For a team with so many recognizable faces, the Cowboys sure do feel different in 2016. Maybe that's because when the Eagles show up in Dallas to play for first place in the NFC East on Sunday night, they'll be trying to stop this rookie quarterback/running back pairing for the very first time.
That sure changes the makeup of a team, although the rest of the Cowboys roster is largely the same as last year. Even still, injuries and even the surprising development of a key player figure to shake things up as the Eagles renew their long-standing rivalry with the most hated of division opponents.
Quarterback: Dak Prescott
Forgive the comparison, but it's hard not to see a lot of Russell Wilson in Prescott. The way he keeps plays alive with his feet but always seems to keep his eyes downfield looking to pass is such a rare quality and one of the hardest plays in football to defend. Especially when the quarterback in question is as accurate and intelligent with the football as Prescott. Through six games, the Mississippi State product has completed 68.7 percent of his passes with seven touchdowns to only one interception. He's also run for three more scores and lost two fumbles. Much like Wilson as a rookie, Prescott is protected by a strong supporting cast that includes a great offensive line, dominant ground attack and excellent defense. Still, there's no denying the 23-year-old's talent. The kid has been great and should be under center in Dallas for years to come.
Strength: Offensive line
Hands down, there isn't a better offensive line in the NFL. I'm not sure it's even close. Left tackle Tyron Smith is arguably the best O-lineman in the entire league right now. Zack Martin is about as dominant of a guard as there is too, and center Travis Frederick rounds out the Cowboys' Pro Bowlers up front — for now. Left guard La'el Collins seems destined to join them at some point. As you may recall, Collins would've been a first-round pick in 2015, but wound up going undrafted due to poor timing and unusual circumstances. Now he's living up to the pre-draft hype after just falling into the Cowboys' lap. 32-year-old Doug Free is as close to a weak link as there is on the line, and he's solid at right tackle. It says a lot about this group that Ronald Leary, who helped pave the way for DeMarco Murray's rushing title, is a backup, as is 2015 third-round choice Chaz Green. Unbelievable starters, unbelievable depth, and you better believe the unit is largely responsible for both Prescott's rapid development and Ezekiel Elliott's instantaneous ascension to the number one rusher in the NFL.
Until Dez Bryant returns and shows what he can do with that hairline knee fracture that's kept him sidelined since Week 3, there's at least some uncertainty as to the two-time Pro Bowler's effectiveness. If he's 100 percent, there are few more dominant receivers in the NFL than the 6-foot-2, 220-pound specimen with three 1,000-yard/double-digit-touchdown seasons to his name. If Bryant isn't himself, he's just another guy in an okay receiving corps. To call them a weakness might be going a bit far, as Cole Beasley is an outstanding slot receiver and Terrance Williams can stretch the field. Both Beasley have and Williams are building a nice rapport with Prescott as well, which is dangerous. These aren't typically thought of as gamebreaking receivers though. Tight end Jason Witten is getting a little long in the tooth at 34 years old as well. It all comes back to Bryant's health. As long as he's good, it elevates everybody else. Otherwise, you'll ask yourself why the Eagles can't cover these guys.
Strength: Bend, don't break
The Cowboys defense is very good, much better than it gets credit for anyway, but admittedly isn't dominant in any particular area. What the group does well, not to load this section up with cliches, is stick to their assignments and play well together as a team. That's how a defense can rank seventh in the NFL in points allowed, yet only 16th in yards, or 20th or worse in both running yards and passing yards per attempt. Dallas doesn't create an extreme number of turnovers either, currently tied for 12th with nine. The scheme isn't anything fancy and might give up some ground between the 20s, but points are hard to come by, as the unit has held four straight opponents to 17 or fewer, and no more than 23 all season. How? Solid players at every level: Tyrone Crawford and DeMarcus Lawrence up front, Sean Lee at linebacker and Barry Church, Brandon Carr and Byron Jones in the backfield.
If there is one area where the Cowboys could really benefit from more consistency, it's getting to the quarterback. The unit is tied for 24th in the NFL with only 11 sacks, and it's a big reason why opposing quarterbacks are posting a 95.0 passer rating, 10th-most efficient in the league. Lawrence is the defense's best rusher off the edge, but he's only played in two games this season after serving a suspension and has been limited by a back injury in those. Crawford is an underrated presence along the interior, yet while tied for the team-lead with 2.0 sacks, he can't carry the entire front four in this aspect. Lawrence should be healthier coming out of the bye, which helps, but that's not suddenly turning this into a group that instills a lot of fear.
X-factor: Morris Claiborne
The sixth-overall pick in 2012, Claiborne seemed destined to be a bust. Heck, you probably thought as I did that had already been well established. Well, it turns out that's not the case. After years of disappointment, the former SEC Defensive Player of the Year is actually performing at a fairly high level for the Cowboys, with 22 tackles, one interception and a team-leading five pass breakups. It's difficult to say where exactly the cornerback's suddenly improved play is coming from, as it often seemed like he was regressing the previous four seasons. Maybe it's simply that Claiborne is healthy for the first time since he was a rookie, as he's missed a total of 24 games over his career. Whatever the case may be, the 26-year-old is suddenly getting his hands on a lot of footballs, so Carson Wentz would be wise to be careful throwing in his direction.
Dan Bailey hasn't been automatic this season, missing two field goals, but that probably has something to do with the back injury he was fighting a few weeks back. He seems to be healthy now, quickly regaining his status as one of the most reliable kickers in the NFL. The Cowboys' longest punt return is 14 yards and longest kick return 33, so it's safe to say they haven't been getting much from this phase of the game.
Jason Garrett (50-44, 1-1 playoffs)
Say what you want about Garrett, and how it often seems like he's just a puppet for Jerry Jones. I still can't put my finger on exactly what his responsibilities are after all the high-profile hires that have been made to prop him up. Nonetheless, two things are true here: first, he's managed to make it seven seasons with Jones in Dallas, which is a feat in itself and second, his teams play for him. The bottom fell out in 2015 when Tony Romo and Dez Bryant were both hurt, but one year prior, Garrett had the Cowboys a reversed catch away from the NFC Championship game. Rod Marinelli is an excellent defensive coordinator as well and leads a very talented and underrated defense. Jones still meddles far too often, and who knows what Garrett would do in a different situation, but this seems to be working for everybody somehow.