The Cowboys seemingly took an offseason step back after last season’s surprising success. Executive vice president Stephen Jones conceded as much after the Cowboys lost 11 players in free agency and two to retirement. Those 11 players started 546 career games for the Cowboys, including 94 last season.
Yet, owner Jerry Jones, ever the optimist, expects the Cowboys to be better.
“We lost significant numbers of players, but we were selective on what we lost,” Jones says. “So it’s important that these [rookies] play ... and they need to play. The ones that we drafted last year really need to play. I wouldn’t dare project the record of what we can do, but I think we’ve got a team that right now is better — because of the prospects — than the one we ended out the year with. I think it’s really got the chance to be better the right way, which is to be younger.”
After finishing 13–3 last season, the Cowboys might find that record difficult to top this season. But the goal is the same as it’s been every year since 1995 when they won their last Super Bowl — to get back to the Promised Land.
The plan for Dak Prescott last season was for him to sit, watch and learn behind Tony Romo. But the Cowboys’ best-laid plans blew up in training camp when backup quarterback Kellen Moore broke his right leg and, three weeks later, Romo fractured his back. Prescott, a fourth-round selection, had arguably the best rookie season by a quarterback in NFL history and won Offensive Rookie of the Year over teammate Ezekiel Elliott. Prescott pushed Romo into retirement, with the Cowboys handing the keys to the youngster. Moore, who missed all of last season, re-signed. The 27-year-old veteran is a favorite of offensive coordinator Scott Linehan.
Elliott led the league in rushing as a rookie, gaining 1,631 yards and earning six MVP votes. Elliott could contribute more in the passing game after the free-agent departure of third-down back Lance Dunbar. The Cowboys aren’t worried about Elliott’s workload after giving him 354 touches last season. Elliott had 322 carries and 32 receptions in 716 offensive snaps in the regular season. He played another 56 snaps with 23 touches in the postseason. (DeMarco Murray had 449 touches on 782 snaps in 2014 for the Cowboys when he led the league in rushing.) Elliott gained 833 yards and scored seven touchdowns on 166 first-half carries — a 5.02 average per carry — and 922 yards and eight touchdowns on 178 carries in the second half and overtime, a 5.18 average per carry.
The Cowboys re-signed Darren McFadden as Elliott’s primary backup. McFadden, a 1,000-yard rusher in 2015, missed most of last season with a fractured right elbow. Former linebacker Keith Smith played fullback on 12.6 percent of the offensive snaps last season, mostly in short-yardage and goal-line situations.
Receivers Cole Beasley, Dez Bryant and Terrance Williams combined for 169 receptions, 2,223 yards and 17 touchdowns last season. They rank among the best units in the league. While Bryant remains their big-play receiver, Prescott found a security blanket in Beasley, who led the team in receptions (75) and receiving yards (833) for the first time. The Cowboys re-signed Brice Butler as their fourth receiver and added North Carolina’s Ryan Switzer in the draft. Switzer is a Beasley lookalike and will likely replace Lucky Whitehead.
Jason Witten, 36, signed a new deal in the offseason that virtually assures he will finish his career with the Cowboys. Although he played all 16 games for a 13th consecutive season, Witten isn’t the same Pro Bowl tight end he once was. Geoff Swaim became an important part of the offense last season with his blocking and a handful of clutch catches. The Cowboys missed Swaim when a torn pectoral muscle ended his season after 10 games. James Hanna, another solid blocker, returns after missing all of 2016.
The Cowboys’ offensive line has earned the title of the league’s best. Left tackle Tyron Smith, right guard Zack Martin and center Travis Frederick earned three of the five All-Pro spots last season. But for the first time in three years, the Cowboys face uncertainty up front. Right tackle Doug Free unexpectedly retired after last season, leaving a hole. The Cowboys have moved La’el Collins, who started the first three games at left guard last season before undergoing toe surgery, to right tackle. Former third-round pick Chaz Green, who has spent most of his first two seasons in the training room with only two career starts, also will get to compete for playing time at tackle. Dallas signed tackle Byron Bell and guard Jonathan Cooper as insurance, and Cooper gets the first crack at left guard.
The Cowboys had 36 sacks, five more than the previous season, but it marked the fifth consecutive season that they finished outside of the league’s top 10. They have not had a player with double-digit sacks since defensive tackle Jason Hatcher had 11 in 2013. The Cowboys made no secret of seeking a “war daddy” pass rusher, something they haven’t had since DeMarcus Ware. They drafted Taco Charlton in the first round, but he isn’t that. He’ll instead join the rotation. DeMarcus Lawrence, who showed promise in 2015 with a team-leading eight sacks, took a step back with one sack in 12 games last season. He had yet another back surgery in the offseason. David Irving has shown flashes but he has been suspended the first four games for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs. The Cowboys are expecting more from Tyrone Crawford, whether he stays at end or returns to tackle. Defensive end Charles Tapper, a fourth-round pick in 2016, spent his rookie season on injured reserve. Maliek Collins, who had a solid rookie season, and Cedric Thornton, who took a while to adapt to Rod Marinelli’s scheme, will play big roles inside.
Sean Lee didn’t make the Pro Bowl, but he was rewarded with All-Pro honors for the first time. Lee, the defense’s only star, made 145 tackles and 12 tackles for a loss. Versatile Anthony Hitchens started every game at middle linebacker last season and made 78 tackles. The Cowboys could move him to the strong side, where Damien Wilson started six times and Kyle Wilber once in the seven times in 2016 that the team didn’t open in the nickel. That’s because the Cowboys expect Jaylon Smith, a second-round pick last year, to play in 2017 after a major knee injury in his final game at Notre Dame.
The Cowboys revamped their secondary after losing cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne and safeties Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox in free agency. None of the four was special, though as a group they contributed 39 starts, 254 tackles, five interceptions and 28 defensed passes last season. The Cowboys signed Nolan Carroll in free agency to pair with returnees Orlando Scandrick and Anthony Brown. After drafting three corners, including Chidobe Awuzie in the second round and Jourdan Lewis in the third, the Cowboys could move on from Scandrick. Free safety Byron Jones is the only guaranteed starter in the secondary, although Jeff Heath, a core special teams player, will get the first shot at strong safety.
Dan Bailey ranks as the second-most accurate placekicker in NFL history, making 89.5 percent of his field goals. Punter Chris Jones had his best season with a 45.9-yard average, a 40.5 net and only four touchbacks. Unhappy with Whitehead’s production as a returner, the Cowboys drafted Switzer. The Cowboys averaged only 7.1 yards per punt return and 20.5 yards per kickoff return last season.
The Cowboys surprised everyone last season with a rookie quarterback and a rookie running back leading them to the NFC’s best regular-season record. But a divisional-round playoff loss at home left a sour taste. The Cowboys expect more this season despite their losses in free agency and to retirement, but the division has improved since last season. They might not reproduce the regular-season record, but taking the next step in the postseason is the goal.