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A revamped defense under a lauded coordinator, a promising young rookie class, a full offseason program to work with for a coaching staff still considered “new.” All are reasons for Cowboys Nation to be encouraged heading into 2021, but the lion’s share of the optimism is pinned directly to the No. 4 jersey of one Rayne Dakota Prescott.

2020’s brightest spots- few though they were- came under the quarterback’s command; the season effectively ended the moment he was carted off the field in Week 5. But when Prescott himself is asked about the key to the team’s chances in 2021, he looks no farther than the big bodies who’ll be lined up in front of him on Sundays:

Offensive linemen Tyron Smith, La’el Collins, and Zack Martin will also be making comebacks this season, and the man who leads the offense knows their worth better than anyone.

“They’re the most important, if you ask me,” Prescott said, according to ESPN’s Todd Archer. “Just to have those three guys lead the five guys up front, everything starts with them. The run game, that allows the pass game to open up. When you have those guys back healthy, energized, it’s special.”

It’s a brand of special that no one has seen in quite some time. Smith played in just two games last season before a neck injury shelved him for the year. Martin missed six games total, the most of his career. And Collins never suited up at all in 2020 because of offseason hip surgery.

The trio accounts for 13 Pro Bowls, 299 regular season games, and almost a half-ton of front-line protection. But last season, they missed a total of 36 contests. Their absence showed; the Cowboys were forced to use 13 different O-line combinations as they limped to a 6-10 finish.

No moment turned a spotlight on their notable absences quite like a Week 7 hit suffered by backup quarterback Andy Dalton. Washington linebacker Jon Bostic was ejected for the shot to Dalton’s head, but not a single Cowboys player stepped in to have words with the rival defense after the illegal cheap shot.

“We speak all the time about playing for one another, protecting one another,” head coach Mike McCarthy said at the time. “That was definitely probably not the response that you would expect.”

That came just two weeks after Prescott suffered a grotesque ankle dislocation and compound fracture as he was downed by Giants safety Logan Ryan.

Of the three- Smith, Martin, and Collins- only Martin was on the field when Prescott went down. None were playing when Dalton was laid out with a concussion.

Those were tough moments for the veteran linemen to watch from the sidelines.

“You see somebody rough up your quarterback, and me not being able to step in and calm that out, that was tough,” Collins said via the team website. “Any time your team takes the field, and as a true competitor and you’re not out there, it’s always tough. But it really gave me something to look forward to when I came back. It just gave me a lot of motivation and everything that I need to just keep moving forward.”

“Honestly,” Smith added, “it just pushed us to be better and just know what we have to get done.”

All three were held out of competitive drills during the team’s OTAs and minicamp, working instead with the Cowboys strength and conditioning staff and taking part in non-contact drills. All are expected to be ready to participate fully in July’s training camp in Oxnard.

And while several within the Cowboys locker room- from McCarthy to running back Tony Pollard- have expressed relief that the three stalwarts will be back in action soon, it’s hard to imagine that anyone is more excited than the man they’ll be protecting.

“From the time that I got drafted until now,” said Prescott, “this offense is built off of those guys. They’re the three most veteran guys on this team, and that’s for a reason. Those guys are walk-in Pro Bowl guys when they’re healthy, future Hall of Famers.”


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