10 Most Underrated Dallas Cowboys on the Roster

Christian Blood@@cowboysguruContributor IIIFebruary 8, 2012

10 Most Underrated Dallas Cowboys on the Roster

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    Every NFL franchise has a roster full of talent. This includes teams that went 8-8, like the Dallas Cowboys.

    While it is common to discuss players on all teams that are overrated, it’s sometimes appropriate for both fans and coaches to look closely at players that might be underrated. Sometimes an underrated player is a guy who does much more than is recognized and is essentially taken for granted.

    Other times it’s a player who might need just one good opportunity in order to establish himself as a quality starter, or better. And still there are others who obviously perform well but just don’t get the love other players do. This is due to a lack of wins while other overrated players surround them.

    This is my take on the most underrated players on the roster of the Dallas Cowboys.

    I’ll add that I left Laurent Robinson off this list primarily because he really isn’t underrated at all, seeing as how he was such a key part of the Dallas passing game in 2011. He would fall closer to overrated simply because he has only performed well for one season and will likely see more attention wherever he plays next year. We are not even certain that he will be on the roster in 2012 as well.

No. 10 : L.P. Ladouceur, Long Snapper

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    Have you ever seen a Cowboys fan wearing a No. 91 jersey? I’m betting the answer is no.

    I can’t sell you that fans tune in it to check out the long snapper on any NFL team. What’s funny is the fact that the instant anyone notices the long snapper it is because something horrible has happened.

    Chances are, you have seen numerous horrible snaps thanks to Dallas' lack of interest in employing a true center since the days of Mark Stepnoski. In a span five to six seasons, the combination of Andre Gurode and Phil Costa have provided a short highlight reel of some of the worst snaps ever to get passed a Dallas passer of any era.

    We can say the opposite for Dallas long snapper L.P. Ladouceur.

    Every time the Cowboys punt the ball or attempt a field goal, Ladouceur is the guy firing perfect lasers to either the punter or holder, and it's hard to even think of a time when this went wrong.

    That's because it never does.

    Consistency at this position is definitely taken for granted. Quality deep snaps are kind of like breathing—it only seems to matter when it goes wrong.

    All is well with the Dallas Cowboys here, and with the seven-year veteran from Montreal, Canada signing through 2013 and probably beyond, things should stay that way for some time.

No. 9 : John Phillips, Tight End

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    If you’re a tight end on the same team as perennial Pro Bowler Jason Witten, chances are you’re going to be in his shadow.

    This is to be expected.

    An ACL injury in the first preseason game of 2010 cost third-year tight end John Phillips his entire season. So 2011 was a comeback season for a guy who has plenty of football left in him.

    Beyond the injury, Phillips’ biggest issue has been the poor evaluation of Martellus Bennett, the second-string tight end since he was drafted in 2008. Bennett certainly has better athleticism than Phillips, but there is no question that the former is on his way out of Big D.

    The latter should see his overall impact on the offense improve significantly in 2012, which will be a contract year.

    Phillips is built perfectly as a blocking tight end, which is critical in the Dallas rushing attack. He also has just enough speed and good enough hands to keep the chains moving with a catch or two per game.

    Bennett’s departure should clear the way for 20-30 catches and three to four touchdowns next season.

No. 8 : Jason Hatcher, Defensive End

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    As soon as the NFL lockout of 2011 ended, the Cowboys got right to work on defensive end Jason Hatcher—easily the most underrated pass-rusher on the Dallas defensive line. Now signed through 2013, the Cowboys are in position to start maximizing the potential of this six-year veteran.

    Hatcher rewarded the Cowboys with the highest sack total of his career in 2011. I get that 4.5 sacks may not exactly create ESPN highlight features, but this clearly indicates that Hatcher is capable of producing more. Chances are he would have already, if not for the failed Igor Olshansky experiment of 2009 and 2010.

    The Cowboys first have to determine what scheme they will run in 2012. The idea has surfaced that a return to the 4-3 alignment is a possibility. Then again, Dallas could remain committed to the 3-4 alignment that has been left vacated with no true nose guard since it became standard in 2005.

    If the Cowboys finally move Jay Ratliff back to defensive end and plug the middle the way most contending 3-4 schemes do, then it could immediately add three to five sacks for both Ratliff and Hatcher.

    If Hatcher can close in on double digit sacks down the road, then the Dallas defense could go from mediocre to championship-caliber very soon.

No. 7 : Mike Jenkins, Cornerback

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    The four-year career of cornerback Mike Jenkins has been a roller coaster to say the least. The combination of injuries and a declining defense the past two seasons has left many calling for his release.

    Jenkins is entering a contract year and an offseason of rehab following a shoulder injury in the first meeting against the New York Giants at Cowboys Stadium. This will be a make it or  break it campaign for Jenkins in 2012.

    This young man’s biggest problem is staying healthy.

    Unlike Terence Newman, Jenkins is a much more physical player and he tends to pay for that. This is due, in part, because Dallas corners end up having to tackle too many tight ends and fullbacks in the flat, and this is never a good matchup.

    Jenkins suffered injuries throughout the entire 2011 preseason and regular season. He is expected back by training camp, and if you believe that money is a big motivator, then it’s possible for Jenkins to have a much greater impact next season if he can stay healthy and the Cowboys shore up a weak defensive front that allows too many rushing yards.

    Jenkins picked off five passes in 2009—the last season Dallas reached the playoffs in winning the NFC East. A year later, he was accused of essentially quitting on the worst defense ever fielded by the Cowboys.

    So, who is he?

    We’ll find out soon since third cornerback Orlando Scandrick was signed to an extension in 2011 and Terence Newman will likely not return next season.

    With more opportunities on 3rd-and-long and with better health, Jenkins has the ability to be among the top 20 corners in football. Pro Football Focus already ranked him the 40th best starting corner—he was targeted 54 times in 2011 while giving up just 28 receptions. On opening night against the New York Jets, he was thrown at four times while giving up just one catch for two yards.

    Yes, Jenkins can play.

No. 6 : Josh Brent, Nose Guard

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    For reasons only the Cowboys fully understand, the 3-4 defense in Dallas has never been manned full time by a nose guard weighing more than 300 pounds. In 2011, Year 5 of Jay Ratliff in the middle, they employed a 285-pound nose guard.

    Once again the Dallas defense—especially against the run—was at it's weakest late in the season. Dallas gave up 4.4 yards per carry last season which simply won’t get it done.

    I have no stats or highlights to support placing second-year nose tackle Josh Brent at No. 6 on this list. The fact that he played Division I college football at Illinois and weighs close to 320 pounds alone makes him a very valuable commodity on the Dallas defensive line.

    So why is he not playing? Jay Ratliff, that’s why.

    Ratliff gets paid to rush the passer, which makes it a mind-boggling riddle why the Cowboys—a franchise with little history in the 3-4 scheme—place him in the path of the most resistance.

    It just makes no sense.

    Brent comes much closer to the prototypical size of the average NFL nose guard—and I wish he was 10-15 pounds heavier, to be totally honest. You can’t do the undersized but quick thing that the Cowboys used to do in the 1990s in a 3-4 defensive scheme. This position has to be manned by a player who weighs somewhere between 330 and 340 pounds. That’s the only way to fill the A-gap, and Ratliff will never do this well.

    You don't necessarily call a pastry chef to run a grill, do you?

    Ratliff tied a Dallas cornerback (Orlando Scandrick) with all of two sacks in 2011. Giving Brent, who is signed through 2013, every opportunity to play on first and second downs has to be a priority. Even if another bigger and stronger nose tackle is brought in, Brent should provide very solid depth at this most critical position the Cowboys have either ignored or poorly manned since going to the 3-4 full time in 2005.

No. 5 : Marcus Spears, Defensive End

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    After Jay Ratliff, the next defensive player possibly out of position is defensive end Marcus Spears. I have wondered for several years why the Cowboys, instead of placing Ratliff at nose guard, didn’t simply bulk Spears up another 10-15 pounds and put him in the middle.

    Either way, Spears is a quality player that is minimized in stats for same reason all Dallas defenders are: takeaway outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware.

    In the last two seasons, I have heard that Terence Newman needs to go. I have heard that Brady James needs to go. I even heard that Marcus Spears needed to go after last season.

    Like Jason Hatcher, the Cowboys immediately extended the seven-year veteran from LSU through 2014, and rightly so.

    The argument I generally heard for releasing Spears was his lack of sacks, further proof that too many Dallas fans really don’t understand what the 3-4 defense is all about. Remember that the defensive line has only three players challenging the opposing offensive line’s five. There’s a huge difference between a classic 4-3 defensive end like Charles Haley or Reggie White and 3-4 ends like Marcus Spears or Jason Hatcher.

    Opposing running backs rushed exactly 300 times against the Cowboys in 2011. That number needs to come down by 10 to 15 percent just to get started. Then they will start seeing more sacks from guys like Spears and other front defenders not named Ware.

    Spears controls the line and has great mass for a defensive end, and he is definitely an under-appreciated player as the Cowboys move forward. Spears also translates to defensive tackle should Dallas make the switch back to the 4-3 alignment.

No. 4 : Victor Butler, Outside Linebacker

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    In terms of time spent on the field, the second most productive Dallas outside linebacker might be three-year veteran Victor Butler.

    No, his sack totals aren’t exactly awe-inspiring, but for a guy who mainly plays on third down, Butler is pretty consistent as a pass-rusher. Playing behind starter Anthony Spencer most of the time, Butler has accumulated eight sacks in his three years of work and has also either forced a fumble or recovered one in each season.

    With Spencer an unrestricted free agent in less than a month, it will be interesting to see how the Cowboys approach his status as well as other big questions pertaining to scheme, nose guard and so forth.

    Butler is entering a contract year and at 24 years old, he has his best days still ahead of him. What the Cowboys do know is that he can rush the passer despite his limited opportunities.

    Can Butler replace Spencer should Dallas decide to part ways with its starting left outside linebacker?

    That’s a tough question, because Butler shows a bit more skill as a pure pass-rusher, but he does not possess the larger, more powerful frame that Spencer does. Dallas needs to be in the market of getting bigger and stronger upfront, not the other way around.

    For at least another season, Butler is in the plans and as other aspects of this team come together, he could certainly be a surprising force on a defense that really has nowhere to go but up.   

No. 3 : Tyron Smith, Offensive Tackle

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    The Cowboys drafted offensive tackle Howard Richards of Missouri with the 26th selection in the first round of the 1981 NFL Draft.

    Believe it or not, they would not take another offensive lineman in the first round until the 2011 selection of Tyron Smith at ninth overall.

    Yeah, it was time. They key was getting the right guy and Dallas did that for sure.

    Smith was the first tackle taken in a class that was said to be weaker than in recent years. His play, at right tackle mind you, was reminiscent of just about any other rookie left tackle we’ve seen in recent years that might have been chosen in the top three.

    Quarterback Tony Romo wasn’t flushed to his left very often this season—an indication that Smith held his ground more than adequately. The Cowboys will now consider moving Smith to left tackle, seeing how he has the ability and given that the Doug Free experiment is not going as well as expected.

    There’s a reason these left tackles go so high up in the draft. The NFL has always been a quarterback league and those signal-callers can’t help much when they’re injured.

    Romo has been injured far too often the past three seasons for anyone to get too upset over Dallas’ lack of postseason play. Until the Cowboys could protect Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman, they were not even a playoff team.

    The first year they did they won the Super Bowl. Enough said.

    Smith is the first piece of the difficult rebuilding of an offensive line that got too old, too slow and far too expensive to keep around. It took young bulls like Erik Williams and Larry Allen to launch the Dallas offense during its last championship run beginning almost 20 years ago.

    It will take the same strategy this time, and Tyron Smith is the first step toward reaching that goal.

No. 2 : Sean Lee, Inside Linebacker

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    The Cowboys made a big splash in the first round of the 2010 NFL Draft, the first such event to take place over three days as opposed to only two over a given weekend. The selection of wide receiver Dez Bryant immediately began to close the gaping hole left by the 2009 NFL Draft, which yielded the Cowboys almost nothing, especially in terms of starting talent.

    So on Day 2, I was ready to watch the progress of Alabama defensive tackle Terrence Cody in the second round, the top player on my wish list. I’ve been on the campaign for a real nose guard in Dallas for years now.

    As Carlos Dunlap was selected by Cincinnati just ahead of Dallas, I was primed and ready. Cody was still there.

    Then the name Sean Lee was announced and I fell back onto the couch with my hands over my face.

    The next word out of my mouth rhymed with duck—let’s put it that way.

    Knowing next to nothing about Lee, I ran to YouTube to see what I could find. Spelling the name Shawn as I just did, all I found was some guy who rides motor cross, or something. I was astonished.

    Eventually, I found my way through the woods of cyberspace and came across a great video piece  promoting this soon-to-be rookie from Linebacker U.

    Afterwards I was sold, especially while knowing that Keith Brooking was soon to be out of the picture.

    Lee has been arguably the second most productive Dallas defender after DeMarcus Ware since he got on the field. Lee has range, instincts, fearlessness and should see a handful of Pro Bowl selections during his many years in the NFL.

    No one plays linebacker at Penn State on accident, and Lee was no exception.

    Consider that Lee tied for the team lead in interceptions with four and racked up 105 tackles in his second year. These numbers are staggering for such a young player, and there is no doubt that Lee is among less than five defensive players that Dallas has right now that are key pieces to a better future.

No. 1 : Tony Romo, Quarterback

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    Quarterback Tony Romo is perhaps the most underrated quarterback ever to play in Dallas. I give a respectful nod to Danny White, but even he didn’t put up the numbers that Romo has in taking Dallas to three straight NFC championship games in the early 1980s.

    I hear a lot of barking from time to time about how Romo is not a championship quarterback and it makes me chuckle at the naivety of some alleged football fans.

    Let’s remember that all Romo did was lead the Cowboys to the playoffs in his first two seasons playing as a starter. In his first full season, he led Dallas to a 13-3 record, tying a franchise best en route to the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs.

    What I see in Romo is a quarterback who is similar to Steve Young during his days in San Francisco.

    Both have mobility when needed and are fantastic at getting the ball deep down field to their cache of weapons in the passing game. Neither have that superior height you look for in franchise quarterbacks selected early in the NFL Draft, yet they find ways of seeing all they need to see.

    You know what the difference was between Young in San Francisco and Young in Tampa Bay?

    The 49ers were a much, much better football team.

    Romo’s career stats are among the best of all time in terms of yards per completion. This stat alone does not make a Hall of Fame candidate, but you cannot deny that Romo has superior ability. If you dare try, I would guess that you weren’t around for Quincy Carter, Clint Stoerner, Anthony Wright, Chad Hutchinson, Ryan Leaf, Drew Henson, Vinny Testaverde and Drew Bledsoe—all following Troy Aikman last decade.

    Had you been around for these years, you would recognize the clear difference between Romo and those others. Starting quarterbacks with game-winning ability do not grow on trees, and they certainly are not digital images you might toy with in games of Madden 2012.

    They said that John Elway couldn’t win championships for any other reason than the fact that he lost three Super Bowls in four seasons to close out the 1980s.

    Well, he pretty much shoved that up everyone’s rear not long after a running game showed up in the Mile High City—twice!

    It could very well go the same way for Romo. Dallas has just enough time left to rebuild what was close in 2007, but then immediately began falling apart in following seasons.   

    Quarterbacks have to have talent surrounding them and until this happens, there will be interceptions, sacks, injuries and a whole lot of frustration.

    Romo is going nowhere and Peyton Manning is not coming to Dallas. Enjoy having one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL. They do not play forever—even in Madden 2012 franchise mode.