DALLAS — The Cowboys make a distinction: Productivity, they know, does not equate to efficiency.
Winning records in the regular season do not presuppose postseason success.
The numbers do not tell the full story.
The Cowboys went 12-5 and won the NFC East and led the league in total offense (407 yards per game) and points (31.2 per game) last season. But they failed to advance past the first round of the playoffs. They sputtered in key late-season games against Arizona and in the home wild-card loss to San Francisco. Their late-season offensive rhythm dropped off from the well-oiled machine they rode to an early six-game streak.
The Cowboys know.
“At times last year we were so productive (but) there were a lot of highs and lows,” Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott told USA TODAY Sports. “We got to make sure there’s not as many highs and lows and that as the season goes on, we’re slowly getting better.”
Skill players will help. The Cowboys return a healthy quarterback in Dak Prescott (ankle, shoulder, calf) and a healthy-if-not-yet 100% Elliott (PCL tear) to run alongside Tony Pollard. Third-year receiver CeeDee Lamb is expected to be Prescott’s top receiving target after Dallas dealt four-time Pro Bowler Amari Cooper to the Browns. Depth will depend on re-signed Michael Gallup, free-agent acquisition James Washington and third-round rookie Jalen Tolbert. Tight end Dalton Schultz signed his franchise tender.
But the Cowboys saw enough stuffed runs and blown-up pockets to know skill players will only go so far without a sound line of scrimmage. So they selected Tulsa offensive lineman Tyler Smith with the 24th overall pick in the NFL Draft.
“A big, athletic, physical man that’s going to play in a big, athletic, physical league,” Cowboys vice president of player of personnel Will McClay said.
Smith perhaps wasn’t the flashy weapon or highly-touted Power Five player some fans coveted; he’s young, raw and struggled with combative penalties last season. And yet, his traits, work ethic and cerebral film study reassure the Cowboys of his value. They graded Smith 16th on their draft board, Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones said, and they expect him to compete at left guard immediately as well as left tackle after 32-year-old Tyron Smith’s piling injuries become too much.
Elliott supports the pick.
“From everything I’m hearing and seeing it sounds like he’s a good fit for our team,” Elliott said Wednesday before a keynote Q&A at After-School All-Stars North Texas’ luncheon. “A guy who looks like you can play him at different positions. He looks physical, he looks like he has the type of mentality where he’s going to fit in with the guys already in that room.
“Just the ability to keep (Prescott) clean, give him the ability to go out there and go through his reads and throw the ball on time to the playmakers we have outside — that’s big. Establishing the run is big for our team and going to be important for us this year.
“I think the pick we made in the first round will help us.”
The Cowboys’ third-round selection of Tolbert should, too. Elliott emphasized the significance of losing Cooper, who caught 68 passes for 865 yards and a team-high eight receiving touchdowns in 2021.
“Losing Coop — I mean that’s a lot of production,” Elliott said. “That’s a great player we’re losing and a great connection Dak had.”
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Prescott is already at work building chemistry with new targets and strengthening his connection with returning teammates. He began establishing rapport with Tolbert even before the Cowboys selected him, the quarterback calling the South Alabama product for what Tolbert described as a 20-minute phone call days before the draft. Prescott asked Tolbert if he could play ‘X’ receiver by himself in a three-by-one and whether he could thrive in the slot between Lamb and Gallup, Tolbert said. The rookie said he and Prescott, now his quarterback, “vibed immediately.”
They’ll have a chance to formally continue that process in practices soon, rookie minicamp beginning May 13 followed by the Cowboys’ OTA practices launching on May 24. Veterans have already returned for film study and strength workouts. Elliott said they’re emphasizing the “little things” and health. Elliott declined to pinpoint exactly where he is along the road to recovery from his PCL tear but revealed he is “not quite 100%. “I think I’ll be there pretty soon,” he said.
Prescott’s health, too, is far cleaner than a year ago. Last offseason, Prescott was rehabilitating from two ankle surgeries; a latissimus strain on his throwing shoulder followed in training camp and a calf strain during Week 6.
“I think it’s going to be good for us for Dak to be able to work with some of these young receivers who are going to play like Simi (Fehoko) and we just picked up James Washington. A couple guys he might not have had as many reps with the past couple years he’s going to be getting familiar with,” Elliott said. “It’ll be good for him to be out there getting reps with those guys and getting familiarity with each other.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter: @JoriEpstein