FRISCO, Texas (AP) — Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott have quite a first act to follow as the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year and league rushing leader for the team that finished with the best record in the NFC.
Losing to Green Bay in their playoff debut makes it easy for the quarterback-running back duo of the Dallas Cowboys to say they’re looking for more in the 15th season for tight end Jason Witten, following receiver Dez Bryant’s first full offseason since his All-Pro year of 2014.
“For me it’s only one year in,” Prescott said. “It’s only one year with this offense. There’s things I can guarantee you 15-year veteran Jason Witten wants to get better at.
“I know Dez wants to get better. I think when we’re all on the same page, whether it’s right or wrong, as long as we’re all thinking the same thing we give ourselves a shot each and every play.”
The first question is whether Elliott will get a full season after breaking every significant rookie rushing record for a franchise with five Super Bowl wins and two Hall of Fame running backs: all-time NFL rushing leader Emmitt Smith and Tony Dorsett.
The NFL suspended Elliott for six games after concluding in a yearlong investigation that he roughed up his girlfriend in a domestic violence case that prosecutors in Ohio declined to pursue. He has appealed, sued the NFL and vowed that he is innocent of the league’s claims.
If the former Ohio State star serves any or all of the suspension, Elliott likely won’t repeat as rushing champ. But he should have plenty of time to help the Cowboys try to reach the playoffs for the third time in four seasons.
Darren McFadden, the team’s leading rusher in 2015 before Elliott was drafted fourth overall, should get most of the carries if Elliott is out. Alfred Morris and Rod Smith also made the 53-man roster. Dallas opens at home against the New York Giants on Sept. 10.
“We feel good about that group of running backs if we have to go play,” executive vice president of personnel Stephen Jones said. “And that’s what we’re prepared to do.”
Some of the key story lines as the Cowboys seek consecutive 10-win seasons for the first time since the last of six straight in 1996:
SUSPENSIONS GALORE: Besides the looming Elliott ban, three defensive ends are suspended to start the season. Randy Gregory won’t be eligible until the playoffs because of multiple substance-abuse violations. David Irving (performance-enhancing drugs) is out four games, and Damontre Moore (substance abuse) will miss the first two.
Cornerback Nolan Carroll and linebacker Damien Wilson faced suspensions over offseason incidents but are eligible for now.
JAYLON SMITH: The former Notre Dame star, and Rod Smith’s younger brother, is set for his regular-season debut after a devastating knee injury in his final college game that sidelined him as a rookie. He isn’t expected to start at middle linebacker, and the Cowboys are closely watching how many snaps he gets.
The team and Smith say nerve regeneration is the biggest question with his injury. Therefore, they are optimistic he can eventually play at a level resembling what figured to make him a top 10 pick in 2016. Dallas gambled on him early in the second round.
HERE’S THE CATCH: Bryant was healthy and/or not involved in a contract dispute during the offseason for the first time since scoring a career-high 16 touchdowns three years ago. That was when the Cowboys won a playoff game for just the second time since their previous title following the 1995 season. Cole Beasley was the team’s leading receiver out of the slot and looked great in the preseason. Terrance Williams is back in the No. 2 role, and Brice Butler had a solid camp.
“This is the best wideout group we’ve had top to bottom by far,” Beasley said. “It’s not even close.”
YOUNG DEFENDERS: First-round pick Taco Charlton was the latest attempt to boost a lagging pass rush. Cornerbacks Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis were the next two choices, but both have seen limited preseason action because of injuries. The Cowboys believe these rookies have talent, and need to see it quickly for a defense that doesn’t have much proven playmaking beyond All-Pro linebacker Sean Lee.
THE LAST WORD: “It’s a young, motivated group that loves to play, they love to study and it’s good when you have a group of guys like that. How many wins does that give you? I don’t know but it’s a hell of a job to go to work with these guys and enjoy it.” — 35-year-old Witten, who needs two games and 17 yards receiving to become the franchise leader in both categories.
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