When a team seems to perennially underperform, the need for breakout players is magnified. In recent years, the Dallas Cowboys have hoped for breakout years from players like Sean Lee, Doug Free, Orlando Scandrick and Felix Jones.
Some have delivered, some have not.
But in reality, every NFL team counts on at least a few guys to emerge each year. Find me a Super Bowl-winning team that didn't get some surprise performances from players who weren't as productive in years prior.
Looking at the Dallas roster, there are some clear candidates. Here are four Cowboys who could be on the verge of taking off in 2012.
According to Jason Garrett:
He needs to play more football. He needs to play at a higher level both in terms of his understanding of scheme but also just how you play relentless. That's how you need to play football. He's starting to understand that. You see flashes of that. He just needs to do it more and more, and he's getting better.
The 2011 second-round pick was drafted so that the Cowboys could have someone to replace Bradie James and Keith Brooking. Those two veterans are gone now, which leaves Carter fighting the oft-injured Dan Connor for the chance to start alongside Sean Lee in the middle.
It's safe to assume the team is hoping that Carter emerges to win the job. The 23-year-old struggled to get acclimated as a rookie, partly due to injury and possibly as a result of the lockout-shortened offseason.
But Carter had a first-round grade from the Cowboys. Thus, he's expected to show off his strong instincts and contribute as a playmaker in the near future. I expect him to get a shot to start relatively early in 2012.
Goals for 2012: 8 starts, 50 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 interception, 5 passes defended
Jay Ratliff is expected to get more relief this year as the Cowboys give 24-year-old defensive tackles Josh Brent and Sean Lissemore more opportunities to prove themselves.
Both 2010 seventh-round picks (Brent was taken in the supplemental draft) showed glimpses in 2011, and they'll likely have a healthy competition for reps behind Ratliff, Marcus Spears, Kenyon Coleman and Jason Hatcher.
I'm going with Lissemore over Brent because, according to defensive line coach Brian Baker, he was the most productive member of the Cowboys defense on a per-play basis in 2011. I get the feeling that the team believes strongly that the 24-year-old out of William & Mary could be a starter in the near future.
That said, keep an eye out for Brent and Clifton Geathers too.
Goals for 2012: 5 starts, 5 sacks
There's no indication that Kevin Ogletree is good enough to take control of the No. 3 receiver slot left vacant by the departed Laurent Robinson, and rookie fifth-round pick Danny Coale was dealt a major blow when he broke his foot in practice Tuesday.
As a result, there's a good chance one of three relative unknowns emerges to take the spot this summer. Meet your candidates:
Andre Holmes: A 2011 undrafted free agent who spent most of his rookie season on the Cowboys' practice squad.
Raymond Radway: A 2011 undrafted free agent who spent his rookie season on injured reserve after breaking his fibula and tibia.
Dwayne Harris: A 2011 sixth-round pick who failed to make it onto the field as a rookie.
The 6'5" Holmes is who everyone's talking about, including Jerry Jones. I think the team would probably like to see a big target like that claim the role, and if that happens, he could have a chance to turn into the next Miles Austin.
And even if it's not Holmes, look for at least one member of that trio to make a name for himself this season.
Goals for 2012: 35 catches, 450 yards, 5 touchdowns
I know, he's already started 15 games, and he came close to posting 1,000 yards last season. But the 2010 first-round pick has still been a bit of a disappointment thus far in his Cowboys career.
He's struggled a bit to stay healthy, and he failed to become a consistent No. 1 receiver when Miles Austin went down for parts of the 2011 season. In fact, No. 3 wideout Laurent Robinson was just as effective as Bryant in Austin's stead.
Bryant is already a quality NFL receiver, but he might be able to take off in his third season. He has too much talent to be held down, and he could actually benefit from the healthy return of Austin.
Goals for 2012: 75 catches, 1,200 yards, 12 touchdowns