NFC East Spotlight: Have the Cowboys significantly improved this offseason?

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Philadelphia Eagles’ A.J. Brown speaks with Dallas Cowboys’ Trevon Diggs during the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Oct. 16, 2022, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)

The Philadelphia Eagles report to training camp in less than three weeks so let’s snap out of the summer doldrums by looking at the rest of the NFC East. The reigning division champions appear to be locked and loaded for another Super Bowl run in 2023. It would be mildly surprising to see them stumble, but stranger things have happened.

Remember, the Super Bowl loser from the previous year tends to struggle. Only 39 runner-up teams (out of 56) qualified for the playoffs in the following season, with 17 Super Bowl losers failing to make the playoffs at all. And only one team — the 2018 New England Patriots — in the past 20 years has returned to the Super Bowl after losing it the year before.

So, yes, it’s a tough task to repeat anything in the NFL. Eagles Head coach Nick Sirianni dismissed the statistics when they were presented to him back in March. He doesn’t give a crap.

Philadelphia Eagles’ Nick Sirianni shouts during the first half of an NFL football game against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, Oct. 16, 2022, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

“We don’t give a crap about what the numbers say about who was able to get back to the Super Bowl,” Sirianni told reporters on March 28. “It’s going to take day-in and day-out work. And I know that’s cliche but when you can set your sights narrow as far as here’s what we’re focusing on today, it helps you stay focused on that day and continue to build and build and build.”

Behind Enemy lines: 5 Things to Know about the Dallas Cowboys

Philadelphia Eagles’ DeVonta Smith catches a touchdown pass with Dallas Cowboys’ DaRon Bland defending during the second half of an NFL football game Saturday, Dec. 24, 2022, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth)

Meanwhile, the NFC East stands to be one of the toughest divisions in football. Three teams put on their postseason dancing shoes in 2022, including the hated Dallas Cowboys who haven’t won a Super Bowl since 1996. They have gone 4-11 in playoff matchups over the last 25 years. Ouch.

However, the Cowboys made some savvy moves in free agency and graded out well in the NFL draft. Let’s take a look at how Dallas stacks up heading into the 2023 season.

1. New Cornerback Power Couple: If the Eagles have the best cornerback tandem in football, then the Cowboys are right behind them. They inked Stephon Gilmore to a one-year deal in free agency that pairs the one-time Defensive Player of the Year with All-Pro cornerback Trevon Diggs. That should significantly upgrade a secondary that allowed a league-worst 126.8 passer rating to opposing quarterbacks in 2022.

2. Copying Howie Roseman’s Blueprint: The Cowboys got mixed reviews for taking Michigan defensive tackle Mazi Smith in the first round, but the message was clear: it starts in the trenches, something the Eagles have known for years. Smith — compared to a “refrigerator you throw down the stairs” — had 48 tackles (2.5 for loss) in 14 starts last season while carving out a reputation as a legit run-stuffer. Putting the 6-foot-3, 323-pounder on the same line as Pro Bowl pass rushers Micah Parsons and DeMarcus Lawrence could be lethal. Dallas ranked a disappointing No. 22 in run defense last year.

3. Cowboys, Ezekiel Elliott Era Over: The torch has been passed. Tony Pollard now tops the running back depth chart after two-time rushing champion Ezekiel Elliott was released. Bold move? Not really. Pollard had been eating up Elliott’s snaps over the past two years due to his versatility. He’s shiftier in space and more dynamic in the passing game, plus he’s fresh off his first 1,000-yard season. Dallas also signed 25-year-old Ronald Jones in free agency to compete for the backup job, along with impressive youngster Malik Davis and sixth-rounder Deuce Vaughn.

4. Cowboys’ Weapons in the Passing Game: In addition to Pollard’s pass-catching skills out of the backfield, the Cowboys are loaded at wide receiver. CeeDee Lamb (1,359 yards in 2022) returns as their top playmaker, with a healthy Michael Gallup (424 yards) poised to break out in the slot and second-year man Jalen Tolbert ready to prove he’s not a bust. Dallas also added veteran speedster Brandin Cooks in free agency to stretch the field. One possible weakness is at tight end where they hope the combination of Jake Ferguson and rookie Luke Schoonmaker will make up for the loss of Dalton Schultz.

PHILADELPHIA, PA – DECEMBER 22: Dallas Cowboys Quarterback Dak Prescott (4) looks to pass in the second half during the game between the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles on December 22, 2019 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, PA. (Photo by Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire)

5. Dak Prescott’s Legacy at Stake: You could make an argument that Dak Prescott is now the third-best quarterback in the NFC East. Jalen Hurts is No. 1, with Daniel Jones making a compelling case for No. 2. Prescott hasn’t sniffed a Pro Bowl since 2018 and his touchdown-to-interception ratio has been trending the wrong way: 99 to 44, including a league-worst 15 picks in 2022. Prescott’s legacy is on the line and he knows it. The Cowboys haven’t gotten out of the NFC Divisional Round since he took over as the starter.

AP Photo/Chris Szagola