DALLAS COWBOYS (13-4)
OPEN CAMP: July 24, Oxnard, California.
LAST YEAR: Sensational rookie combo of QB Dak Prescott and RB Ezekiel Elliott powered Cowboys to top seed in NFC before divisional playoff loss to Green Bay. Prescott, NFL Offensive Rookie of Year, had one of best debut seasons for QB in NFL history after replacing injured Tony Romo, who never got back starting job and retired to broadcast booth after season. Elliott was NFL rushing leader with 1,631 yards. Dez Bryant, 2014 All-Pro WR, had production similar to that season in second half of last year. Bryant participated in offseason for first time since 2014 and is expecting big results. TE Jason Witten returns for 15th season after becoming franchise leader in starts (213) and consecutive starts (163). Defense was mediocre again, and Cowboys let several veterans go in free agency in signal talent upgrade was needed. Now Dallas is gambling that young players will be productive quickly, particularly in secondary. Oft-injured LB Sean Lee was healthy for all 16 games for first time in career, which led to first All-Pro nod. Cowboys hope Jaylon Smith can join him as standout after 2016 second-round pick took last season to recover from devastating college knee injury. Pass rush was problem once again, and Cowboys focused on that need with first-round pick Taco Charlton.
IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: Charlton and fellow DE Charles Tapper, rookie CBs Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis, CB Nolan Carroll; rookie WR/KR Ryan Switzer.
IMPORTANT LOSSES: CBs Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne, Ss Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox, DT Terrell McClain, DE Jack Crawford, T Doug Free.
CAMP NEEDS: Sounds like recording, but pass rush still tops list. Dallas has addressed DE at or near top of draft three times in four years and needs to start seeing results to make long postseason run. Cowboys have to sort out spots in secondary and offensive line. Returning CBs Orlando Scandrick and Anthony Brown will be in mix with newcomers, and La’el Collins appears set for move from LG to RT with Free’s retirement. Former top 10 pick Jonathan Cooper, late-season add last year, could be new LG. Smith’s progress will have plenty of say on what happens at MLB.
EXPECTATIONS: Prescott will hear phrase “sophomore slump” in weeks leading to season. If former Mississippi State star avoids it, Cowboys have strong chance to remain contender after failing to follow up NFC East-winning season in 2014 and falling to last place a year later. Dallas hasn’t had consecutive winning seasons since last of five straight in 2009. Defense has to be more dynamic for Cowboys to reach NFC championship game for first time since last Super Bowl title following 1995 season. Cowboys may have to brace for suspension of Elliott, under investigation by NFL for domestic issue in Ohio last year.
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