Dallas Cowboys: 5 Questions remaining heading into training camp

The Dallas Cowboys have high expectations after coming on last season, but what questions remain prior to training camp and the 2017 season?

The question isn’t if the Dallas Cowboys are able to repeat their success achieved last season, or even if they are talented enough as a team. The questions about this team are more on the smaller, individual scale pertaining to whether players on the roster are able to amp up their play for the 2017 season, because the competition in the NFC East — and in the NFC in general — is tougher on paper than it was a season ago.

One question that many have seemed to ponder is if Dak Prescott can add to his game following his Rookie of the Year season and avoid the dreaded sophomore slump. There has also been a change in the offensive line with the retirement of Doug Free and departure of Ronald Leary.

Even after winning 13 games last season, preview magazines such as Pro Football Weekly have the Cowboys winning the NFC East for a second-straight year, but with three fewer overall wins at 10-6. Though the Cowboys did lose a lot of veterans from the 13-win team from last year, they have added talent through the draft to an already boastful roster.

The Cowboys will have more than enough national exposure this upcoming season, so that means many questions will arise once Week 1 kicks off. For now, though, there are questions that remain heading into training camp, including these five.

Jun 14, 2016; Irving, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys tight end Rico Gathers (80) makes a catch during minicamp at Dallas Cowboys Headquarters. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

5. Can Rico Gathers earn a 53-man roster spot?

One of the more intriguing players on the Cowboys depth chart, second-year tight end Rico Gathers didn’t make it off the practice squad last season, but stuck around with the franchise as he began to learn how to play the tight end spot after playing college basketball at Baylor for four years.

Gathers is a natural athlete, and he’s built to play tight end. However, the question is, has he improved enough after one season of training with the Cowboys to earn a roster spot behind veteran and future Hall of Famer Jason Witten?

The tight end had a case of pinkeye last week in mini camp, and even when he returned, he wasn’t at his best. Drew Davidson of Star-Telegram.com quoted Gathers following that return from pinkeye, as he didn’t run the correct routes and didn’t have the type of practice he wanted.

Gathers was quoted, saying:

“That type of stuff makes the coaches be like, ‘Oh, he still ain’t got it.’ I want them to know I know my information and I’m the total package. I want to be reliable.”

Even with his miscues, it is good to see Gathers is working at his best to improve for the franchise and that he wants to help make an impact for the Cowboys. Gathers has a good chance if he keeps improving, to earn a full-time roster spot. With the Cowboys seemingly showing patience with him, Gathers could become that difference maker many hope he works his way to becoming.

Jun 13, 2017; Frisco, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys receiver Terrance Williams (83) takes a break during minicamp at The Star at Cowboys World Headquarters. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

4. Who will step up at wide receiver in 2017?

There is no doubt the wide receiver last season who stepped up their game was Cole Beasley. But now who will join him this season in providing more targets for quarterback Das Prescott to pass the football to?

Dez Bryant needs to be on the field more than he was last season, and if he stays healthy, there is no doubt he’ll be the top wide receiver on the team. Beasley is primed for another good season, and we can even include tight end Jason Witten on this list as he’s always a reliable target.

But who else will step up at wide receiver for the Cowboys? The player who needs to play better than a season ago is Terrance Williams. Williams doesn’t get the coverage that Bryant receives, and when Bryant is on the field, Williams should be next in line to get the football.

Williams just re-signed on a four-year, $17 million deal with the Cowboys this offseason, but he must play better than what he did last season with 44 receptions for 594 yards. Though he is the No. 2 wide receiver, it will be up to him to make the best of his opportunities. If not, the talent on the Cowboys roster in Beasley, and even possibly Brice Butler and rookie Ryan Switzer, will pass by the veteran wide receiver in 2017.

Jun 13, 2017; Frisco, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys guard La’el Collins (71) with tackle Tyron Smith (77) during minicamp at The Star at Cowboys World Headquarters. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

3. How will the Cowboys protect at right tackle?

This will be a very interesting training camp issue for the Cowboys next month and one all fans of “America’s Team” should really keep an eye on. Keeping the offensive line a well-oiled machine, so to speak, is of vast importance for the Cowboys — especially if they want running back Ezekiel Elliott on the same pace as his record-breaking rookie season.

There could be a couple different ways the Cowboys go about this, but right now it seems like La’el Collins could be the new right tackle to replace Free, moving Collins from guard. That works if Jonathan Cooper or Chaz Green can stay healthy at left guard, but the Cowboys also have Byron Bell, who also play the right tackle spot too.

Though it is never fun replacing a lineman from a unit as good as the Cowboys have had the past few seasons (they allowed only 28 sacks in 2016), the Cowboys were prepared and have the proper players to fill right into the spot vacated by Free’s retirement. There could be a battle for the right tackle spot, but it will be Collins’ to lose if he can work his way up to the position he has collegiate experience at.

Jun 13, 2017; Frisco, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) runs with the ball against Byron Jones (31) during minicamp at The Star at Cowboys World Headquarters. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

2. Can Ezekiel Elliott be even better in 2017?

Ezekiel Elliott showed the entire NFL how good he is a season ago. However, the second-year running back and former fourth overall draft pick believes he left yards on the field in that aforementioned rookie season.

Elliott rushed for over 1,600 yards on just over 300 carries as a rookie, but even with those outstanding numbers, maybe Elliott was correct in his assessment in he left yards on the field. He’s mentioned improving his pass-catching, which is an area where he could produce more in volume in 2017.

If Elliott becomes becomes more of a pass-catching running back, maybe think of Marshall Faulk. When at Ohio State for three seasons, Elliott caught a total of 58 passes, with his best season being his sophomore year where he caught 28 passes for 220 yards. That same year in the Big Ten, he rushed for over 1,800 yards.

In his first NFL season, Elliott in 15 regular season-games caught 32 passes for 363 yards with one touchdown. So for the thought on whether Elliott can rush for 2,000 yards, I’m going to go with a negative, only if the Cowboys work him into more of the passing game, as those touchdowns could take away from his rushing totals.

Jun 13, 2017; Frisco, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) throws on the run during minicamp at The Star at Cowboys World Headquarters. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

1. Will Dak Prescott take the next step?

Dak Prescott’s NFL peers have him ranked 14th in the annual Top 100 players list, according to the NFL Network. But even with such high praise from the competition, Prescott still has some work to do when being compared to other quarterbacks in the NFL.

Prescott was the perfect quarterback for the Cowboys last season, and from here on out, he will be the on-field leader in maybe the toughest place to be a quarterback in the NFL. As a rookie, Prescott passed for over 3,500 yards and 23 touchdowns. He completed 67.8 percent of his passes in the regular season and 63.2 percent of his passes in the playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers.

He handled the pressure of being a rookie quarterback for the Cowboys last season and was a big difference maker for the franchise. Then again, there were four times last season he had zero touchdown passes and five times he had one touchdown pass, but there were seven times where he had at least two touchdown passes in a game.

SportsDayDFW.com quoted former NFL quarterback Ron Jaworski in a recent article about what he believes Prescott needs to improve on in 2017:

“As you go from the rookie season to the second season you’re going to get better. I would say Dak must improve on the accuracy aspect of his game.”

The Cowboys quarterback has the talent and ability, plus a solid team around him to become an even better quarterback than he was his rookie season. Fans of the Cowboys should expect even better things from Prescott this upcoming season.

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