Are the Cowboys the team to beat in the NFC East?

FRISCO, Texas -- On The Doomsday Podcast this week, QB Dak Prescott laid out what he expects from the Dallas Cowboys this year.

"We're the team that they have to beat,” Prescott said. “It's not the opposite way.”

That’s what happens when you finish with the best record in the NFC (13-3), have a young quarterback, one of the best running backs (if not the best, Ezekiel Elliott), one of the best offensive lines (if not the best) and playmakers such as Jason Witten, Dez Bryant, Sean Lee and Cole Beasley.

The Cowboys lost some big pieces defensively -- Brandon Carr, Barry Church, Morris Claiborne -- and did not make major additions through free agency, but they filled in ably with less expensive signings and what appears to be a quality draft.

But it seems that folks agree with Prescott’s assertion that the Cowboys will be the team to beat in the division.

Earlier this week, Football Outsiders projected the Cowboys will have a 10-6 record and win the division by two games over the New York Giants (8-8) and Washington Redskins (8-8), with the Philadelphia Eagles checking in at 7-9 -- despite the second-most difficult schedule (by projection) in the NFL. The Eagles have the projected toughest schedule.

According to Football Outsiders:

In the NFC East, it isn't good enough to be good. You need to be great. With an easier schedule, an NFC South or West team doesn't have to play as well as an NFC East team to make the postseason as a wild card.

We still have Dallas repeating as the most likely scenario, although our projections may underrate the importance of their defensive losses because there may be a compound effect from losing so many players at the same position (defensive back).

On Wednesday, ESPN’s Bill Barnwell offered up his offseason grades for the division. The Cowboys earned a C-plus. Barnwell liked the Cowboys’ free-agency approach given the compensatory picks they will earn in 2018. He also liked the Taco Charlton draft selection. He didn’t like how the Boys handled the Tony Romo situation or the fact that they didn’t draft an offensive lineman.

When you look at the rest of the division’s grades, however, Barnwell does not believe the Eagles, Giants or Redskins closed the gap significantly on the Cowboys. Philadelphia had the best offseason grade with a B-minus. The Redskins got a C and the Giants had a C-minus.

Washington did a nice job upgrading its defensive line, including former Cowboy Terrell McClain, according to Barnwell, but the firing of general manager Scot McCloughan was strange and there is no long-term commitment to QB Kirk Cousins.

The Eagles gave second-year quarterback Carson Wentz more options at receiver with Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith and added some smart pieces to the defensive line, but the Eagles have major cornerback questions.

The Giants gave QB Eli Manning more pieces, too (Brandon Marshall, Evan Engram) but didn’t find more help to protect Manning.

Interestingly, the Giants, Eagles and Skins all made moves along their defensive line. You have to think that is in response to the Cowboys' offensive line, which is anchored by three All-Pros: Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin.

Who knows how it will shake out over the next few months, but the optimism shared by Cowboys fans seems to be shared by a lot of people without allegiances to the club.