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NFC East preview: Dallas Cowboys

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Zeke is back & the defense is stacked

NFL Pro Bowl
Ezekiel Elliott has good reason to smile. $90 million good reasons in fact.
Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

DALLAS COWBOYS

2018 RECORD

10-6

NFC East champions

Lost in the NFC divisional round

VEGAS OVER/UNDER

9 wins

UNIT-BY-UNIT 2018 RANKINGS

DEFENSE

7th (329.2 ypg)

OFFENSE

22nd (343.8 ypg)

POINT DIFFERENTIAL

14th (+15)

SCHEDULE

Sept. 8 vs. NY Giants

Sept. 15 @ Washington

Sept. 22 vs. Miami

Sept. 29 @ New Orleans

Oct. 6 vs. Green Bay

Oct. 13 @ NY Jets

Oct. 20 vs. Philadelphia

Nov. 4 @ NY Giants

Nov. 10 vs. Minnesota

Nov. 17 @ Detroit

Nov. 24 @ New England

Nov. 28 vs. Buffalo

Dec. 5 @ Chicago

Dec 15 vs. Los Angeles

Dec. 22 @ Philadelphia

Dec. 29 vs. Washington

THE BREAKDOWN

THE COACH: Jason Garrett

THE STAR: Ezekiel Elliott

THE PLAYER THE SEASON RIDES ON: Dak Prescott

THE DIRT

Well, now that that’s over, the Cowboys can get down to business.

As you might have heard, Ezekiel Elliott has ended his holdout -- and cashed in (a six-year, $90 million contract extension, with $50 million guaranteed). And business should be good in Dallas in 2019, provided Elliott remains healthy and Dak Prescott can build off his 2018 second half, in which he recorded six games with a QB rating above 100.

The Eagles are a deep team and a trendy pick to reach the NFC title game and Super Bowl. But the Cowboys have more front-line talent.

They might have the best running back in the NFL in Elliott (now that he’s ended his holdout).

They have a young, athletic and imposing linebacker corps in Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith.

They have an electric receiver in Amari Cooper.

They again have one of the best offensive lines in football, now that it’s healthy.

They have an elite pass rusher in two-time Pro Bowler DeMarcus Lawrence, who registered 10.5 sacks in 2018.

The defending NFC East champions are as good as anyone, capable of giving the Saints and Rams a run in the NFC. Can they put it all together?

Prescott (67.7% completion percentage, 3,885 yards, 22 TDs, 8 INTs and a 96.9 rating) remains one of the more debated storylines in 2019 — pay him long term or not? The buzz in Dallas indicates he will also break the bank and sign long term.

It’s a gamble either way. Prescott has not yet proven to be an elite signal-caller and needs to continue to get the ball down the field. But the backup is Cooper Rush.

So new offensive coordinator Kellen Moore begins with an elite offensive line and Elliott (1,434 rushing yards, 4.7 ypc, six TDs; 77 rec., 567 yds), who led the NFL in rushing in 2016 and 2018. The line returns four-time Pro Bowl C Travis Frederick, who again joins perennial Pro Bowl LT Tyron Smith and All-Pro RG Zack Martin after missing last season with Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

Rookie Tony Pollard and veteran Alfred Morris are capable backups who flashed in camp in Elliott’s absence.

Pro Bowler Cooper (53 rec., 725 yds, 6 TDs in only nine games with Dallas) fundamentally changed the offense when he arrived in a late October trade from the Raiders. He will be joined by TE Jason Witten, who returns after a one-year retirement and foray into broadcasting on Monday Night Football; veteran Randall Cobb (38 rec., 383 yds in only nine games) who came from the Packers to replace Cole Beasley; and rising second-year player Michael Gallup (33 rec., 507 yds).

But the receivers behind them are inexperienced, including former Jets bust Devin Smith.

The Cowboys boast a formidable defense that might again give it the edge in the NFC East. Dallas surrendered just 20.3 points per game last season, sixth best in the NFL.

It starts with Vander Esch (140 tackles, third most in the NFL, in just 11 starts) and Smith (121 tackles, T-13th in the league, and 4.0 sacks). Veteran Sean Lee is moving to the strong side, although he again battled an injury (sprained knee) in camp.

Lawrence, who signed a five-year, $105 million extension in the spring, remains a difference maker. The Cowboys traded for Robert Quinn (6.5 sacks) from the Dolphins to free up Lawrence. However, Quinn will miss the first two games due to a violation of the league’s performance-enhancing substances policy. DL Tyrone Crawford (5.5 sacks) also should help. Disappointing 2017 first-round pick Taco Charlton (1.0 sack in 11 games) is facing a prove-it season.

And the cornerback duo of Pro Bowler Byron Jones and Chidobe Awuzie are formidable.

This team has the talent to be a Super Bowl contender. But will the remaining contract issues of Prescott and Cooper loom over the season? Are Elliott, Martin, Frederick and Lawrence healthy enough and focused enough to dominate as they can?

THE TAKEAWAY

This team can live up to the hype. Elliott, Cooper, Lawrence, the O Line and linebacking corps are as good as any in the NFL. But is Prescott good enough to get them to the Super Bowl, or even back-to-back division titles?

Can the Cowboys overcome the noise of the preseason and whatever distractions seem to arise weekly in Jerry’s World?

And can Garrett — who was on the hot seat last fall before a second-half playoff run — lead them to realize their potential?