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Giants 2018 opponents: Are the Dallas Cowboys a playoff team?

Previewing the Giants’ division rivals

NFL: Dallas Cowboys-Minicamp Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

As the lead up to training camp begins, we’re going to preview the opponents on the 2018 New York Giants schedule. We’ll look at how 2017 played out and what 2018 might look like to get everyone ready for the season to come.

The Giants surprisingly aren’t starting the season against the Dallas Cowboys this season, but that’s where our previews will.

When will they play?

Week 2 at Dallas, Sunday Night Football

Week 17 at home

2017 in review

Record: 9-7, second NFC East

Expected W-L (Pythagorean Expectation): 8.6-7.4

DVOA rankings: 13th overall, 10th offense, 25th defense, seventh special teams

Dallas’s 2017 season was derailed with a mid-season three-game losing streak from Weeks 10-12 when the Cowboys were outscored 92-22. A popular explanation was the suspension of running back Ezekiel Elliott, but the loss of left tackle Tyron Smith during that time was significantly more impactful. In the first game Smith missed, then-Falcons edge rusher Adrian Clayborn recorded six sacks against Dak Prescott. The next week, the Philadelphia Eagles forced four sacks and three interceptions while the Cowboys still rushed for 112 yards as a team. Dallas was a much better team outside of those three games, but the those losses weigh heavily on how the 2017 team was viewed.

Offseason overview

Draft Picks

1 (19) Leighton Vander Esch, LB, Boise State

2 (50) Connor Williams, OL, Texas

3 (81) Michael Gallup, WR, Colorado State

4 (116) Dorance Armstrong Jr., EDGE, Kansas

4 (137) Dalton Schultz, TE, Stanford

5 (171) Mike White, QB, Western Kentucky

6 (193) Chris Covington, LB, Indiana

6 (208) Cedrick Wilson, WR, Boise State

7 (236) Bo Scarbrough, RB, Alabama

Key Losses

Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, Anthony Hitchens, Orlando Scandrick, Jonathan Cooper, Brice Butler

Key Additions

Kony Ealy, Allen Hurns, Jamize Olawale, Jihad Ward, Tavon Austin

Despite significant losses from major 2017 contributors, the Cowboys mostly sat out free agency. There wasn’t much of a choice after $17.1 million was used on the franchise tag for defensive end Demarcus Lawrence. The Cowboys eventually freed up $8.5 million in cap space with the release of Dez Bryant, but the timing of the release came well after that money would be useful for 2018.

Dallas bought low on two released players in free agency — Kony Ealy and Allen Hurns — then bought low through trades on Jamize Olawale, Jihad Ward, and Tavon Austin.

Despite the lack of top end talent at wide receiver, the Cowboys should be able to get by with what they have. Hurns had a great 2015 with Blake Bortles and was still ninth among wide receivers in DVOA last season. There’s also promise in two of the rookies, third-round pick Michael Gallop and sixth-round pick Cedrick Wilson.

Where the Cowboys will struggle most to replace a 2017 component is at tight end with the surprise retirement of Jason Witten, who will now call Monday Night Football games for ESPN — a place he presumably won’t be able to score touchdowns against the Giants. Right now the depth chart consists of 2015 seventh-round pick Geoff Swaim, 2017 undrafted free agent Blake Jarwin, 2016 sixth-round pick Rico Gathers, and 2018 fourth-round pick Dalton Schultz.

Numbers to know

55: Demarcus Lawrence led the league in defensive pressures in 2017, per Sports Info Solutions charting from Football Outsiders.

4.2: The Cowboys averaged 4.2 yards per carry in their six games without Ezekiel Elliott. In 10 games, Elliott averaged 4.1.

43 percent: Over the past two seasons, Dez Bryant and Jason Witten have been the targets of 43 percent of Dak Prescott’s pass attempts.

1.8 percent: The Cowboys defense had an interception rate of 1.8 percent, tied for the sixth-lowest in the league. Interception rates are among the most volatile from year-to-year, but this was was also their highest team interception rate in three seasons.

Opponent Q&A

Dave Halprin of Blogging The Boys answered a few questions about his outlook for the 2018 Cowboys season.

Q: Is there enough skill position talent — especially at wide receiver and tight end — for the offense to bounce back in 2018?

A: We’ll find out as the Cowboys are going away from a “star” system with players like Dez Bryant and Jason Witten to more of a committee approach. My personal opinion is that Bryant and Witten were no longer the players they once were, and in some ways that was impeding the growth of the Cowboys offense, albeit in different ways. Bryant was a perfect receiver for Tony Romo, a QB who like to take chances and would “throw the receiver open” with placement of the ball and allow Bryant to use his physical skills to win the catch. Two problems evolved, though. One, Prescott replaced Romo, and Prescott is a much more careful QB with the ball, he wants guys running precise routes and to be where he expects them to be, something that wasn’t a strength of Bryant. And two, Bryant’s physical skills were in decline through age and injury, and he just wasn’t winning catches like he used to, and he developed a case of the drops. Still, he demanded the ball and Prescott probably tried to get it to him too often. Witten, on the other hand, had just slowed with age. He could still get open for a seven-yard catch on occasion, but that was it. No run-after-catch, no more dynamic plays. If you look at his stats in recent years, they were basically more on the “normal” level. (Still, he’s a GOAT for his career when it comes to tight ends).

So the Cowboys are now going with receivers who are precise route-runners and who can get themselves open by creating their own separation. New wide receivers coach Sanjay Lal is all about teaching the art of route running, and the hope is that Prescott will just go through his progressions and hit the first open guy he finds. That’s more the way he played in his rookie year and it worked very well. Last year there seemed to be an effort to get the ball to Dez, and teams realized if they doubled Cole Beasley underneath, they could handle the rest of the offense. The hope this year is to spread the ball around more, to have more options available with guys who can work themselves open. At tight end, there isn’t a standout guy, but there are a few guys who could emerge. They are also going to move players around more and be a little more creative in their play-calling, the offensive passing game had gotten stale. We’ll see if it works. There are no real “stars” at WR and TE this year, but there are players who can make an impact.

Q; Last year Demarcus Lawrence led the league in pass pressures, per Sports Info Solutions, and had 27 percent of the Cowboys’ total pressures, the eighth-highest rate in the league. Can he repeat that type of production and is there enough depth behind him to help out?

A: Lawrence finally had a year when he was fully healthy and was able to start all 16 games. So if he can remain healthy again, there is no reason he shouldn’t have another year with double-digit sacks and a high pressure rate. I think he can pull off a similar season this year. We always knew he had the talent just by watching him, but he finally had the health and the experience to put it all together. The Cowboys are hoping that last year’s first round pick Taco Charlton will be quality player at DE in 2018. He started very slowly in 2017, but toward the end of the year his game took a noticeable leap forward. If he can make another jump this year, he should add some firepower to the pass rush. David Irving will also help the pass rush from the interior once he returns from his second annual four-game suspension. Then there are the wildcards. Will Randy Gregory finally be reinstated? Can Kony Ealy revive his game? Is fourth-round pick Dorance Armstrong a viable option in his rookie year? After Lawrence, there are no sure-things but they do have some guys with potential.

Q: What’s the most underrated aspect of this team heading into 2018?

A: Probably the back seven on defense. The Cowboys have a chance to have a phenomenal linebacker unit IF some things work out. If Sean Lee can stay healthy, he is one of the very best linebackers in the game. If Jaylon Smith finally returns to Notre Dame form, he can really impact games. If first-round pick Leighton Vander Esch translates his crazy size and athleticism into quality play in his first year, that unit can be elite. But, that is a lot of ifs, so they could be underrated or overrated depending on how the ifs play out. The Cowboys also have a young secondary but they really started to play well as the season progressed in 2017. They also brought over Kris Richard to coach them and he was the architect of Seattle’s Legion of Boom. There is real potential in the secondary, and if Kris Richard can bring it out and elevate the play, the Cowboys back seven could really be a lot better than most people would think.

Q: If you had to predict a regular season record, what would it be?

A: I’m an eternal optimist, although I also try to deal in reality. Still it is the offseason, a time when all team’s have hope, so I’m going to go on the positive side of expectations and predict a 10-6 record and a playoff spot. After all, everybody thinks the Cowboys had a down year in 2017, and they still managed a 9-7 record.