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The Cowboys should show marked improvement over the course of the 2017 season

With suspended and injured players returning, rookies getting acclimated, and others showing natural gains, the team is likely to get better as the season goes on.

NFL: Washington Redskins at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys finished 2016 with a 13-3 record, best in the NFC, and second best in the NFL to the New England Patriots, who finished 14-2. Most prognosticators expect a drop-off, for several reasons. Will Dak Prescott be as good? Will Ezekiel Elliott play all 16 games (it seems likely now)? What about the turnover on the offensive line? On the defensive side, there was huge turnover in the secondary, with most of the rookies missing significant time in training camp and preseason. Anthony Hitchens, the starting middle linebacker was hurt. Is there a pass rush?

Who knows how many of these doubts will bear fruition? Certainly, there has to be some concern until the Cowboys resume playing and we all get to see how the new parts work on the field.

Yet there may be a silver lining here. Given the player suspensions, injuries, and influx of new players, it’s very likely the Cowboys will be a team that will get better and better as the year goes on.

Returning suspended players

The Cowboys are starting the year without two important cogs on their defensive line, but do have one suspended player who’s still fighting with the NFL.

David Irving

Irving is suspended the first four games of the year. When he’s on, he can be the Cowboys best defensive lineman. His issue has been consistency. His return will provide an immediate upgrade.

Damontre Moore

Moore is suspended the first two games. We haven’t seen him in regular season action yet, and he has never proven to be a stud since he was drafted. But he’s shown flashes in training camp and preseason, and appears to have put his attitude problems behind him. The Cowboys have lots of defensive linemen, but few with the speed that Moore flashes.

Ezekiel Elliott?

The federal court in Texas granted the NFLPA and Ezekiel Elliott an injunction against his six-game suspension, allowing Zeke to play all year, much like Tom Brady did the year he fought the NFL over Deflategate. But will the NFL fight that injunction? Will anything else happen along the way in the case to keep Zeke from the field?

Returning injured players

Despite all the hamstring issues in training camp, the Cowboys have been pretty lucky so far with major injuries. Only two players are missing games at the moment.

Anthony Hitchens

The Cowboys’ starting middle linebacker is not even on injured reserve for the knee injury he suffered in preseason, suggesting he may be back in less than eight games. Jaylon Smith and Justin Durant can hold down the fort in his absence, but no one will deny he’ll be missed, and will provide an upgrade on his return.

Rico Gathers

Gathers, who was redshirted his first season, got all of us excited by catching two touchdown passes in the first two preseason games, along with showing other receiving skills. He’s the most explosive tight end on the Cowboys roster. Unfortunately, he suffered a concussion and is on injured reserve, out for at least eight weeks. He should be able to return in the second half and become another weapon for the Dallas offense.

Acclimating veterans

The Cowboys also have some veterans in new roles this year.

La’el Collins

Collins has moved from left guard to right tackle, and looked pretty good doing it, aside from a couple of penalties in the dress rehearsal game going against Oakland. Count on La’el to get better and better in this role as he takes snaps.

Chaz Green/Jonathan Cooper

We’re still not sure who will play left guard for the Cowboys. But both of these candidates could show improvement as they get reps if they can stay healthy.

Anthony Brown

Brown had an amazing year for a sixth-round rookie, finishing second in snaps behind iron man Brandon Carr. He’s likely to continue making strides in his second season.

Jeff Heath

Many question the Cowboys’ reliance on Heath as free safety, fearing he’s only a fill-in player, and not a full-time starter. Bob Sturm is not one of them. It’s possible that Heath will get burned at times this year, but reps should only improve his confidence and abilities.

Rookies on a learning curve

The Cowboys have lots of rookies they expect big things out of. Fortunately, they do not have to rely on many of them right off the bat, but can work them in more and more as they improve.

Taco Charlton

The Cowboys’ first-round pick is not likely to start. But in Rod Marinelli’s rotation, he will get plenty of snaps to keep developing.

Chidobie Awuzie

The Cowboys’ second-round pick is versatile enough to play any of the cornerback or safety spots. With the Cowboys playing lots of nickel and some dime lineups, Awuzie will get his chances as they phase him in.

Jourdan Lewis

Due to his trial, and a hamstring injury, we saw almost nothing from the Cowboys’ third-round selection. He may not even be active for a few weeks until he’s 100%. When he is, he should provide a boost to the secondary.

Ryan Switzer

The Cowboys’ fourth-rounder was a sparkplug during OTAs, but hamstrings have kept him out a lot since. He’s likely to start out as a return man, and work his way into the offense in certain packages that will be able to expand as he does.

Xavier Woods

The Cowboys also didn’t get to see too much of Woods in preseason. He’s another who should get better over time.

The Main Man

To finish, we would be remiss if we didn’t mention:

Dak Prescott

The undisputed leader of the Cowboys never stops learning, and then taking it out on the field and executing. Not only are we likely to see a big leap from year one to year two, but we should expect Prescott and his connections with his offensive weapons to get better and better over the course of the year.

If the Cowboys struggle at all early, take solace in the fact that they are likely to get better. If they don’t struggle early, take it as a sign that the Cowboys might finally end their championship drought.