OXNARD, California – There are any number of excuses the Cowboys can drudge up to rationalize their dreadful 6-10 record in 2020. A brand new head coach. The COVID-19 pandemic and all of its fluctuating rules and regulations. Losing their starting quarterback to a season-ending injury. The list is seemingly endless.
Thankfully, that season has been over for months now. It’s time to turn the page.
Dallas has a brand new opportunity ahead of them with their first-ever 17-game regular season starting on Sept. 9 with a road game against the defending Super Bowl Champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Before they are ready to take on the champs, however, the Cowboys have to put in the work. This year’s squad has already made important strides at rookie minicamp and organized team activities over the past couple months. And for the first time since 2019, the Cowboys are making their return to Oxnard, California for the start of training camp, with media and fans expected on hand.
As they sets their sights on returning the “star” to its former glory, here are Dallas’ five biggest priorities for training camp.
1. SHORING UP THE DEFENSE
It is impossible to overstate how abysmal Dallas’ “defense” was last season.
In 2020, the Cowboys gave up a franchise-record 473 points and 6,183 total net yards to opponents. The performance was so bad, defensive coordinator Mike Nolan was fired after only one season at the helm. Dallas has since turned to former Atlanta Falcons head coach Dan Quinn to fix and rebuild the defensive unit, and they have injected plenty of young talent into the lineup. The Cowboys used eight of their 11 picks in this year’s NFL Draft on defensive players, including their first round selection: Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons. His versatility looks to be a huge boon for a squad that just recently lost longtime stalwart Sean Lee to retirement in April and has concerns about Leighton Vander Esch’s recent injury history. As a result, Parsons and fellow rookie Jabril Cox could see more playing time in the defensive backfield.
While Parsons might add some sizzle to the pass rush, you can expect the rest of the defensive line to improve thanks to some more playing time for Randy Gregory. But one of the major question marks remains the secondary, which was regularly torched throughout 2020. Dallas lost cornerback Chidobe Awuzie to the Cincinnati Bengals in free agency. Instead, the Cowboys look for improvement from second-year cornerback Trevon Diggs, who started in 11 of the 12 games he played last season.
2. DAK IS BACK
In today’s NFL, teams don’t have a prayer of competing for a title without a top-shelf starting quarterback.
Dallas found that out the hard way in 2020. Needless to say, one of the team’s biggest priorities is protecting Dak Prescott and giving him the chance to make game-changing plays.
Cowboys fans are thrilled to know Prescott will take snaps under center this season. He missed the vast majority of last season after suffering a gruesome leg injury in Week 5 against the New York Giants. Now seven months removed from undergoing two surgeries to repair the compound fracture and dislocation in his right ankle, Dak has worked himself back into shape and has “buried” the injury mentally.
All eyes will be on Prescott as he navigates the offense after he signed a record four-year, $160 million deal that included a record $66 million signing bonus and an average salary of $40 million per year this offseason. That money will be well-spent if he can return to form as one of the best quarterbacks in the league.
3. ZEKE’S RETURN TO DOMINANCE
If Dallas wants to reclaim the NFC East crown, they’re going to need running back Ezekiel Elliott to reclaim his old form.
Elliott posted a career-low 979 rushing yards in 2020, averaging only four yards per carry and 65.3 yards per game. He also scored only six rushing touchdowns, while racking up a career-high six fumbles. Elliott had previously rushed for over 1,300 yards in 2016, 2018 and 2019.
Some of Elliott’s struggles can be traced back to Prescott’s season-ending injury and injuries to three of Dallas’ best offensive linemen: Tyron Smith, La’el Collins and Zack Martin. Smith missed all but two games last year after undergoing neck surgery, while Collins missed the entire season with hip surgery. Martin was in and out of the lineup with an assortment of injuries. He only played in 10 games last year.
Training camp will also be the general public’s first chance to hear from Elliott this season. He has avoided all interviews with the media throughout organized team activities and mandatory minicamp. Regardless, Elliott has put his nose to the grindstone with personal trainer Josh Hicks, who has posted some snippets of Elliott’s intense offseason workouts over the past couple months.
4. COOPER’S AVAILABILITY
While Dak and Zeke will be back on the practice field looking to reassert themselves, it remains to be seen whether star wide receiver Amari Cooper will even be in Oxnard.
Head coach Mike McCarthy has revealed that Cooper might not be ready for the start of training camp due to a nagging ankle injury. Back in January, Cooper posted a picture to his instagram account with his right leg in a boot and a caption stating, “Surgery was a success.” Reports indicate that he had his right ankle cleaned out with the intention of not missing any offseason workouts. Instead, Cooper missed all of Dallas’ organized team activities and the mandatory minicamp.
The Cowboys do have two other receivers who can fill in if necessary. Second-year standout CeeDee Lamb and underrated wideout Michael Gallup each posted nearly 1,000 yards in the 2020 campaign. But Cooper is still expected to be Dallas’ most effective pass-catching threat. He signed a five-year, $100 million extension last year, so making sure he’s healthy and in-sync with the rest of the offense is a massive priority.
5. STARTING TIGHT END
Finally, one of the more intriguing issues heading into this training camp is the status of the tight end position.
Blake Jarwin appeared to be the heir apparent to Jason Witten after the longtime Cowboys icon left for a one-year stint with the Las Vegas Raiders, but Jarwin’s opportunity was cruelly cut short in Week 1 of the 2020 season after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his right knee. That injury came after Dallas signed Jarwin to a four-year, $22 million extension in March of that same year.
With Jarwin lost for the season, Dalton Schultz took advantage of the increased playing time and started 14 of the 16 games he played in, finishing with 615 receiving yards and a career-high four touchdowns.
Now, both players are healthy, and with fifth-year player Jeremy Sprinkle looking for his own chance to make the 53-man roster, it will be fascinating to see who will claim the starting job.