2017 NFL Preview: Cowboys will find it tough to meet huge expectations

Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2017 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 2, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

The Dallas Cowboys are being set up to fail, even if you don’t know it yet.

Dallas had a great season. When you combine it with a fine 2014, and write off 2015 due to Tony Romo’s injury, last season’s 13-3 mark doesn’t look like a fluke. The Cowboys were an exceptional team last season.

We’re also getting to the point where nothing but a Super Bowl title can be good enough for the Cowboys in 2017, even if regression might be a powerful force. The moment it became clear that the offseason hype was getting a little thick was during the NFL Network’s “Top 100 Players” series.

That list has been ridiculed plenty and feel free to dismiss it, but plenty of people pay attention. Players vote on it. And quarterback Dak Prescott landed at No. 14. That’s insane.

There’s no way Prescott is the 14th best player in the NFL right now. You could make a fair argument that Prescott is the sixth-best offensive player on his own team. Guard Zack Martin, tackle Tyron Smith, center Travis Frederick, receiver Dez Bryant and running back Ezekiel Elliott have all been first-team All-Pro (so has tight end Jason Witten, twice, but at age 35 he’s not at that level anymore). Prescott is obviously more valuable than those five teammates because of his position, but he’s probably not better than them yet. And here’s a prominent list this offseason ranking Prescott 14th in the entire NFL. Combine that with some random MVP buzz, and maybe we all need to slow down a little.

It’s nothing against Prescott. Prescott had perhaps the best rookie season in NFL history. I think Prescott is extremely talented and will be a fantastic quarterback for many years. Yet, it will be very, very hard for him to improve in his second season, especially now that defensive coaches have an offseason to study him. It’s not historically unprecedented – Dan Marino’s historic 1984 season was his second in the NFL. But Marino is one of the greatest quarterbacks ever. If Prescott can do better than 2016’s marks of 3,667 yards, 23 touchdowns, four interceptions and a 104.9 rating, we’ll have to wonder if he is going to end up as one of the greatest ever too. That’s how good Prescott would have to be. Prescott could have a fine second season – 3,500 yards, 20-25 touchdowns, 10 interceptions, a rating about 90 – and it would be considered a big step back. We expect more from the 14th best player in the NFL, right?

It’s not just the Prescott hype. Plenty of folks seem to assume the Cowboys will improve upon last season, when that won’t be easy. There’s the cloud around Elliott and a possible suspension, and we don’t know yet how that will turn out. An average defense lost a lot of key pieces, especially in the secondary, and is expecting some rookies to fill in. Dallas was 7-1 in games decided by seven or fewer points last regular season, the NFL’s best winning percentage in close games (minimum of eight). That could correct itself.

If you’re making the argument for Dallas going at least 13-3 again, it’s that the heartbeat of the team comes back. The offensive line is the best in the NFL and one of the best in the league over the past few decades. Elliott was amazing as a rookie and the Cowboys built their offense around him (he was the foundation of Dallas’ attack, not the quarterback, and should have won offensive rookie of the year instead of Prescott). The Cowboys line allows Dallas to control the tempo of games, eat up yards in chunks on the ground, keep the defense off the field and make the quarterback very comfortable. That formula remains in place. As long as the O-line remains dominant, the Cowboys can contend.

But it all seems a little too much, too soon for all the Cowboys hype. Prescott could have a wonderful second season and still not post the same numbers he did as a rookie. The defense is not at a championship level. A key injury or two, especially to Prescott, Bryant, Elliott or along the offensive line, could set Dallas back as well. The schedule isn’t easy either.

Dallas will be good this season. If you just remove 2015 because of the Romo injury, they’ve been on a nice run since the start of the 2014 season. I just wonder if all this excitement for 2017 is setting up Cowboys fans to be ultimately disappointed.

Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott will try to lead Dallas to a second straight NFC East title. (AP)

The key free-agent signing was cornerback Nolan Carroll, who got $10 million over three years after being part of a poor cornerback group with the Philadelphia Eagles last season. It’s hard to get too excited about that. The first-round pick, defensive end Taco Charlton, is a great athlete but the Cowboys reportedly didn’t have a first-round grade on him. The Cowboys needed cornerbacks and a pass rusher, and those two should contribute right away. After Charlton, four of the next five picks were used on defensive backs, and some of them should play right away. Plenty of starters and key contributors departed in free agency: guard Ronald Leary, defensive tackle Terrell McClain, defensive end Jack Crawford, cornerbacks Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr and safeties Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox. Also, longtime right tackle Doug Free retired. There isn’t a star in that group, but it hurts depth to lose that many veterans. Grade: D

Ezekiel Elliott was even better than anyone could have hoped as a rookie. He rushed for 1,631 yards and 15 touchdowns. He had 318 more yards than any other back in the NFL. He’s also adept as a receiver out of the backfield and in pass protection. He never seemed to wear down despite 354 regular-season touches and was supremely consistent. From Dallas’ second game to its 15th (Elliott sat out Week 17, like most Dallas starters) Elliott never had fewer than 80 yards rushing. He was one of the NFL’s best players last season and even if he gets suspended for a game or two by the NFL, he’s going to be one of the NFL’s best players again. He’s the total package at running back, and Dallas is smart to build its offense around his talents.

Opponents could pass on Dallas last season: 4,167 yards allowed, 25 touchdowns and nine interceptions with a 94.1 passer rating. So maybe it’s good news that there will be so many new faces in the secondary. But it’s a mystery who will start. Safety Byron Jones is the one standout. After him, Nolan Carroll will probably start at one cornerback spot. Orlando Scandrick will play a lot, whether as an outside cornerback or exclusively in the slot. Rookie corners Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis will battle with second-year Anthony Brown for playing time. Jeff Heath, who has started one game the past three seasons, could be the safety alongside Jones, which seems like a big drop-off from Barry Church. In a division with Kirk Cousins, Eli Manning and Carson Wentz, the Cowboys secondary will be tested often.

Perhaps Dak Prescott’s most impressive moment came in the playoffs. After the Green Bay Packers took an early lead, Dallas needed Prescott to carry the team back in the game. And he did, with 302 yards and three touchdowns. He wasn’t affected at all by the pressure of a big game. That performance also should give the Cowboys coaching staff confidence that they can expand the passing offense in Prescott’s second season. While the Prescott hype has gotten a bit out of control, he certainly wasn’t fazed by anything last season. It was impressive how he handled everything thrown his way. That’s a great sign as he tries to build off a historic rookie year.

The Cowboys have never really landed a great No. 2 receiver to go along with Dez Bryant. Cole Beasley is a very good slot receiver, but when Dallas needs a big play, Bryant has to deliver it. The good news is Bryant generally makes those big plays. Bryant has 67 touchdowns in seven NFL seasons and once again will be the Cowboys’ clear No. 1 receiver. One problem is that Bryant has missed 10 games the past two seasons with injuries, but he did bounce back surprisingly well from suffering a hairline fracture in his knee last season. The Cowboys went 3-0 without Bryant last season, but Dallas still needs Bryant to be in the lineup all season.

From Yahoo Sports’ Liz Loza: “Between Dak’s rise and Zeke’s dominance, Dez Bryant’s 2016 bounce back went largely unnoticed. Hampered by injuries at the start of last year, the stud receiver’s work on the field seemed cast off with the other Cowboy ‘olds.’ After the team’s bye, however, from Week 8 through Week 16, Dez threw up the X seven separate times, and was the fourth most productive fantasy player at the position.

“Heading into his eighth professional campaign, with his QB and a stud RB firmly in place, the vet is set to produce. In 2014, when Dallas ran a similar offense, Bryant produced the highest TD total (16) of his career. Admittedly, his schedule is brutal, but this isn’t some wallflower, satisfied to slink into the abyss as the next generation overshadows his prowess. This is one of the most competitive athletes of his generation and he’s a top-10 pick for drafting purposes.”

[Pressing Questions: Fantasy outlook on the Cowboys]

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The Cowboys have had just one player record more than six sacks the past three seasons: Demarcus Lawrence had eight in 2015. Owner Jerry Jones memorably said he wanted a “war daddy” up front in the defense, but was unable to land one in the offseason. Perhaps first-round pick Taco Charlton can be that type of double-digit sack player, but that’s a lot to ask for a rookie. Dallas still does pretty well rushing the quarterback (13th in the NFL with 36 sacks last season) because defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli is really good at his job. But in a perfect world the Cowboys would prefer to have one “war daddy” who could take over a game when they need it.

WITH SOME CHANGES, SHOULD THERE BE CONCERNS ON DALLAS’ O-LINE?

Doug Free started at tackle in 107 of 112 games for Dallas the past seven seasons (he missed five games in 2014). Ronald Leary is a mauling guard who started 47 games the past four seasons, including 12 last season. Free retired in the offseason and Leary signed a four-year, $36 million deal with the Denver Broncos. Those are two really good linemen Dallas lost in the offseason. La’el Collins moves out to right tackle, and he’s clearly talented enough to thrive in the role. Chaz Green, a 2015 third-round pick with four career games, could start at left guard. Dallas’ line will likely not miss a beat, but it’s worth watching early in the season how Collins and Green fare in new roles.

Any team that goes 13-3 and gets the NFC’s No. 1 seed with the first- and second-place finishers for NFL offensive rookie of the year should expect to win a Super Bowl. If the Cowboys figure out their secondary and pass rush, the defense could be good enough and we all know the offense should be fantastic. Ezekiel Elliott could win another rushing title and maybe Dak Prescott is the rare talent who somehow improves off of a magical rookie season. If Prescott does play like the 14th best player in the NFL, the Cowboys find themselves winning it all.

In the first five weeks, the Cowboys host the New York Giants, play at the Denver Broncos, at the Arizona Cardinals, then get home games against the Los Angeles Rams and Green Bay Packers. That stretch is two 2016 playoff teams, two of the most talented teams to not make the playoffs last season, and the Rams. The Cowboys lost two home games last season … to the Packers and the Giants. Also, it’s possible Ezekiel Elliott misses at least one of those games due to suspension. A bad start is possible, and then some panic could set in. While I figure on some regression with Prescott I don’t assume he will take a total nosedive … but what if he does? The Cowboys were fantastic last season, but in a tough division with a hard schedule, a lot of things could go wrong.

It’s hard to imagine any team is under more pressure than the Cowboys. The New England Patriots have won two of the last three Super Bowls, so it’s not like their fans can complain if they don’t win another (though they will). Everyone will blame the Super Bowl hangover if the Atlanta Falcons take a step back. The Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers have experienced relatively recent championship success. The Cowboys haven’t won a championship since the 1995 season and after last season – especially in that intense market with perhaps the largest fan base of any team – anything short of at least an NFC title will seem disappointing to some. That’s a lot to live up to. I’ve questioned the Cowboys defense for a while and it keeps producing, so maybe it will again. The offense will be good, even if it has a hard time living up to the 2016 standard. I just see the Cowboys in an impossible spot. They’ll probably be very, very good this season and still fail because the bar will be tough to leap over.

32. New York Jets
31. Cleveland Browns
30. San Francisco 49ers
29. Chicago Bears
28. Los Angeles Rams
27. Jacksonville Jaguars
26. Detroit Lions
25. Houston Texans
24. Buffalo Bills
23. Indianapolis Colts
22. Baltimore Ravens
21. Los Angeles Chargers
20. Minnesota Vikings
19. New Orleans Saints
18. Washington Redskins
17. Philadelphia Eagles
16. Miami Dolphins
15. Cincinnati Bengals
14. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
13. Arizona Cardinals
12. Denver Broncos
11. Tennessee Titans
10. Carolina Panthers
9. Oakland Raiders
8. Kansas City Chiefs
7. New York Giants
6. Seattle Seahawks

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!