The road is filled with hazards. The Cowboys, having won the NFC East last year, have been gifted with a first-place schedule. They play the two defending conference champions (Seattle and New England), the team that knocked them out of last season's playoffs (Green Bay) and face a trip to Buffalo, with its sure-to-be lovely weather, two days after Christmas. DeMarco Murray, fresh off perhaps the best single-season rushing performance in team history, now plays for the Cowboys' biggest division rival in Philadelphia. Linebacker Rolando McClain, after a revelatory return from multiple retirements, is sitting out the season's first four games because of a suspension, as is the Cowboys' most proven pass rusher, the newly signed Greg Hardy. Sean Lee, back from injury again, is still fragile, just like Tony Romo, without whom the Cowboys would be lost (see November 2, 2014).
All of that aside, Sunday night's opener against the Giants is the Cowboys' most anticipated since 2008 with good reason. The Cowboys went 12-4 last year and actually got better in the off-season. They added Hardy who, violence-against-women issues reluctantly put aside, promises to be a dynamic, athletic presence in the pass rush. Through the draft, they got three guys who were talented enough to go in the first round — Byron Jones, Randy Gregory and La'el Collins — despite owning only a single first round pick heading into the draft. Lee, fantastic whenever he's played, will play, at least some. Dez Bryant has emerged from a protracted contract dispute seemingly no worse for the wear. It's hard not to dream big. With that in mind, here are five questions to consider as the 2015 Cowboys get things underway Sunday night.
Can the secondary survive the loss of Orlando Scandrick?
Scandrick was the Cowboys' best defensive back last year. The former fifth-round pick from Boise State was a steady presence, countering the, to put it charitably, erratic play of teammates Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne. Scandrick kept opposing slot receivers in check in 2014, allowing the Cowboys to focus defensive resources elsewhere. That will not be the case in 2015, as Scandrick tore his ACL early in training camp. Tyler Patmon takes over in the slot, but it will be up to Carr, Claiborne and the newly drafted Jones to pick up the majority of the slack. For Claiborne, especially, this is an important season. The former first-round draft choice has flashed potential, but never performed at anything close to the level expected from the sixth pick in the draft. If he fails to put a quality campaign together, 2015 could be his last season with the Cowboys. With its much improved pass rush, the Cowboys can survive a mediocre secondary. No team can survive an awful one.
What's the deal with Randy Gregory?
If you care at all about the humanity of the players for whom you root — we get that it's hard with guys like Hardy on the local team — you should cheer for Randy Gregory. Gregory was one of the most talented defensive players in the 2015 draft, but fell out of the first round. Reportedly, many teams were worried about Gregory's rumored issues with anxiety and depression, along with the fact that he tested positive for using marijuana at Nebraska. The Cowboys ignored the stigma and got a guy who should have gone in the top 15 in the second round. Gregory will be part of a robust pass rush rotation with Hardy, DeMarcus Lawrence and Tyrone Crawford. As Gregory told the NFL Network's Rand Getlin during the draft, he'll be ready.
“The franchise that drafts me won’t have to worry about me off the field, but the teams that didn’t select me will have to worry about me on the field,” Gregory said.
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Will the real Terrance Williams please stand up?
When Terrance Williams is on, he's the Alvin Harper to Bryant's Michael Irvin. In possession of game-breaking speed, the former Baylor wide receiver adds a needed to dimension to the Cowboys offense when he shows up. He just doesn't do that all the time. Despite starting every game of the 2014 season, Williams caught only 37 passes. In 2013, he caught 44 in eight starts. Over the last seven games of 2014, Williams never caught more than three balls, limiting the Cowboys' ability to effectively stretch the field. If he helps the team do that regularly in 2015, it will be good for Bryant, who'll get just slightly less attention from opposing defenses. Slot receiver Cole Beasley and tight end Jason Witten will be more successful too, as they see less congestion in the middle of the field.
Can Lucky Whitehead do a decent Dwayne Harris impersonation?
Harris was an essential cog in the Cowboys machine for the last four seasons. The special teams stalwart was consistently productive in the return game and did the tough sledding required of punt coverage gunners with aplomb. He's not on the Cowboys anymore though, having ditched them for a five-year $17 million contract with the Giants. The Cowboys were never going to pay a special teams guy that much, so it's tough to resent Harris for taking the catch.
At least in the return game, Harris is being replaced by the delightfully named Lucky Whitehead. In preseason action, the rookie out of Florida Atlantic has flashed both explosive potential and issues with ball security. That should make for an exciting 2015 in the return game, if nothing else.
The Cowboys have the best run-blocking offensive line in football. How well can it pass block?
The Cowboys offensive line bulldozed the way for Murray's romp to a historically great season last year. They weren't tested as much they could've been in pass protecting Romo, because defenses so often sold out to stop the run. Still, the unit gave up 10 sacks in the Cowboys' two playoff games. Murray's gone and, despite protestations to the contrary by the Cowboys' coaching staff, it seems unlikely that the team will be able to maintain the run heavy play-calling mix it enjoyed last year. Barring Joseph Randle turning into the second coming of Tony Dorsett, the Cowboys are going to throw the ball more, at least a bit. That's why it's important that the offensive line develop technique to match the brute force it imposed on the rest of the league in 2014. Collins — an expected first round pick who went completely undrafted due to his being a witness in a murder investigation before being signed by the Cowboys — isn't going to start on Sunday. Sooner rather than later though, he'll take over for Ronald Leary, completing a line more than talented enough to get any job done.