Expectations ratcheted up for Dak Prescott with Ezekiel Elliott out

OXNARD, Calif. -- More will be expected of Dak Prescott in his second season as the Dallas Cowboys’ starting quarterback.

With running back Ezekiel Elliott suspended for the first six games of the season for violating the league's personal conduct policy, things will be more difficult Prescott's second time around.

Prescott was the first to say he benefited from Elliott's play as a rookie last season. That's why he offered to split the Offensive Rookie of the Year trophy with his buddy.

As good as Prescott was in 2016, Elliott was the offense’s heartbeat in the same way DeMarco Murray was in 2014 when the Cowboys finished 12-4. Tony Romo was dominant that season as well, with 34 touchdown passes and just nine interceptions, but his job was made easier by Murray's dominance.

Elliott had seven 100-yard games a year ago. In six of them, Prescott completed at least 66.7 percent of his passes. In four of them he completed at least 71.9 percent of his passes. He had 10 touchdown passes and three of his four interceptions in games when Elliott reached the century mark.

With Elliott running wild and the offensive line dominating, defenses had to commit more defenders to the box. That allowed for more passing lanes for Prescott to find Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley and Jason Witten.

Without Elliott, defenses will likely test the Cowboys ground game with Darren McFadden, Alfred Morris or Rod Smith running the ball. If they can't get it going, then those lanes will be clogged.

Even if Elliott was around for a full season, the Cowboys knew defenses would throw more things at Prescott. They have more tape on his game, and defenses started to adjust.

Prescott endured a tough two-game December stretch against the Minnesota Vikings and New York Giants, throwing for only a combined 304 yards as the Cowboys were held to a 24 points. He bounced back though, completing 51 of his final 64 passes in his final two full games (plus one drive in the regular-season finale against the Eagles) with three touchdown passes.

Teammates and coaches have lauded Prescott's work in the offseason and through the early part of training camp.

"I've been really pleased with his approach so far," Witten said. "He's continued to focus and understand that, 'Hey, there's things I need to try to do better at.' When your quarterback has that approach and going into his second year it really is motivating. It pushes you to want to do better and he deserves a lot of credit for his approach."

The theory held by some last season was that Prescott managed the Cowboys to victory. Quarterbacks don't complete 67.8 percent of their passes and throw 23 touchdowns to four interceptions by simply managing the game, though.

Prescott played to what was given. As he enters his second season, he spoke of using training camp to test the boundaries of what he could do within the scheme. In his first four padded practices, Prescott was intercepted three times in seven-on-seven drills. He has had just one pass intercepted in seven-on-seven drills in his past five practices.

Prescott did not play careful in 2016. He played smart. Without Elliott for six games, those same boundaries will be tested in 2017.

Prescott has played with a maturity beyond his years and experience. Nothing seems to faze him. Not having Romo, the franchise leader in passing yards and touchdowns, healthy and able to play. Not the taste of celebrity. Certainly not the defenses that did what they could to slow him down.

Now he will have to show he can get it done without Elliott, a security blanket of sorts for any quarterback.