July 19, 2016

While the annual health watch is so-far-so-good for oft-injured quarterback Tony Romo, the Dallas Cowboys' rate of player loss belies numbers that suggest they will open training camp July 29 with 20 returning starters.

That number technically includes three key defenders -- defensive ends Randy Gregory and DeMarcus Lawrence as well as linebacker Rolando McClain -- who will be on suspension when the season opens.

McClain, suspended four games last year for substance abuse, is sidelined 10 games this year while the others are out four.

Meanwhile, Romo says he feels great after surgery to strengthen the left collarbone he fractured twice in less than a year. He played only four games last season as the Cowboys fell to last in the NFC East at 4-12.

In the draft, the Cowboys used their first four picks on players who should help Romo as well as a defense now depleted by those suspensions.

With the first pick, No. 4 overall, the Cowboys grabbed Ohio State's prolific running back Ezekiel Elliott, whose selection became even more timely when returning starter Darren McFadden broke his elbow on Memorial Day weekend. Elliott, who rushed for 3,961 yards and scored 43 touchdowns in three college seasons, will not only take pressure off Romo, but should help keep the defense rested.

The Cowboys also signed free-agent running back Alfred Morris (Washington), a sixth-round draftee in 2012 when he became only the fourth rookie in NFL history to rush for more than 1,600 yards (1,613). But after three years rushing for at least 1,000 yards for the Redskins, Morris carried for only 751 last year, so his free-agent deal was worth only $$2.5 million over two years with a $1 million signing bonus.

After Elliott, the Cowboys' next three draft picks were on defense (although two of them are already mitigated by injuries) -- Notre Dame's insanely talented linebacker Jaylon Smith, who may sit out a season with a knee/nerve injury; Nebraska defensive tackle Maliek Collins, who was sidelined with injury during OTAs and Oklahoma defensive end Charles Tapper, who is apparently healthy and has excellent pass-rush speed.

Here is a closer look at the newcomers and key players and how they should factor into the Cowboys' 2016 team:



River Ridge Playing Fields, Oxnard, CA, 7/29, 7/29

COACH: Jason Garrett

6th full season as Cowboys/NFL head coach

46-44 overall; 1-1 postseason

2015 RECORD: 4-12



20: 11 offense, 9 defense, kicker, punter

OFFSEASON STANDOUT: Quarterback Tony Romo.

--Romo had a full offseason with no limitations despite surgery to strengthen his collarbone. Romo, 36, played only four games last season, twice fracturing his left collarbone. But, after preventive surgery on the collarbone this offseason, Romo insists he's right where he needs to be.

"I'm throwing the ball as well as I ever have," Romo said. "I think a lot of that is just based on years of trying to perfect your craft and get to a point where you feel very confident from multiple launch angles throwing the football with people around your feet, in front of you, you can't step into it, you can, sliding left, having to move a little to the right, throwing across yourself, throwing out in front, drag routes, people who are stationary. There's a lot of little things that come up from the quarterback position as far as the angle and launch point of the release. I feel like that's a big thing I've been working on was a certain technique to that.

"Now that I feel like I've been able to accomplish doing it every day, it's been a few years of trying it. I feel like now this offseason when I wake up, it's there every day. That's pretty exciting. I think that's part of what has allowed me to, once you are there, now you can start playing with your footwork and doing things to technically, like I said, try to perfect your craft. I'm just excited that I get to throw and practice those things."


The draft -- A closer look at the Cowboys' picks (9):

--Round 1/4 -- Ezekiel Elliott, RB, 6-0, 225, Ohio State

The Cowboys bypassed help for the defense to take the game-breaking Elliott, who they deem such a special talent that will help the offense and the defense. He will take pressure off quarterback Tony Romo and keep the defense off the field.

--Round 2/34 -- Jaylon Smith, LB, 6-2, 240, Notre Dame

Smith likely won't play in 2016 because of a knee injury with nerve damage he suffered in the Fiesta Bowl in January. The Cowboys think he is a foundation player for the future and worth the wait.

--Round 3/67 -- Maliek Collins, DT, 6-2, 300, Nebraska

Had hoped to compete for a starting role at defensive tackle, but suffered a fractured foot during OTAs and had surgery to insert a screw. He also had a bone graft. Will start training camp on PUP and may not be ready until after start of the season.

--Round 4/101 -- Charles Tapper, DE, 6-4, 281, Oklahoma

A good athlete with good speed who could be better in the NFL than college. He was asked to read and react at Oklahoma. He will be asked to rush in Dallas. Ran a 4.59 40 at the Combine.

--Round 4/135 -- Dak Prescott, QB, 6-2, 230, Mississippi State

Prescott is the first quarterback drafted by the Cowboys since 2009. He has similar size and athleticism as Tony Romo. He can make plays with his feet. He's a developmental quarterback for the future.

--Round 6/189 -- Anthony Brown, CB, 5-11, 190, Purdue

The Cowboys had a fourth-round grade on Brown so they view him as good value in the sixth. Has great speed. Ran 4.35 40 at the Combine. Could be viewed as a replacement for Morris Claiborne and or Brandon Carr in 2017.

--Round 6/212 -- Kavon Frazier, S, 6-0, 218, Central Michigan

The Cowboys had a fourth-round grade on Frazier. The team needs safety help in the future with J.J. Wilcox and Barry Church in the final year of their deals. Frazier started 13 games in 2015 and finished with a team-high 108 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and one interception.

--Round 6/216 -- Darius Jackson, RB, 6-0, 221, Eastern Michigan

Jackson is big, fast and athletic. He has 4.4 speed in the 40. He rushed for a school-record 16 touchdowns last year and ran for 1,110 yards on 207 carries. He can also be a factor on third down with 21 catches for 201 yards and two touchdowns.

--Round 6/217 -- Rico Gathers, TE, 6-8, 275, Baylor

Gathers played basketball in college and hasn't played football since junior high. The Cowboys look at him as a project and a future Antonio Gates. He has long arms and big hands, but has the size to be a physical run blocker.


--C/G Joe Looney: A reliable veteran who was signed to be the backup center/guard on game day.

--DE Benson Mayowa: Promising player who came over from Raiders to provide depth at right end.

--RB Alfred Morris: Came over from Redskins to share the load and now will be watching the rookie Ezekiel Elliott.

--DT Cedric Thornton: Was signed from the Eagles as athletic replacement for Nick Hayden at nose tackle.

KEY LOSS: DE Jeremy Mincey (14/6)*

--Mincey wasn't a big numbers guy, but he was a leader in the locker room. The Cowboys no longer have a veteran to guide them upfront.


--G Mackenzy Bernadeau (16/1), QB Matt Cassel (8/7), FB Tyler Clutts (16/5), DE Greg Hardy (12/12), DT Nick Hayden (16/15), S Danny McCray (16/0), RB Robert Turbin (7/0)*

Total games played/started lost: 105/46

*Number in parentheses is games played/games started in 2015

-- Frank Cooney, founder and publisher of The Sports Xchange and NFLDraftScout.com, is in his sixth decade covering football and 26th year on the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee. TSX's network of NFL insiders provided information for this report.

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