OXNARD, Calif. — The Dallas Cowboys arrive in California on Tuesday afternoon, as they embark on a 2021 season that is rife with expectations.
The team lands in California today, they'll hold their annual State of the Team press conference with owner Jerry Jones, VP Stephen Jones, and head coach Mike McCarthy on Wednesday. And the first practice of camp will come on Thursday at 11 a.m.
And this is a Cowboys team that has a wealth of talent, particularly on the offensive side of the ball.
Quarterback Dak Prescott is back healthy, and ready to lead this high-powered attack after his gruesome broken ankle suffered last season. He's looked fantastic during OTAs and minicamp through the spring, and should only look better upon arrival in Oxnard.
Prescott leads an offense that will feature one of the best wide receiving corps in football, as Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and CeeDee Lamb give their quarterback an embarrassment of riches on the outside.
He'll also have a pair of quality tight ends to work with, as Dalton Schultz showed real improvement last year, and Blake Jarwin returns healthy off his torn ACL.
Add in all-Pro running back Ezekiel Elliott, who is expected to be especially trim and spry this year, and the Cowboys have all the skill position talent a team could desire.
If the Cowboys offensive line can hold up, this is an offense that should score at a tremendous clip. But that is where all the key questions for this unit spring up. It's something to keep an eye on throughout camp -- what is the relative health of offensive tackles Tyron Smith and La'el Collins? Is Zack Martin going to be fully healthy, after he went on injured reserve late last season with a calf injury? And can the young interior lineman alongside him, center Tyler Biadasz and left guard Connor Williams, raise their level of play to match the three studs they're grouped with?
Defensively, the Cowboys were atrocious in 2020. A new scheme under coordinator Mike Nolan, combined with a dramatically disrupted offseason, led to a defensive unit that was confused and taken advantage of, especially early on in the season.
This year, with new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn at the helm and running a system the players have said they'll be more comfortable with, we should see a much-improved Cowboys defense.
But that's perhaps the most important thing to keep tabs on with this Dallas team over the course of training camp. Is Quinn's system meshing with the talent on this defense, and leading to a unit that can show improvement in 2021?
The Cowboys don't need their defense to suddenly be a top 10 group. But a shift toward middle of the pack would probably be more than enough to help their offense win games this season.
New linebacker Micah Parsons is a storyline you'll see a lot of over the next month. His skillset seems to jive well with what the Cowboys want to do, and could lead to a promising rookie season for the Penn State product.
Randy Gregory has had the closest thing to a normal offseason as he has at any point in his NFL career. Opposite Demarcus Lawrence on the Cowboys defensive line, Gregory has the potential to be a double-digit sack guy in 2021. Between Gregory and Lawrence, the Cowboys may actually have a pass rush again this season.
Linebackers Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch both have a lot to prove in 2021. They were perhaps the most maligned of the Cowboys defensive players last year, as Dallas was terrible against the run, leading to multiple instances where their linebackers looked bad.
There have been moments in each of their careers where they've looked to be sensational players -- whether that was the flash in the pan, or 2020 was, is what they both need to show this season. And if their 2020 form shows to be who the really are, 2021 figures to be their final season in Dallas.
Finally, in the secondary, the Cowboys have a second-year player in Trevon Diggs who they really believe in. The cornerback out of Alabama showed some promise in his rookie season, and needs to back it up in 2021.
Diggs can provide some consistency on one side, but Dallas needs to figure out what works on the opposite corner. Anthony Brown has been in Dallas long enough to know what he is -- a middling corner. Can second-round draft pick Kelvin Joseph provide an upgrade?
I said it on the air Monday morning, and I'll say it again here: This is a Cowboys team that has Super Bowl potential.
I haven't had cause to say that in six years worth of working here in Dallas. But this group looks to be a certifiable contender.
If Prescott can stay healthy, and the defense can merely be average, the Cowboys are a team that should win double-digit games, win their division, and play deep into January.
After that, you need some breaks. But if Dallas can get some, they could still find themselves playing seven months from now.