Training camp, finally, is here, and everything feels like the early '90s again. The heat is oppressive, the Rangers are oppressively mediocre and the Cowboys are desperate to get back on the field in hopes that their fans and the media will pay a little less attention to some of the squad's off-field transgressions. Like those early '90s teams, the 2017 Cowboys face the burden of high expectations following a breakthrough spurred by young talent.
The ingredients are in place for this edition of the Cowboys to be the best since the team last won the Super Bowl in 1995, but those ingredients are volatile, as capable of burning the season down as of delivering a championship.
As the Cowboys get ready to take the field for their first preseason practice this afternoon, let's take a look at five of training camp's biggest subplots.
The saga of Ezekiel Elliott
Cowboys star running back Ezekiel Elliott dominated the last week of news before camp. Last Sunday, he was allegedly involved in an altercation that ended with a local DJ taking a punch to the nose and the police being called. Dallas police never called Elliott a suspect in the case, nor did his name show up in the police report of the incident, but the fact that the second-year player was anywhere near a bar fight simply added to the tab of dubious incidents for which he is becoming known.
On Friday afternoon, NFL.com's Ian Rappoport reported that the league is finally finishing its investigation into domestic violence allegations made by Elliott's ex-girlfriend Tiffany Thompson. While the Columbus, Ohio, city attorney's office refused to press charges in the case, citing conflicting evidence and witness statements — Thompson allegedly asked one witness to lie for her in a text message, and other witnesses said that her injuries stemmed from a bar fight, rather than an attack by Elliott — the league has continued its investigation for more than a year. A decision on Elliott's potential punishment could come as early as next week.
If Elliott receives a short suspension, as many expect, it will change the Cowboys' outlook at running back. The team will likely keep third-string back Alfred Morris, a potential cut without an Elliott suspension, on the roster for at least as long as Elliott is suspended.
Jaylon Smith's knee
Elliott's potential suspension may not be that big of a deal. Darren McFadden, Elliott's backup, is fully capable of playing well enough for the Cowboys to be competitive in the first two games against the Giants and Broncos. Far bigger for the team's potential on-field success in 2017 is the status of 2016 second-round pick Jaylon Smith's left knee.
Before the 2016 Fiesta Bowl, scouts considered Smith, a linebacker, a potential top-five pick in the upcoming NFL draft. While playing for Notre Dame in that game, however, Smith suffered a catastrophic knee injury, tearing his ACL and MCL while experiencing extensive nerve damage. While time off allowed the cruciate ligaments to heal, Smith's nerve has only recently begun to regenerate.
If the nerve in Smith's leg continues to grow back, ending the drop foot that Smith has suffered for more than a year, he is capable of playing a Pro Bowl level. If it stops regenerating, as doctors have warned could happen at any time, Smith will have to adapt.
Either way, Smith is expected to take his first full-contact reps during this season's training camp, in addition to taking the field during the Cowboys' preseason games. Literally every step he takes will be analyzed for signs that his leg is back at full strength.
The kids on defense
In addition to Smith, much of the Cowboys' potential defensive success this season will rely on the trio of rookies the team selected in the first three rounds of April's draft. First-round defensive end Taco Charlton will have time to work his way into the defensive line rotation, which has a lot of bodies, if not talent. Cornerbacks Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis, taken in the second and third rounds, will not be so lucky.
During the 2016 offseason, the Cowboys lost four veteran defensive backs to free agency and signed only two outside replacements. In order for the secondary to be competitive against several of the high-powered offenses the Cowboys play this year, Awuzie, Lewis and veteran backup Jeff Heath must prove that they belong early.
In addition to the losses at defensive back, the Cowboys also lost two starters from their vaunted offensive line during the offseason. While three All-Pros — Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin — return, Ronald Leary and Doug Free will need to be replaced. While La'el Collins is likely to be better than Free, who was the line's weak link, at right tackle, the Cowboys face a bigger task in replacing Leary, who got $36 million in free agency from the Broncos.
While 2015 third-round pick Chaz Green is penciled in as the starter for now, Jonathan Cooper could give the Cowboys their most talented potential offensive line if he lives up to the expectations that led the Cardinals to draft him seventh overall in 2013.
Cooper has never played consistently in the NFL, thanks to an extensive injury history beginning during his first NFL preseason, when he broke his left fibula. Should he play up to his talent level, however, he is capable of making the Cowboys' line even better than it was last season.
The legend of Rico Gathers
The Cowboys drafted Rico Gathers in the sixth round of the 2016 NFL draft although Gathers had not played a down of college football. The team, intrigued by the former Baylor basketball player's size, wingspan and soft hands, had visions of a monster, pass-catching tight end in their heads. While Gathers remains a project, he's steadily improved during his two years with the Cowboys.
This summer, Gathers will have a chance to show that he belongs. If he plays well in the preseason, he could be an intriguing red zone option for Dak Prescott or a dangerous player on the Cowboys kick block teams, thanks to his size, during the season.
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