The Dallas Cowboys 13-3 record in 2016 tied for the best in franchise history, but there is still room for improvement in Big D.
The main focus for upgrades will be on the defensive side of the ball. Pass rushers were not in abundant supply for the Cowboys, who dealt with Demarcus Lawrence’s back issues and Randy Gregory’s drug suspension during most of the season.
Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli’s “bend but not break” approach was able to mask the pass rush issues, mostly thanks to the All-Pro play of middle linebacker Sean Lee. Rookie defensive backs Byron Jones and Anthony Brown were able to hold up after injuries to former first-round pick Morris Claiborne, and veteran Brandon Carr had his most productive season in a Cowboys uniform.
The Cowboys were able to open up some cap space by restructuring the contracts of Pro Bowl linemen Travis Frederick and Tyron Smith. The moves, along with the likely release of Tony Romo, will allow the Cowboys to retain most of their own free agents.
Safety Barry Church, wide receiver Terrence Williams, Carr, and Claiborne will definitely garner some attention on the free agent market, but Dallas will have the flexibility to hold on to key veterans that made the run of 2016 possible.
Another big addition on the defensive side of the ball could be linebacker Jaylon Smith. The star at Notre Dame tore his ACL and LCL in the last game of his collegiate career, but is making strides to returning to the field. Smith was widely considered as the top defensive prospect in the 2016 draft before his injury. The Cowboys are hoping to be rewarded for taking a flyer on Smith in the second round of last year’s draft.
The Cowboys will also be looking for their two dynamic rookies to make the “second-year leap”. Dak Prescott led a Dallas offense that ran the ball (499 times) more than any other team in the league. NFL defenses are well-known for changing schemes, and taking away teams’ strengths. Prescott may be forced to make more plays with his arm next season. The rookie quarterback’s 68.7-percent completion rate has the Cowboys hopeful their signal-caller will be a force next year.
Ezekiel Elliott’s 2016 season was one of fulfilled expectations. The fourth-overall pick rushed for 1,631 yards and 15 touchdowns, and showed the league that three-down backs can still thrive in today’s NFL. Elliott never seemed phased by the high standards placed upon him, and seems poised to be a superstar back for the next decade. The question for next season is if Dallas will run Elliott so much, as the rookie tallied a league-high 322 carries.
The NFL is such a year-to- year league, with success not guaranteed to carry over from the previous season. The Cowboys are hoping 2016 serves as a foundation for the future, with a sixth Lombardi trophy in their sights.