The depleted, new-look Dallas Cowboys open the season Sunday at AT&T Stadium against the NFC East rival New York Giants.
The Cowboys will be without playmakers Tony Romo (injured), Randy Gregory (suspended), DeMarcus Lawrence (suspended) and Rolando McClain (suspended).
However, there’s youth and excitement surrounding rookie quarterback Dak Prescott, rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott and the return from injury of cornerback Orlando Scandrick and receiver Dez Bryant.
Here are five things to watch in Sunday’s game:
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Ezekiel Elliott has created plenty of headlines, on and off the field, in his short time since joining the Cowboys as the fourth overall pick. But now is the time for Elliott to prove he’s worthy of that pick, and his limited preseason snaps showed he’s more than capable. The Cowboys will rely heavily on Elliott this season, and plenty of eyes will be on the favorite to win offensive rookie of the year honors.
The ‘X’ man
Dez Bryant had a forgettable season a year ago, dealing with multiple foot/ankle injuries. But Bryant is healthy and ready to once again position himself among the top receivers in the game. Bryant appeared to be in midseason form for much of training camp and preseason, and has already built a nice rapport with rookie quarterback Dak Prescott. The Cowboys expect to see Bryant throw up his signature ‘X’ often this season.
Mr. Security blanket
Jason Witten is going into Year 14, and is the unquestioned leader of the team. With a rookie at quarterback, his role is even more important to start the season. Much like he is for Tony Romo, Witten must establish himself as the security blanket for Prescott. He’ll also be counted on heavily to keep the spirits up should Prescott go through any growing pains in his first start.
The pass rush
The Cowboys are rolling out a relatively no-name group of pass rushers with DeMarcus Lawrence suspended the first four games. But this unit has to get pressure on Eli Manning, particularly with the Giants’ strong receiving corps of Odell Beckham Jr., Victor Cruz and rookie Sterling Shepard. Plus, this might be the game to make an early impact considering the Giants don’t have proven offensive tackles.
The Cowboys had 11 takeaways last season, the worst in the NFL. They ranked last in turnover margin. That must change if the Cowboys are going to get back to their winning ways. The cornerbacks need to get their hands on the ball more often, and the front seven must pry the ball loose. As coach Jason Garrett preaches to his team on a daily basis, “the ball, the ball, the ball.”