Inside Slant

The Sports Xchange

September 05, 2018 at 1:08 am.

Cowboys adjust to major offseason losses

Dallas Cowboys fans begin this season perhaps more than a little nervous about who’s no longer in the locker room.

In April, the Cowboys released wide receiver Dez Bryant. Then, in early May, tight end Jason Witten announced he was retiring to take a seat in the broadcaster’s booth. As if those departures weren’t enough to worry the fan base, Dallas made a surprise move by cutting ultra-reliable kicker Dan Bailey on September 1.

As a result of those moves, Dallas is now a very young team with only two players over the age of 30 – linebacker Sean Lee and long snapper L.P. Ladouceur.

However, training camp still managed to generate optimism.

The Dallas defense received rave reviews, at first at the expense of the Cowboys’ retooled offense. But then Dallas showed signs of life on offense in the preseason opener against the 49ers while the starting defense clamped down on San Francisco.

The Cowboys defense appears to have the pieces to be a force this season. Defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence posted 14.5 sacks in 2017 and the group beside him appears to be getting stronger. Dallas management and the coaching staff remain hopeful that defensive end Randy Gregory is going to stay on good terms with the league and be a major contributor.

The Cowboys were careful with Lee in the preseason, wanting to keep him injury free and they accomplished that. But more significantly, linebacker Jaylon Smith was one of the stars of training camp. Lee, Smith and first-round draft pick Leighton Vander Esch could give Dallas a top-shelf linebacking corps.

Cornerback Chidobe Awuzie was slowed down by injury last season, but he also impressed in training camp and appears in good condition as the regular season starts. He is joined in a promising secondary by veteran Jeff Heath and Byron Jones, who switched from free safety to cornerback in the offseason. Safety Xavier Woods pulled a hamstring in the preseason and probably won’t return to the lineup until at least mid-September. Dallas fans, noticing a lack of secondary depth, have been clamoring for a trade for Seahawks star safety Earl Thomas, who has hinted that he’d like to join former Seattle defensive coordinator Kris Richard in Dallas. But the price for Thomas appears to be too high for the Cowboys.

Dallas likely won’t do anything to mortgage its future and that has everything to do with the team’s two biggest young stars: quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott.

Elliott had a roller coaster second season in the league in 2017 as he fought and then ended up serving a full six-game suspension for violating the NFL’s personal-conduct policy. But he’s unfettered by such things at the start of this campaign and Dallas is relying on him to fuel the offense.

When Elliott was outstanding in 2017, it made life much easier for Prescott, who also enters his third NFL season. Prescott takes the lead in a retooled passing game that lost Bryant and Witten, but added veterans Allen Hurns and Tavon Austin and third-round draft pick Michael Gallup.

Of course, the success of Elliott and Prescott likely hinges on the Dallas offensive line staying healthy and continuing to be top notch. The Cowboys got a scare as right guard Zack Martin limped off the field in the second preseason game, but he’s apparently back in practice and full-go for the season opener. Center Travis Frederick’s availability is less clear as he was diagnosed and began treatment for Guillain-Barre Syndrome in August.

As with any team, Dallas fans are anxious to see how so many moving parts fit together in the season opener at the Carolina Panthers. Will the passing game click? Will Elliott return to rookie form? Is this defense as good as it looked in training camp? The answers are coming soon.

SERIES HISTORY: 12th regular-season meeting. Cowboys lead series, 9-2. The Cowboys lost to the Panthers on Thanksgiving in 2015, ending Dallas’s five-game winning streak in the series.