LM Otero/AP

Despite notable suspensions on defense, the Cowboys will be considered among the conference favorites as long as Tony Romo stays healthy.

By Gabriel Baumgaertner
July 28, 2016

Tony Romo may be recovered from the collarbone fracture that ruined his 2015 season, but the scars of last year’s 4–12 campaign, marked by execrable backup quarterback play won’t heal until Dallas’s trusted veteran survives a few weeks of the regular season. The nerves and nightmares of last season won’t abate until Romo even survives the preseason unscathed.

Despite their perpetually suspect secondary and three notable suspensions (Randy Gregory, Demarcus Lawrence and Rolando McClain), the Cowboys will be considered conference favorites as long as Romo stays healthy. The offensive line is the best in the NFL and appears to be one of the best in recent league history; the dreadful four-win campaign allowed the ’Boys to draft a potential franchise bellcow in Ezekiel Elliott; and, barring injury or the release of the mysterious Walmart video, Dallas has Dez Bryant.

Defending the run against second-year guard La’el Collins is like trying to stand up a runaway bulldozer, and left tackle Tyron Smith’s versatility is unmatched in the league. Romo has the best protection of his career and enough weapons to put up huge numbers. He just needs to remain healthy, and his defense needs to avoid surrendering too many big plays.

Projected Cowboys 2016 depth chart, from Fansided's The Landry Hat

The Rookie: With the recent domestic violence allegations against Elliott still being evaluated by the Columbus police department, let’s shift the focus to tight end Rico Gathers, the star Baylor basketball player who did not play college football. The best possible outcome for Gathers is to be a budding version of Antonio Gates; the most realistic outcome is a player like Daniel Fells or former Raiders tight end Teyo Johnson. Gathers’s athleticism will be noticeable any time he’s on the field. The question is how quickly he can learn the speed of the NFL and whether he’s worth a spot on the 53-man roster. If Elliott is cleared of any wrongdoing, than he’s the rookie to watch. If he isn’t, then the public awaits the action of a team that employed Greg Hardy last season and a league that initially handed Ray Rice a two-game suspension.

Position Battle Spoilers: The Cowboys’ secondary has been a sieve for years, but they have found a trusty free safety in 2015 first-round pick Byron Jones. His companion at strong safety is one of the team’s most glaring issues, even with three key front-seven defenders suspended for the first quarter of the season. The race will be between the fan base’s favorite punching bag, J.J. Wilcox, and Barry Church, who is an adept tackler but struggles against the pass. Wilcox is the superior physical talent (and may be better off at linebacker), but Church may be the safer option until Wilcox improves on the missed tackles that plagued him last season.

The Stat: 5.6%, the amount of opposing offensive drives that resulted in turnovers for Dallas last year. The Cowboys succeeded at limiting passing touchdowns last season (19), but they were the worst team in the NFL at turning others over.

Preseason Watchability Guide: If Cowboys fans are watching preseason games, it’s to get a look at rookie Dak Prescott and whether he can be rocket up the depth chart to grab the backup quarterback spot from Kellen Moore and Jameill Showers. Jerry Jones bemoaned not drafting Paxton Lynch on the record, so perhaps Prescott has the opportunity to surprise the owner who publicly admitted that he didn’t really want him.

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