The 2016 season came to an abrupt halt in the divisional round against the Green Bay Packers. The days that followed must have been torture for the team that resides in Frisco but optimism is growing from the ashes of a season that went down in flames. Anyone who loves this team has to admit that the Dallas Cowboys have found the young nucleus they’ve been searching for.
The furious comeback the team had to put on just to get back in the game is an indication of the squad’s improved talent level. What is even more impressive is the majority of the players who spear-headed the steep climb are all under 30 years of age. Here is a list of key members of the team’s nucleus as they move into the off-season.
Dallas Cowboys Have the Young Nucleus They’ve Been Searching For
Running back Ezekiel Elliott hasn’t been a rookie since Week Six. When the team went up to Lambeau Field to face off against veteran quarterback Aaron Rodgers and his Green Bay Packers gang, the media tried to make us believe the young Cowboys had no chance. Elliott had another thing in mind and his play showed everyone that he is a real force to be reckoned with.
The rookie not only ran over, through and around the Packers defense. He recorded no fumbles and was quite impressive in pass-protection. When a rookie running back gets to the league, expectations are that it’s going to take him a little while to get used to the speed of the game. For Elliott, that was accomplished in Week one.
There’s also a belief that a young runner will have a hard time recognizing blitzes and picking up linebackers who are darting into the pocket. Elliott didn’t allow a sack all season. This youngster led the league in rushing and scored 15 touchdowns against a bunch of grown men. Barring injury, he can only get better from here.
When another rookie Dak Prescott took over for the often injured Tony Romo, the Cowboys were supposed to suffer, dramatically. But like Elliott, Prescott had another plan. The player began to change the culture of a team that has struggled to handle success for over 20 years. Prescott had to grow up a little earlier than the running back though.
His growth began the day he was drafted. Prescott has handcuffed himself to everyone inside the Star at Frisco in order to learn what it is to be a professional. It’s on record that the youngster is a sponge. It has also been said that he is mature beyond his years and very humble. Being humble is tough to do when you’re the quarterback of one of the most popular sports franchises in the world but Prescott is doing it.
Nobody is saying they don’t love what Tony Romo did for the Cowboys. In fact, he will make the Ring of Honor and always be an iconic figure inside he city limits. However, we have to be honest about what he really was. When he took over the team, a veteran had essentially washed out. The team appeared to be on its death-bed. Head coach Bill Parcells had grown tired of the mistakes Drew Bledsoe was making at crunch time. He needed to give his team some life.
He inserted the un-drafted free agent out of Eastern Illinois in Romo into the starting lineup and he dazzled. Most importantly, the team started winning the games they were losing under Bledsoe’s leadership. You could say the 26-year-old version of Romo was nothing more than a Band-Aid with an arm and strong agility. At least that’s what he looked like to some of us. He gave the Cowboys fan base hope. That’s what Cowboys brass was looking for.
Prescott has done much more in his rookie season. He led the team to its longest winning streak in franchise history for one. Secondly, he protected the football which is an area that Romo had a hard time getting control of. For all of the great moments he provided, there were too many heartbreaking moments. Time and time again, Romo’s costly interceptions and fumbler ripped his team’s heart out. Prescott hasn’t done that with minimal experience. He’ll probably only get better at it.
Offensive linemen Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin will be with the team for at least another three or four years. Owner Jerry Jones and his staff will make sure of it. Think about the replacements for Ronald Leary and Doug Free for a minute. La’el Collins is a second-year player who suffered a season-ending injury. However, that injury gave him a chance to watch arguably the best player of the group. Leary worked his backside off week-in and week-out.
Some of us actually believe the offensive line got better when Collins went down. In spite of his ridiculous size, agility and strength, the player made a lot of mistakes. Fortunately for the Cowboys, he made up for it with his talent. Add maturity, a greater understanding of how to do his job to and learning how to keep his body healthy, and you have another potential All-pro to team up with the other three.
Chaz Green was also injured this year, causing him to miss his opportunity to supplant Free at right tackle. But again, the young lineman got a chance to learn how to be a better professional football player. As fans, we think it’s easy but we’re kidding ourselves. Most of these guys work harder than those of us with nine to five jobs. They spend a ton of time at the facility or out doing charity work.
The pressure can weigh on a young player but when they have veterans like Smith and Free in the locker room to teach them, they can develop into a superstars. Collins and Green have a chance to do that, in Dallas. They could also flop but there are a few good linemen who will be on next year’s roster to take their places. Considering an offensive line with Collins and Green as the final pieces, the group looks a lot like this year’s group.
Rookie defensive tackle Maliek Collins earned a starting spot on the Cowboys defense despite missing much of training camp. His development should continue during the off-season. The player could become a cornerstone on a defense that was beginning to show promise as the season wound down. If the youngster stays out of trouble and keeps his mind on his profession, he could actually do some damage.
Fourth-year defensive end Benson Mayowa led the team in sacks with six. He wasn’t a starter but he definitely made the most of his time on the field. Mayowa still has a chance to develop his skill set and the Cowboys are expected to give him every opportunity to do so. At 6’3”, 240 pounds and only 25 years of age, at the very least the player could provide depth along the team’s frontline.
Despite his off the field issues, third-year defensive end Demarcus Lawrence is still on the roster. Lawrence only tallied one sack in 2016 but he provided plenty of quarterback pressures before being slowed by a back injury. Lawrence is expected to regain his spot in the starting line-up next year. As long as Lawrence continues to work on himself, he will have every opportunity to become what the team hoped he would become, when it drafted him.
One of the Cowboys biggest surprises during the season was the performance of second-year free agent defensive lineman David Irving. Irving has tremendous size, quickness and speed, helping him create issues for offensive linemen coming off the edge. His 6’7″, 270 pound frame also enables him to play on the interior. Irving finished with just four sacks but was able to force four fumbles. The Cowboys may consider re-signing him as a restricted free agent.
Seven-year pro Sean Lee is the veteran of the bunch. Lee had what many believe was his best year in 2016. The player managed to stay relatively healthy which allowed him to play in all 17 games for the first time in many years. Lee will be back and it’s safe to say he will continue to be productive for at least two more seasons.
Youngsters David Wilson and Anthony Hitchens flashed across your television screen a number of times throughout the season. Another strong off-season could help both players come back and make an impact for the team next year. Even if either of them is supplanted as the starter by second round draft pick out of Notre Dame Jaylon Smith, they should at least give the team some depth at the linebacker spot. Look for Smith to finally touch the field in 2017. Expectations are that this one is a special player.
Rookie corner-back Anthony Brown performed admirably as the starter after fifth-year pro Morris Claiborne went down. Brown started in nine games for the Cowboys, intercepting one pass and forcing a fumble. His confidence level should be super high heading into his second season. Expect him to replace free agents Claiborne or Brandon Carr as a full-time starter in 2017.
Safety/cornerback Byron Jones could actually move to corner permanently, if the Cowboys lose both free agent corners. Jones has been steady in the Cowboys secondary but not really a playmaker. He has shown playmaking ability though. A chance to play one position could help him develop into a quality performer at either position.
Overall, the Cowboys had an amazing season in 2016. Anyone who expected this group to go 13-3, win the division title and secure home-field throughout the NFC playoffs after Romo went down probably doesn’t know much about football. Champions are created by failures. Teams have to endure disappointments before they can rise to the top.
Losing in the divisional round had to hurt but it took an otherworldly demonstration of Jedi-proportions from the Packers quarterback to slam the door shut on the NFC East champions. With youth on its side for the first time in a long time, the Cowboys have a chance to recapture past glory. Budding stars at key positions could prove to be the spark the team needs to ignite the powder keg and blow up the dreaded curse that has plagued it for 21 years.