While player projections can seem like "fantasy football" that have nothing to do with the game, the truth is that projecting individual players can have profound implications on team success.
If we know for sure that DeMarco Murray will run for 1,500 yards this year, for example, then we'd have a good idea that the Cowboys would have a strong record. By accurately projecting players, we can acquire new insights regarding team strength.
387-for-580 (66.7 percent) for 4,582 yards (7.9 YPA), 32 touchdowns, 12 interceptions—100.4 passer rating
Romo’s always been able to post top-tier numbers, but his legacy will come down to what he does in December and January. Nonetheless, he’s probably a good bet for at least 4,500 yards and 30 touchdowns. More important, Romo will almost assuredly toss fewer than the 19 interceptions he did in 2012.
280 carries, 1,250 rushing yards (4.46 YPC), seven rushing touchdowns, 40 receptions, 225 receiving yards, one receiving touchdown
I’m extremely bullish on Murray right now for a variety of reasons. He’s a big, fast back who has already been efficient in the NFL. He might be injury prone, but there’s probably an even better chance that he’s just been unlucky. With superior health, Murray is in for a big season.
70 carries, 340 yards (4.86 YPC), one rushing touchdown, 25 receptions, 150 receiving yards, one receiving touchdown
Dunbar is currently on the shelf, but he figures to be the No. 2 running back in Dallas once he returns. The speedster has showed well in the preseason, and given his speed and the situations in which he’ll touch the ball, he’s a good bet to lead the Cowboys in YPC.
40 carries, 180 yards (4.50 YPC), two rushing touchdowns, 10 receptions, 60 yards, zero receiving touchdowns
When the Cowboys first drafted Randle, I thought they’d utilize him as their change-of-pace and short-yardage running back. The team might be seeing the same traits that forced me to downgrade him prior to the draft; he’s a 204-pound back with 4.63 speed.
92 receptions, 1,411 yards, 14 touchdowns
This is truly a median projection for Bryant (as opposed to his ceiling), so it shows you how big of a year I anticipate him posting. Capable of scoring from anywhere on the field, Bryant is probably the favorite to lead the league in touchdowns. If he catches 92 passes, there’s almost no chance that he doesn’t score at least 10 times.
70 receptions, 1,000 yards, seven touchdowns
There’s a problem in the way most people view Austin. He’s a 6'2", 216-pound receiver with outstanding speed who is one of the league’s better No. 2 receivers. After the early hype Austin created a few seasons ago, though, fans expect him to go for 1,200 yards every year when he just doesn’t see the necessary targets to do that.
25 receptions, 400 yards, four touchdowns
Williams should win the Cowboys’ No. 3 receiving job, and I think he could actually help the team quite a bit in the red zone. It’s also worth noting that Williams will be 24 years old a few weeks into the season, so he should be able to produce more than most rookie wide receivers. If Williams is a quality long-term option for the ‘Boys, we should know it pretty soon.
88 receptions, 880 yards, four touchdowns
I’m probably as bearish on Witten as anyone in the media. He’s an aging tight end who, although still obviously a talented player, just isn’t as good as his 2012 numbers indicate. He caught 110 passes, mainly because the Cowboys were down so often. Only six of Witten’s catches came when Dallas had the lead! His yards per route also declined for the fifth straight year.
30 receptions, 350 yards, two touchdowns
It’s not often that you find a 252-pound tight end with 4.49 speed. And although Hanna is smaller than rookie Gavin Escobar, his arms aren’t even a half-inch shorter. The only area where Escobar might be more effective is near the goal line.
15 receptions, 175 yards, two touchdowns
My initial post-draft projection for Escobar was much rosier than this, but I figured he had the No. 2 tight end job locked up. His blocking is so poor that he won’t be able to stay on the field. Like Williams, I think he can help immediately in the red zone.
55 tackles, 42 pressures, 10.5 sacks
Everyone expects Ware to bounce back in a big way this year, but I’m not so sure. Yes, he was injured last season, but that’s one of the byproducts of aging. At 31 years old, Ware isn’t a 20-sack player anymore. According to Pro Football Focus, his pressure rate has dropped in each of the past three years, from 10.8 percent in 2010 to 6.8 percent last year.
50 tackles, 34 pressures, 8.5 sacks
I’ve found that a defensive end’s sacks tend to add up to around one-quarter of his pressures. In 2012, Spencer’s pressure total suggested he’d have only seven sacks, so he was lucky to record 11. He’ll almost certainly regress in 2013.
37 tackles, 19 pressures, 3.5 sacks
I predicted a down 2012 season for Ratliff last year. His fit in Monte Kiffin’s 4-3 defense increases his ceiling a bit, but he’s still going to be 32 years old in a week.
45 tackles, 23 pressures, 5.5 sacks
Last year, I labeled Hatcher as one of the most underrated players in Dallas. He played better than his four sacks indicate, so I’d expect a jump in sacks even if he pressures the quarterback less often in 2013. His health is absolutely vital to the success of the Cowboys defense.
130 tackles, 64 targets, 51 completions allowed for 499 yards (7.8 YPA)
Fresh off of his big contract extension, Lee is one player whose play we know won’t decline after getting paid. Despite being an average athlete, Lee is outstanding in both run and pass defense. The key is staying on the field, but there’s no reason to think he’s injury prone just yet.
117 tackles, 60 targets, 43 completions allowed for 400 yards (6.7 YPA)
One of the reasons I thought the Cowboys had some leverage in their contract negotiations with Lee is the presence of Carter. In my opinion, Carter will be a better linebacker than Lee within a year or two, primarily because he’s so much more athletic.
50 receptions on 75 targets (66.7 percent) for 605 yards (8.1 YPA), 1.10 yards per snap, 65 tackles, four interceptions
I think Claiborne will have a breakout season. He was targeted only 69 times as a rookie, suggesting he has solid coverage on most plays, and his yards per route allowed ranked him as a low-end No. 1 cornerback. He’s going to have way more opportunities to make plays in Kiffin’s scheme.
57 receptions on 90 targets (63.3 percent) for 630 yards (7.0 YPA), 1.08 yards per snap, 63 tackles, five interceptions
I think Carr has Pro Bowl potential in 2013. He’s versatile enough to play both man and zone with success, and he’s going to playing near the line of scrimmage a whole lot more in 2013. That will increase his bulk stats, and it’s the picks that will get him into the Pro Bowl.
50 targets, 38 receptions, 350 yards allowed (7.0 YPA), 80 tackles, two interceptions
I named Church a potential breakout player in 2012, and he was on his way before going down for the season in Week 3. I’m still pretty bullish on him in 2013, namely because I love what he can do in the box. Church isn’t an elite athlete, but he’s very quick, as evidenced by his 4.17 short shuttle. I expect him to play the Kam Chancellor role in this 4-3 defense.
30 targets, 17 receptions, 220 yards allowed (7.3 YPA), 30 tackles, two interceptions
Right now, I’m just going to project Johnson as if he’ll be the starter in 2013. So if he’s the man, what’s a realistic projection? Let’s take a look at his closest competition.
Johnson: 6'1", 215 pounds, 4.52 40-yard dash, 10-1 broad jump, 4.07 short shuttle, 6.84 three-cone drill, 38-inch vertical, 18 reps
Player X: 6'0", 214 pounds, 4.63 40-yard dash, 10-1 broad jump, 4.06 short shuttle, 6.78 three-cone drill, 38-inch vertical, 15 reps
"Player X" is first-round pick Kenny Vaccaro. We know that Johnson has what it takes to perform, but it’s all about staying on the field.
31-for-35 on field goals (88.6 percent), 43-for-43 on extra points
Kicker stats are notoriously difficult to project. Actually, the correlation between a kicker’s points from one year to the next is negative, meaning we really just can’t predict kicker performance with much accuracy. One thing we do know is that Bailey probably won’t convert on 93.5 percent of his field goals as he did last season.