Dallas Cowboys: 7 Role Players Who Need to Step Up in 2012
Few teams in the league have the talent to match the Cowboys' starting 22. However, the difference between the top-flight teams and Dallas has been the players behind the first-teamers.
In the past, when a Cowboys starter went down with an injury or needed to come out of the game, the lack of talent on the bench has cost them games.
If Dallas desires to become Super Bowl contenders, it will be up to these role players to step up and take the Cowboys to the next level.
Before his season-ending ACL tear in 2010, John Phillips was a fast-rising tight end built in a similar mold as Jason Witten.
However, he didn't look quite as spry or as physical in his return in 2011, as evidenced by his lack of production. Phillips had only 15 receptions for 101 yards and one touchdown.
He will have to significantly improve upon those numbers in 2012, though, as he steps into the second-string tight end role left vacant by Martellus Bennett.
The Cowboys employ a lot of two-tight end sets and Phillips will see his reps on the field increase considerably. Phillips is an above-average blocker, but it will take an improved route running ability for him to take the next step.
How Phillips performs, specifically as a receiver, will have a huge impact on Dallas’ success in 2012.
When the Cowboys drafted Bruce Carter in the second round in 2011, it was a pick designed for the future.
For Carter, that future is now.
In his rookie season Carter dealt with a knee injury that kept him out of the Cowboys' first six games. When he returned, he saw limited playing time as the coaching staff attempted to acclimate him to the speed of the NFL game.
Early on Carter looked a step slow, but late in the season he displayed the athleticism that made him a second-round pick. He was quick in recognizing run plays and showed solid cover skills on tight ends and running backs.
However, in 2012 all the pressure will be on him. Veterans Keith Brooking and Bradie James are gone, and the inside spot next to Sean Lee is wide open.
Dallas signed Dan Connor to provide depth, but it would like nothing more than to see a Carter and Lee combo up the middle for the next decade.
Lee will do his part, but it's time for the former Tar Heel to transfer his talent it to the field.
As much parity as there is in the NFL on a week-to-week basis, a team's performance on special teams can be the difference between making the playoffs and sitting at home.
This is why you cannot overlook the impact of punter Chris Jones.
Jones, who filled in for Pro Bowl punter Mat McBriar in two games last season, is the projected starter entering the 2012 season.
However, McBriar's shadow still looms large, leaving Jones with a big boot to fill.
Jones averaged 42.6 yards a kick last season and will attempt to replace McBriar, who was one of the best punters in the league over the last seven years. McBriar averaged 45.3 yards a punt over his career and Jones will need to approach these numbers for the Cowboys to find success.
Field position can swing games, and the way Jones performs in 2012 could determine a contest or two.
The third wide receiver spot is wide open for Dallas heading into camp.
Only question is: Will this be the year Kevin Ogletree finally steps up and takes it?
Ever since Dallas signed the talented wideout from Virgina in 2009, all of the talk surrounding Ogletree was about how gifted he is. How he has the perfect body type for a receiver at 6'1", 190 pounds, his blazing fast 40 time at 4.36, and all of the potential he has to stretch the field.
The only thing is, none of that talent has come into fruition over the past three seasons.
Ogletree has recorded only 25 receptions for 294 yards over his career. Perhaps even more amazing is the fact that he hasn’t scored a touchdown in three years.
He has been equally inept in the return game, making little to no impact on special teams despite his natural abilities.
All of this has to change in 2012.
With the loss of Laurent Robinson in free agency, Dallas has a gaping hole in the third receiver slot. This is Ogletree's best chance to step up and grab it. However, if he doesn't seize the moment, this will be his last season in Dallas.
The defensive end position was a weakness for Dallas in 2011, as starters Kenyon Coleman and Marcus Spears underwhelmed.
Heading into 2012 Spears' job is safe, but Coleman could very well lose his starting role to Sean Lissemore.
Lissemore, a seventh-round pick in 2010, is the definition of a hard worker. He has one of the highest motors on the Cowboys' roster and never gives up on a play. And it's that same attitude that has him in contention to nab the starting spot from Coleman.
Lissemore has done nothing but improve since he was drafted out of William & Mary, and with a strong camp, he could find himself starting in 2012.
If he does get the nod, Lissemore has the potential to greatly alter the fortunes of the defense. His work ethic and drive will ensure that he makes a few plays on the line. More importantly, though, his passion on the field could spark his teammates, bringing much-needed energy to the field.
Even if he doesn't start, his relentless style off the bench could cause havoc on third down in opponents' backfields.
Bill Nagy, Phil Costa, David Arkin
Really, this list could include almost every offensive lineman on the roster. However, it's these three young players specifically who need to take their games up a notch for Dallas to reach its potential.
Bill Nagy and David Arkin will be headed into their second seasons and Phil Costa will be entering his third. All three of these players saw significant time on the line last year, and each of their performances left a lot to be desired.
Nagy got the starting nod early on at left guard and was pushed around more than some shopping carts before he suffered a season-ending ankle injury.
Arkin got a few snaps in his place later in the season and didn’t do much to impress either.
Costa saw the most consistent playing of the group, but he didn't do much better. He was an average blocker and, at times, had real difficulties snapping the ball.
Each of these young linemen will have the opportunity to earn a starting spot in camp, but they will have to significantly raise their level of play to secure a role.
Offensive line is Dallas’ biggest question mark heading into 2012. The play of these three will go a large way in determining how that question is answered.
Heading into the offseason safety was one of the Cowboys' biggest needs. Jerry Jones addressed it by signing veteran Brodney Pool, hoping to shore up Dallas' last line of defense.
However, if Pool wants to stay on the roster and retain his starting role, he will have to go through Barry Church.
Church, a third-year player who signed as an underrated free agent out of Toledo, has been a special teams stud early in his career. However, early reports out of OTA's suggest he's made real strides in coverage and will compete with Pool for the starting spot.
Even if Church fails to win the competition, he will have an important role to play in 2012.
Both Pool and Gerald Sensabaugh, the incumbent starter at safety, have been shaky throughout their careers. So, assuredly, there will be a time Church is needed to come in and plug up a hole.
When that moment comes, Church must be ready. He has the size, speed and coverage skills to excel. He just needs to take advantage of his opportunity when it arises.