Ranking the 10 Most Valuable Players on the Dallas Cowboys Roster

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistMay 29, 2013

Now that all of the major wheeling and dealing is over and we have had a chance to look at the key components of the 2013 Dallas Cowboys roster, we can begin to draw some conclusions and make some projections regarding the most valuable players on "America's Team." 

Entering 2013, here are 10 Cowboys who the team will rely on more than anyone else. 


10. LB Bruce Carter

After struggling through a rookie campaign mired by injury, Carter broke out in a big way in his second NFL season. The 2011 second-round pick was a force for 11 weeks before an elbow injury sidelined him for the final month of the year.

He also appeared to step up his game after fellow linebacker Sean Lee went down in Week 7, delivering two particularly memorable performances against Atlanta and Philadelphia

Before Carter got injured in 2012, Dallas was giving up just 22.4 points per game. But from the game in which he was hurt going forward, that number shot up to 29.3. And at only 24, he was ranked by Pro Football Focus as the league's second-most efficient tackler at the inside linebacker position.


9. RB DeMarco Murray 

I despise those chicken-or-the-egg stats that attempt to establish a running back's importance by stating that his team only seems to win when said back gets a certain number of touches, but there's no doubt that the Cowboys are a completely different team when Murray is healthy. 

When he carried the rock 20-plus times while close to 100 percent as a rookie in 2011, Murray averaged 6.0 yards per carry while the 'Boys went 5-0. He only reached that plateau three times in 2012, but he still averaged 4.8 yards per carry when he did and Dallas went 3-0. 

The problem is that he's rarely been able to stay on the field and has been missing organized team activities. With no proven backs behind him, that only increases Murray's value to a team that averaged only 3.6 yards per rushing attempt in 2012. 

If he can deliver on his recent vow and play all 16 games in 2013, expect Dallas to get back to the playoffs.


8. TE Jason Witten

Safety valve. Security blanket. Pick your metaphor. All that matters is that Witten is Tony Romo's most reliable offensive weapon, and that's been the case for nearly a decade. 

While he became less of a red-zone threat and saw his yards-per-catch number drop, the 31-year-old is coming off an extremely prolific season. He set a new record for tight ends with 110 catches while going over the 1,000-yard mark for the fourth time in his 10-year NFL career.

With defenses constantly having to concern themselves with a big, strong tight end who hasn't missed a game since 2003, the Cowboys are able to draw attention away from Dez Bryant and/or Miles Austin and/or the running game merely by having Witten on the field.  


7. CB Brandon Carr

Carr was paid handsomely to join the Cowboys last spring, and now the onus is on the former Chiefs standout to perform both as a Pro Bowl-caliber No. 1 cornerback as well as a mentor to 2012 first-round pick Morris Claiborne. 

On defense, nothing has hurt the Cowboys more the last five years than the secondary, and Carr and Claiborne are charged with having to take big steps forward in their second season in Dallas so that the pass defense can continue to evolve from Achilles' heel to strength. The pass D still gave up the seventh-worst yards-per-pass average in the league in 2012, and their interception total dropped from 15 to a league-low of seven.

Carr was generally solid in coverage last year, but he'll have to become much more consistent in Monte Kiffin's defense in 2013 to avoid being labelled as a bad signing. 


6. LB Sean Lee

It's rare to see two linebackers who don't rush the passer possessing so much importance on one team, but that's how good the Lee/Carter duo already has become. The 26-year-old Lee was playing at an All-Pro level before a toe injury derailed his third NFL season after only six weeks. 

Before that happened, Lee was on pace to record 155 tackles, which would have ranked second in the league. And had he continued to play the way he was playing, his final rating from Pro Football Focus likely would have placed him tops among all NFL inside linebackers, ahead of even Patrick Willis.

It's scary to imagine how dominant Lee and Carter could be if they could only stay healthy together in 2013, especially when you consider that they'd have a ton of support from two elite pass-rushers who have yet to be named on this list.


5. OT Tyron Smith

It's simple. The Cowboys have to do a better job protecting Tony Romo. And while the entire offensive line, the backs, tight ends and receivers all share that responsibility to various degrees, Smith is the most important man in charge of quarterback security in Dallas. 

It's hard to believe that the 2011 No. 9 overall pick is still only 22 years old. That means there's a lot of room for improvement for a guy who will be tasked once again with watching Romo's blind side in 2013. 

His sacks against total dropped from eight to three last year, but his penalty total rose from seven to 11. His overall PFF rating dropped substantially, but making the switch from right to left is never easy, especially when you're 21 years old and have limited support in place. 

Smith will have to get better this year. If he doesn't, the entire offense will suffer.


4. DE Anthony Spencer

It's quite amazing that Spencer, not All-World teammate DeMarcus Ware, was rated by PFF as the best 3-4 outside linebacker in football last season. But at times it felt like the versatile 29-year-old was the only thing keeping a ravaged defense together. He was superb against the run while nearly doubling previous career highs will 11 sacks and 95 tackles in 14 games. 

That was enough to convince the Cowboys to slap Spencer with the franchise tag again, resulting in a one-year, $10.627 million salary for a guy who for years had been considered to be a complementary pass-rushing cog who lacked bite in pursuit of opposing quarterbacks. 

That's changed, though, and with Ware aging and battling injuries more often than earlier in his career, Spencer has become just as important as his longtime edge-rushing partner.


3. DE DeMarcus Ware

Ware still gets the edge, though, because his résumé is so much more impressive and because he still managed to lead Dallas in sacks last year despite being nagged by elbow and shoulder ailments. Plus, an 11.5-sack season might have been an anomaly, because Ware hit the opposing quarterback 13 times on plays that didn't result in sacks, which is something Spencer only accomplished twice.

The 30-year-old might be declining slowly, but he's still the top playmaker on this defense and he'll be Mr. Reliable until he actually misses a start, which to this point has never happened to the eight-year veteran. 

Simply by being on the field, Ware makes everyone around him look and feel better.


2. WR Dez Bryant

Bryant became a star during the second half of his third season in the NFL, catching more touchdown passes than anyone else in football by a wide margin and emerging as the reliable, consistent threat the Cowboys hoped he'd become when they used a first-round pick on the often-troubled wideout in 2010.

There's no reason to expect that won't carry over into 2013, especially with Bryant staying out of trouble. He's been praised over and over again for the rate at which he's matured, which could mean big things for a guy with so much freakin' talent.

Look for Bryant to dominate in 2013.


1. QB Tony Romo

So long as you have a competent starting quarterback, he's going to be your most cherished player. And when you pay him nine figures, as the Cowboys did when they gave Romo a lucrative new contract this offseason, there's no room for debate. 

This isn't about how good Romo is (although he's better than you think). All that matters is that Cowboys stand no chance of succeeding in the short term without their quarterback. Even those who don't support Romo have to admit that.

The 33-year-old might not be popular, but he's damn important. 


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