No Dez or Witten, but can Cowboys ride Dak, Zeke to playoffs?

The Dallas Cowboys open training camp on July 26 in Oxnard, California. Here’s a closer look at the Cowboys’ camp:

Top storyline: Are the Cowboys closer to the 13-3 team that had the best record in the NFC in 2016 or the 9-7 team in 2017 that missed the playoffs? They lost Jason Witten to retirement and released Dez Bryant, but the Cowboys believe they have the core of a team in place that can make the playoffs for the third time in five years. When the expectations have been low in recent years, like they were in 2014 after three straight 8-8 finishes and in 2016 after a 4-12 finish plus Tony Romo’s training camp back injury, the Cowboys have found success. Jason Garrett is signed through 2019, but if he does not get the Cowboys back to the playoffs, his eighth full season could be his final one as Jerry Jones’ coach.

QB depth chart: Dak Prescott is the undeniable leader and starter. This figures to be the most important season of his career because it could lead to a mega payday, with the Cowboys eligible to sign him to an extension for the first time after the 2018 season. He will be asked to do more without Witten and Bryant, and he needs to show he can make the passing game go. Cooper Rush won the No. 2 job last year in preseason action (six touchdowns, no interceptions) over Kellen Moore, who is now the quarterbacks coach. Rush will be pushed by fifth-round pick Mike White, but the Cowboys could find themselves keeping three quarterbacks on the 53-man roster.

Bubble watch: The Cowboys don’t appear to have a lot of position battles to be won in training camp, and they don’t appear to have many veterans on the roster bubble with camp about to start. Such is life when the roster has just three players who are 30 or older. A year ago, Chaz Green entered camp with the inside track on winning the left guard spot. While he won the job, it was more out of default than how he played. He was replaced early by Jonathan Cooper and moved to swing tackle, where he struggled filling in for an injured Tyron Smith. The Cowboys have added depth to their offensive line through the draft and free agency, and that puts Green’s roster spot in jeopardy.

This rookie could start: Second-round pick Connor Williams should start at left guard. The Cowboys have made no pretense about giving him every opportunity to be the starter by having him line up with the first team since the first organized team activity. He is making the transition from tackle at Texas to guard in the NFL, but the Cowboys believe Williams has the athleticism and strength to make the move with ease. The Cowboys’ top three picks, including first-rounder Leighton Vander Esch and third-rounder Michael Gallup, could also find their way into the starting lineup or, at the very least, playing a ton of snaps.

Back to the top: Ezekiel Elliott was limited to 10 games last season because of a suspension, and he still finished just 17 yards short of 1,000 yards on the year. Without the potential of a looming suspension, the Cowboys believe Elliott will look more like the back who led the NFL with 1,631 yards as a rookie in 2016. To make the lives of Prescott, the defense and the coaching staff a lot easier, the Cowboys need Elliott to be among the league leaders in 2018. Without Witten and Bryant, he could play a much larger role in the passing game than he has in his first two years.

A game-changer: The Cowboys did not make any big free-agent pickups. Nor did they make any big-time trade acquisitions. They stood by their board when it came to the draft. The biggest addition they made was adding Kris Richard as passing game coordinator after he had a successful run with the Seattle Seahawks. In the offseason, the Cowboys' defense looked much more aggressive, especially in the secondary, and played with much more attitude. The Cowboys’ identity over the past decade or so has been their offensive strength, but this could be a year the defense makes a much bigger impact.