Ezekiel Elliott is the gift that keeps on giving.
Ezekiel Elliott is the gift that keeps on giving.
Dallas Cowboys

As the Pain Recedes, Here's What's Next for the 2017 Cowboys

The saddest thing is that there aren't any more games. For the better part of five months Cowboys fans have enjoyed a steady stream of Sundays — well, Thursdays and one Monday. The 2016 Cowboys were young, talented and abundantly fun to watch, all rarities in the last 20 years or so of sustained DFW football misery. This was the team for which Dallas waited as the city endured quarterbacks like Quincy Carter, Clint Stoerner, Ryan Leaf and Drew Henson.

The 2016 Cowboys had Dak Prescott, the ebullient fourth round quarterback who moved the chains and protected the football as if it was second nature. They had Ezekiel Elliott, the inevitable first round running back who somehow was exactly as good as promised. The offensive line remained the best in football and even the maligned defense (thanks to an All-Pro season from linebacker Sean Lee and the emergence of cornerback Mo Claiborne and defensive end David Irving) provided moments of hope and elation.

This year's Cowboys were the best team that fans had seen since 1995. There's no reason to think next year won't be, at least, just as good.

Prescott and Elliott will remain one of the youngest quarter and running back duos in the league in 2017. Dez Bryant, after turning in the biggest performance of his career in the Cowboys' season-ending loss to the Packers, will enter 2017 in his prime and healthier than he's been since 2014. The defense, finally, is getting close to moving from a liability to an asset and that offensive line, the one that might be the NFL's most valuable unit, isn't going anywhere.

In hitting the draft jackpot with Prescott, the Cowboys have given themselves the most flexible path to sustained excellence in the NFL. For the next three seasons Prescott will make well under $1 million, so the Cowboys can expect to receive elite production at the NFL's premium position while paying about 1/40 of a competent starting quarterback's typical salary. The savings the team will realize once deposed starter Tony Romo's contract can be exercised from the Cowboys' salary cap roll will give Jerry and Stephen Jones their first significant payroll flexibility of the salary cap era.

For the better part of two decades, the Cowboys have largely been stuck with acquiring new players in one of two ways — through the draft, or off the scrap heap. Over the past five seasons or so — an era that overlaps with Stephen Jones being given more control over the team's day-to-day football operations — the Cowboys have been very good in the draft. Prescott, Elliott, Bryant, cornerback Byron Jones, center Travis Frederick, tackle Tyron Smith and guard Zack Martin all attest to how good the Cowboys have become at playing the NFL's spring lottery.

The club has become adept at finding players other teams simply don't want, like Irving, who was signed off the Kansas City Chiefs' practice squad, or wide receiver Cole Beasley, who was signed out of SMU as an un-drafted free agent. For the most part, signing big-ticket free agents capable of immediately filling the team's biggest needs has been off limits.

When the Cowboys have the ability to be players on the free agent market, they are a very attractive landing spot for the game's best players. The last time the team signed a superstar — Deion Sanders, way back at the beginning of the free agent era in 1995 — they secured their third Super Bowl in four years. It may have taken almost 20 years, but the Cowboys are finally getting close to becoming players on the free agent market again after years of disastrous cap mismanagement, thanks, in large part, to Prescott.

The cheap Dak era will line up perfectly with what should be the prime of Elliott's career. Barring any substantial revelations stemming from the league's ongoing investigation into domestic violence allegations made by his ex-girlfriend, Elliott is set to be the best performing running back in football over the next three or four years. Barring serious injury to Prescott, Elliott or multiple members of the offensive line, the Cowboys offensive will be one of the five best in the NFL for the foreseeable future.

If the defense can get close to matching the offense's quality, even Aaron Rodgers will struggle to slow down to Cowboys' next couple of playoff runs. In 2017, Lee and Jones will get the opportunity to build on their outstanding 2016 campaigns. Irving, a physical marvel at 6'7" and 273 pounds, will have another year to work on his pass rushing moves and developing into a complete football player. Most tantalizingly, Jaylon Smith will see the field for the first time.

Heading into his last college game at Notre Dame, Smith, a linebacker, was considered one of the five biggest talents slated to be available in the 2016 draft. During the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State, however, Smith shredded his ACL, LCL and nerves in his knee leaving him without full range of motion or feeling much of his left leg. Smith's injury caused him to fall to the second round in the draft, where he was scooped up by the Cowboys. After a frustrating lack of updates about his condition throughout the season, Smith said last week that he felt physically ready to play for the first time since the injury. If he's fully recovered physically, he and Lee will be a helluva duo.

All this hope is, of course, subject to the whims of injury and fleeting performance, but the Cowboys are as set for the future as is possible in today's parity-driven NFL. It's just 206 days until the Cowboys' 2017 season opener.

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