This article is part of our Team Previews series.
The Cowboys have the offense to win the NFC East, especially after the addition of Ezekiel Elliott. To become a true Super Bowl contender, though, they'll need improvement from a defense that will be without young bookend DEs Randy Gregory and DeMarcus Lawrence for the season's first month due to suspensions.
THREE KEY STORY LINES
RUNNING TO STAND STILL
The Cowboys defied the conventional wisdom of the current NFL by selecting a running back with the fourth overall pick in the draft, but it's easy to see what the front office had in mind. Dallas was one overruled catch away from the NFC championship game in 2014, largely on the strength of a running game headlined by DeMarco Murray, who rushed for 1,845 yards and 13 touchdowns behind the team's all-world offensive line. That production on the ground also allowed Tony Romo to attempt just 435 passes, and protecting the aging signal-caller is a priority for the team after shoulder injuries to their franchise QB doomed them to a 4-12 record last season. Ezekiel Elliott may be one of the rare backs coming out of college who can thrive as a true three-down workhorse, though, as glowing scouting reports suggest, he can be a dangerous weapon as a receiver and an effective pass blocker, as well as a decisive, elusive runner who should excel in Dallas' zone blocking scheme. If he does come close to duplicating Murray's 2014 success, the Cowboys should be able to return to the top of a very winnable NFC East.
WILL THE JAYLON SMITH GAMBLE PAY OFF?
Much as the selection of RB Ezekiel Elliott raised some eyebrows, the Cowboys truly caused a ruckus at the draft when they pulled the trigger on injured LB Jaylon Smith at the top of round two. Projected as a possible top-5 pick before his gruesome knee injury, Smith's draft stock plummeted when it was revealed that he had suffered nerve damage in addition to a torn ACL and LCL. With talent evaluators around the league nervously considering RB Marcus Lattimore's inability to return to the football field, there was speculation that Smith might not get selected before Day 3. However, the Cowboys had an edge not afforded to other organizations. Because their team physician performed Smith's surgery, Dallas' brass has confidence in his ability to recover, as evidenced by their reticence to place the linebacker on injured reserve in 2016. If he does make a full recovery, the Cowboys could have a steal on their hands, as Smith has the talent to be the next Luke Kuechly, but for a team in desperate need of immediate help on defense, it's the kind of gamble taken only by Jerry Jones.
PASS RUSHING HELP WANTED, APPLY WITHIN
The days of DeMarcus Ware terrorizing opposing QBs are long gone in Dallas. The Cowboys tied for 25th in sacks last season, the fourth straight year they've finished no higher than 20th. In an attempt to address their need for a pass rush in recent drafts, DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory were added in the second round in 2014 and 2015, respectively, but now both young defensive ends are set to miss the first four games of the upcoming season after violating the NFL's substance abuse policy. With the ill-fated Greg Hardy experiment behind them, the team signed athletic, but inexperienced, DE Benson Mayowa in the offseason and drafted DE Charles Tapper in the fourth round. Nonetheless, playing with nary an established pass rusher will be an issue in the first month of 2016, when they'll face the likes of Eli Manning, Kirk Cousins and Jay Cutler in addition to Chip Kelly's new 49ers crew. As a result, the expected lack of pressure from the D-line will once again place a heavy burden on a secondary that struggled to produce turnovers and surrendered two game-winning, overtime TD passes last year.
KEY JOB BATTLE
Considering that the Cowboys were without both Tony Romo and Dez Bryant for long stretches last year, it's a wonder Terrance Williams was able to catch any passes at all. Williams' increased target volume while Bryant was sidelined did result in a modest production bump, but bigger numbers were expected from him, perhaps unfairly. Now heading into the final year of his rookie contract, Williams needs to improve his focus and better capitalize on his opportunities if he wants to remain in the Cowboys' future plans. Former Raider wideout Brice Butler, who flashed as a down-field consideration last year when he wasn't dealing with injuries of his own, will push Williams hard in camp for the starting spot opposite Bryant, and Butler's ability to stretch the field might make him a better complement to Bryant in the offense.
The fate of the Cowboys' offense will once again rest on the fragile shoulders of Romo. The collarbone he broke twice last season shouldn't be an issue after surgery, but it's far from the only health problem the 36-year-old has dealt with the last few years. If he misses more than a couple of games, it could be another long season in Dallas.
Selected fourth overall, Elliott hit the jackpot when he landed in Dallas. DeMarco Murray racked up more than 2,250 yards from scrimmage for the team in 2014, and since then the offensive line has only improved.
FALLING: Darren McFadden
Although McFadden posted 1,000 yards rushing in 2015, the offseason additions of Elliott and Alfred Morris pushed him down the depth chart, and a broken elbow suffered in June may eventually seal his roster fate.
SLEEPER: Brice Butler
A fourth-year receiver, Butler showed flashes at the end of last season, and with Terrance Williams failing to develop into a consistent performer, Butler could emerge as a deep threat opposite Dez Bryant.
THE INJURY FRONT
Tony Romo, QB – Romo played in just four games last year after breaking his collarbone (twice!), but the Cowboys will do everything they can this season to keep him upright. A return to the run-heavy game plan of 2014 with Ezekiel Elliott will take some pressure off Romo, and he's shown in the past he can be efficient enough to produce good numbers, even when he isn't required to carry the offense.
Dez Bryant, WR – Bryant missed seven games last year due to a Jones fracture in his foot suffered in Week 1 and wasn't the same dynamic force when he returned, but a full offseason of recovery should have him at 100 percent heading into training camp. Tony Romo's health will be just as important for Bryant's value as his own, though.
Gavin Escobar, TE – The fourth-year TE has never lived up to his billing as a second round pick and Jason Witten's heir apparent, and an Achilles injury suffered late last year will likely have him on the PUP list to begin 2016.
Sean Lee, LB – As per usual, Lee missed a couple of games last year due to injury, but the move to the weak side did nothing to slow down his production as he recorded a career-high 128 tackles, 2.5 sacks and an interception. The addition of DT Cedric Thornton could free up Lee even further to wreak havoc.
Barry Church, S – Church is a liability in pass coverage, but as an in-the-box safety he racked up triple-digit tackles last year for the second time in three seasons, giving him a fairly secure IDP floor.
Randy Gregory, DE – The second-year pass rusher will miss the first four games of the season due to a substance abuse violation, but the Cowboys are counting on him to become a force on the outside once he returns. Once he's up to speed, he could factor into the sack department in a consistent basis.
Alfred Morris – RB (from Redskins)
Addition of Elliott relegates Morris to depth role.
Cedric Thornton – DT (from Eagles)
Should provide significant upgrade to interior run defense.
Benson Mayowa – DE (from Raiders)
Raw pass rusher has access to snaps due to suspensions of others.
Greg Hardy – DE (FA)
Performance didn't justify the distraction caused by off-field issues.
MATT CASSEL – QB (to Titans)
Frustrating 2015, but exit leaves scant experience behind Tony Romo.
MACKENZY BERNADEAU – G (to Jaguars)
Second depth O-lineman in two years to be plucked by Jaguars.
JEREMY MINCEY – DE (FA)
Team leader in sacks from 2014 couldn't repeat that success last season.