Dallas Cowboys: 5 Players Who Should See Their Roles Expand in 2013
The Dallas Cowboys roster has a number of relatively young players that stand to see more action in the coming season than they did last year.
The NFL is a young man's game—always has been actually. But today it's even younger than in decades past. No longer do you see veteran players approaching 30 years of age, in some cases, still waiting for their opportunity to get on the field.
Today you have to make an impact quickly and the clock is already ticking on several Dallas players that, for various reasons, have yet to leave their mark during their limited time with the franchise.
In some cases injuries have been the holdup.
In other instances the depth chart has been the roadblock.
But in an offseason of many changes for the Cowboys, windows of opportunity will open for the following five individuals whose ''honeymoons'' are over—it's time to play football.
Dallas has had a few years following its last playoff victory in early 2010 to accept who it is and who it isn't. The apparent look of a contender in 2007 was followed by inconsistent play, terrible drafts and too much entitlement for veterans that are past their prime.
While the Cowboys certainly have more established talent than back-to-back seasons of mediocrity might indicate, a new corps of players has begun to emerge and this must continue even beyond the upcoming draft in less than two weeks.
The following players can actually be viewed as additional draft picks this year since not a single one came close to maximizing their potential a year ago.
I'll even say this: If as many as three of these players contribute the way Dallas expects, then America's Team can easily regain the driver's seat in an NFC East division that is not expected to be very difficult to win in 2013.
Dwayne Harris, WR, East Carolina (2011 NFL Draft, Round 6)
Apparently passing his remaining learning curve late last season, third-year veteran Dwayne Harris figures to be the most likely on this list to see a much bigger role in 2013.
Thanks to the departure of Kevin Ogletree to Tampa Bay last month, the third wide receiver job is there for Harris to take. As of now there is no other young receiver on the roster that comes close to Harris' experience and previous production—and there's not much at all.
Harris returned his first punt for a touchdown on Week 10 against the Eagles in Philadelphia last season, a huge play in that game that broke open a 38-23 victory for the Cowboys.
Harris' receiving totals are modest but after two years of very limited action, he'll be considered a capable veteran heading into training camp later this summer. His 17 receptions for 222 yards and one touchdown in 2012 should more than double next season provided that he picks up where he left off.
Harris had an average punt return of 16.1 yards last season, a number certainly spiked by the 78-yard score in Philly. Even without that big play, he still averaged 13.1 yards per return and there's no reason to think that should go down.
It's time for Harris to shine and it will very difficult for any rookie or veteran on the roster to catch him.
Tyrone Crawford, DE, Boise State (2012 NFL Draft, Round 3)
There is no other second-year player that intrigues me more than defensive end Tyrone Crawford.
Simply put, Crawford wasn't drafted as high as he was to ride the pine forever. To put into proper perspective, the Boise State product, despite being selected in Round 3, was actually the second player chosen following the considerable reach for cornerback Morris Claiborne in Round 1 a year ago.
Dallas has made a solid commitment to the former Broncos defensive lineman and good fortune may be coming for both the Cowboys and Crawford. Not sure that Crawford would have ever been anything more than serviceable in the now-scrapped 3-4 scheme.
But in defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin's 4-3 alignment, things could be different.
Crawford played the 4-3 at Boise State and translates into an instant fit at defensive end. At 6'4'' and 285 pounds, he's a linemen that can also play inside at defensive tackle.
There's talk of outside linebacker Anthony Spencer, at 6'3'' and 250 pounds, moving up to the defensive line for the first time since his days at Purdue, which ended in 2006. I realize that this could certainly happen, but I'm not positive on this at all.
At best, Crawford would only need to trim down about 10 pounds to become both a disruptive pass-rusher and also a great run defender at end. I'm not sure about Spencer doing the same since opposing right tackles will outweigh him by about 50 pounds—or more.
Crawford's 18 sacks over his last two years in Idaho show that for a guy his size, he can be a force up front. He's definitely a player to watch because the current system could make him a big surprise in his sophomore season in the pros.
Ronald Leary, OG, Memphis (UFA, 2012)
Perhaps no offensive lineman saw more action during last year's training camp than undrafted rookie Ronald Leary.
I recently offered the idea that Leary could very well be the reason that Dallas passes on an offensive guard in the first round of the coming draft. I still believe this to be the case.
Leary was a near draft pick of the Cowboys, but owner and general manager Jerry Jones decided to gamble on Leary not being selected during the last few rounds of the 2012 draft. This gamble paid off as Leary, in fact, went undrafted and then received a $214,000 signing bonus to join the Cowboys—yes, that's a ton for a guy who went undrafted.
Yes, Leary was a priority and despite not making the active roster at the end of training camp last summer, he was retained with every tool available to the Cowboys in order to keep him around.
Leary was actually called up to the active roster, mainly to prevent another team from signing him, for the final two games of the 2012 regular season.
Simply put, Leary will be a major player to watch during training camp. If another offensive guard prospect like Chance Warmack of Alabama or Jonathan Cooper of North Carolina is not chosen by Dallas in the first round of the coming draft, Leary is a major reason why.
James Hanna, TE, Oklahoma (2012 NFL Draft, Round 6)
Perhaps the most likely player to see a major jump in statistics in 2013 is tight end James Hanna.
This is not to say that the second-year veteran is going to unseat perennial Pro Bowl counterpart Jason Witten anytime soon, but I strongly believe that the Dallas offense will utilize more two-tight end sets in the coming season.
Hanna ran the fastest 40-yard dash of any tight end at the 2012 NFL scouting combine with a time of 4.49 seconds. That's a sweet time for a tight end and there won't be many linebackers who can stay with him—assuming that there is even one.
No, the New England Patriots' combination of tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez is nothing the NFL hasn't seen before.
The Green Bay Packers, back in the mid-1990s, used a combination of Mark Chmura and Keith Jackson to win Super Bowl XXXI. They also came close to keeping Dallas out of Super Bowl XXX the season prior in an NFC Championship Game defeat that was closer than the score indicated.
An effective double-tight end formation can be a terror for opposing defenses that have to carefully consider who covers these interior weapons, be it safeties or linebackers. In some cases, like a duo of Witten and Hanna, effective adjustments often lead to man-to-man matchups for the wide receivers—and then the offense sizzles.
Hanna only had eight receptions for 86 yards during his rookie season. But with another training camp and a year under his belt, he could be a weapon immediately in both the Dallas passing and rushing attack.
Matt Johnson, S, Eastern Washington (2012 NFL Draft, Round 4)
In my recent mock draft this week, I have the Cowboys selecting free safety Matt Elam out of Florida in Round 2. I do believe that he is a better prospect at the position than anybody in the coming draft, let alone anyone on the Dallas roster at the moment.
But there is another guy named Matt that might have something to say about that.
Matt Johnson of Eastern Washington was the fourth player selected by the Cowboys in last year's draft and this was no accident. It's not like recent names like Gerald Sensabaugh, Ken Hamlin or Alan Ball often changed football games for the Cowboys in the deep secondary.
With Barry Church the apparent strong safety, provided that he returns healthy from last year's Achilles injury, the remaining spot unaddressed is free safety—still.
Realize that Johnson couldn't do squat last season because of hamstring injuries that essentially make him a redshirt freshman in 2013.
For those clamoring for Texas strong safety Kenny Vaccaro to Dallas with the scheduled 18th pick, compare the data between the former Longhorn and Johnson for yourself. You'll find that the latter is actually a tad taller and definitely faster.
The question for Johnson is going to be those hamstrings. But if he's healthy he would be an easy upgrade over recently signed free-agent Will Allen, who's hopefully nothing more than insurance at the position.
But nothing is certain at this point.
Dallas vice president Stephen Jones told ESPN's Calvin Watkins in March the following regarding the Cowboys' situation at safety:
We think our two starters probably are on our team.We may get some insurance there, just like we did with Ernie (Sims), and then of course we’re going to draft. We’ve got some players to draft and college free agents to get, but we do think our two young guys could start for us.
No, Johnson is not a lock for a starting job but he'll be essentially begged to grab the job early and keep it.
Kyle Wilber, LB, Wake Forest (2012 NFL Draft, Round 4)
Wilber will face stiff competition from veterans like Ernie Sims and Justin Durant for a starting job. Wilber is a big linebacker who could win the job of strong-side linebacker. Then again, I'm not certain he may be the odd-man out given his potentially better fit in a 3-4 alignment.
Danny Coale, WR, Virginia Tech (2012 NFL Draft, Round 5)
Essentially the offense's version of Johnson, Coale got absolutely nothing done as a rookie due to multiple injuries. He has the tools to be a fourth or fifth receiver, of the possession variety, and should have an inside track over most other young receivers as depth begins to fill out beneath Dez Bryant, Miles Austin and Dwayne Harris—veteran free-agent Anthony Armstrong was re-signed earlier this month.
Ray Dominguez, OT, Arkansas (UFA, 2011)
Nobody knows much about Dominguez since he has yet to see any action during his first two seasons as a pro. One thing is for sure, however: Dominguez is a big dude. At 6'4'' and over 330 pounds, he looks like more than a camp body—more like two I suppose—but time will tell if this former Razorbacks offensive tackle has any real future with the Cowboys. It's not like there are many guys at that this position that create much optimism, are there?
Cole Beasley, WR, SMU (UFA, 2012)
Beasley has one difficult road ahead. Despite seeing some limited action near the end of last season, it was made quite clear that Beasley is a highly limited player who can neither stretch defenses nor play on the outside. At 5'8'' and well under 180 pounds, there's a shot for the former Mustang but I don't think it's a great one.