The Dallas Cowboys are tired of being an average team hovering around the .500 mark. Their 2013 roster is built to win now.
Jerry Jones hasn’t had the success he’s accustomed to since the 1990s, but this could actually be the year Dallas makes a deep playoff run.
Despite moving to the 4-3 defensive scheme, the organization feels it will be better on that side of the ball. So far this preseason, the defense has showed it can cause turnovers, something it failed to do last year.
The offense appears to be stronger as well. Though still a big question mark, the line is revamped, while skill players like Dez Bryant look to be better than ever.
With a quality mix of young talent and veteran poise, the Cowboys’ starters this year have the potential to be great. Let’s take a look at what we can expect from each one.
All statistics via Pro Football Reference unless indicated otherwise.
The pressure is on Romo.
Tony Romo had his best statistical season as an NFL quarterback in 2012. He passed 648 times for nearly 5,000 yards and 28 touchdowns.
Although Dallas will be looking to run more consistently this year, it won’t take away from Romo’s numbers in the passing game too much.
Before 2012, Romo’s high in attempts was 550 in 2009. That year, he still passed for almost 4,500 yards. If the Cowboys’ ground game can be better than it was, look for his numbers to be closer to these.
However, numbers have never been a problem for Romo. Besides the year he was injured, he’s put up very respectable stats.
What needs to change for Romo are his intangibles. In crucial games, he needs to be the man and lead by example. His best performances should come when the team needs him most.
With the roster surrounding him, Romo has no excuses in 2013. The pressure to win is on his shoulders, and the time to win is right now.
Murray needs to stay healthy.
Although exciting at times, DeMarco Murray’s professional career has been a disappointment to this point. Entering his third season in the league, the running back has yet to reach 1,000 yards rushing or score more than four touchdowns in a year.
His health has been holding him back.
The Cowboys have high expectations for the running back through a full 16-game season; they just haven’t seen it yet. Murray is without a doubt the best back in Dallas, but this is the year that must translate on the field.
With his ability, Murray can easily put up 1,300 yards rushing and score close to 10 touchdowns. If he can stay healthy, there’s no reason he can’t.
Bryant is one of the best in the league.
Dez Bryant is probably the most exciting player on the roster. In 2012, the receiver had his breakout season, producing among the league’s best. He caught 92 passes for nearly 1,400 yards and 12 scores.
The sky is the limit for Bryant, and he’s showing that once again this preseason. Whenever the offense needs to make a play, it turns to No. 88 to get it done.
Bryant is an incredible advantage for Dallas because there is no way single coverage can defend him. He’s too strong and fast not to beat up on corners in one-on-one situations.
I don’t see any of this changing in 2013.
If Dallas can run the ball more effectively, opposing safeties will start to creep up to the line of scrimmage, leaving the deep ball available for Bryant.
It’s not easy putting up the numbers he did last year, but I think he will only continue to improve. Bryant should catch more than 100 balls this season for around 1,500 yards and 15 touchdowns.
Austin is primed for a good season.
Miles Austin started 15 games last year but was nagged by a hamstring injury all season.
Austin was one of the most explosive receivers in the NFL just a few years ago. He’s still capable of being just that.
With Bryant emerging as a superstar who demands a double team, Austin should have one of his better seasons as a pro. It was only a few years ago that he caught 11 touchdowns and had 1,300 receiving yards en route to his first Pro Bowl.
With everyone looking at Bryant and Murray, Austin could surprise us all in 2013. He and Romo have great chemistry together, and there’s no reason for that to change.
Barring injury, Austin should be right around 75 receptions and 1,000 yards.
Witten is an unbelievable player.
Jason Witten is the best thing to happen to the Cowboys in years. He’s the ultimate professional and a phenomenal leader on this team. He still plays at an extremely high level on the field and has never had any issues off of it.
In his 10th year in the league, Witten set the single-season record for catches by a tight end with 110. The ageless wonder is somehow improving his game at the age of 30.
He’s been the most consistent player on the Cowboys for the last decade, and he’s sure to keep it up this year. Witten has always been Romo’s safety valve and will continue to be until he retires.
It will be difficult for the tight end to improve his numbers from last season. However, he should be extremely productive for his position. Look for him to snag around 90 catches and accumulate another 1,000 yards through the air.
Hanna will be great soon.
The next Cowboy who will have a breakout season is tight end James Hanna. Even though the team spent its second-round pick on Gavin Escobar, it will be Hanna who has the big year as the No. 2 end.
The second-year player from Oklahoma only had eight catches last year but will have many more opportunities this season. With no fullback on the roster, Hanna essentially becomes a starter, as the Cowboys will feature multiple-tight end sets.
Hanna is a huge target for Romo at 6’4”, 250 pounds. He’s difficult to contain because of his size advantage over safeties and his athletic ability over linebackers.
Hanna won’t have fantasy-worthy statistics, but he will be a key contributor to the offense. I see him catching around 50 passes, with a handful of those being for touchdowns.
Smith will only get better.
Tyron Smith had a very impressive year for the Cowboys last season. Despite the offensive line being downright awful, Smith was the one bright point and reason for optimism.
Smith played the whole season at the left tackle position and did a great job of defending Romo’s blind side. Also, when Dallas was able to run it successfully, it often did so behind its young star.
Smith is entering his third year in the league but is still only 22 years old. This is great news because it should mean that he’s improving an already decent skill set.
I expect to see a lot of good play out of the tackle from USC. Romo should face less pressure, and the left side of the line will be the where big gains come from in the running game.
Leary was a surprise in training camp.
A new face in the starting lineup is at left guard. Despite not being 100 percent healthy at this point in time, Ronald Leary is my starting left guard.
Throughout training camp and the first few preseason games, Leary has been one of the most impressive Cowboys. He’s getting an excellent push off the line and is creating running room for all of Dallas’ backs.
Combined, Leary and Smith have formed a solid left side and are one of the best duos the Cowboys have had in years.
Like his teammate, Leary is also very young. He’s entering his second season with the Cowboys and has plenty of time to get even better.
It would be a good year from the guard if he solidifies the starting position and starts all 16 games.
High expectations come from first-round picks.
It’s tough to have high expectations for rookie players, but that’s just what the Cowboys have with first-round selection Travis Frederick.
As discussed, Dallas’ line was quite terrible in 2012 and a large part of the reason it finished second-to-last in rushing. With such a disappointing year in general, Dallas addressed its biggest need in the first round of the draft.
Frederick has been plugged in as a starter since day one and hasn’t done anything to lose that status. Although he hasn’t been noticeably stellar in preseason games, he’s been solid enough not to really be noticed too much. If they’re not pancaking defenders every play, that’s what you want from your young linemen.
As the center, Frederick is now being relied on to be one of the leaders of the offense, especially the line. Picking up blitzes will be a difficult task for the former Wisconsin Badger, but it’s something he will have to learn.
Like Leary, starting every game this season and showing improvement from week to week will be a successful first year for the center.
Free will be somewhere on the right side of the line.
Doug Free will be starting somewhere on the Cowboys' offensive line—I’m just not exactly sure where. In the last preseason game against Cincinnati, he started at the right guard, so that’s where I’m putting him.
Free is probably the biggest wild card out of anyone on the line because we really don’t know what to expect from the veteran. A few seasons ago, he was fantastic at left tackle and earned himself a nice contract extension.
Last year, he was pitiful and has since restructured said contract.
The Cowboys are using Free at the right guard position merely because of the lack of depth on the line. The few players they do have available to play the position are either hurt or have proven not to be very good.
I think the switch from tackle to guard will be beneficial for Free. On the inside of the line, he has less pressure to perform and can hopefully get back to his playing ways of the past.
It’s difficult to say if he will stay at this exact position, but his versatility almost guarantees he will start somewhere on the line throughout the season.
Parnell has the potential to play right tackle.
Since I have Free starting at guard, that leaves fourth-year player Jermey Parnell to start at right tackle.
Like most of the Cowboys' offensive line, Parnell doesn’t have a lot of experience. He has shown that he can play the position and is one of the better options Dallas currently has.
Throughout the end of last year’s campaign, Parnell started splitting time with Free at right tackle. Free’s play was becoming so inexcusable that Dallas had a better option on its bench with Parnell.
Although he might not be the long-term solution, Parnell is one of the few tackles the Cowboys have and trust. He’s not going to make the Pro Bowl anytime soon. However, he could turn out to be a more consistent option than they’ve had in years past.
Spencer needs to duplicate last year's production.
Anthony Spencer had one of his best years in the NFL last season and actually outperformed an injury-ridden DeMarcus Ware. The outside linebacker had 11 sacks in 2012, the first time in his career he eclipsed double digits.
After receiving the franchise tag again, Spencer will be just as motivated as last season to put up big numbers in order to earn a long-term contract next summer. This year, he’ll be switching positions to defensive end.
There’s little doubt that the changing of positions will affect Spencer’s production because he played defensive end in college. Also, the move from linebacker to lineman seems to be accomplished more easily, rather than vice versa.
What is in doubt is Spencer’s health, though. Last month he had knee surgery and has missed most of training camp. He’s expected back by the start of the regular season, but without much training, it’s hard to say how effective he will be.
Barring any more setbacks, Spencer is a solid player on this defense and someone relied on to make big plays. Expect him to have around 100 tackles and perhaps even expand upon his sack numbers from last year.
Hayden will be just fine filling in.
Nick Hayden is someone who many wouldn’t have thought would be starting for the Cowboys at defensive tackle. Nevertheless, with the news that Jay Ratliff will start the season on the PUP list (he’ll be out until at least Week 6), Hayden is now starting on the defensive line.
Thus far in the preseason, Hayden has been one of the better players on the field. He’s looked good during the absence of Ratliff and has done a particularly nice job stopping the run.
Hayden didn’t play at all in 2012, but it seems he hasn’t missed a step since being away from football.
It’s not the ideal situation for the Cowboys, who were hoping to have a very strong defensive line in their new scheme, but in the NFL, injuries do happen.
I expect Hayden to play well for the first half of the season, enough to become a regular substitute when Ratliff returns.
Hatcher is underrated.
The other defensive tackle for Dallas is rising star Jason Hatcher. The eighth-year pro has been a Cowboy his whole career and is just starting to gain recognition for his great play.
Hatcher, who is by far one of the most underrated players on the roster, started all 16 games last season and was very consistent. He’s an explosive guy who can disrupt backfields and force quarterbacks to get rid of the football.
In 2012, he added four sacks to his resume, only a half-sack shy of his career best.
Despite his age of 31, I still see Hatcher improving with the more playing time he gets. With this being his second full year starting, look for his play to get even better and his statistics to climb as well.
Ware is a star.
DeMarcus Ware had one of the worst seasons of his career in 2012, yet he was selected to his seventh straight Pro Bowl and posted 11.5 sacks.
Ware has been the best Cowboys player the past few years and is one of the best pass-rushers in all of football. He has 111 sacks in his eight-year career.
Like Spencer, Ware will now be attacking quarterbacks from a three-point stance. Ware also played defensive end in college.
The changing of positions might wind up helping Ware in the long run. As a defensive end, he no longer has to worry about pass coverage and can focus on disrupting the backfield all game.
I expect Ware to have a monster season. If his shoulder and elbow are good to go, the Cowboys’ defensive leader should have close to 20 sacks.
Durant has shown consistent play.
Justin Durant is another new starter on this Dallas defense. The veteran is a solid all-around player and will be a good fit on this defense, which doesn’t have a lot of experience.
Rookie DeVonte Holloman has made a good push for the starting job but will be better utilized off the bench. After Alex Albright was injured and waived, Durant became the man for the job.
Durant had arguably his best season in the NFL with Detroit in 2012. The linebacker totaled 103 tackles.
I see Durant working perfectly in this defense until Holloman is good enough to take over full time. With such a great linebacking corps, Durant doesn’t need to do anything special to make a difference.
Lee is very talented.
Simply put, Sean Lee is a special player. Not every team is lucky enough to have such an intelligent, game-changing player. Dallas has two with Ware and Lee.
It’s incredible to watch Lee play because he can take games over with what looks like ease. He’s an instinctive player and gets his nose to the ball on nearly every play.
Lee only played in six games last year because of a season-ending injury. The previous season, he had 105 total tackles, four interceptions and two fumble recoveries.
If he stays healthy, Lee will be one of the best middle linebackers in the league by year’s end. He’s going to put up ridiculous numbers and lead an improved defense.
Carter will be solid for years.
Joining Lee in the starting lineup is weak-side linebacker Bruce Carter. Similar to Lee, Carter is a young phenom who’s been injury plagued early in his career.
Carter was huge for Dallas last year when its defense was depleted by injury. He filled in at middle linebacker and showed how good he can become.
The third-year man out of North Carolina might not have the same expectations as Lee, but they should be nearly as high. If Lee wasn’t a Cowboy, we’d be talking more about Carter.
Together, this linebacking unit is going to be one of the best in the NFL and Carter will be a huge part of that.
Claiborne will have to be better.
Morris Claiborne is one of the starting cornerbacks in spite of not doing much this summer. He hasn’t played in the preseason so far and just returned to practice this week.
Claiborne was a decent player last season. At times he looked excellent, while during others he looked like most rookie cornerbacks.
The former LSU Tiger only had one interception, so from a numbers standpoint, there should be a noticeable difference this year. His game should improve in every facet, so expect better defending in general in 2013.
Cornerback is a very difficult position to instantly be good at in the NFL, so I think Claiborne will grow plenty this season.
Allen is a good veteran.
Allen came to the team knowing he was going to have to battle for the spot. The Cowboys have high hopes for both Matt Johnson and J.J. Wilcox, but neither proved ready for the starting role.
Even though his best days might be behind him, Allen provides game experience and poise that most of the secondary doesn’t possess.
I expect the safety to have a very solid season and surprise some people along the way.
Church is a playmaker.
Barry Church will start opposite of Allen at free safety. The hard hitter is in his fourth season and will be starting his fifth career game in Week 1.
Church didn’t have much competition for his spot in camp. However, he’s played well thus far. He was in line to be the starter all of last year but had a season-ending injury after just three games.
What makes Church exciting is his ability to make the big play. Dallas’ defense has been struggling to turn the ball over in recent years and he can change that.
Church is another player who can legitimately break out in 2013. If he can play an entire season and produce, he will be the starter for the foreseeable future.
Carr can be better than he was.
Brandon Carr rounds out the secondary as the cornerback opposite Claiborne. Carr was great in 2012 considering how bad Dallas’ secondary had been in years past.
Although, according to how much Carr is being paid (third among cornerbacks), he should have done a lot more. He did grab three interceptions, including one for a score, but he wasn’t as dominant as the Cowboys had hoped.
After a full year with the team, I expect Carr to be even better than he was in 2012. The Cowboys defense should be enhanced from top to bottom, making things easier for the secondary to cover and cause turnovers.