FRISCO, Texas – The most popular description of Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott throughout their spectacular rookie seasons was an incongruous one: they carried themselves like veterans, not rookies.
That much was evident in the postseason hardware they collected: a Pro Bowl selection for both; a first-team All-Pro selection for Elliott; Pepsi NFL Rookie of the Year and AP Offensive Rookie of the Year awards for Prescott; the FedEx Ground NFL Player of the Year for Elliott.
They took the stage at NFL Honors this past Saturday night to collectively accept Prescott's second rookie trophy, a symbol of teamwork and the stark reality facing opponents: they're a package deal defenses must contend with for the next several years.
So, what's next? Where can these two improve after an incredible start?
"In every area," Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said the day after the team's divisional-round playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers. "And we can go through it. We'll go back and watch the tape of those guys, and you'll look at specific runs and courses and decisions that the runner made, and how we protected and how we ran routes. You'll find all things in each of those areas that each of those guys can improve upon. And the same thing with Dak. You have to build on the good stuff, you have to recognize the good stuff – and then you have to address the other stuff. That's not only with those guys, but that's with every guy on our team."
There's another popular sports adage: 'sophomore slump.' Yet, many NFL players make their biggest jump in development from Year One to Year Two, capitalizing on their first full offseason program with their respective teams.
Throughout the season, Prescott and Elliott modeled their approach after veterans such as Jason Witten, who completed his rookie season with then-coach Bill Parcells 13 years ago.
Several of the Cowboys' cornerstone veterans indeed made significant progress in their second year. One can argue Prescott and Elliott already had their breakout seasons, but both intend to get better and better individually with larger team goals in mind.
Elliott was asked at the Pro Bowl if he's been able to reflect on the honors he's received so early in his career.
"I try to, but I'm a perfectionist," he said. "So I'm definitely not satisfied."
Here are three of many Cowboys veterans who made a considerable jump in Year Two:
Jason Witten, 2004
Just 22, Witten became the first Cowboys tight end to make the Pro Bowl since Jay Novacek in 1995 and only the second tight end to lead the Cowboys in catches in a season (Doug Cosbie). He broke Novacek's tight end record for catches in a season (87) and Cosbie's tight end record for receiving yards in a season (980) along with a then-career high six touchdowns – a major improvement over his rookie numbers: 35 catches for 347 yards and one touchdowns. More comfortable in the offense, he became a popular middle-of-the-field target for 40-year-old starting quarterback Vinny Testaverde. The 2004 season was the first of many years to come with Witten as a focal point of the offense.
Sean Lee, 2011
Lee became the starting middle linebacker in his second season and showed he could lead the defensive huddle. The team's 2010 second-round pick played in 14 games as a rookie reserve despite some nagging injuries and produced 45 tackles (three for loss) and a forced fumble. In his second year he started 15 games and delivered 131 team-credited tackles, tied for team lead in tackles for losses (eight), interceptions (four) and fumble recoveries (two). He had double-digit tackles in six games and led or tied for the most on the team in seven games.
Tyron Smith, 2012
Smith didn't make his first Pro Bowl until his third season in 2013, but in 2012 he made a successful transition to left tackle from right tackle – setting the stage for his current four-year streak of All-Pro selections. Quarterback Tony Romo threw for a career-high and team-record 4,903 yards that season, thanks in part to Smith's blocking. Smith committed 11 penalties over 15 starts in 2012 but only three in the last half of the season. Most important, he got accustomed to the technique changes required for flipping sides of the field.