OXNARD, Calif. -- The Dallas Cowboys head into training camp here Wednesday (July 25) as a team in transition with head coach Jason Garrett likely at a crossroad.
With just one position player over the age of 30, the Cowboys are one of the youngest team's in the league. But the expectations remain high as the team reports to training camp July 24.
The youth, however, has fostered excitement as well as some uncertainty, especially with the departures of wide receiver Dez Bryant and tight end Jason Witten in the offseason.
Quarterback Dak Prescott is the firm leader of the team now with running back Ezekiel Elliott positioned as its most important player.
"We had some obvious departures and new faces brought in, some rookies, and we're a very young team," said Prescott. "But that's exciting because we're still very experienced, have a lot of great players on our team offense and defense and getting a bunch of new faces in as coaches as well so, we're excited for where we're going."
The Cowboys addressed the wide receiver position in free agency with the additions of Allen Hurns and Deonte Thompson. In the draft, they used a third-round pick on Michael Gallup (81st overall) and a sixth-round pick on Cedric Wilson (208th overall) and traded for Tavon Austin, who will see repetitions at the running back position.
This is in addition to holder Cole Beasley and Terrance Williams.
The options appear even bleaker at tight end where fourth-round pick Dalton Schultz, Geoff Swaim, Blake Jarwin, Rico Gathers and David Wells will try to replace the future Hall of Famer in Witten.
The group has nine career receptions combined.
Prescott knows there are doubters because of the unknowns on the team. He said opponents will be in for a surprise.
"It's hard to (surprise) people with the Dallas Cowboys; our standards are high," Prescott continued. "But when you hear talk we don't have this player, we don't have that player. We don't have a lot of well-known guys. But that only makes the guys we have hungrier."
That hunger is manifested in Elliott, who missed six games last year due to a NFL suspension and is motivated to have a big year in 2018. He will have to as opponents will load up to stop the run because of the unproven receivers.
Running backs coach Gary Brown told Elliott to get in great shape and get ready to dominate because he will be counted on to do the heavy lifting on offense.
"To come in and be in the greatest shape of your life and get ready to dominate because we understand what the game plan is going to be for these defenses early in the year," said Brown when asked what he has told Elliott.
"Until our receivers start killing these guys because we are not getting enough respect. We have a lot of great receivers out here; he is going to have to deal with a lot of loaded boxes. So come in and be in the best shape of your life. Be ready to get a lot of carries early. It is going to be a situation where defenses are going to try to stop us. They are going to try their best, but they are not going to be able to."
He is certainly motivated to make up for what he feels was a lost season in 2017 when he missed six games due to an NFL suspension after fighting with the league in federal court through the first eight games.
Brown says Elliott has been changed by his experiences over the last year. He has matured. He has taken on a leadership role on the team. But he also wants to take advantage of an opportunity to develop into one of the best backs in NFL history.
"Last year changed him a lot," Brown said. "He realizes this is a very special opportunity that he has, especially to (be) one of the best backs to ever play. He has that opportunity. He understands that now. He is going to take advantage of everything he does. ... Zeke is in a really good place right now."
After rushing for 1,631 yards as a rookie in 2016, Elliott rushed for 983 yards in 10 games last season.
If he plays a full 16 games, combined with a heavier workload as a runner and receiver, there is a chance Elliott could put up historic numbers in 2018.
Defensively, the Cowboys have added first-round pick middle linebacker Leighton Vander Esch to help to take some pressure off Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith.
Defensive end Randy Gregory has been reinstated from suspension to give the Cowboys a talented group of edge rushers led by Pro Bowler DeMarcus Lawrence.
Questions remain inside where tackle David Irving will miss the first four games due to an NFL suspension and at safety with Byron Jones moving to cornerback and Xavier Woods joining Jeff Heath in the starting lineup.