Dallas Cowboys 2016 season preview

On Sunday, the Dallas Cowboys embark on their 2016 season. The organization hopes a rookie quarterback can hold down the fort for an as-yet-undetermined number of games, as they try to prop up a questionable defense with an offense that will rely heavily on another rookie.

And despite the precarious nature of all of that, there are hopes for a division title, a return to health and vitality for Tony Romo, and a successful bounce back season after 2015’s injury plagued 4-12 campaign.

Given that the rest of the NFC East is similarly questionable, the division dreams aren’t that far-fetched. But they’ll need a lot to fall their way, to make it happen.

Quarterbacks

A position that was a colossal weakness in 2015 could prove to be the same in 2016. Or, if Dak Prescott shows that his preseason magic wasn’t merely capitalizing on blasé exhibition game defenses and Romo returns healthy after the bye week, it could be a definitive strength.

The Cowboys began training camp with four quarterbacks on the roster. Two have been hurt. One was cut, and then added to the practice squad. And a new one was signed to provide depth. It has quickly become the biggest question mark on this team.

If you’re a Cowboys fan, you’re left asking yourself if you trust Prescott can translate his promise into tangible regular-season success. And then, you’re left pondering whether Romo can 1) get healthy, and 2) stay healthy once he returns. The likelihood both questions are answered with positive results… not great. If you get one of the two, be happy, Cowboys fans. C+

Running Backs

By contrast, this is probably the deepest position on the Cowboys roster.

Zeke Elliott has looked strong during preseason, running the ball effectively, showing the vision to capitalize on the cavernous lanes created by the offensive line, and also displaying his highly-thought-of pass-blocking abilities. He’s also caught the ball well out of the backfield.

In addition to the potential-laden rookie, the Cowboys also have Alfred Morris (who looked better than anyone could have expected during preseason), Lance Dunbar (who the Cowboys hope is fully healthy and fully confident in that health so he can return to his dangerous, cat-quick, playmaking self), and Darius Jackson (who showed legitimate promise preseason). All that, and we have yet to mention the guy who finished 2015 as the fourth-leading rusher in the NFL, despite not even taking over the lead role until Week 6 of last season.

This group, behind that massive, talented, bruising offensive line -– the Cowboys running game should have no issues. A-

Wide Receivers

Dez Bryant seems angry. And that’s a good thing for the Cowboys.

He seems angry at a lost season. At the whispers during the offseason about whether he’d come back and be the same player. At any inclination whatsoever that he won’t immediately return to regular season play, and from the word ‘go,’ blow the doors off any defender who lines up in his vicinity. I can only see a scenario in which he has a monster season, no matter who is throwing him the ball. He will put up numbers. He will dominate defenses. He will be a freak. I can’t see any other outcome.

Without him last year, the rest of the receiving corps looked weak. Terrance Williams isn’t close to a No. 1. And Cole Beasley couldn’t find the openings he did in years prior. But with #88 on the field attracting attention, everyone else’s job becomes decidedly easier. Both Williams and Beasley should provide much better production this year than last. And Lucky Whitehead and Brice Butler continue to show promise. This unit is solid. B+

Tight Ends

Jason Witten is going to be Jason Witten. That’s a given. Outside of that, the Cowboys tight end situation seems a bit murky.

They haven’t really found a consistent way to utilize a second tight end, recently. Gavin Escobar does nice things in spurts, and then disappears.  Geoff Swaim may end up usurping that second tight end role from him by the time this season is out.

The production from Witten should be enough to keep the offense moving as it should. But the Cowboys would be well served by having either Swaim or Escobar provide offense more consistently. And that starts with the Cowboys having a better plan to utilize them. B

Offensive Line

There is no better position group on this roster.

Tyron Smith is bulldozer. Travis Frederick is one of the genuine leaders of this football team, and plays his position fantastically. Zack Martin is punishing and nimble. La’el Collins is a freak. And Doug Free would be a left tackle on some teams in this league. Free draws the ire of Cowboys fans from time to time. And that’s not wrong. He’s No. 5 of 5, and does some less-than-stellar things, sometimes. But if he’s your No. 5, you’re in pretty darn good shape. A+

Defensive Line

For all the positive things you can say about the offense, now that stops.

The defensive line was hit hardest by the drug-related suspensions for Randy Gregory and Demarcus Lawrence, and the rest of the unit doesn’t exactly scream “intense pass rush.” Jack Crawford has improved, but he’s not striking fear in any offensive tackles. Neither are Benson Mayowa or Charles Tapper. Cedric Thornton was a good addition, and he can help in stopping the run.  Tyrone Crawford and Terrell McClain are what they were last year. Solid. But not spectacular.

This is a unit that could be a liability. C-

Linebackers

Sean Lee is a stud. But I don’t think there’s enough help around him to allow him to roam free the way he does so well.

I like the way Andrew Gachkar has come along, and I think he can be a solid outside linebacker. And Anthony Hitchens is serviceable at middle linebacker.  The depth behind them isn’t breathtaking, but I do like what Kyle Wilber brings to the table –- and that goes for his play at linebacker and defensive end. B-

Defensive Backs

I like this unit the most on the defensive side of the ball.

Mo Claiborne has looked as good as we’ve seen him since he was wearing purple and gold at LSU. Orlando Scandrick is healthy and ready to be the strong slot corner he was pre-ACL injury. Brandon Carr is at least making less money these days. And actually, I think Carr wasn’t too bad in 2015.  He could be solid this season. Byron Jones is getting more and more comfortable in his role at safety, and is rapidly becoming a very, very good player. Barry Church is solid, and leads the unit well. I’m not sure why JJ Wilcox is still here.

Not a ton of depth, but the primary five guys could play well together. Problem is, they’ll probably have to cover wide receivers for about 14 seconds every play, because the pass rush will be negligible. B+

Specialists

Not a lot to worry about here, for the Cowboys.

Dan Bailey is a stud. Chris Jones is going to boom 45-yarders all season. LP LaDouceur is highly-trusted. Cowboys fans should be confident in these guys. A-

Predictions

  • Week 1 vs. Giants – loss
  • Week 2 @ Redskins – win
  • Week 3 vs. Bears – loss
  • Week 4 @ 49ers – win
  • Week 5 vs. Bengals – loss
  • Week 6 @ Packers – loss
  • Week 7  BYE WEEK
  • Week 8 vs. Eagles – win
  • Week 9 @ Browns – win
  • Week 10 @ Steelers – loss
  • Week 11 vs. Ravens – loss
  • Week 12 vs. Redskins – win
  • Week 13 @ Vikings – loss
  • Week 14 @ Giants – loss
  • Week 15 vs. Bucs – win
  • Week 16 vs. Lions – win
  • Week 17 @ Eagles – win

Record:  8-8, 2nd in NFC East (miss playoffs)

Copyright 2016 WFAA


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