(Reuters) - Despite the cloud over Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott and his possible six-game suspension, the forecast is still sunny for America’s Team heading into the 2017 NFL season.
With Dak Prescott firmly entrenched as starting quarterback and a talent-laden offense that should run up big point totals, the most pressing question surrounding the Cowboys is whether their defense will hold up its end of the bargain.
Dallas is a slight betting favorite to win one of the NFL’s most competitive divisions but nothing can be taken for granted with the New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Redskins also having reason for optimism in the NFC East.
Prescott, taken with the 135th pick of the 2016 NFL Draft, was the surprise story of the season for Dallas after being thrust into the starting role following an injury to long-time Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo in the preseason.
From the moment he stepped in, Prescott looked like he was born for the role, guiding the Cowboys to the playoffs after winning the division title with a 13-3 regular season record.
Prescott finished the year with 3,667 passing yards, 23 touchdowns and just four interceptions. His 82.6 percent passer rating was third best, trailing only league MVP Matt Ryan of the Atlanta Falcons and New England’s Tom Brady.
The 24-year-old may struggle to replicate those numbers from a rookie campaign that ended with a divisional-round playoff loss to Green Bay, but with a full season of experience, it seems only an injury can stop him from again being one of the NFL’s best at his position.
Surrounding Prescott is a high-potent offense, even with Elliott facing a six-game suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct policy in regard to alleged multiple instances of physical violence with a former girlfriend.
Elliott, who led the NFL in rushing yards last year, is appealing his suspension, but no decision has been announced and it remains possible he will be available to start the season.
If Elliott is absent, veteran Darren McFadden should have a chance to prove his worth after missing all but three games last season due to a broken elbow incurred when he slipped on cement near a swimming pool.
Meanwhile, wide receiver Dez Bryant looks as good as ever and Cole Beasley is almost unguardable in the slot.
But the offense will need to spend as much time as possible on the field to minimize the exposure of the defense, which has been decimated by injuries and suspensions.
Expect a lot of high scoring games, just the sort of thing the NFL undoubtedly wants as it slots Dallas, the most valuable sporting franchise in the world according to Forbes, into a number of prime time games, starting with Sunday’s clash at home against the rival Giants.
Reporting by Andrew Both in Cary, North Carolina, editing by Gene Cherry