The Cowboys have long been known as a team with an abundance of talent that has been incapable of capitalizing on it when it matters most.
One could argue that the ‘Boys haven’t really been as talented as some assume, although there’s little doubt that they’ve had some elite players over the years—DeMarcus Ware, Jason Witten, and Dez Bryant among the current ones.
Instead of lacking top-tier talent, the problem in Dallas has been depth.
The bottom half of the roster that has really hurt this organization over the years. The Cowboys think they've addressed that problem, but only time will tell. Until then, let’s break down the Cowboys by position.
|Tony Romo||No. 1|
|Kyle Orton||No. 2|
Love him or hate him, Romo gives the Cowboys a chance to win the NFC East every year.
The issue in Dallas could be the backup situation. Orton showed decreased arm strength during the preseason, and although no team can really be expected to thrive if their starter goes down, the Cowboys could really be in trouble if Romo gets injured.
Either way, the ‘Boys will go as far as Romo takes them. Is he a Super Bowl-caliber quarterback? His lack of postseason success suggests not, but he’s had such a limited sample size of such games that it’s really difficult to grade him in that manner.
Plus, there’s good evidence that Romo is at his best in the fourth quarter and late in the season. Yeah, I said it.
Dallas will retain only two quarterbacks after waiving Alex Tanney. Given his poor preseason output—a 55.2 percent completion rate and 5.6 YPA—that’s the right move.
|DeMarco Murray||No. 1|
|Lance Dunbar||No. 2|
|Phillip Tanner||No. 3|
|Joseph Randle||No. 4|
I’ve already argued that Murray is going to have a big-time season.
The key will be his health, but we don’t really have too much of a reason to label Murray as ‘injury prone’ yet. He’s been in the league just two years, so there’s a good chance that he’s just been unlucky with injuries thus far.
Dunbar’s early-season status is up in the air, but he’s earned the No. 2 job. Even though he’s undersized, I really like Dunbar’s future. Historically, fast running backs have been far, far better options than those with even moderate speed.
Dunbar has it.
Unfortunately, fifth-round selection Joseph Randle does not. He clocked in at 4.63 at only 204 pounds, which really makes him a borderline NFL talent. The coaches reportedly like what they’ve seen from Randle, but I have my doubts that he’ll ever be an effective runner.
|Dez Bryant||No. 1|
|Miles Austin||No. 2|
|Terrance Williams||No. 3|
|Dwayne Harris||No. 4|
|Cole Beasley||No. 5|
Outside of Romo, Bryant is probably the most valuable player in Dallas. If he were to get injured, the nature of the Cowboys’ offense would alter dramatically.
He probably won’t reach his goal of 2,000 yards this season, but he’s got an outside shot at approaching 20 touchdowns. Based on his past touchdown rate, I’ve projected it at around 1-in-40.
Austin has always been effective when healthy, but he’s been plagued by hamstring issues during the past few seasons. The Cowboys have been taking it slowly with Austin this year, and that’s a smart move.
Although it’s tempting to think Austin has underachieved, he’s been one of the best No. 2 receivers in the NFL.
It will be interesting to see who wins the majority of the No. 3 receiver reps for Dallas. It looks like rookie Terrance Williams is winning his battle with Harris, as he should.
Williams is a big, physical receiver who is effective in the red zone. Because of that, he’s much better option than Harris when inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. Plus, Williams is already 24-years old, meaning he should be more developed than the typical rookie receiver.
|Jason Witten||No. 1|
|James Hanna||No. 2|
|Gavin Escobar||No. 3|
|Dante Rosario||No. 4|
|Andre Smith||No. 5|
Although he’s still one of the better tight ends in the league, Witten is on the decline.
That’s a bold statement considering that Witten just broke the tight end record for single-season receptions, but he wasn’t efficient in doing it. His yards per route decreased for the fifth straight season.
If Dallas holds a lead more frequently in 2013, which seems inevitable, Witten’s bulk stats will plummet; of his 110 receptions in 2012, only six came when the Cowboys held a lead.
Hanna and Escobar will battle for No. 2 reps throughout the year. Hanna is the more athletic player, but Escobar is probably a better bet in the red zone. Both players need to improve in the running game. If either steps up as a blocker, the job is probably theirs.
It’s pretty remarkable that Dallas decided to keep five tight ends. They obviously want to use way more “12” personnel. I have a feeling that both Rosario and Smith made the roster because Hanna and Escobar can’t block much.
|Tyron Smith||No. 1 LT|
|Jermey Parnell||No. 1 RT|
|Darrion Weems||Swing OT|
I think Smith is on the verge of becoming a Pro Bowl-caliber player. Although he played average football in 2012, you have to remember that he was just 21 years old.
Smith won’t turn 23 until December of this year, so he’s entering his third NFL season at an age when most NFL players are rookies. With a year of experience on the left side, he could surprise some people this year. He hasn’t allowed a pressure all preseason.
It looks like the ‘Boys will roll with Jermey Parnell at right tackle, moving former tackle Doug Free inside to guard. Parnell was really good in limited 2012 snaps. He yielded a 4.2 percent pressure rate and Cowboys backs averaged 5.06 YPC when running behind Parnell. Both marks were the best for any tackle on the team.
|Travis Frederick||No. 1 C|
|Ronald Leary||No. 1 LG|
|Doug Free||No. 1 RG|
|Mackenzy Bernadeau||No. 2 RG|
|David Arkin||No. 3 G|
I’m listing the guards and centers together because most of them could play either position. Costa, Frederick, and Bernadeau all have center/guard versatility, and that really helps Dallas. It will be interesting to see how these spots play out throughout the year.
The Cowboys’ first-rounder seems like the only sure thing, although the Cowboys really like what they saw from Free at guard. That’s probably a better place for him than tackle because he’s just not athletic enough to compete on the outside.
Plus, Free will have an easier time at guard in Bill Callahan’s zone blocking scheme than he would in a man system.
One of the interesting players to watch will be Leary. I think he has the potential to be the best of the bunch.
Either way, the Cowboys’ interior line should be improved over 2012. Guards Bernadeau and Nate Livings gave up 11 combined sacks and Cowboys backs averaged fewer than 3.5 YPC when running behind the duo. I’m absolutely shocked the team kept Arkin, who hasn’t shown anything in his career.
UPDATE: The Cowboys placed Nate Livings on IR and filled his roster spot through a trade with the Chiefs for linebacker Edgar Jones.
|DeMarcus Ware||No. 1 DE|
|Anthony Spencer||No. 2 DE|
|George Selvie||No. 3 DE|
|Kyle Wilber||No. 4 DE|
Ware will lead the Cowboys’ new 4-3 defense, but there’s evidence that he’s not the same Ware of old. Ware’s pressure and tackles rates have dropped in each of the past three seasons.
Spencer’s availability for Week 1 is still in doubt, but he vows to play. Coming off of a career year, Spencer will probably regress in terms of sacks. I’ve found that a defensive end’s sacks typically add up to around one-quarter of his pressures.
Spencer had 27 pressures in 2012, meaning his most likely sack total was around seven. He had 11, so he’s likely to regress this year, assuming his pressures remain steady.
Selvie and Wilber will compete for backup duties, and I think Selvie has the advantage. Although he’s come out of nowhere, there are signs that Selvie will be special. Namely, he has ridiculously long 34.5-inch arms—the best predictor of success for pass-rushers.
|Jason Hatcher||No. 1 DT|
|Nick Hayden||No. 2 DT|
|Ben Bass||No. 3 DT|
|Landon Cohen||No. 4 DT|
With Ratliff starting the season on PUP, the Cowboys are desperately thin inside.
Hatcher is an effective player who should flourish in Monte Kiffin’s 4-3 defense. He had 29 pressures in 2012. Based on that number, Hatcher should have totaled eight sacks—double his actual total. The problem is that, at age 31, he’s probably going to be less and less efficient each season at this point in his career.
Right now, it looks like Hayden will start alongside Hatcher.
Hayden has averaged 13 tackles and 0.5 sacks per season during his four-year career. It’s surprising that the Cowboys kept Bass, Cohen, and Lissemore, although they’re probably just hedging against potential poor play from Hayden.
UPDATE: The Cowboys traded Sean Lissemore to San Diego for a seventh-round pick.
|Sean Lee||No. 1 MLB|
|Bruce Carter||No. 1 OLB|
|Justin Durant||No. 1 OLB|
|Ernie Sims||No. 2 OLB|
|DeVonte Holloman||No. 3 OLB|
|Edgar Jones||No. 4 LB|
|Kyle Bosworth||No. 4 LB|
In Lee and Carter, the Cowboys have one of the top linebacker duos in the NFL.
Both players made a tackle on at least 11.2 percent of their 2012 snaps. Lee is fresh off of a nice contract extension, and it was really a good time to lock up the playmaking linebacker. He’s already missed 13 games in his young three-year career, so his perceived value is probably less than his actual worth to Dallas.
It will be interesting to see who starts next to Lee and Carter.
Veteran Justin Durant has been the guy so far, but sixth-round rookie DeVonte Holloman has outplayed him in the preseason. Holloman has two big picks, including one he took to the house, and he’s made a tackle on 10.2 percent of his snaps.
In keeping four running backs, five tight ends, and five defensive tackles, the Cowboys were unable to retain linebacker Brandon Magee. I think that might come back to haunt them. Magee quietly dominated the preseason, racking up 20 tackles—nearly one in every five snaps, which is remarkable.
UPDATE: The Cowboys traded the Chiefs a sixth-round pick in 2014 for linebacker Edgar Jones and a seventh-rounder in the same year. Jones has six years of NFL experience.
|Brandon Carr||No. 1 CB|
|Morris Claiborne||No. 1 CB|
|Orlando Scandrick||No. 1 Slot CB|
|B.W. Webb||No. 2 Slot CB|
I’ve already claimed that Claiborne is primed for a breakout year.
He really wasn’t targeted all that much in 2012, getting thrown at only 69 times in 499 snaps in coverage. In comparison, Carr was targeted 87 times. Claiborne allowed 1.14 yards per coverage snap, which is a pretty good mark for a rookie.
So while the 8.28 YPA he allowed isn’t elite, he wasn’t targeted much because he generally had good coverage.
Both starting cornerbacks figure to be able to make more plays in Kiffin’s defense. They’ll be asked to play a whole lot more zone coverage, allowing them to look into the backfield and jump routes. I’d expect both Carr and Claiborne to record more tackles, since they’ll be closer to the line, and more picks.
Scandrick is back for another year as the Cowboys’ nickel cornerback, and I think he’s perhaps the most underrated player on the team. Last season, he allowed only 5.7 YPA in coverage and didn’t give up a touchdown all year.
|Barry Church||No. 1 FS|
|Will Allen||No. 1 SS|
|J.J. Wilcox||No. 2 FS|
|Eric Frampton||No. 2 SS|
|Jeff Heath||No. 3 FS|
|Danny McCray||No. 3 SS/ST|
The Cowboys have a major weakness at safety.
They like what they have in Church, but he’s still a relatively unknown commodity. I think he fits nicely in Kiffin’s scheme as a Kam Chancellor-esque safety, but it’s not like we can be super confident in his productivity at this point.
Will Allen begins the season starting opposite Church. Allen allowed only a 40.0 percent completion rate last year, but he was also targeted just 10 times. With Matt Johnson placed on IR, Allen doesn’t really have much competition right now.
Danny McCray, who took a reduced salary to return, is around primarily for his special teams play. Rookie J.J. Wilcox has shown promise, but he’ll likely need a year to develop before being counted on for significant contributions.
It’s pretty surprising that Dallas kept both Frampton and McCray with Heath also making the roster.
Kicker Dan Bailey is among the most reliable kickers in the NFL.
He’s made 89.7 percent of his kicks though two seasons, including 29-of-31 in 2012. He joins punter Chris Jones, who has a 44.0-yard career average, and long-snapper L.P. Ladouceuer as the Cowboys’ special teams players.