A lot of the usual suspects will be vying for an NFC championship this season, including Green Bay and Seattle. But former Cowboy Daryl Johnston is willing to add another team to the mix.
“I think Dallas is going to be in play,” the three-time Super Bowl champion and FOX NFL analyst said on CBS Sports Radio’s The Doug Gottlieb Show. “With Tony Romo and Dez Bryant back, I think the Cowboys are back in play as an NFC favorite.”
Romo was limited to just four games last season, while Bryant played in just nine. Jason Witten stepped up in their absence with 77 catches – his most since 2012 – for 713 yards and three touchdowns.
Witten, 34, has spent his entire 13-year career in Dallas and doesn’t seem to be slowing down.
“He keeps just impressing me,” Johnston said. “I think the guy’s an absolute warrior. He’ll put up some good numbers. I think the question is what happens behind him on the offense.”
If the line can keep Romo upright and open holes for first-round pick Ezekiel Elliott, the Cowboys’ offense has the ability to score a lot of points. They’ll just need the defense to stop people – which won’t be easy given the suspensions of DeMarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory and Rolando McClain.
Johnston, however, has a good feeling about this unit.
“I think they’re going be better than people think,” he said. “I think they’re going to struggle in the beginning of the year with the suspensions getting pressure off the edge, but I think they’re very, very strong in the tackle positions. I think (defensive coordinator) Rod Marinelli will find some ways to bring pressure off the edge that first month of the season that maybe you don’t see much down towards the back end of the season. But once DeMarcus Lawrence gets back in, I think he shores all that up.”
Johnston also believes the secondary will improve.
“Pass defense in the NFL is a combination of pressure and coverage,” he said. “I think on the back end, Dallas’ coverage is going to be better. I think they’re going to offset a little bit of that challenge with the inability to get pressure off the edge. I think Byron Jones gets to play safety all season. He’ll be better there at that one position than bouncing back and forth because of injury at corner and safety like he did last year. I think Morris Claiborne is finally healthy. I think you’re going to finally get a chance to see why Dallas moved up to No. 6 to get him when he came out of LSU (in 2012). Orlando Scandrick is back in the slot corner, and I think that he brings a swagger and emotion that was missing from the defense last year. I think the back end of Dallas is going to surprise a few people and offset some of the challenges that they’ll have the first month of the season with the suspensions.”
One thing is certain: The Cowboys will need to start fast out of the gate. They open the season with a pair of NFC East showdowns: against New York on Sept. 11 and at Washington on Sept. 18.