By Dwain Price, NDG Sports Special Contributor
Primarily out of necessity, the Dallas Cowboys have hit the reset button and are ready to start anew. Gone from a year ago are veteran mainstays Jason Witten, Dez Bryant and Orlando Scandrick. Randy Gregory and – the Cowboys hope for a whole season – running back Ezekiel Elliott are back this year.
With an influx of young players and the addition of receiver Allen Hurts and running back Tavon Austin, the Cowboys believe they have enough game-breaking weapons to qualify for the playoffs after missing out on postseason play last year.
“It’s fun to have some of the young guys — they bring enthusiasm, they’re great,” linebacker Sean Lee said. “But it definitely gives you a sense of urgency that for me if we need to make a move now and win now, my impact has got to be greater than it ever has been.”
If the playoffs are indeed in the Cowboys’ future, they know they’ll have to do better than the 9-7 record they finished with last season. The work on improving that record starts in earnest on Thursday when the Cowboys open training camp in Oxnard, Calif.
“Our guys worked really hard in the offseason, and we saw a lot of growth individually and collectively in our team over that time” head coach Jason Garrett said. “So you get away from it, and now you get a chance to come back, and everybody’s re-charged, and it’ll be fun to see these guys in their training camp environment.
“You try to get yourself refreshed and re-charged to get ready to go once training camp starts,” he added.
New faces catching the ball
For the first time since 2002, the Cowboys will be going to training camp without Witten, who retired in the offseason and is now working as an NFL analyst on ESPN’S Monday Night Football. Before hanging up his football cleats after 15 years, Witten left the Cowboys as the team’s all-time leader in receptions (1,152) and receiving yards (12,448).
Meanwhile, the Cowboys released Bryant on Apr. 13, ending his eight-year tenure with the team. In 113 games for the Cowboys, Bryant had 531 catches for 7,459 yards and a franchise record 73 touchdowns.
However, Bryant clearly has lost a step or two, so the Cowboys decided it was time to part ways. And Hurns, the newcomer, is being touted as the Cowboys’ No. 1 receiver.
Or, is he?
“As far as (the wide receivers go), we don’t talk about that at all,” Hurns said. “As far as the fans or the media, if they want to talk about that, talk about it.
“The main thing for us is we’re working each and every day so when we go out there on Sundays that we won’t be the weak point of the team.”
In short, Hurns, who caught 189 passes for 2,669 yards and 21 touchdowns in four seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars, said he did not join the Cowboys strictly to replace Bryant.
“Me and him are two totally different players,” Hurns said. “As far as me, I feel like this is a big opportunity for me, but that’s something that I got to come in each and every day and work towards.
“It’s not something I can do in one day or tomorrow. It’s a gradual thing that I’ve got to come in each and every day, even at training camp.”
To help with the bonding between himself and his new crop of receivers, quarterback Dak Prescott and receivers Lance Lenoir, Deonte Thompson, Michael Gallup and Hurns all recently went to Disney’s Wide World of Sports in Orlando.
“It’s about being a family, not just being a team,” Prescott said. “The moment we walk in here we’re a team.
“Finding winning where we can get that camaraderie in the right way, we grow with each other. As I said, be a brotherhood and be a family.”
The Cowboys unceremoniously put the 2017 season to bed knowing it could have easily ended much better if they had the services of Elliott for the entire season. Dallas was 5-3 and in the thick of the playoff race when Elliott was suspended for six games by the NFL for violating the league’s personal conduct policy.
With Elliott sidelined, the Cowboys went 3-3 and basically had very little chance of punching a playoff ticket.
Changes on the defense
Defensively, the Cowboys are hoping to be much improved than they were last year. The Cowboys used the No. 19 overall pick in the draft to select Boise State linebacker Leighton Vander Esch.
Defensive end Randy Gregory, who missed last season for violating the league’s substance abuse policy, has been reinstated by the NFL and should give the Cowboys some added punch once he gets his legs under him.
“He’s been off a long time — he’s talented, no question, and he’s a great guy, and he’s smart,” defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said. “But the No. 1 thing we’ve got to do is just groove him back in.
“Like I say, it’s kind of like golf. If you don’t play for a year, it’s not the same. So I’m just excited to get a chance to work with him again.”
Elsewhere, the Cowboys released Scandrick, who was one of their cornerbacks since they drafted him in 2008. But the Cowboys believe they have enough young defensive backs to stem the tide.
They also feel the same way about their offense, despite the losses of Witten and Bryant, with holdovers Terrance Williams and Cole Beasley hopeful of having a breakout season at the wide receiver spots.
“I think we’ve got really good depth – it’s young across the board,” offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said. “Our running back position, tight end position and our receiver position, they’re young.
“We’re a little bit of a no-name group out there right now. But they get an opportunity to make a name for themselves now with more opportunities.”