ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) — Dak Prescott dealt with the uncertainty of running back Ezekiel Elliott’s looming six-game suspension last year when the Dallas Cowboys slid from an NFC-best 13 wins to out of the playoffs.
Now the star quarterback faces the unknown of a revamped and largely unproven group of receivers after the departures of Jason Witten and Dez Bryant.
Elliott, Prescott’s fellow rookie standout from two years ago, is the supposed sure thing for a team looking up in the NFC East at defending Super Bowl champ Philadelphia.
Cole Beasley is the leader of the pass-catchers simply by having the longest Dallas tenure. The Cowboys have high hopes for newcomer Allen Hurns and rookie Michael Gallup, the first receiver drafted by the club (third round) after dumping franchise touchdown catch leader Bryant in a cost-cutting move.
“They’re very hungry guys,” Prescott said. “They’re guys that you may not necessarily know their names, but that’s what they want. They want to get out there and make those plays, let people know that they can play and they can play at a high level.”
Elliott ended up serving the suspension over domestic violence allegations halfway through last season, triggering a three-game losing streak that was too much to overcome in the tight NFC playoff race.
Throw in the retirement of Tony Romo last year spurred by the sudden emergence of Prescott, and the team’s three most important offensive players for a decade have been replaced by Elliott, the 2016 rushing champion, and his backfield mate, that year’s NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.
“It just shows how fast time goes and how quick things can change, but I think we’re both ready to embrace this leadership role,” said Elliott, who still led the NFL in yards rushing per game last season and now is free of the looming ban over domestic violence allegations. “We’re excited for this year to come.”
Some story lines with the Cowboys seeking a third straight winning season for the first time since the last of five straight in 2009:
The Cowboys have been offense-first just about every year since coach Jason Garrett joined the staff as offensive coordinator in 2007. If the preseason is any indication, Dallas might feed off its defense for once.
DeMarcus Lawrence, who tied for second in the NFL with 14½ sacks last season, leads a pass rush that’s gaining momentum. Linebacker Sean Lee is ready to be a face for the franchise with Witten gone. Starting cornerbacks Byron Jones and Chidobe Awuzie head a batch of young potential playmakers in the secondary.
“I don’t like to get ahead of ourselves — we have to put the stats down and the wins and the turnovers,” Lee said.
“Until we do that, we can’t say anything. When it comes to the right group of guys, guys who love to work and are talented, it’s as good a group I’ve worked with.”
UNCERTAINTY AT CENTER
Four-time Pro Bowl center Travis Frederick is out indefinitely after getting diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome , a disorder that attacks the nervous system. His absence raises a big question with the other part of the Elliott formula: a vaunted offensive line.
Right guard Zack Martin injured a knee in the preseason, but expects to be ready for the opener Sept. 9 at Carolina.
Left tackle Tyron Smith has battled back issues the past few seasons. Joe Looney is set to step in for Frederick, and the Cowboys have a rookie at left guard in second-round pick Connor Williams.
While Lee anchors the linebackers, Jaylon Smith has the Cowboys encouraged about his continuing recovery from a devastating knee injury in his final college game. He missed his rookie year while rehabbing and struggled with consistency last season.
Smith is playing without a brace this year and believes he has regained the form that made him a potential top-10 pick coming out of Notre Dame. First-round pick Leighton Vander Esch missed the latter part of training camp with a groin injury, but is expected to contribute as a rookie.
THICK AND THIN
Depth will be a strength with pass rushing if Randy Gregory and David Irving can overcome substance-abuse suspensions and contribute a few sacks apiece. Gregory was suspended all of last season, but has looked promising at camp. Irving is opening the season with a four-game suspension for the second year in a row.
The Cowboys are dangerously thin at safety. Jeff Heath is the only healthy player with significant experience. Xavier Woods (hamstring) and Kavon Frazier (shoulder) were injured in consecutive weeks in the preseason. Woods might miss the opener, while Frazier says he will play.