Dak Prescott and the Cowboys are "Driven" to get back to the Super Bowl for the first time since the 1995 season
The Cowboys are young — one of the youngest teams in the NFL. Amari Cooper is 25. Ezekiel Elliott is 23. Dak Prescott is 25. Jaylon Smith is 24. Leighton Vander Esch is 23. Byron Jones is 26. Demarcus Lawrence is 27. Zack Martin is 28. The window is wide open for the Cowboys. Their future is bright.
But Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is 76, and, as he frequently says, he doesn't have time to have a bad time. "There is absolutely nothing, short of the health and goodwill of the people I care about, there's nothing that means more to me than if I could get a Super Bowl. Nothing," Jones says. "...The hunger is for what we're talking about right now — winning a Super Bowl. Not to get another billion dollars."
Why not the Cowboys? All 22 players who started in their divisional playoff game last season are back. Plus, 11-time Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten and four-time Pro Bowl center Travis Frederick return. The Cowboys also added receiver Randall Cobb and defensive end Robert Quinn in the offseason. Their mantra for this season is "Driven." They are "Driven" to get where they haven't gone since 1995.
It's not always pretty, but Prescott has won early and often in his career. He is 32–16 in the regular season, with a career passer rating of 96.0 and two Pro Bowl trips. The Cowboys trust in Prescott as their quarterback for now and for the future. Prescott has a new position coach in former Cowboys backup quarterback Jon Kitna, with Prescott's former backup, Kellen Moore, moving to offensive coordinator. Cooper Rush and Mike White remain behind Prescott, who has never missed a start in three seasons.
Elliott became one of the NFL's best backs the day the Cowboys drafted him fourth overall. Elliott has 4,048 career yards, leading the league in rushing in 2016 and 2018, with a six-game NFL suspension in 2017 preventing him from making it three for three. The Cowboys got Elliott more involved in the passing game last season. He had more receptions (77) than his first two years combined (58), almost as many yards with 567, and his three receiving TDs matched his previous career total. Elliott is a three-down back, and as he goes, the Cowboys offense goes. Dallas drafted Tony Pollard and Mike Weber to back up Elliott. Pollard is a versatile player who also can play receiver and will factor in the return game, while Weber is a more traditional three-down back. Fullback Jamize Olawale played 10.6 percent of the offensive snaps last season, mostly on short yardage.
The Cowboys believed a receiver-by-committee approach would work after they cut No. 1 receiver Dez Bryant during the 2018 offseason. They were wrong. To their credit, they corrected their mistake at the trade deadline, acquiring Cooper from Oakland. Cooper revived the team's offense and quickly became Prescott's favorite target. The Cowboys lost Cole Beasley in free agency to Buffalo, but they signed Cobb, whom they expect to be as good as or better than Beasley in the slot. Michael Gallup is expected to start opposite Cooper after showing great promise as a rookie. Allen Hurns will compete to find a role this season, along with Noah Brown and Cedrick Wilson.
Witten is back, with less hair, unretiring after one season in the broadcast booth. Witten will play only around 25 snaps per game, so his contribution as a leader in the locker room and meeting room could prove even bigger than his numbers on the field. He return should not hinder the development of the team's other tight ends, Blake Jarwin, Dalton Schultz and possibly Rico Gathers. The Cowboys love how Jarwin came into his own in 2018, and after using a fourth-round pick on Schultz last year, they did not attempt to re-sign Geoff Swaim in free agency.
Joe Looney did an admirable job replacing Frederick at center last season when Frederick sat out recovering from Guillain-Barre syndrome, an autoimmune disorder. But Looney isn't a four-time Pro Bowler, and thus, Frederick's return could mean the most to the Cowboys this season. Martin remains the best right guard in the NFL, earning Pro Bowl honors for a fifth time in five seasons, and Tyron Smith remains one of the game's top left tackles. La'el Collins has not lived up to expectations, but he's still better than most right tackles. Xavier Su'a-Filo and last year's second-round choice, Connor Williams, will compete for the left guard job. Williams, a three-year starter at left tackle in college, could move to right tackle in 2020 since Collins is in the final year of his deal. The Cowboys drafted Connor McGovern to take over eventually at left guard.
Lawrence backed up his breakout 2017 season with 10.5 sacks and two forced fumbles. It marked the first time since 2011-12 that a Cowboys pass rusher had consecutive seasons with double-digit sacks. Dallas paid the defensive end handsomely in the offseason, believing he will continue to produce. The Cowboys traded for Quinn, who had 38 tackles, 6.5 sacks and two forced fumbles in 16 games last season for the Dolphins. They also hope to get Randy Gregory back from an indefinite suspension after he had six sacks in 14 games. Taco Charlton gives defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli plenty of ammunition in his rotation at end. Tyrone Crawford can play end or tackle and could start at the under tackle, though the Cowboys also have Maliek Collins there and drafted Trysten Hill as the heir apparent at the position. Kerry Hyder joins Antwaun Woods and Christian Covington in the defensive tackle rotation.
Jaylon Smith and Vander Esch became one of the NFL's best linebacking duos last season. Both appear destined for multiple Pro Bowls. The Cowboys drafted Vander Esch because of concerns about Sean Lee's ability to stay healthy. It was a good move. Lee missed nine games last season and played only 21.5 percent of the team's defensive snaps. He returns for a 10th season but is no longer the focal point in the middle of this defense. Joe Thomas and Justin March-Lillard provide depth and are core special teams players.
The Cowboys signed George Iloka, who is expected to supplant Jeff Heath as the starter at strong safety, with sixth-round pick Donovan Wilson also competing for playing time. The Cowboys were pleased with Xavier Woods' first season at free safety. Jones, who moved from safety to cornerback last season, seems to have found a home. He earned Pro Bowl honors for the first time, becoming one of the best at his position. Chidobe Awuzie starts on the other side, with Jourdan Lewis and Anthony Brown providing solid depth.
The Cowboys made the unpopular decision to move on from Dan Bailey, keeping the unproven Brett Maher instead. Maher was better than Bailey, making 29-of-36 field goal attempts, with a long of 62. Chris Jones averaged 44.5 yards on 60 punts, with a 39.6 net. He had 17 punts inside the 20-yard line with only two touchbacks. The Cowboys haven't had a threat in the return game since Dwayne Harris, who left after the 2014 season. They drafted Ryan Switzer in 2017 and traded for Tavon Austin in 2018. Their search continues with Pollard, who tied the FBS career record with seven kick-return touchdowns in three seasons at Memphis.
Jason Garrett heads into the final year of his contract on the hot seat. He saved his job last season with an NFC East title and a wild-card playoff victory. It did not earn him an extension. Garrett, who is 77–59 in the regular season since taking over in the middle of 2010, will need to take yet another step this season to keep his job. Otherwise, the Cowboys will find somebody else. Jones is running out of time to get back to the Super Bowl, and, with 13 starters having a combined 42 Pro Bowls, the Cowboys have the talent to contend in the NFC.