After finishing 12-4 in 2014 and coming within a Dez Bryant catch of the NFC Championship game, the Dallas Cowboys did a complete 180-degree turn in 2015. They ended the year 4-12 in what was one of the worst seasons in franchise history. Dallas was 31st in points per game and 29th in point differential.
The main reason for that? Injuries to Bryant, Tony Romo and Orlando Scandrick. No one in their right mind predicted the Cowboys to go 4-12 last season. Why? Because all three of those stars were expected to be healthy, just as they will be this season.
As a result, the will Cowboys go from worst to first in the NFC East and become Super Bowl contenders.
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Here are five reasons why they're the team to beat in the division.
1. The return of Romo, Bryant and Scandrick
With all three players on the field, the Cowboys were 12-4 in 2014. Without them for much of the 2015 season, Dallas was 4-12. That's no coincidence, and while DeMarco Murray played a big role in the team's success two years ago, Romo, Bryant and Scandrick as a whole were much more important. With all three returning from their respective injuries, the Cowboys can expect to take a huge step forward and see better production on both offense and defense. Had all three stayed healthy, they likely would have won the very mediocre NFC East last season. Their absences led to a putrid offense that couldn't score any points and a defense that was forced to move rookie Byron Jones around the entire secondary. With Scandrick back, Jones will be a full-time safety, where he'll thrive. There may not be a player more important to the defense than Scandrick.
2. Ezekiel Elliott
The Cowboys shocked a few people when they took Ezekiel Elliott fourth overall in the draft, but it makes sense. Dallas had arguably the best run game in the league two years ago with Murray in the backfield, and Elliott may very well be a better back than Murray. Expectations are sky high for the rookie running behind the NFL's best offensive line, and it's very likely that he'll eclipse 1,200 yards in his first year. Additionally, he's the best blocking running back on the Cowboys' roster, which makes him a valuable three-down player and helps protect Romo in the pocket. If Dallas returns to its ground-and-pound form from 2014 when they won the division, the Cowboys will certainly be the team to beat in the NFC East. Look for Elliott to win Offensive Rookie of the Year, and it won't even be close. He's that good.
3. The rest of the NFC East is untrustworthy
There's a reason why no team has repeated as division champs in the NFC East since the Eagles did it in 2004: These teams are hard to trust. Kirk Cousins had a great year in 2015, but it was his first year as a full-time starter. Can he really be expected to replicate those numbers once again? The Giants spent a lot in free agency, but will it solve their defensive woes from recent years? And the Eagles may think Sam Bradford is their starting quarterback, but it's doubtful he'll remain such for all 16 games. The Cowboys have the most talented roster in the division, it's just a matter of them putting it to good use and closing out football games, as they've struggled to do in recent years. When you have the division's best quarterback, running back, offensive line, and possibly wide receiver, you're going to win a lot of games.
4. The offensive line
Speaking of that offensive line that's littered with first-round talent, the Cowboys not only have the NFC East's best O-line, they have the NFL's top line. Tyron Smith struggled at times against Olivier Vernon last season, but he's the most consistent player on Dallas' roster. La'el Collins is the full-time starter at left guard and should thrive as a road-grading run blocker who's gained experience as a pass blocker, too. As long as the offensive line stays healthy and intact for all 16 games, the Cowboys will almost certainly have the league's top rushing attack and Romo will get a lifetime to throw in the pocket, as he typically does. Games are won in the trenches, and Dallas has that covered on offense.
5. The defense will be better than expected
The biggest addition to the defense this season was Ezekiel Elliott. Wait, what? "But he plays offense." This is true, but the defense will benefit greatly from his presence. With Murray running it 25-plus times a game two years ago, the defense was rarely on the field. Dallas led the league in time of possession in 2014, averaging 32:51 per game, which takes a great deal of pressure off of the defense. Furthermore, the aforementioned Scandrick is back in the fold at cornerback. Morris Claiborne is healthy and coming off of the best season of his disappointing career, and while Brandon Carr hasn't lived up to his contract, he's solid week in and week out. Sean Lee completely changes the defense when he's patrolling the middle of the field, and with Jones moving to safety full-time, the Cowboys finally have a rangy free safety on the backend. It's the defensive line that has several question marks thanks to the suspensions of starting pass rushers Randy Gregory and DeMarcus Lawrence.