into the Hall of Fame
It won’t have any impact on the field, but it’s a well deserved honor. Jerry took the occasion to mend fences with Jimmy Johnson, which is also a welcome development.
It’s not all rosy. The suspensions hurt. The new offensive linemen are unproven. We haven’t seen much from the new defensive backs or Ryan Switzer. Jaylon Smith is still a work-in-progress. But, overall, if the Cowboys can weather the games Zeke may be out, the offensive line can gel, and if the defense can get better over time as it works in the new players, the Cowboys look to be much improved.