At the end of the 2018 Cowboys season, whether it comes in December, January or February, the month of April will have been just as important as any during the season itself.
This month, thanks to a personnel decision long in the works, a potential shock retirement and the NFL draft, Stephen Jones and the rest of the Cowboys front office have remade the team's offense in the image of its young superstars. The 2018 Cowboys belong to Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, and the team will sink or swim with their performances.
Although Prescott has taken over for Tony Romo for the last two seasons, play caller Scott Linehan and the rest of the Cowboys coaching staff have leaned on the offensive blueprint established by the Romo/Dez Bryant/DeMarco Murray Cowboys in 2014: run the ball to control the clock, set up the play action pass and minimize the amount of time a mediocre defense spends on the field. They've mixed in a read-option package that Prescott has used to devastating effect in the red zone, sure, but the offense has remained mostly a run-heavy, traditional pro-style setup built around a bruising offensive line and Bryant's vertical threat in the passing game.
Judging from the Cowboys roster two days after the draft, that's not what the team's offense is going to look like next season.
The Cowboys cut Bryant earlier this month. Jason Witten, the best tight end in franchise history, reportedly is set to accept an offer to join ESPN's Monday Night Football broadcast team later this week. Elliott, the team's multitalented backfield linchpin, looks set to start all 16 games in 2018. Those three things alone ensure that the Cowboys will look like a different team when they have the ball this fall. Stir in the acquisitions the team made over the weekend, and it may look like the Cowboys are playing a different sport.
During the second round of the draft Friday night, the Cowboys caught a huge break when University of Texas offensive lineman Connor Williams fell into their laps at No. 50, thanks to injury concerns and doubts about his ability to play tackle in the NFL. Williams is a first-round talent, one of the elite prospects invited by the league to sit in the draft's on-site green room to take the stage whenever his name was called. The Cowboys don't need him to play tackle, either.
Instead, Williams will likely be an immediate starter at left guard, shoring up a spot at which the Cowboys have been shaky since Ronald Leary left the team for the Broncos after the 2016 season. With the additions of Williams and Cameron Fleming, the Patriots swing tackle signed as a free agent, the Cowboys again have the depth on the offensive line that they missed so dearly during the consecutive losses to the Falcons, Eagles and Chargers that doomed their 2017 season.
Rather than plowing straight ahead, as they've been asked to do so often over the last four seasons, the Cowboys' skill position personnel decisions indicate that Williams, Tyron Smith, Zack Martin and the rest of the offensive line will be executing more spread-offense running game concepts in 2018.
On Saturday afternoon, the Cowboys traded a sixth-round pick to the Rams for out-of-favor wide receiver Tavon Austin. While he struggled to find a place in new Rams head coach Sean McVay's offense, Austin could be a major weapon for the Cowboys, thanks to his world-class speed and ability to play out wide, and as a change of pace in the backfield.
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With Witten's departure, Austin's electric ability if he gets the ball in space and Prescott's comfort in the spread offense going back to his days at Mississippi State, the Cowboys are going to be running a lot of shotgun, four-wide receiver sets with no tight ends and one running back. Elliott will get the ball on the zone plays that he's used to, Prescott will be trusted to run the read option even more than he was in 2017, and Austin could see as many as 10 touches a game on a combination of jet sweeps, gadget plays and short passes.
The Cowboys' 2018 passing game is a bigger question mark. The team drafted Michael Gallup, a Colorado State wide receiver many scouts believed to be a second-round talent, in the third round. Gallup has decent speed and on film shows good hands and the ability to create separation from defensive backs consistently, but he struggled in his only game against good competition, the University of Alabama, in 2017. If Gallup plays up to the best of his tape, he could be the third-down and red-zone threat the Cowboys need to take the sting out of Bryant's and Witten's departures, but he could also be a year or two away from being productive.
Outside of Gallup, Linehan will need to patch together a passing game out of longtime Cowboys disappointment Terrance Williams, free agent signings Allen Hurns and Deonte Thompson, and former Baylor basketball star Rico Gathers, who remains a cipher. Given the potential potency and versatility of the Cowboys running offense, however, it won't have to be great, just good enough to keep opposing defenses honest.