Super Bowl or bust.
That’s the expectation being put on the Dallas Cowboys going into 2017. Las Vegas has pegged them as the favorites to win the NFC championship and return to the Super Bowl for the first time in 22 years.
But the Cowboys haven’t won consecutive NFC East titles in more than a decade, and will have their work cut out to reach those lofty goals. It all starts July 24, when practices begin at training camp in Oxnard, Calif.
Here are the top storylines:
The Tony Romo era is over, marking the official transition to Dak Prescott. Most pros make their biggest jump from the first to second year, which means the sky’s the limit for Prescott, who is coming off one of the best rookie seasons by a quarterback in league history.
He completed 67.8 percent of his passes for 3,667 yards with 23 touchdowns and four interceptions. He had a 104.9 passer rating for the season.
But the Cowboys also don’t have a security blanket such as Romo waiting in the wings. This team is going to go as far as Prescott can take them.
Much like Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott must take strides in his sophomore season. Elliott led the league in rushing (1,631 yards) and proved to be a home-run threat every time he touched the ball. He will be relied on just as much this season, and must handle another heavy workload (he led the league with 322 carries). Additionally, Elliott needs to keep off-field issues to a minimum to avoid negative headlines and possible suspension from the league.
There’s a steep drop-off from Prescott to Kellen Moore; from Elliott to Darren McFadden; from Dez Bryant to Terrance Williams. The Cowboys have elite players on the offensive side, and any significant injury could be devastating to their championship dreams. Plus, they’re already hurting on the defensive side with David Irving suspended for the first four games and Nolan Carroll (DWI) and Damien Wilson (aggravated assault) facing punishment from the league.
The pass rush has been a priority in recent years. The Cowboys whiffed two years ago when they brought in questionable characters such as Greg Hardy and Randy Gregory, and their no-name approach last year didn’t yield much success. But they addressed that need by using a first-round pick on Taco Charlton. They also hope to see strides by guys such as DeMarcus Lawrence and Tyrone Crawford.
Rookies will push for starting spots in the secondary. Second-round pick Chidobe Awuzie is versatile enough to play corner and safety, third-round pick Jourdan Lewis is in the mix at cornerback and sixth-round pick Xavier Woods is a dark horse candidate at safety. There are plenty of battles to watch on offense, too, from left guard (Jonathan Cooper, Chaz Green) to swing tackle (Green, Emmett Cleary) to the fifth receiver spot (Brice Butler, Noah Brown, Lucky Whitehead).