Recently USA Today released its predictions for the 2017 NFL season. A lot of it seemed reasonable, though there were a ton of teams with 10 wins or more, including your Dallas Cowboys at 12-4.
Here’s the summary of their Dallas Cowboys prediction.
“Dallas Cowboys (11-5): The league should be ready for Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott — assuming he isn’t suspended — this time around; that celebrated O-line is breaking in two new starters; and the defense could be a hot mess. Still, there’s no denying this club’s offensive firepower. The Cowboys play four of their five November games at home, a good point to make a move in the standings.”
There are some things I disagree with here, but that is another discussion for another time. However, that seems a reasonable expectation for America’s Team.
One surprising prediction was where they put the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots.
Many, including Las Vegas, have the Pats as the favorite to hoist the Lombardi Trophy for Tom Brady’s record-breaking 6th time. It’s a bold prediction, considering only two teams have ever gone undefeated in the regular season. The 2007 Patriots and the 1972 Miami Dolphins.
Their prediction got me thinking, what would it take for your Dallas Cowboys to run the table in 2017.
Now you might be saying, the Dallas Cowboys are nowhere near what the ’72 Dolphins or ’07 Patriots were, but you might be overlooking one thing.
The Cowboys offense will be a juggernaut in 2017.
Like the Patriots and the Dolphins before them, the Dallas Cowboys will be extremely difficult to slow down, let alone stop on offense.
Here are six things that need to happen for the Dallas Cowboys to go 16-0.
1. Dak Prescott Makes Elite Leap
What occurred in 2016 with Dak Prescott was extraordinary. His season was one of the best two or three rookie seasons of all-time. Even among all NFL quarterbacks, his first season as a pro stands out as a great season.
He was great in 2016, but if the Cowboys want to win every game this season, then Dak Prescott needs to join the elite ranks of Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, and Drew Brees.
The offense is one of the best in the league already and were nearly unstoppable in 2016. If Dak and the Cowboys can get off to fast starts against teams and give the defense and running game a lead early, there is no reason they can’t become an elite offense.
2. Defensive End Becomes Elite Pass Rusher
A lot of the 2017 season will hinge on the offense continuing to get better and better, but the defense also needs to make improvements.
As a team, they were about average at rushing the passer. Where they were really good was in the fourth quarter when the team had a lead. The problem last season was consistency. We never knew where the pressure was going to come from, or who would come up with the big sack.
Maliek Collins appears to be the elite 3-technique tackle that the team has been looking for. Now they just need to find that defensive end that can take a game over.
Dominant defenses have at least one guy who can consistently get pressure or at the very least command the attention of the offense.
DeMarcus Lawrence is in a contract year. All the tools and skills are there, it’s time to put it together. All he needs is a little luck on the injury side of things. 2017 may be the year of his breakout.
3. Byron Jones Becomes a Turnover Machine
On the great defenses of the past decade plus, players like Ed Reed for Baltimore, Troy Polamalu for Pittsburgh, John Lynch and Ronde Barber for Tampa Bay, there were guys who could create turnovers.
Dallas has lacked a guy who can consistently intercept the ball.
Byron Jones has the athletic ability and football awareness to be a five interception a season guy, but has yet to put it together. Already adept at deflecting passes away, Jones is working on tracking the ball in the air this offseason.
His work with the Frisco Roughriders seems to have paid off. It’s been reported that he’s been creating turnovers and being a force in the secondary in the early part of training camp.
While the defense hasn’t had their pass rushing sack artist, they’ve made do with a bunch of guys being able to create pressure.
The one thing they haven’t been able to find is the guy who consistently creates turnovers.
In 2017, expect Byron Jones to be that guy.
4. Dez Bryant Plays 16 Games
In the second half of last season, Dak Prescott and Dez Bryant displayed great chemistry.
After starting off the season a bit slow, then being injured, Dez came back with a fury in the last 10 games he played.
If we project the last ten games of the season over 16 games (not counting week 17, where he played one series), Bryant would have had 76.8 receptions, 1,244.8 yards, and 14.4 touchdowns.
Those are dominant numbers for a receiver in a run first offense. If Dez plays 16 games, and there’s no reason to believe he won’t, look for him to produce similar numbers to his All-Pro 2014 season.
5. Clear Eye View
If the early returns from training camp are any indication, the Dallas Cowboys have found their Brian Urlacher.
Since making the move to the 4-3 under Monte Kiffin a few years ago, all eyes have been focused on the health of Sean Lee at the all important weak side linebacker spot.
The middle linebacker spot is just as important. For years it’s been average to good play at MLB, but with Jaylon Smith, the Cowboys have finally found that fearsome MLB that 4-3 teams crave.
If the 2006 Chicago Bears are any indication, having an All-Pro middle linebacker like Urlacher next to Lance Briggs (at WLB) is monumental. That tandem helped carry the Bears to a Super Bowl appearance with Rex Grossman at quarterback.
Smith is already showing the range and play-making ability that made him an All-American at Notre Dame. He has the talent, awareness, and even with only part of a nerve is looking explosive.
It’s only a matter of when with Jaylon at this point. All indications are making week one more and more likely.
Dallas is on the verge of having several playmakers at all three levels of the defense. Smith and Lee would form one of the most dynamic and dangerous 4-3 linebacker tandems in the NFL.
6. Dominant Offense Ready to Roll
Like the dominant Patriots offense of 2007, the Dallas Cowboys have the makings of a deep and dominant offense.
Starting with Dez Bryant, then Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley, Brice Butler, Ryan Switzer and Noah Brown or Andy Jones make this wide receiver group one of the deepest and most versatile groups in the league.
The tight end group can perform as well. Jason Witten, though is getting aged, can still be a reliable weapon in the short to intermediate passing game.
James Hanna and Geoff Swaim are under the radar guys who can make a play through the air when called upon. If Rico Gathers is making the progress that it seems he’s making (we’ll know more during the preseason games), then he may be ready to contribute in some two and three tight end formations.
This doesn’t even begin to mention the pass catching abilities of Ezekiel Elliott and Darren McFadden, who can both hurt you in the passing game.
They have more than 10 guys on offense that can hurt you in the passing game. If for some reason you are able to cover everyone and take away all of Dak Prescott’s options, which is unlikely, he has the athletic ability and awareness to make you pay with his legs.
We all know the dominance that the run game brings Ezekiel Elliott behind their All-Pro offensive line. They were difficult to stop last year and will be incredibly difficult to slow this year.
If you focus on the run, Prescott has shown he can win through the air. If you play coverage, you’re going to get gashed by Elliott and the offensive line.
The offense is poised to be elite in 2017. They have too many weapons to slow down, let alone stop.
There isn’t a weakness on the Dallas Cowboys offense. If Byron Jones, DeMarcus Lawrence, and Jaylon Smith can play at a high level in 2017, there won’t be many weaknesses on the defense, making 16-0 a real possibility.