Ezekiel Elliott’s Contract Headlines Cowboys’ 5 Key Training Camp Storylines

ARLINGTON, TX - OCTOBER 14: Ezekiel Elliott #21 and Dak Prescott #4 of the Dallas Cowboys celebrate the fourth quarter touchdown against the Jacksonville Jaguars at AT&T Stadium on October 14, 2018 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

The Dallas Cowboys enter Oxnard, CA for their 2019 training camp with plenty of juicy storylines to go around. Running back Ezekiel Elliott, quarterback Dak Prescott, and wide receiver Amari Cooper are all in serious contract discussions with the team.

However, there are plenty more storylines to dive into. Catch up on the top five storylines of training camp for the Cowboys.

But first, the team arrives in Oxnard today and will settle in before taking on the long haul of the preseason.

Training Camp Schedule

Saturday, July 27, 2019 Opening Ceremonies
Sunday, July 28, 2019 Practice
Monday, July 29, 2019 – Military Appreciation Day Practice

5. Jason Garrett’s Job Security

Head Coach Jason Garrett is under a bit of fire as the 2019 season opens. After dissatisfying playoff appearances, Garrett will need to make a deeper run to guarantee his job. His record in five playoff games sits at 2-3, after alternating playoff berths since 2014. In his last appearance, the Cowboys lost 30-22 to the Los Angeles Rams in the divisional round of the 2018 playoffs.

In nine seasons, Garrett is 77-59, which equates to a .566 winning percentage.

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Garrett has a Super Bowl roster, full of talent. In addition, if the contracts of star players are maintained and Garrett doesn’t win this year or the next, he could be out of favor with Owner Jerry Jones.

4. Defensive Backs Rising

One player to highlight in this rising defensive backs group is cornerback Byron Jones. He was voted 97th on the NFL Top 100 players list by his colleagues.

Jones finished 2018 with his first Pro-Bowl selection and second-team All-Pro honor, despite not recording an interception or touchdown. He’s the first Cowboys’ cornerback to be named to the Pro Bowl, since Terence Newman and Mike Jenkins in 2009.

Without gaudy statistics, Jones lends tremendous value to this Cowboys’ defense that ranked among the top ten in scoring defense.

He had 67 tackles last season and a career high 14 passes defended. He added four tackles to that total in the NFC Wild Card playoff win versus the Seattle Seahawks. He followed up that performance with four more tackles in the NFC Divisional playoff game, where the LA Rams won 30-22.

The biggest culprit for Jones’ success is secondary coach Kris Richard. When Richard took over, Jones transitioned from safety to cornerback before the 2018 season.

It looks like the scheme that brought Richard success in Seattle is making a tremendous impact to the Cowboys’ secondary after just one season.

Richard received a lot of buzz when he was interviewed by the Miami Dolphins as a candidate for their vacant head coaching position. Richard has proven he could consistently mold players and should continue to do so with the Cowboys in the coming seasons.

Other players like cornerbacks Chidobe Awuzie and Anthony Brown will benefit from Richard’s plans. Also look for improvements from safeties Jeff Heath and Xavier Woods.

3. Kellen Moore as Offensive Coordinator

Offensive coordinator Kellen Moore will make his coaching debut after a six-year NFL career as a backup quarterback. His last three seasons were with Dallas.

His quick transition will be crucial for Moore and the Cowboys’ offense. They need to step it up to match the defense’s intensity this season.

Moore brings nuance to the table as he will run a lot of different formations to keep defenses off-balanced. He will run plays out of two tight end sets and spread the field with four receivers to get the same result. He will also put a lot of guys in motion before the snap to force them to adjust and give away their plans. This should help the Cowboys be less predictable with their formations and play calling.

Moore’s offensive philosophy can be attributed to former Boise St. head coach Chris Petersen. Petersen is known for being creative with his play calling.

Moore is a cerebral person and should be able to help guide this offense to more points on the board. There’s no question that the talent is there for Moore. It’s just a question of whether he will rise to the occasion and mold his players through training camp and the preseason.

2. Offensive Line

Center Travis Frederick plans to fully participate in training camp after missing the entire 2018 season due to Guillain-Barré syndrome — a disease that affects the nervous system.

The Cowboys’ offense had a decline from 18 rushing touchdowns in 2017 to 13 rushing touchdowns in 2018, without Frederick.

The team will seemingly take their time with Frederick and ease him back into the flow of things after a season removed from football. It’s fair to say, he will be rested when possible to keep him on track for preseason action and the start of the regular season.

Another offensive lineman returning to full health this season is right guard Zack Martin. A sprained MCL forced him out of the first game of his career at any level of football in December and as he missed Weeks 17 and 18. He returned for the playoffs.

The returns of Martin and Frederick will bring heavy relief to an offensive line that would like to get back to All-Pro form.

Former first round pick, left tackle Tyron Smith brings a toughness to this squad that’s hard to question. Anytime there was a concern about his status before the game, he’d shake it off and play exceptionally well. Going into Week 15, he was playing at a Pro Bowl level. At the time, he was ranked 12th out of 76 qualifiers by PFF.

The development of left guard Connor Williams will be crucial to keeping that line together. He started in Martin’s absence as a rookie and should improve with more playing time.

This is a contract year for right tackle La’el Collins.

“I would love to stay in Dallas my entire career,” Collins said. “I love everything about the whole organization and what they’ve done for me as a person and as a player.”

He’ll likely be one of the last priorities for a contract extension, although a deal will likely get done for the starter. He had perhaps the best season of his career in 2018 and will need to build on that to get paid after 2019. He will be paid $8.5 million this season.

Reserves such as offensive tackle Cameron Fleming, guard Xavier Su’a-Filo, and center Joe Looney should have opportunities for playing time throughout the preseason. Looney started in place of Frederick, but underperformed in 2018.

There’s potential for these guys to be needed during the late stretch of the season. It’s certainly possible, given the offensive line’s injury history.

This will help bolster a running attack, spearheaded by running back Elliott. It will also impact Prescott’s ability to sit in the pocket without being trounced on by defensive players.

Tight Ends

The return of tight end Jason Witten from retirement was a win for the organization. Tight end was a weakness last season without him. Despite his age, he should have enough in the tank to help the team be more effective in big situations. He will also be able to mentor a group of tight ends that seemed lost last season. Witten will more importantly take pressure off Elliott as Prescott’s safety blanket on third down and in the red zone.

Of the remaining tight ends, Blake Jarwin saw a majority of playing time in Witten’s absence. However, he hauled in just 27 catches for 307 yards, and three touchdowns. He’ll potentially lose some time to Dalton Schultz and Rico Gathers, depending on their performances during training camp and the preseason.

1. Star Player Contracts

Perhaps the most important storylines of training camp are the looming contract negotiations between Elliott, Prescott, and Cooper.

Ezekiel Elliott

On Wednesday, Garrett gave some optimism as Rob Phillips of the team website reported:

The report contradicted previous reports by Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio:

“Per a league source, Elliott currently is believed to be making plans for a trip out of the country.”

Potential holdout aside, in three seasons with the Cowboys, Elliott has rushed for over 4,000 yards (1,333 yards per season). Since his rookie season in 2016, when he had 15 rushing touchdowns, he hasn’t eclipsed double-digits in the touchdown category.

Elliott has built up plenty of steam as a pass catching back, with 32, 26, 77 receptions in each season, respectively.

In 2018, he proved to be more versatile for the Cowboys offense. Under OC Moore, Elliott will remain the focal point of the offense this season. If they decide to spread the field more, Elliott has shown in pass protection and as a receiver that he can be relied on by Prescott as a safety blanket on big conversions.

Elliott also projects well as a fantasy football player in PPR(point per reception) formats. His uptick in receptions gives high upside to a guy that has the ability to take over games.

Dak Prescott

It is now reported that the team and Prescott should have a deal in place at training camp.

This was reported by NFL Network reporter Jane Slater:

Prescott’s amid contract negotiations as his rookie deal expires at the end of this season. Prescott’s set to make just over $2 million this season.

During a recent interview with USA TODAY’S Jori Epstein, Prescott said:

“It’s important for all these guys to get every bit of their worth,” Prescott said. “I want to see Zeke the highest-paid. I want to see Amari the highest-paid. I want to see myself up there. And I don’t think any of that is too far-fetched. Because at the end of the day, when it’s all said and done, a year or two later, you’re not going to be the highest-paid. That’s just the way the game goes.”

A max deal would peg him on a list that includes Russell Wilson, Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, and Kirk Cousins. All have been paid $28-35 million.

It’s tough to make the case for Prescott with an offense that needs Elliott’s presence to load the box with defenders. Elliott’s ability to draw defenders helps Prescott succeed as a game manager.

There’s no question that the Cowboys will try to remain as balanced as possible. A full offseason with Cooper will pay dividends in the passing game and could prove Prescott’s worth. If he can’t be successful with Cooper, then the price tag isn’t worth it for the Cowboys.

However, it’s in the best interest of the Cowboys to at least pay Prescott middle-tier money. At the end of the day, Prescott knows other teams might be leery to pay him a max deal. The Cowboys really have all the leverage in the world here.

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Amari Cooper

Cooper is reportedly in no rush to get his extension done. He’s letting the market settle itself with the contracts of Atlanta Falcons’ Julio Jones, New Orleans Saints’ Michael Thomas, and Kansas City Chiefs’ Tyreek Hill.

But more importantly, he plans to report to camp without any drama.

According to Yahoo Senior NFL Reporter Charles Robinson’s tweet:

Once one of these Cowboys players signs a deal, the rest of the dominos should fall as the team sees how much the first deal cost them. Those three players are crucial to the Cowboys’ success this season, however, if it’s too costly they might not be able to retain all three of them for future seasons.

Honorable Mention

Linebackers: The major reason for this not being a major storyline is simple. This group can ball and fans shouldn’t be worried. With linebacker Leighton Vander Esch fresh off a stellar season, which earned him the 74th spot on NFL Network’s Top 100 players of 2018, voted on by the players. He clearly has the league’s respect as he was a monster for the Cowboys’ defense last season with 140 total tackles. He’ll continue to develop as an elite player entering his sophomore season. Middle linebacker Jaylon Smith, linebackers Sean Lee and Jeff Heath will hold down the rest of the squad. Chris Covington, Justin March-Lillard, and Joe Thomas will see playing time in training camp and the preseason as they’ll be stuck behind a stellar group of linebackers.

Defensive Line: The status of defensive end Randy Gregory’s reinstatement with the NFL will be a major part of this defensive lines’ success. It remains to be seen when and if he will be reinstated by the league. Lucky for the Cowboys, they have some depth to carry them through. Defensive ends DeMarcus Lawrence and Tyrone Crawford, defensive tackles Antwaun Woods and Maliek Collins should all be in the mix regardless of Gregory’s status. Also, expect defensive ends Taco Charlton, Dorance Armstrong, Kerry Hyder, and rookies Jalen Jelks and Joe Jackson to get plenty of action as they await Gregory’s fate in the preseason. Defensive tackles Christian Covington and Trysten Hill should see a great deal of playing time in the preseason and training camp. They will all be fighting for regular season playing time. The defensive line will likely remain a strength for the Cowboys.

Wide Receivers: There’s no doubt who the leading receiver will be this season. Cooper will look to blossom in the Cowboys’ offense in his first full season after being shipped to Dallas from the Oakland Raiders. Cooper had plenty of big plays in epic moments of games last year and will likely build on that momentum. However, there’s a sea of receivers behind Cooper that could make an impact. After the release of Allen Hurns, the team saved $5 million in cap space and opened up more playing time for Michael Gallup, newly acquired Randall Cobb, and Tavon Austin. Watch for youngster Lance Lenoir, Jr. to also get some work during training camp and the preseason.

Running Backs: This is clearly Elliott’s show to run. He’ll keep trucking along as long as he gets paid. During training camp and preseason games, watch for 4th round pick Tony Pollard to get some looks as the team will try to protect its biggest asset. Also, 7th round pick Mike Weber will get some playing time to see if he could contribute like he did at Ohio State.

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