In the lead-up to training camps, USA TODAY Sports will be breaking down the key questions facing each NFL team. Today, we look at the Dallas Cowboys:
Who will step up in the reshuffled receiving corps?
After the release of Dez Bryant and the retirement of Jason Witten, the Cowboys are now without two pass catchers who accounted for 42.7% of the team’s targets (211) and 42% of its receiving yards (1,398). With no obvious successors to become Dak Prescott’s primary receiver, Dallas coaches have conceded that multiple players will have to make up for the lost production.
Terrance Williams and free-agent signing Allen Hurns are the early leaders to see the most action, but the unit likely will need other players to emerge. Cole Beasley, who in 2016 led the team with 75 catches, could carve out a substantial role, while trade-acquisition Tavon Austin is being hyped as a hybrid threat out of the backfield and behind the line of scrimmage. Keep an eye on third-round pick Michael Gallup, who could become one of Prescott’s favorites given his wide catch radius and penchant for creating separation with precise route running.
The outlook at tight end is grim, as Geoff Swaim is the only returning option who had a catch last year after recording two for 2 yards.
Will the run game return to its elite level?
A fresh start could make a considerable difference for Ezekiel Elliott after the running back spent half of last season battling the NFL in court before serving a six-game suspension stemming from a domestic violence allegation. With its offensive centerpiece sidelined, Dallas lost its first three games of Elliott’s ban. The 2016 rushing champion averaged a full yard less per carry (4.1 vs. 5.1) than he did the previous season, though he still trailed only the Rams’ Todd Gurley and the Chiefs’ Kareem Hunt in 100-yard rushing games with five.
With defenses likely to load up against the run, the burden for rejuvenating the ground game won’t solely fall to Elliott. An offensive line led by Pro Bowl selections Tyron Smith, Zack Martin (freshly signed to a six-year, $84 million extension that makes him the NFL’s highest-paid guard) and Travis Frederick will be counted on to rediscover its dominant 2016 form.
By signing offensive tackle Cameron Fleming and guard Marcus Martin and drafting guard Connor Williams in the second round, Dallas might have afforded itself some flexibility.
Can the linebackers step up and stay healthy?
Dallas has uncertainty at every level of its defense, but the key to the unit could be how the linebackers fare.
When Sean Lee played a full game last season, the Cowboys were 8-2. But they went 1-5 when their defensive mainstay played only partially or sat out entirely as he was sidelined by a hamstring injury.
Dallas eschewed its offensive needs to use its first draft pick on Leighton Vander Esch from Boise State. The 6-4, 256-pounder’s versatility could prove critical, though there might be growing pains given he was only a one-year starter.
Jaylon Smith showed great promise after sitting out his rookie season while recovering from a devastating knee injury, and he was able to go throughout the offseason program without using a brace. But he will have to prove he can handle a more substantial workload after coaches said they observed a drop-off in his performance when he took on a bigger role.
With scant depth after starter Anthony Hitchens signed with the Chiefs, this unit will need to stay healthier than it has in recent seasons.
Follow Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz on Twitter @MikeMSchwartz.