DALLAS — California. Contracts. Copious Talent. 

Cowboys.

Championship?

The Dallas Cowboys fly to Oxnard this week, as the 2019 season begins in earnest. And there are countless storylines (what’s new?) surrounding this team, as they embark on a season rife with expectations.

Elliott’s potential holdout

The very first storyline has to be running back Ezekiel Elliott.  The two-time rushing champ is reportedly considering a holdout, as he endeavors to force the Cowboys organization to give him a long-term, high-dollar extension.  Los Angeles Rams running back Todd Gurley is the highest-paid running back in the game, at an annual average value of $15 million.

But just a year after signing that contract, there are already myriad opinions and articles slamming that contract as a foolhardy waste of cap space, on a back who has since suffered an injury and may not be able to shoulder the full load any longer.

Right now, Zeke looks like the kind of back that could just keep carrying the ball 24 times a game for the next three years and not blink.  But you probably could’ve said the same about Gurley twelve months ago…

The cautionary tale that Gurley is proving to be might be a detriment to Elliott’s search for big dollars – meaning that #21 might not set the market with whatever potential contract he signs in the coming weeks (or months, or years).  But whenever it happens, Elliott figures to be north of $13 million a year, and that’s a boatload for a running back.

What is Dak worth?

Meanwhile, Dak Prescott’s pockets figure to be heavier in the near future, too.  No holdout for #4, but his contract situation still looms over this franchise.  Dak isn’t going to set the market, but he does figure to be up near the top of it, and that means roughly $30 million a year.  I can’t see him signing for less than $28 million annually.  And it could go as high as $32 million.

Prescott is not a top five quarterback in this league, and you’d probably struggle to place him in the top ten, too.  But he is the unquestioned leader of a team that has won a lot of football games over the last three years.  No matter how antiquated that concept may be, the Cowboys still believe that it matters, and they are prepared to pay big money to keep Prescott as the fulcrum of this football team.

That’s Amari

Amari Cooper, meanwhile, is also in line for a raise.  But he seems to be the least concerned of the bunch, right now.  That’s just his M.O.  He’s unflappable.  Just does his job, doesn’t ask a lot of questions, and just balls out. (That’s not to say Dak & Zeke are different in that regard, for what it’s worth. But Amari is just a special dude).

And with an entire offseason of work under his belt, learning the Cowboys system better, and getting some serious work in with Prescott, Cooper figures to be even more lethal.  Now, I don’t think you can necessarily expect some explosion in his numbers this year, only because the numbers he posted in nine games with Dallas (53 receptions, 725 yards, 6 touchdowns) were gargantuan as they were.  But you’d have to imagine the Prescott-Cooper connection will be more synced up in 2019.

Add in another year of growth for emerging number two option Michael Gallup, and add the YAC abilities of Randall Cobb, and the Cowboys receiving corps looks pretty solid, entering the season.

Offensive line – back to being great?

The Cowboys front five has been an immense strength of this organization for years.  But in 2018, they had some difficulties.  Injuries again cropped up for Tyron Smith. Bouts with inconsistency from the rotating left guard options of Conner Williams and Xavier Sua-Filo.  Moments of very solid play from La’el Collins, mixed in with less-than-inspiring work.  And of course, the season-long absence of Travis Frederick, due to Guillain-Barre Syndrome.   Heck, even the unassailable Zack Martin wasn’t always perfect.

It was a bizarre year for the Cowboys front.

But 2019 figures to be a return to form.  We don’t yet know just how healthy Frederick is, but his return is already well underway, and if he can get back to his old self (a large ask), he brings an incredible wealth of talent, organization knowledge, and steadiness to the center of that line.  Tyron appears to be healthier now than he’s been in a little while.  And with an extra year of weight gain and experience, Williams could be a breath of fresh air at left guard.  Collins needs to show a little more, but if all he has to do is be the fourth best offensive lineman on this team, that takes some pressure off.  And thanks to the attrition of 2018, the Cowboys know they have some experienced depth in Joe Looney and Sua-Filo.  And that’s to not even mention the draft pick, Conner McGovern.

Welcome back, Jason.

Here’s the reality – the Cowboys missed Jason Witten. But they’ve been missing 2014 Jason Witten.  2017 Jason Witten was only okay.  However, chances are good that 2019 Jason Witten will be better than the sum of the parts that made up the 2018 Cowboys Tight Ends.

There’s an ineffable quality to Witten that just improves the Cowboys locker room. He is a leader beyond reproach. And no matter what he’s able to actually do on the field, that leadership is the rising tide that lifts all boats.  As for what he will do on the field?  If nothing else, he’ll be where he’s supposed to be, when he’s supposed to be there, and he’ll catch just about everything thrown his way.  He’ll then probably average 0.3 yards after the catch.  But such is life.

Defense, defense, defense.

And now onto the unit that figures to be better than it was in 2018 in every possible way.  The Cowboys have basically just hit the reset button on last year’s defense, given that group an offseason to work together and improve, signed their biggest star to a massive contract that keeps him happy and a Cowboy for a very long time, and said ‘Okay, now what can you do?’

The 2018 Cowboys defense was excellent – especially down the stretch, as Dallas won seven of eight, to win the NFC East.

The prospect of keeping Demarcus Lawrence around for a long time has to have the Cowboys brass happy.  He’s been one of the top five defensive ends in football the last couple years, and there’s little reason to see that changing.  His offseason surgery happened in time for him to be available for the season.  As long as Tank comes back off that surgery feeling good, he should be a force once again.

It’ll be interesting to see Antoine Woods in his second year as a Cowboy. The bowling ball of a defensive tackle was a revelation in 2018, and you’d imagine with another year of seasoning under his belt, he’ll only be better in Rod Marinelli & Kris Richard’s system.

The linebackers figure to be the strongest element of this defense.  Running Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch out there on the lion’s share of snaps is a frightening prospect for opposing offenses. And when you consider that pre-snap savant Sean Lee is now the third-best linebacker on this team (provided he can stay healthy, which is always an if), the Cowboys appear set in the middle.

The defensive backs should(?) be better this year.  Byron Jones established himself as one of the best cover corners in the NFL last season (albeit one with bricks for hands).  And Chidobe Awuzie showed some growth on the opposite side.  There are still questions at safety, as the addition of George Iloka does little to inspire.  Chances are good the starters are again Jeff Heath and Xavier Woods.  But don’t be surprised if Woods shows some real growth in 2019.

Bottom line.

This team has bona fide championship potential.  The offense has every reason to be better in 2019 than it was last year.  The defense has every reason to be better in 2019 than it was last year.  Heck, the special teams should be better, too, given Brett Maher moves into his second season, and should show some improvement.

Take an impressive finish to 2018, and a divisional round berth and build upon it, and you should have a real shot.

What’s the catch?  We don’t know yet.   But there always seems to be one, with this team.

It’s been much repeated, the reality that this team hasn’t made consecutive playoff berths since 2006 & 2007, or that they haven’t won consecutive division titles since 1995 and 1996, or that they haven’t advanced past the divisional round since 1995.   There were talented football teams in that stretch, but they all seemed to follow up good years with bad ones. Almost invariably.

So, what’s going to be the hang-up this year? 

Cowboys fans are hoping there isn’t one, and that we all look back at 2018 like it was this young group’s version of 1991.