2018 NFL season preview: Dallas Cowboys

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Dak Prescott has to play better than he did in 2017 in order for the Cowboys to make the playoffs in a stacked division and conference. Dak only threw for 3,324 yards last season, while also tossing 22 touchdown passes. Those numbers are similar to the ones he put up in 2016, but the glaring difference is the interceptions. In his first season as the Cowboys starter, he threw just four interceptions, but last year that number climbed to 13. Those mistakes proved to be very costly for the team.

To be fair, Dak had to overcome a lot of adversity last year, starting with the season-long drama over the Ezekiel Elliott suspension. He eventually also had to play without Zeke for four games, which didn’t make things any easier. Moreover, the lack of production from the receivers also severely limited the team’s passing output, further hindering Dak’s ability to sustain drives and get the offense going.

The Cowboys have moved on from Dez Bryant, opting to release him and free themselves of his hefty hit to the team’s salary cap. Bryant’s production has deteriorated over the past few years, as he hasn’t reached 1,000 yards in a season since 2014. His best season during that stretch was last season, when he recorded 838 receiving yards on the year. Expectations from Dez have been far greater than his on field production suggests, and he was being paid accordingly. Moreover, Bryant’s attitude had been a distraction for the team, as he would often throw tantrums on the sideline, even if they were ignited from a passion for the game.

Dallas addressed the departure of Bryant to some degree this offseason. Their first big move to address the wide receiver position was signing former Jaguars receiver Allen Hurns. Hurns is a very capable receiver, who has a chance to take his game to the next level for the receiver-starved Cowboys. The team also drafted wide receiver Michael Gallup in the third round of the draft, hoping that he will become their number one wide receiver of the future.

But Dallas didn’t stop there. They traded for speedy receiver Tavon Austin, and they only had to give up a sixth round pick to acquire his services. Dallas also signed Deonte Thompson in free agency, and while he isn’t quite consistent, he still brings another element of speed to the offense, as he runs a 4.31, 40-yard dash.

Offensively, the Cowboys would be wise to emphasize running the ball with Zeke, who gives them the best chance to sustain drives and get them in scoring position. Zeke quickly rose to the top of the NFL running back tiers, and is already considered one of the best backs in all of football. With a full offseason to move forward from his off-field issues, he should be focused and all systems go in 2018.

On the defensive side of the ball, Dallas actually played very well last year, finishing as the eighth best unit in the league in yards per game allowed, permitting just 318.1 total yards per game. They were ranked eighth against the run, and only permitted seven rushing touchdowns on the year, which was tied for the third best mark in the league. The pass defense was ranked eleventh over the course of the 2017 season.

As the new season approaches, the Cowboys appear to look even better. Linebacker Jaylon Smith is apparently healthy and ready to go, while Sean Lee is fully healthy as well. Rounding out the linebackers is likely to be first round rookie Leighton Vander Esch. Dallas also has a solid group of corners in the secondary, who should continue to make plays, particularly if they get more help from the pass rush. Dallas totaled 38 sacks last season, which was still in the top half of the NFL (15th). There is still some work to be done from a defensive personnel standpoint, but this team could outperform their eighth place ranking from a season ago.

Overall, the Cowboys seem to be in a good position to open the 2018 season. They will certainly need to play their best, with the defending Super Bowl Eagles looking to continue their dominant performance from last year. Meanwhile, the Giants have improved a great deal this offseason as well, which won’t make matters any easier. Still, this team has some very promising young players, and they could surprise a lot of people.