Get to Know: Dallas Cowboys

Previewing the season opener with a closer look at the Dallas Cowboys, who are coming off a 9-7 season in 2017.

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REPLACING TWO STARS: When the Cowboys drafted wide receiver Dez Bryant in the first round of the 2010 NFL Draft, he and perennial Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten teamed up to become Dallas' top threats the next eight seasons.

But Witten has retired and Bryant is a free agent without a team. It begs the question: Aside from stud running back Ezekiel Elliot, who is joining quarterback Dak Prescott in the Cowboys' huddle this season?

At wide receiver, free agent addition Allen Hurns is a projected starter alongside third-round pick Michael Gallup, with Cole Beasley operating out of the slot.

At tight end, Geoff Swaim, a former seventh-round pick with nine career catches, is poised to take over for Witten.

"We've got to be a better execution offense. It's different," Prescott told ESPN.com during training camp. "When you, for so long, rely on certain guys, 'Hey, we're going to throw this ball, this is our guy,' or, 'If we're going to throw this, this is our guy.' We've got to do it with the group."

BACKUP PLAN AT CENTER: The Cowboys were dealt a major blow when Pro Bowl center Travis Frederick, the anchor of one of the NFL's top offensive lines, was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease during the preseason. He's on the active roster but expected to miss several weeks while he undergoes treatment.

Veteran Joe Looney, who hasn't started a game since 2016, is the next man up at center.

"Joe's been in the league, I mean, shoot, this is his sixth or seventh year," Pro Bowl right guard Zack Martin told ESPN.com. "He's played a lot of football, been in our system for three years now, so we're very, very comfortable and confident in what he brings to us."

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INTRIGUE AT LINEBACKER: Jaylon Smith was one of the stories of the 2016 draft class – and it was a heartbreaking story at that. The Notre Dame linebacker was slated to go in the top 10, but he suffered a severe knee injury in the first quarter of the Fiesta Bowl, his final college game.

As a result, Smith fell to the second round, and Dallas selected him with no guarantees he would ever recapture the form he showed in college.

But after sitting out his entire rookie season, Smith played 16 games with six starts last year. And reports indicate he's looked even better this summer.

"When no one ever thought I'd play the game of football again, I was able to play all 16 games last year and contribute at a high level," Smith told reporters recently. "But I'm back now, so my role has increased tremendously."

Smith's emergence has mitigated concerns regarding the availability of linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, the first-round pick who could miss the opener with a groin injury.

And with defensive leader Sean Lee healthy, Dallas has reason to feel good about its linebacking corps.

AN IMPROVED SECONDARY? The Cowboys had their share of struggles in the secondary last season as a trio of rookies – cornerbacks Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis and safety Xavier Woods (who the Panthers liked) – got their first taste of the NFL.

Awuzie is a starter alongside Bryon Jones, a converted safety, and Woods is a starter alongside veteran Jeff Heath.

A year of experience leads many to assume Dallas will be better in the back end, but the main reason for that optimism is the arrival of Kris Richard as defensive backs coach. Richard spent the previous eight years with the Seahawks, helping to cultivate the physical, in-your-face style of play the Seattle secondary became known for.

"We wear on (receivers). They have to work really hard to catch a ball and then we're just lining up and playing the next play," Richard told the Dallas Morning News. "By no means are we a finished product. We absolutely need to get better in specific areas."

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