Ezekiel Elliott (USA Today Sports)
Ezekiel Elliott (USA Today Sports)

2018 win total (via Bovada): 8.5

2017 ATS record: 8-7-1

Optimist view: Even without Ezekiel Elliott in the lineup for six games, and with the courtroom back and forth that kept the staff on its toes much of the season for whether he’d play, the Cowboys won nine games last season. They went 6-4 with him in the lineup, outscoring opponents by 45 points in that span, and 3-3 without him (minus-23 point differential). They were just lost without Elliott, and the season also included the losses of the fairly irreplaceable trio of Sean Lee, Tyron Smith and Dan Bailey each missing multiple games with injury.

Dak Prescott took a step back and has some work to do with a massively overturned WR group, but it was less than a year ago that some were anointing Prescott as a better prospect than Carson Wentz. Prescott can lay a few more bricks this season toward a future extension, even if that’s two or three years down the road. Most importantly, he seems to know how big a year it is.

The Cowboys’ defense actually cracked the top 10 in a few categories and overall was not as bad a unit as it has been made out to be. Second-half meltdowns in losses to the Rams, Packers, Falcons and Eagles skewed the numbers quite a bit, and the offense turned the ball over multiple times in each of those games. The Cowboys looked pretty good defensively down the stretch, allowing 62 points in the final five games (three of which were on the road) and forcing nine of the team’s 21 turnovers in that span.

It comes down to making more big plays — namely interceptions, sacks and red-zone stops — as nearly half (10) of their turnovers forced came in three games.  The secondary featured four rookies in 2017, so you could see that unit take a step up in Year 2. Demarcus Lawrence was a one-man pass rush at times last season, so getting David Irving for a whole season, adding edge help (Jihad Ward and Kony Ealy) and seeing Taco Charlton and Maliek Collins develop could go a long way.

Pessimist view: Few teams lost a bigger chunk of their receiving production than the Cowboys following the release of Dez Bryant and the retirement of Jason Witten. Throw in Terrance Williams’ shaky roster status following his possible involvement in a suspicious car crash, and there are a ton of questions.

Even with him in the fold, is there anything close to a No. 1 receiver among a group that includes Williams, Allen Hurns, Cole Beasley, Tavon Austin, Deonte Thompson, rookies Michael Gallup and Cedrick Wilson, and others? The same inexperience concern is there at tight end, too, where three vets (Geoff Swaim, Rico Gathers and Blake Jarwin) and two rookies (fourth-rounder Dalton Schultz and undrafted David Wells) have combined for nine NFL receptions.

Jason Garrett is heading into Year 8 as the head coach, including his interim season, and patience might be wearing thin with Jerry Jones, who turns 76 in October. Garrett has only two losing seasons, carries a strong win percentage of .556 (higher than Jimmy Johnson in Dallas) and is closing in on Johnson’s 80 victories for second place all time among Cowboys head coaches.

But this is Jones, who is always capable of a bold move. He’s been a hawkish owner the past few years on league matters and has sunk a ton of capital into his team with the idea of building a playoff-caliber winner. The disappointment of 2016 still stings, and Garrett has two years left on the deal he signed in 2015. A few early losses will jack up the pressure immensely and immediately.

On schedule: It’s a potentially challenging slate, especially with five primetime contests, but it’s also not one that makes the eyes burn too much.

They have a pair of tough non-division home games in Jacksonville (Week 6) and New Orleans (Week 13) but some very winnable games on the road. From Week 12 on, they leave home only twice — Week 15 at Indianapolis and Week 17 at the New York Giants, two teams that were in the bottom five in wins last season.

Do we consider the Colts an easy opponent if Andrew Luck returns? What about Houston (Week 5) or Tampa Bay (Week 16), two other bottom-dwelling teams in 2017 that could be due for rebound campaigns? The same could be said for the Giants.

There’s no easy patch, even with a three-game span at home late; two of those come vs. the Saints and Eagles. The trickiest part could come in Weeks 9-12 when the Cowboys play the Titans (home), Eagles (road), Falcons (road) and Washington (home) in a 17-day span. The silver lining is that they have a bye right before that.

Prediction: Over

They went over with Elliott missing 38 percent of last season, and he’s enough, we think, to make up for the lack of passing-game weaponry. This offensive line — especially with second-rounder Connor Williams on board — should mash. The defense should be better. And the special teams were solid in 2017 and should be better with a healthy Bailey.

The Eagles should be formidable again, and the division is no cakewalk. But the Cowboys have an excellent chance to push for a playoff spot and hold off Washington or an upstart Giants team.

Previous projected win total breakdowns

Arizona Cardinals

Atlanta Falcons

Baltimore Ravens

Buffalo Bills

Carolina Panthers

Chicago Bears

Cincinnati Bengals