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Team Previews: Dallas Cowboys

Erik Siegrist

Erik Siegrist is an FSWA award-winning columnist who covers all four major North American sports (that means the NHL, not NASCAR) and whose beat extends back to the days when the Nationals were the Expos and the Thunder were the Sonics. He was the inaugural champion of Rotowire's Staff Keeper baseball league. His work has also appeared at Baseball Prospectus.

THE SKINNY
Once again, the Cowboys have all the pieces in place on offense to challenge for a playoff spot and make a deep postseason run. However, a defense that lacks pass rushers or playmakers, with a young secondary, could prevent them from taking full advantage of that firepower.

THREE THINGS TO KNOW

CRACKS IN THE GREAT WALL OF DALLAS
The tremendous success of rookies Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, not to mention the overall excellence of an offense that finished in the top five in yards, points and first downs, wouldn't have been possible without the protection and support of the Cowboys' all-world offensive line. The pillars of the unit -- left tackle Tyron Smith, center Travis Frederick and right guard Zack Martin -- are coming off first-team All-Pro selections, but the offense has two holes to fill after guard Ronald Leary signed with the Broncos and long-time tackle Doug Free announced his retirement. La'el Collins, who started at left guard in 2015 but was injured most of last season, will get the first shot at replacing Free at right tackle. Meanwhile, the perpetually injured Jonathan Cooper tentatively is penciled in as the left guard. If that plan comes to pass, the starting offensive line would feature an incredible five players considered first-round talents in their individual draft years. Although the best-case scenario may still be accompanied by chemistry concerns until the group settles in, the presence of three returning Pro Bowlers should mitigate a steep drop-off in play. On the other hand, early struggles from the O-line likely would have a corresponding impact on the Cowboys' skill-position players.

HAVE WE SEEN THE BEST OF Dez Bryant?
Many of the Cowboys' offensive stars are on the upswing of their careers or in their primes, but the same may not be true for Dez Bryant. Following a dominant three-year run from 2012-14, the 28-year-old wideout has 10 DNPs over the last two seasons due to various injuries, and his combined numbers from that stretch (81 catches, 1,197 yards and 11 TDs in 22 games) fall short of even the quietest campaign during his peak. Bryant's physical style of play may have taken a toll, but last year's diminished numbers may also have been due to the team's change at quarterback. Dak Prescott's more conservative and methodical approach to moving the chains was a far cry from Tony Romo's gunslinger mentality, and the new signal-caller may not have been on the same page with his No. 1 wide receiver, which is backed up by Bryant's subpar 52.1 percent catch rate. Another offseason together could help to alleviate some of those issues, but better chemistry between the two won't mean much if Bryant can't stay on the field and out of the trainer's room. With three years left on his contract and most of the guaranteed money already in his pocket, Bryant may need to revert to something resembling his previous form, or at least play a full schedule, if he wants to remain in Dallas and not be a cap casualty next offseason.

YOUNG BALLHAWKS ROAM FREE
After another disappointing playoff exit and lackluster season-long performance from the defense, the front office decided to clean house on the back end, letting more than 2,600 snaps walk out the door in free agency. To cover for the losses of Barry Church, J.J. Wilcox, Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr, both the open market and the NFL Draft were mined for reinforcements. The first order of business was bringing in low-cost veterans Nolan Carroll and Robert Blanton. During the ensuing draft, the Cowboys added four more defensive backs. Among them, second-round pick Chidobe Awuzie and third-rounder Jourdan Lewis could move into key roles quickly in the nickel package. Furthermore, with an impressive camp, sixth-round safety Xavier Woods may also challenge for a starting spot. Injecting so much youth into the secondary at once could prove perilous in a pass-happy NFC East that saw Alshon Jeffery, Brandon Marshall and Terrelle Pryor join the fray in the offseason. In any case, this year's crop will join sophomore CB Anthony Brown, third-year S Byron Jones and holdover Orlando Scandrick, meaning the team may not have a good bearing on the overhaul until 2018. Immediate progress likely will be measured in the defense's ability to generate interceptions, after managing just nine last season.

PIVOTAL PLAYER: Dak Prescott
In conjunction with Ezekiel Elliott's tremendous rookie season, the emergence of Prescott really held the offense together. Prescott's accuracy and impressive ability to avoid mistakes belied his inexperience, and while his raw passing numbers have room for growth, he chipped in six rushing TDs last year to bolster his appeal.

BAROMETER

RISING: Dak Prescott
Prescott put together a surprisingly strong rookie season for a fourth-round pick, and the quarterback's production should only improve while defenses stack the box in an effort to slow down Ezekiel Elliott.

FALLING: Jason Witten
After signing a new contract in the offseason to keep him in a Cowboys uniform until he retires, the 35-year-old tight end stalwart is in the twilight of his career. Expect Witten's production to continue to decline.

SLEEPER: Rico Gathers
Gathers spent last season on the practice squad honing his football skills after playing basketball in college. Boasting the physical tools to dominate, he also has the perfect mentor as a tight end in Witten.

KEY JOB BATTLE LEFT GUARD
It's rare for a job battle on the offensive line to command much attention, but when a team builds its offensive identity around having The Best O-Line in the League, any attrition could have a big impact on its skill players. The Cowboys still return their three core All-Pros, but it can't be ignored that their running game kicked into high gear last season once Ronald Leary took over for La'el Collins at left guard. Leary's now in Denver, and Collins is shifting to right tackle to replace the retired Doug Free, leaving an open competition at left guard between a couple of talented but oft-injured players in Jonathan Cooper and Chaz Green, with career backup Joe Looney also an option. If one of them doesn't step up, a Dallas attack that ranked in the top five last year in both yards and points per game could take a step back.

KEY ACQUISITIONS:
TACO CHARLTON DE (Rd. 1, No. 28 Michigan)
May need time to develop, but Dallas is starved for sacks.

Chidobe Awuzie CB (Rd. 2, No. 60 Colorado)
Could step into a starting role right away opposite Orlando Scandrick.

Nolan Carroll CB (from Eagles)
Will provide veteran help in secondary while young corners develop.

RYAN SWITZER WR (Rd. 4, No. 133 North Carolina)
Return man and slot receiver could eventually supplant Cole Beasley.

KEY LOSSES:
Tony Romo QB (retired)
Oft-injured star chose broadcast booth over playing for another team.

Barry Church S (to Jaguars)
Big hitter is limited in coverage but a threat for 100-plus tackles.

Morris Claiborne CB (to Jets)
Miscast as a shutdown corner in Dallas but still possesses solid skills.

DOUG FREE OT (retired)
Less-heralded member of the offensive line leaves a big hole to fill.

THE INJURY FRONT
Dez Bryant, WR Bryant didn't record a 100-yard game after Week 10 last season due to a lingering back issue, but heading into camp, he appears to be the healthiest he's been since 2014.

Cole Beasley, WR The shifty slot receiver continues to feel the effects of a hamstring injury that slowed him in the second half last year.

Jaylon Smith, LB Still recovering from nerve damage in his knee, Smith's ability to take on a significant role in the defense should become clearer as his activity level ramps up.