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Identifying 5 Cowboys Veterans Who Made Significant Improvement In 2016

FRISCO, Texas – It's Pro Bowl and Senior Bowl week – a reward for the best NFL players of 2016 and a look forward to the best draft prospects of 2017.

The Cowboys won a franchise-record tying 13 games with some impactful acquisitions that improved throughout the season – most notably Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott, who are in Orlando this week as rookie Pro Bowlers.

Each offseason, the focus shifts to how teams can improve through roster additions. Free agency opening March 9. The draft starting April 27.

But improvements from returning veterans helped the Cowboys get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2014 – and that's what they'll need again to improve on this year's divisional-round exit.

Here are five of many who stepped up in 2016:

WR Cole Beasley

It didn't take long for Dak Prescott to realize Beasley would be a steady receiving target for the first-year quarterback.

"He finds a way to get open," Prescott said in September. "Beasley is always open."

For the first time in his five-year career, Beasley led the Cowboys in catches (75) and receiving yards (833), both career bests. He delivered three of his five touchdown catches in the three October games Dez Bryant missed with a knee injury.

And, perhaps the best measure of his reliability, Beasley ranked 12th in the NFL catching 76.5 percent of the passes thrown his way (75 of 98, according to STATs via the Washington Post).

What has made him so effective?

"Well, he's got a lot of ability," head coach Jason Garrett said. "Physically he's hard to cover because he's quick. And when I say quick, there's a lot of guys who are quick but he has this quickness that's maybe a little different than most. And then he has this ability to change directions. He can put his foot in the ground, be going in this direction, be going in that direction really quickly. And not only does he do it quickly but he does it with great body control. That's why he's quarterback friendly."

DE David Irving

Irving showed flashes in 2015, his first season in Dallas, but nothing like Week 6 against the Green Bay Packers this past October when he forced three fumbles in only 19 defensive snaps.

As the season wore on, the second-year defensive lineman showed he could be productive with more playing time. He finished with career highs in sacks (4) and quarterback pressures (26), up from 14 last season.

Irving is scheduled to be an exclusive rights free agent this offseason.

"Just got to keep getting better," he said. "You're never good enough."

DT Terrell McClain

Staying healthy has been McClain's biggest obstacle in his three-year Dallas tenure. He missed 17 games the previous two years, including 14 last season with a toe injury.

Not only did McClain make 15 starts at defensive tackle in 2016, his most game appearances since the 2013 season as a member of the Houston Texans, he delivered career highs with 41 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 8 quarterback pressures and 2 forced fumbles. ties tackles for loss (3).

As a result, the Cowboys led the league in run defense, allowing only 83.5 yards per game. McClain is set to be an unrestricted free agent this spring.

P Chris Jones

Jones shook social media with his second of two special teams tackles during the season – a de-cleating hit on Detroit Lions punt returner Andre Roberts in Week 16.

He also showed he could gain yardage as well as stop forward progress. His 30-yard run on a fake punt in Week 8 was the fourth-longest run by an NFL punter in 30 yards and set up a field goal in the Cowboys' overtime win over the Philadelphia Eagles.

Regarding his primary duties, Jones also set a career high with a 45.9-yard punt average, including a beautiful 66-yarder that dribbled out of bounds at the Eagles' 1-yard line in the regular-season finale. He now has the all-time highest percentage of punts downed inside the 20-yard line (39.9 percent) in team history.

LB Anthony Hitchens

Preparation has been perhaps Hitchens' best asset since entering the league in 2014 as a fourth-round pick. As a rookie, he filled in for an injured Sean Lee. This season, he stepped in again as the starting middle linebacker with Rolando McClain on the Reserve/Did Not Report list.

The results in 16 starts, playing just under 55 percent of the defensive snaps in a rotation with Justin Durant: a career-high 104 tackles, ranked third on defense, and four for loss.

"Hitch has done such a great job since we got him," Garrett said. "If you remember, his rookie year he played a lot at different spots as a backup player. He started at Mike, he started at Will, he started at Sam. And really just seemed to be ready for any of those opportunities. Again, he goes about it the right way, approaches it the right way, he's a student of the game.

"He's a very instinctive player. He's a damn good player."

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