This week, the hopes, dreams and chatter begin. The 2018 Dallas Cowboys, talented and burdened by expectations and history, are making their way to Oxnard, California, for training camp. Practices begin Thursday, with the team looking to wash the taste of an abysmal 2017 out of its mouth. Real football's still six weeks away, but this preseason should provide more than enough distraction from the Rangers' fade to the finish.
Here are five players the Observer plans to keep its eye on as the festivities get underway.
1. Randy Gregory
The NFL handed Randy Gregory his final clearance Monday afternoon, making the three-time suspended defensive end available for all Cowboys activities, including games. If Gregory can pass his drug tests and continue to follow the clinical plan he's submitted to the league, he'll take the field for the first time since 2016 when the Cowboys open the preseason against the 49ers on Aug. 9.
If Gregory plays up to his considerable talent and stays healthy and out of trouble, he and fellow defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence will be a dominant pair of pass-rushers. They can make the Cowboys a good, rather than just adequate, defense, something that could prove essential.
With an offense that's going to need some time to find its groove, the Cowboys' defensive play early in the season could be the difference between making the playoffs and spending January at home.
2. Michael Gallup
If Michael Gallup is the Cowboys' best receiver in 2018, the Cowboys offense will have had a very good year. While the rookie third-rounder likely needs a couple of years to develop, he has the most potential of any player in the Cowboys receiving corps, which is without Dez Bryant and Jason Whitten. With a good showing in the summer heat, Gallup could skip a couple of levels on the way to becoming the Cowboys' go-to aerial threat, taking the sting out of their former No. 1 receiver's departure.
To get all that they can out of running back Ezekiel Elliott and quarterback Dak Prescott, the Cowboys need a receiver who can consistently stretch the field. Gallup can show he's that guy over the next month.
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3. Jaylon Smith
Outside linebacker Jaylon Smith needs to have a big year. The Cowboys' 2016 draft pick is fully recovered, or at least as recovered as he ever will be, from the catastrophic knee injury he suffered during the final game of his college career at Notre Dame. Because the Cowboys took middle linebacker Leighton Vander Esch in the first round, Smith won't be forced to play out of position or face overexposure from playing too many snaps in 2018, either. The thing to look for in the preseason is whether Smith jumps off your screen as a dominating force, as he did in college, or is the guy who looks like he's just good enough to stay on the field, as he did all too often last year.
4. Connor Williams
The Cowboys believed Connor Williams, who the snagged with a second-round pick in April's draft, was a first-round talent. If that's true, the left guard should integrate easily into the Cowboys offensive line. He'll be playing with four Pro Bowl-caliber teammates and won't be asked to do too much. If Williams doesn't hit the ground running, it will be a surprise, and not the good kind.
5. Rico Gathers
No speculative preseason list about the Cowboys can be complete without at least one Rico Gathers reference. The enigmatic tight end and former basketball player never played a down of college football and hasn't gotten in a regular-season NFL game. Still, as he proved before a severe concussion in a preseason game sidelined him in 2017, Gathers is capable of going up and getting the football better than anyone on the Cowboys roster. If he can repeat his stellar start from the 2017 preseason and continue to improve his football IQ, Gathers could be the passing-game red zone threat the Cowboys desperately need in 2018. He probably won't be, but as long as he's on the roster, Cowboys fans can dream.