The Five Biggest Questions Facing the Cowboys Heading Into the Season Opener

The dress rehearsal has passed, training camp is winding down, and we’re less than a week from 53 man rosters being announced. As the Cowboys gear up for their September 10th opener against the Giants, what questions still remain for America’s Team?

Here are the five biggest questions the Cowboys still need answers for as they enter the season.

[1] How much will Ezekiel Elliott play?

Earlier this month Ezekiel Elliott and the Cowboys were a little taken aback when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell handed down a six game suspension related to 2016 domestic violence allegations from Elliott’s ex-girlfriend.

Elliott will be in New York Tuesday to argue his appeal to Goodell designee Harold Henderson. Henderson is the one who reduced Greg Hardy’s suspension in 2015 from 10 games to 4, but his reputation is one of a company man.

The Cowboys are a much better team when Elliott is on the field. His pass-catching ability, blitz pickup, and overall skill in the run game is far and away the best on the roster.

Take this carry against the Lions in week 16:

Fantastic vision, mental processing, and cut ability. That’s a special player, and one the Cowboys will dearly miss if he’s not on the field for an extended period of time.

Does Elliott get a reduction? If he does, how much of a reduction would the Cowboys want in order to avoid court? If it goes to court, will he serve any of the suspension this season? There are so many questions and variables about Elliott’s availability, and the Cowboys need them answered sooner than later.

[2] How reliable are the corners?

The Cowboys revamped their secondary this offseason. Choosing to let Brandon Carr, Barry Church, Morris Claiborne, and JJ Wilcox depart via free agency meant saying goodbye to a combined 224 starts in the secondary. Looking at only 2016, those four combined for 2,643 snaps.

It was a secondary that needed fresh faces, however. In a period from November 13-24, the Cowboys played 3 games against the Steelers, Ravens, and Redskins. Dallas allowed 1,116 passing yards in that span, which was the most the team had ever allowed in a 3 game stretch.

Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, and Marquez White are intriguing young players, and Nolan Carroll has been a starter-caliber player for a number of years, but they all have warts.

Carroll has had some rough moments in practice, and he’s facing the prospects of a two-game suspension for his DWI in May. Lewis was late getting to camp due to a domestic violence court case, and he’s been battling injuries since he finally arrived. Awuzie and White don’t have any off-the-field concerns as they enter the season, but both have been bitten by the injury bug. The rookie learning curve at corner can be brutal enough, but it’s made worse for guys like Awuzie, Lewis, and White when they are battling injuries to boot.

Orlando Scandrick has had a really strong camp, and Anthony Brown looks ready to build on the successes of his 2016 rookie campaign, but it’s hard to play nickel coverage with two reliable corners. The Cowboys need Carroll to step up and play the role of Carr, and the rookies will need a crash course when their health returns.

[3] What are the implications of La’el Collins’ move to right tackle?

La’el Collins’ move to right tackle is a double-whammy, as we’ve documented here at Cowboys Blitz. The move from guard to tackle will be one challenge, but the bigger challenge is in moving from the left side of the line to the right side. The move from the left side to the right side is not all that dissimilar from asking a left-handed person to learn how to use their right hand, and then asking for them to hand-write a book in perfect penmanship.

Collins had a really nice performance against the Raiders over the weekend, and is finally looking more comfortable. We know his play strength, and he’s a committed student who I’m confident can make the transition.

But the move to right tackle, coupled with the departure of Ron Leary, means that left guard is in need of a change as well. Chaz Green is who the Cowboys would like to start there, but he simply cannot stay healthy. Byron Bell was brought in initially to compete at right tackle, but Collins’ move and Bell’s experience at guard put him in rotation for the left guard competition.

The leader in the clubhouse at left guard appears to be Jonathan Cooper. Cooper is a former top 10 pick (2013, #7 overall) but he’s struggled to live up to his draft position, and the Cowboys are his fourth team in the last 18 months. Cooper has been the best player at left guard this summer, so he’s won the job fair and square. But Cooper will need to show his flaky play is behind him, especially with Elliott’s availability a question.

[4] What do the Cowboys have at linebacker?

The injury to Anthony Hitchens was a surprising blow this weekend. Surprising in the sense that Hitchens has regressed every year since his 2014 rookie season, but was practicing well in camp and playing well in the preseason games.

Hitchens’ injury is not as bad as first believed (out 8-10 weeks as opposed to the season-long assumption of Saturday night) but the Cowboys will still be without him for an extended period of time, and it adds to a long list of variables at the position.

Jaylon Smith has been a medical miracle during camp, but there are still questions about just how effective he can be until the nerve in his knee fully regenerates. Damien Wilson has legal questions hanging over his head, which could mean a suspension could be coming from the league at any time. Sean Lee was an all-pro in 2016, but his health has been a question since the Cowboys selected him in 2010. Justin Durant was signed off of his couch late in the process for the second consecutive year.

If Smith can continue to manifest his miracle, Lee can duplicate his 2016 health, Wilson can delay or avoid suspension, and guys like Durant and Mark Nzeocha step up, then the Cowboys have nothing to worry about. It’s just a lot that has to go right in order to have peace of mind about the position.

[5] Can Dez Bryant return to form?

Dez Bryant was already feeling the pressure to perform in 2017, but Elliott’s pending suspension makes it even more of an imperative.

Bryant was signed to a big contract ahead of the 2015 season, and he’s seen a production decline ever since. 2015 was a lost cause with injuries to himself and his starting quarterback, and 2016 had a few bruises coupled with the need to build a rapport with Dak Prescott. 2017 leaves Bryant no room for excuses if he doesn’t have a big season. If he’s derailed by injuries for a third straight season, you can definitively say he’s injury-prone. If he stays healthy, and simply doesn’t perform to his pre-contract levels, than he’s simply no longer the player he was in 2014.

Bryant has now had an entire season and off-season with Dak Prescott as his quarterback. Chemistry can’t be an excuse as it was at times last season, and the good news is that we have some evidence showing Bryant and Prescott are completely in-sync.

Over his final 8 games of 2016 (including the playoff matchup with Green Bay) Bryant averaged 5 receptions, 80 yards, and a touchdown per game. Extrapolated over 16 games, Bryant would have 80 receptions, 1,280 yards, and 16 touchdowns. The Cowboys need Bryant to be that type of player, and they believe he will be again this year. But the question about whether he’s passed his prime lingers in the back of everyone’s minds.

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