If the Dallas Cowboys plan on getting over the hump and becoming consistent postseason performers, it will have to be fueled by the growth and development of younger players. Dez Bryant is a perfect example of how a breakout season can catapult a player into a different category and provide optimism for a better future.
The Cowboys need to find building blocks, solid contributors, playmakers and, ultimately, leaders. Players such as Jason Witten, Tony Romo and DeMarcus Ware aren't going to be around forever, but it's youngsters like Bryant, Sean Lee and Bruce Carter that need to be ready to take the reins.
The 2013 season provides another opportunity for some of the younger players on this roster to prove a lot of things. Besides proving their level of skill and talent, they get the chance to prove to management that what this franchise is doing is working.
The faster the Cowboys find out about what they have and who has arrived, the easier it'll be to make better decisions for the franchise. If a younger, cheaper player steps up and the Cowboys can financially control him for three to four years, then it opens up more opportunities for the bigger picture of the team.
It sounds easier than it looks, but developing homegrown talent with a grassroots approach is ultimately the most efficient way to build sustained success. It still won't guarantee a Super Bowl every year, but at least it's a clear and defined philosophy that seems to be working in most of the 31 other cities of the NFL.
Let's take a look at five players who could be instrumental to the success of the this franchise.
Harris made great strides from his rookie season to 2012 in his role as the punt returner while also making plays in the receiving game. Harris finished second in the NFL in punt-return average and also showed Cowboys fans the impact a successful return game can have on a game. His 78-yard punt return against the Eagles proved to be a game-changing play and the Cowboys need more of that.
As the season progressed, Harris displayed some nice ability on third-down receptions, showed solid route running and awareness and provided a glimpse of his potential role as a third receiver. While 17 receptions for 222 yards aren't eye-popping statistics, Harris started to display some significant growth.
In 2013, Harris needs to show the same propensity for making plays that he displayed in 2012. This includes the return game and whatever role he is inserted in as a receiver. With the likelihood of Kevin Ogletree not returning, this just provides more of a chance for him to develop in 2013.
The continued development of Harris could add another weapon to the Cowboys offense, and you can't have enough of that.
Hanna is kind of in the similar but different situation that Harris is in. While many envisioned a bigger role for Hanna in 2012 with the popularity of two tight end sets, he only started to display his talents towards the end of the season. So while Harris gave us more to get excited about, Hanna is not that far behind.
For starters, Jason Witten has really not shown any signs of slowing down and he continues to be a trusted and dependable receiver for Tony Romo. Witten isn't getting any younger, but the Cowboys need to start developing another threat from this position.
The Cowboys must utilize the tight end position in a way that other teams are and they must stress the importance of developing this offensive niche. Having two viable tight end options is becoming more of a must-have instead of a need.
This is not only where Hanna can put his talents on display, but he can give this offense a major threat in the passing game in 2013. It's time to take those glimpses of talent and turn them into regular contributions. The time is now.
It might seem a little odd to proclaim that the sixth pick in the last year’s draft needs to step up in 2013, but it's warranted. Morris Claiborne started 15 games, performed extremely well, grew as a player every week, but if you weigh what the Cowboys gave up to acquire him, then the expectations need to be raised.
The Cowboys simply need him to evolve into the game-changing, playmaking, shutdown corner that he is totally capable of becoming. Claiborne possesses all the necessary attributes and the mental ability as well as the physical abilities to become a top-ranked cornerback.
But one interception is not going to cut it and it makes you wonder whether he was not aggressive enough, needed to develop his confidence or maybe had a tough transition to the NFL. When you look back at the matchup with Riley Cooper, it makes you wonder but not totally worry.
In any event, Claiborne has all the ability in the world, but 2013 is going to be a significant one in terms of his growth. This defense is counting on him.
I envisioned Lissemore as being a breakout performer in 2012, but that failed to happen. He battled through some injury issues, but when he was healthy, he did display that high-motor snap-to-whistle type of player that he is.
Lissemore finished the 2012 season with 35 tackles and one sack, but he will be counted on to produce more next season. With the switch to Monty Kiffin's 4-3 alignment, Lissemore's versatility could really provide for some nice options along the defensive line.
This is a prime example of a young player under contract for a few more years that needs to elevate his game to the next level. 2013 might be more than just a step-up year for Lissemore because it could also determine his long-term future with the team.
But with the defensive line being so critical to the new defensive scheme, Lissemore has the chance to become a star. And that's what this franchise needs from him.
With the status of Anthony Spencer's free agency up in the air, the opportunity for Alex Albright will not get any greater than his chances in 2013. If Spencer does return, it most likely will be at the defensive end position, so either way, there appears to be an opening outside linebacker spot.
For Albright. this is a chance for the converted defensive end to be more than just a special teams player and valued backup. Albright showed in 2012 that he is more than capable of taking on a significant role in this defense while the Cowboys were ravaged with injuries.
When you watch him play, the attributes that jump out include his intelligence, his ability to defend the run and his throwback style of play. Albright was thrust into action at various times in 2012 and he responded with some solid performances against Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and New Orleans.
In those three games he had a combined 15 tackles, but he also played with intensity and really started to embrace his additional playing time. Albright is another example of how developing his game could really benefit this team in terms of depth, flexibility and financially.
But like other young players on this roster and throughout the league, his ability to step up in 2013 will be the determining factor in his success.