Drilling in: Cowboys unit by unit analysis

Dak's development, new lineup of pass-catchers, rebuilt secondary are Dallas' biggest question marks as camp begins.

By The Sports Xchange

The Cowboys arrive in Oxnard, California, for training camp today (Tuesday) and will hit the field for the first time on Thursday. The main storyline for the foreseeable future will likely focus on how Dallas replaces departed tight end Jason Witten, who retired in May, and wide receiver Dez Bryant, whom the Cowboys released in April.

But, as with any team, there are questions to be answered throughout the depth chart. Here's a position-by-position glance at Dallas going into camp.

QUARTERBACKS: Starter - Dak Prescott. Backups - Cooper Rush, Mike White.

Prescott is trying to have that rookie success again after a sophomore slump. He won fewer games (9 in 2017, 13 in 2016), threw fewer touchdowns (22 in 2017, 23 in 2016), threw for fewer yards (3,324 in 2017, 3,667 in 2016) and produced a lower passer rating (86.6 in 2017, 104.9 in 2016). He had trouble getting the ball downfield. The Cowboys have made the offense Dak-friendly and will allow him to go through his reads to receivers who will be where they are supposed to be. He will also use his feet more in spread situations. Cooper Rush will have to beat out fifth-round pick Mike White from Western Kentucky to retain the backup job.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters - Ezekiel Elliott, FB Jamize Olawale. Backups - Tavon Austin, Rod Smith, Bo Scarbrough, Darius Jackson, Trey Williams.

The Cowboys' biggest hopes of a bounce back in 2018 are because of the return of Elliott and his ability to play all 16 games. He missed six games last season while serving a suspension, and it will likely cost the Cowboys a playoff berth. Dallas went 3-3 without him. Elliott led the league in rushing as a rookie with 1,631 yards. He gained 983 in 10 games last season. If he is on the field for 16 games, he will again lead the league in rushing and be the bell cow of the Cowboys. Austin will offer a nice change of pace and bring some explosiveness to the attack. Smith will get a challenge from the rookie Scarbrough.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter - Geoff Swaim. Backups - Blake Jarwin, Rico Gathers, Dalton Schultz, David Wells.

Jason Witten is gone and this group of tight ends has nine career catches, all by Swaim. He is a solid blocker who will likely win the starting job. But the Cowboys have high hopes for Jarwin as a receiver and the rookie Schultz' development as a complete tight end. The wild card is Gathers, who spent last season on injured reserve. A former basketball player in college, Gathers is still learning the game. But he has the body and athleticism to be a red-zone scoring threat.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters - Allen Hurns, Terrance Williams. Backups - Cole Beasley, Michael Gallup, Cedrick Wilson, Deonte Thompson, Lance Lenoir, Noah Brown, K.D. Cannon.

The entire Cowboys receiver corps underperformed in 2017 so the Cowboys made wholesale changes by jettisoning No. 2 receiver Dez Bryant. It will be a unit by committee in 2018 with the focus on route running and fundamentals under new receivers coach Sanjay Lal. Hurns and Thompson were added in free agency with Gallup and Wilson added in the draft. Hurns missed 11 games the past two seasons, but he is expected to replace Bryant's production. The Cowboys need Beasley to get back to form after seeing 39 fewer receptions in 2017 from 2016. The Cowboys have high hopes for Gallup.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters - LT Tyron Smith, LG Connor Williams, C Travis Frederick, RG Zack Martin, RT La'el Collins. Backups - G Joe Looney, T Chaz Green, T Cam Fleming, T Kadeem Edwards, G Marcus Martin, T Bryce Johnson, T Blake Campos.

The Cowboys offensive line goes into this season looking to regain its reputation as the best in the league after a subpar year in 2017 because of injuries to Smith, a lack of depth at tackle, struggles at left guard and Collins transitioning from guard to right tackle. Smith is healthy again, but the Cowboys improved the depth with the addition of Fleming in free agency. They drafted Williams in the second round to take over at left guard. Smith, Frederick and Martin are expected to dominate their positions again and Collins should be comfortable at right tackle.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- DLE DeMarcus Lawrence, DLT David Irving, NT Maliek Collins, DRE Tyrone Crawford. Backups - DE Datone Jones, DT Lewis Neal, DT Richard Ash, DE Kony Ealy, DE Taco Charlton, DT Daniel Ross, DE Charles Tapper, DT Brian Price, DT Jihad Ward.

DeMarcus Lawrence, who had nine sacks his first three seasons, made 14.5 sacks last season in a breakout campaign. He was the team's first double-digit sacks leader since 2013 when Jason Hatcher made 11. Lawrence will be a free agent after the season so he will be motivated to be better and cash in. Tyrone Crawford will start opposite Lawrence, but the depth on the edge is impressive with Taco Charlton, Kony Ealy and the return of Randy Gregory from a year-long suspension. Armstrong is a drafted rookie who could make an impact as well. The Cowboys have high hopes for defensive tackle David Irving, who was disruptive in making seven sacks in eight games, but he will miss the first games on NFL suspension. Ward, acquired in a trade from the Raiders, needs to develop quickly in Irving's absence. Maliek Collins will continue to man the nose after recovering from offseason foot surgery.

LINEBACKERS: Starters - WLB Sean Lee, MLB Leighton Vander Esch, SLB Jaylon Smith. Backups - Damien Wilson, Joe Thomas, Joel Lanning, Justin March-Lillard, Chris Covington, Eric Pinkins, Kyle Keiro.

Sean Lee is the undisputed leader of this group. But the Cowboys are hoping to get him some help with the addition of Vander Esch, the first-round pick from Boise State. He will start at middle linebacker, pushing Jaylon Smith to strong-side linebacker where the Cowboys hope to keep his snaps to around 50 percent where is most efficient. Wilson, a former starter, will give the Cowboys versatile depth off the bench as well as Thomas and March-Lilliard. Lee has missed 41 games with injuries in his eight seasons. The Cowboys will rotate him with Vander Esch and Smith to maximize his production and keep him healthy.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Chidobe Awuzie, RCB Byron Jones, SS Jeff Heath, FS Xavier Woods. Backups - S Tyree Robinson, T Marqueston Huff, S Kavon Frazier, CB Jourdan Lewis, CB Anthony Brown, CB Duke Thomas, CB Marquez White, CB Kam Kelly, CB Donovan Olumba.

The Cowboys have completely remade their secondary. Jones is moving from safety to corner where he is expected to start opposite Awuzie. Both are the big cornerbacks who have the size preferred by new secondary coach Kris Richard. Lewis and Brown will battle for the nickel spot in place of the departed Orlando Scandrick. Questions remain at safety. Xavier Woods will start at free safety. Jeff Heath will continue to start at strong safety, and Kavon Frazier will spell Heath. But the Cowboys are still hoping to trade for Seattle Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas before the start of the season.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Dan Bailey, P Chris Jones, KOR/PR Tavon Austin, LS L.P. Ladouceur.

Bailey is healthy again and should be back to form after missing five field goals and two extra points last season. Chris Jones proved he is one of the best punters in the league last year when he averaged 44.1 yards per punt and had a whopping 37 downed inside the 20. There are no concerns at punter or deep snapper. Ladouceur has never botched a snap. The addition of Austin gives them a game-breaking kick returner for the first time in years.