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3 position groups that will have to exceed expectations for Cowboys to stay atop NFC East

In a tighter division race, who can the Cowboys count on to develop this season?

Dallas Cowboys v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

The Cowboys are just days away from stepping onto the field for training camp, but the sting from their Wild Card playoff loss to the 49ers is still present. That loss put an abrupt end to what became a turning-point season, with the team moving on from some starters in the offseason.

With a somewhat new-look team, it’s harder than ever to set realistic expectations for how this year’s Cowboys should fare. They’ve fell short countless times when expectations were high, and even the better-than-expected teams have failed to reach the NFC Championship in 26 seasons.

The Cowboys also haven’t repeated as division winners since their last Super Bowl win, but that doesn’t stop them from being the favorites to do so this year. Any other outcome than winning a division race with the Giants and Daniel Jones, Eagles and Jalen Hurts, and Commanders with Carson Wentz, falls below the lowest projections for Dallas in 2022.

To win the East, they’ll have to start answering some burning questions on the depth chart in Oxnard. Unproven starters like Jalen Tolbert can start to prove the Cowboys actually took a step forward in the only category that will matter come September - their on-field performance.

With a top-heavy roster that appears to be dependent on their proven stars like Dak Prescott and Micah Parsons on both sides of the ball, these are the position groups that will have to rise to the challenge of keeping this team competitive through a tough 17 game stretch.

Running Back

Cowboys fans have made it very clear this offseason that they’ve heard all of the same clichés from the front office, coaches, and players before. This is certainly the case with Ezekiel Elliott reporting to camp in the best shape of his life, entering year seven with a workload well above league average.

Dallas has tried to be a more dynamic passing team that can also run Elliott at defenses preoccupied with the pass, but now faces serious questions at both running back and receiver. The Cowboys were 7-0 in games last season when Prescott had less than 37 passing attempts, and 4-5 in all others. His 43 throws in a valiant comeback effort against the 49ers matched his total in a 19-9 loss to the Chiefs, and he threw more in losses to the Buccaneers and Raiders.

There is real merit to this team still being built to run the football, and they invested in this strength with first-round pick Tyler Smith. With a focus on getting the most out of this current roster, Smith’s flexibility to play tackle hopefully doesn’t come into play, as the Cowboys will need both Tyron Smith and Tyler Smith’s run blocking ability.

Whether or not Elliott can still prove to be a workhorse back that helps the Cowboys control the tempo of games and keeps Dan Quinn’s defense fresh needs to be determined early in the season. The Cowboys have a talented, versatile, but underutilized running back in Tony Pollard that could well prove the future at the position if given the chance.

It may come out of necessity rather than a true shift in philosophy, but with some new skill position players, the Cowboys may finally be forced to give Pollard a bigger role in this offense. Expectations are high for Pollard to help both the ground and air game, but he’s as unproven in those shoes as Elliott is when it comes to being one of the league’s best backs currently. The Cowboys could easily be contenders again this season if the running game gets off to a hot start, or it could be an Achilles heel they’re not built to overcome.

Offensive Tackle

The entirety of the offensive line tasked with sparking this run game and keeping Prescott upright has concerns ahead of training camp, but more so at tackle than on the interior. The Cowboys feel Tyler Biadasz is an ascending player at center, flanked by all-everything right guard Zack Martin and their latest first-round pick at left guard.

Depth options on the interior include Matt Farniok, Connor McGovern, Isaac Alarcon, and promising UDFA Alec Lindstrom. The group certainly could be better, but the Cowboys have names to work with.

Their plan at tackle shows much more of the dependency on starters staying healthy. For a team that should be used to preparing for multiple games a season without Tyron Smith, their swing tackles options are Josh Ball and Matt Waletzko, unless Tyler Smith proves ready to start at two positions in year one.

At right tackle, Terence Steele has big shoes to fill with La’el Collins now in Cincinnati. It’s true that protecting the middle of the pocket for Prescott should be a priority, as his scrambling ability helps him avoid edge rushers, but the Cowboys are hardly far off from fielding incredibly raw players at either tackle spot to keep their franchise quarterback upright.

Even if the Cowboys get a healthy, Pro-Bowl level season from Tyron Smith, their situation at tackle could quickly make this offense resemble the kind they played for much of the second half of 2021 - making simple execution plays and sustaining drives look impossibly hard.

Linebacker

The Cowboys got a great first-year turnaround from defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, thanks in large part to linebacker and utility player Micah Parsons. Quinn and Mike McCarthy saw Parsons as much more than just a linebacker, and allowed him to become one of the most versatile and unique defenders in the NFL as a rookie.

The plan is for Parsons to continue doing what he does best, which is a little of everything, but when he’s not playing linebacker the team could be left exposed here. Just because Quinn engineered a strong defense that got by with hybrid players like Keanu Neal playing linebacker, this doesn’t mean the team is ready to play a full season with the depth they currently have.

Parsons, Leighton Vander Esch, and Jabril Cox is a decent starting point if the Cowboys were already a stout defense against the run, but this team conceded far too many yards on the ground last season. Losing either Vander Esch or Cox at any point would also force a player like Luke Gifford onto the field, leaving the Cowboys more vulnerable in the short passing game.

With teams already looking to throw away from cornerback Trevon Diggs, the Cowboys linebackers should expect to be tested against tight ends and running backs through the air. As seasons go on, teams learn how to attack their opponent’s weakness, and the Cowboys learned this the hard way for weeks at a time last year. They’ll be counting on a defensive line with players like Quinton Bohanna, Carlos Watkins, Dorance Armstrong, and Osa Odighizuwa to play their part in defending the run, but expecting this current linebacker group to help Quinn’s defense fly around and take the ball away is an ask far above the expectations that come from the depth chart on paper.