Wondering if and how your NFL team can make the playoffs in the coming season? Adam Rank and Marc Sessler have you covered in this ongoing series, as they provide five reasons why each of the league's 32 teams will make an appearance in the 2018 postseason. Today, Sessler examines the Dallas Cowboys.
1) A full helping of Zeke
Despite carving out nine wins, the Cowboys never fully hit their stride last season. Their up-and-down nature seemed to mirror a drama-filled season from Ezekiel Elliott, who saw his second pro campaign stained by suspension and a yards-per-carry count (4.1) that dipped a full yard off his dazzling rookie season. The 'Boys were 5-3 when Zeke's six-game ban kicked in. Three weeks later, they were 5-6 and fighting for oxygen in the NFC. Dallas fought back, but it's fair to wonder what could have been with Elliott's game-plan-changing presence on the field. Coming off a quiet offseason, the third-year Dallas back remains one of the finest runners league-wide and a raging bounce-back candidate come September. The Tavon Austin"touches" hype is the whimsy white noise of May: Elliott remains the beating heart of this offense. His full return in 2018 gives the Cowboys hope.
2) Emerging faces on defense
Let's flip to the opposite side of the ball, where the Cowboys house one of the game's more experienced coordinators in Rod Marinelli. Dallas also added former "Legion of Boom" tutor Kris Richard as the defense's passing game coordinator.
We'll find out if that holds true, but the Cowboys have a cluster of intriguing pieces on defense. After finishing tied for second league-wide with 14.5 sacks, pass-rushing wonder DeMarcus Lawrence returns this season under the $17.1 million franchise tag. Taco Charlton's rookie season was hushed, but a closer look reveals his three highest pass-rushing grades, per Pro Football Focus, came over the final four games of the year. David Irving was hurt by suspension and injuries last season, but still recorded seven sacks in just eight appearances. First-round linebacker Leighton Vander Esch is seen within team walls as "Brian Urlacher 2.0," projecting as an immediate starter alongside Pro Bowler Sean Lee.
Back to Richard, who inherits a cornerback group led by Byron Jones -- switching over from safety -- and a promising second-year duo in Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis, who came on down the stretch. Cowboys fans have seen Marinelli maximize the D before. After last offseason's veteran exodus, this year's defense offers potential.
3) Another full offseason for Dak
The pessimist will flail about the room telling you Dallas is cooked after parting ways with Dez Bryant and losing Jason Witten to retirement. In real life, Cowboys coaches were concerned with Bryant's diminished speed and inability to adjust his game dating back to 2015. Witten is a future Hall of Famer, but he wasn't the same player last season. The lack of proven receiving help is a concern for Dak Prescott, but the veteran departures officially hand this roster over to the third-year quarterback. This is his team. Prescott was forced to learn on the fly as a rookie before shouldering the load last year with Zeke in and out of the lineup. Few quarterbacks are under more pressure -- and Dak struggled for streaks last season -- but he's light years ahead of most 24-year-old passers and should only benefit from another full offseason immersed in the playbook. The caveat here: The Cowboys need young Rico Gathers to step up as a pass-catching tight end, while third-round rookie WR Michael Gallup must grow up in a hurry as a potential Week 1 starter across from Terrance Williams. Cole Beasley and new face Allen Hurns will see plenty of chances through the air. If these X-factors swing favorably, Dallas should work itself into a solid offense.
4) Big Uglies still big and ugly
While plenty of teams do battle with only one star lineman on offense, the Cowboys still boast a trio of Pro Bowlers in left tackle Tyron Smith, right guard Zack Martin and center Travis Frederick. This remains a team strength, especially if second-rounder Connor Williams blooms early. "You can tell he wants to be great," Martin said of the rookie, who could wind up playing left guard or shift out to right tackle. La'el Collins can play inside or out -- hopefully better than he did last season -- while Cameron Fleming offers additional depth. Offensive line play wavers from year to year, but Dallas offers enough star power across the front five to keep the team's ground-and-pound attack humming.
5) A less-than-pristine NFC East
Scanning the schedule in May is a fool's errand. We'll avoid that dimwitted task, but the Cowboys -- on paper -- have the tools to compete in a less-than-spotless division. Philly looms as a potential dynasty, but the Eagles haven't swept Dallas since 2011. The Giants and Redskins, meanwhile, can be had. The 'Boys have a legitimate chance to finish 4-2 inside the East, which would set the table for a wild-card shot. Going one step further into vague predictive realms, the flip-flop nature of the Cowboys franchise has seen them weave in and out of the playoffs over the past five seasons. This is the team's "in" year, if you buy this kind of stuff, but I'd first point to coach Jason Garrett's record on the whole. Widely flamed by critics, Garrett has authored only one losing season since taking over full control in 2011 -- an injury-plagued 2015, which saw Tony Romo treated harshly by the football gods. Say what you will, but Garrett has guided Dallas through endless roster churning and the club's tectonic shift from Romo to Prescott. Instead of a massive falloff this autumn, history tells us the Cowboys will be alive come December.