This article is part of our Team Previews series.
The Cowboys' return to the playoffs was no fluke. A dynamic, versatile offense and young, hungry defense give them the talent to win against any opponent. No team has repeated as NFC East champions since Philadelphia in the early 2000s, but Dallas might be poised to end that streak.
THREE THINGS TO KNOW
AMARI-AGE MADE IN HEAVEN
Eyebrows were raised last October when Dallas sent a first-round pick to Oakland for wide receiver Amari Cooper, who had failed to record more than 17 yards in four of his six games to that point. In retrospect, though, the trade saved the season for both player and team. Cooper scored in his first game with the Cowboys and later had two massive performances against division rivals. The pinnacle was a 10-217-3 performance against the Eagles in Week 14 that was capped by a game-winning touchdown in overtime to cement him as a fan favorite. Along the way, he tallied at least 75 yards or scored a TD in seven of 11 games (including playoffs) with his new club, giving Dallas the dangerous downfield threat they'd lacked since Dez Bryant's injuries began piling up. Cooper figures to be just as productive in 2019, if not more so. While the focal point of the offense will remain Ezekiel Elliott – assuming his holdout ends at some point – Dak Prescott's ability to extend plays will give Cooper plenty of opportunities to get loose and find open space. Second-year wideout Michael Gallup and free-agent addition Randall Cobb round out the supporting cast, and with a full offseason to develop more chemistry with Prescott, Cooper should finally become the elite weapon he was projected to be as the fourth overall pick in the 2015 draft.
CAN DALLAS KEEP ITS CORE TOGETHER?
The acquisition of Amari Cooper proved to be a coup in the short term, but it created a dilemma for the front office. Namely, finding room under the salary cap for the team's key players. Heading into this offseason, Cooper, Ezekiel Elliott, Dak Prescott, DeMarcus Lawrence, Jaylon Smith and Byron Jones were all approaching the end of their rookie deals. Plus, right tackle La'el Collins is set to become an unrestricted free agent after 2019. The club locked up Lawrence in the spring, but as of yet none of the others have inked extensions, putting the team's long-term future in question. As a quarterback, Prescott is the priority, but finding room for the rest may be impossible, even with the contracts of Sean Lee and Tyrone Crawford about to come off the books. As long as top talent evaluator Will McClay doesn't leave for greener pastures – he's overseen an outstanding run of draft success in recent years – the pipeline won't run dry. However, it remains to be seen whether Jerry and Stephen Jones can make the needed hard decisions, or if they'll throw cap-crippling money at players they would have been better off letting walk. The upcoming season likely will be the final one that this star-studded group spends together, putting pressure on the team to advance further than the divisional round of the playoffs for the first time since 1995.
DEFENSE THE KEY IN THE NFC EAST
While the exploits of the new Triplets (Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott and Amari Cooper) dominate the headlines, the defense deserves more than a little credit for Dallas' success in 2018. As evidence, the Cowboys ended the season sixth in points and seventh in yards allowed per game. There was room for improvement, though, as they were middle of the pack in turnovers and sacks, and had trouble getting off the field on third down. Management didn't neglect the defense in the offseason, adding veteran reinforcements in end Robert Quinn and safety George Iloka while using the team's top draft pick on run-stopper Trysten Hill. In the end, the group's ability to maintain or improve upon last year's performance will determine whether the Cowboys can stay on top of the NFC East. Elsewhere in the division, the Redskins have a duo of the future in Dwayne Haskins and Derrius Guice, the Eagles added Jordan Howard and DeSean Jackson to an already dangerous attack, and the Giants – despite some head-scratching roster moves, including the trade of Odell Beckham Jr. – trot out the incomparable Saquon Barkley. Those three offenses ranked between 14th and 28th in yards and 16th and 29th in scoring last season, so the defense that can best prevent both should have a good chance to emerge from the pack.
PIVOTAL PLAYER: Ezekiel Elliott
Elliott won his second rushing crown while exploding as a receiver in 2018, but it's possible he could be even better this season. His numbers improved after the Amari Cooper trade, and the potential return of center Travis Frederick from his battle with Guillain-Barre Syndrome could help the offensive line reclaim elite status.
RISING: Michael Gallup
Gallup flashed in the playoffs, tallying a TD against the Seahawks before racking up 119 yards in a loss to the Rams. With defenses honing in on Amari Cooper and Ezekiel Elliott, Gallup will get his chance to shine as the No. 2 WR.
FALLING: Jason Witten
Witten's second go-around with the Cowboys is a great story, but the 37-year-old probably won't see a lot of snaps. After all, his impact as a receiver, rather than as a locker-room leader, should be limited.
SLEEPER: Blake Jarwin
While Witten sits atop the depth chart, Jarwin's huge Week 17 and overall solid final month of 2018 mark him as the future Hall of Famer's successor and the most likely player to lead the team's tight ends in receiving.
KEY JOB BATTLE – BACKUP RUNNING BACK
While Ezekiel Elliott's holdout is unlikely to extend too deeply into the Cowboys' training camp schedule, much less last until Week 1, Le'Veon Bell's situation in 2018 and Melvin Gordon's parallel holdout this year indicate that NFL front offices are increasingly at odds with top running backs when it comes to their value, and how much job security they deserve. If Elliott does miss time in the regular season, though, the depth chart is thin behind him, especially with Rod Smith, last season's No. 2, now a Giant. Holdover Darius Jackson was a sixth-round pick by the Cowboys in 2016, but bounced through stints with the Browns and Packers before making his way back to Dallas. His familiarity with the system could give him a leg up – he saw first-team carries on the first day of camp in Elliott's absence – and he was a SPARQ-score darling in his draft year, but his NFL resume consists of only six carries Week 17 of last season. Jackson will compete with rookies Tony Pollard and Mike Weber. Pollard is a 2019 fourth-rounder who ran a blistering 4.3 40-yard dash at his pro day and profiles as a return man and gadget player. Weber is a 2019 seventh-round selection out of Ohio State who never escaped a backup role but was a reliable, physical runner during his college days. The trio could well split the load if Elliott and the team hit an impasse, but Pollard's speed gives him the most upside if any of them do see significant action.
RANDALL COBB – WR (from Packers)
Injury-prone vet was brought in to replace Cole Beasley in the slot.
JASON WITTEN – TE (from retirement)
After a season in the broadcast booth, he's back to try and get that ring.
ROBERT QUINN – DE (from Dolphins)
Ninth-year pass rusher can still get after the quarterback.
TRYSTEN HILL – DT (Rd. 2, No. 58 – UCF)
Space-eater should help contain NFC East backfields.
COLE BEASLEY – WR (to Bills)
Dependable slot receiver was rarely a difference maker.
TERRANCE WILLIAMS – WR (FA)
Foot injury, off-field issues contained him to two catches in 2018.
GEOFF SWAIM – TE (to Jaguars)
Career-best numbers in only nine games, but no room with Witten back
DAVID IRVING – DT (FA)
Talented defender kept running afoul of NFL's substance abuse policy.
THE INJURY FRONT
Travis Frederick, C – The Cowboys' vaunted offensive line just wasn't the same in 2018 without its foundation, as Frederick missed the entire campaign fighting Guillain-Barre syndrome, a potentially career-threatening autoimmune disease which causes muscle weakness in the upper body. The center has come out on top in that battle, however, and the team seems confident Frederick will be able to return to action this season. It remains to be seen whether the four-time Pro Bowler will regain his prior effectiveness, but simply having him back in the lineup should provide a boost to the offense's run blocking and pass protection.
DeMarcus Lawrence, DE – New five-year contract in hand, Lawrence underwent shoulder surgery in April to repair some lingering issues, and his recovery timeline could put his availability for Week 1 in some question. The 27-year-old has anchored the Cowboys' pass rush over the last two years, racking up 25 sacks and six forced fumbles, and while the offseason addition of Robert Quinn does give the club some extra depth off the edge, losing Lawrence for any period of time would put a big dent in the team's defensive scheme.
Byron Jones, CB – Jones emerged as an elite shutdown corner last year under the tutelage of defensive backs coach Kris Richard, and while the 27th overall pick in the 2015 draft has yet to miss a game in his four-year NFL career, that streak could be in jeopardy due to a slow recovery from hip surgery in late March. Jones isn't an impact IDP player, but his length and athleticism make him a matchup nightmare for almost any receiver, and losing him for any amount of time would be a big blow for the Dallas defense. Fortunately for the Cowboys, the schedule does them some favors on that front, as they won't face any established top-shelf WRs until they head to New Orleans in Week 4.