With yet another disappointing 8-8 finish and failure to make the playoffs, the Dallas Cowboys' 2013 player grades aren't going to be pretty. The defense was decimated by injuries, but part of the reason the Cowboys were so poor on defense is that they build their roster with a "stars and scrubs" strategy that leaves them susceptible to huge downside with injuries.
Plus, Monte Kiffin just didn't put the players in very good positions, and it started up front with a complete lack of pressure. The future of the defensive line doesn't look bright in Dallas.
Offensively, it was more of the same for Cowboys in 2013, as they failed to properly utilize their personnel. Wide receiver Dez Bryant is an elite talent who barely receives top-10 targets. Meanwhile, tight end Jason Witten once again saw way too many looks, even though they dropped considerably from 2012.
The offensive line was a bright spot this year, improving dramatically, particularly in run blocking. Still, the Cowboys implemented a low-variance approach that ultimately didn't work out. They clearly wanted Tony Romo to limit turnovers, which is a positive, of course, but it resulted in reduced offensive efficiency as well.
Let's take a look at my 2013 Dallas Cowboys starter grades.
QB Tony Romo: B
Romo can't be penalized for missing the Cowboys' Week 17 winner-take-all contest with the Eagles because he's always shown a willingness to do whatever it takes to stay on the field. Romo was outstanding in terms of his touchdown-to-interception ratio; he threw 3.1 touchdowns to every pick, which ties the best mark of his career. He really made an obvious effort to protect the football.
That safety came at the expense of passing efficiency, however, as Romo managed only 7.2 yards per attempt. That's the worst number in Romo's entire career, by a wide margin. That's one reason Romo's 96.7 passer rating, although good, wasn't near the 102.5 rating he posted in 2011.
I'm not too worried about Romo in 2014 because he's still young enough to be a highly effective quarterback. He played well enough to make the postseason this year; he would have, actually, with even an average defense. As many problems as there are in Dallas, Romo isn't one of them.
RB DeMarco Murray: B+
When I wrote in the preseason that Murray was primed for a breakout year, one of the foundations of that argument was that Murray might or might not be injury-prone. Murray stayed healthy enough to play in all but two games, allowing him to record his first 1,000-yard season. He also rushed for nearly 5.5 yards per carry and caught over 50 passes, both career-high marks.
It will be really interesting to see what Dallas does with Murray in the future because, although I really like him as a player, it would be dumb to give Murray an extension. He'll be 26 years old in 2014, which is over the hill for a running back, and players at the position can produce right out of college. Smart teams don't pay running backs; they just keep drafting new ones.
WR Dez Bryant: A-
WR Terrance Williams: C+
WR Miles Austin: D-
Although Bryant has the skill set to record much better stats than he did in 2013, he's also limited by poor play-calling and a lack of quality personnel around him. Bryant has a near-elite quarterback, but he doesn't have any other top-tier receivers (or a tight end) to take pressure off of him. He's also inhibited by the fact that, although he's a top-three NFL receiver (with only Calvin Johnson and Josh Gordon perhaps being better, in my view), he barely gets top-10 targets.
I projected Williams for a final line of 34/544/4, and he actually surpassed those numbers by just a bit. I think he has a long way to go, particularly in using his body to catch the ball in traffic, but rookie wide receivers rarely produce big numbers. If the Cowboys utilize him downfield more often, I think he has 1,000-yard potential as soon as next season.
Austin's decline has been swift and unexpected. It's a shame, because he too has a potentially elite skill set that could really take pressure off of Bryant.
TE Jason Witten: D+
I was extremely harsh on Witten in the preseason, projecting the tight end at 88 catches for 880 yards and four touchdowns. I was ridiculed. Witten finished with 73 catches for 851 yards and eight scores.
It's still going to be highly unpopular, but the truth is that Witten isn't even a league-average tight end at this point. He has decent bulk receiving numbers because he's used on nearly every route much like a No. 1 wide receiver, but his efficiency marks are horrid. Prior to the Cowboys' final game, Witten ranked 17th among tight ends in yards per route run, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
In addition, Witten is now a poor blocker. He rarely wins at the point of attack, and he's not much help when he stays in on pass protection.
LT Tyron Smith: B
LG Ronald Leary: C-
C Travis Frederick: B
RG Mackenzy Bernadeau: C
RT Doug Free: C-
Smith finally received a lot of well-deserved praise this year. I think he's going to be a truly elite offensive tackle, although he's not there just yet. He was really good this year, but he still allowed a 4.4 percent pressure rate, according to PFF. That's down from 2012 (6.0 percent) and Smith has an uncanny ability to "bend but not break" as an offensive lineman, but it suggests there's room for improvement. He was unbelievable in the running game, however.
The interior line was certainly much better than in 2012, and I attribute that primarily to Frederick. There were struggles at times, but he played intelligently and was extremely impressive in the running game. Leary and Bernadeau were so-so.
Meanwhile, Free wasn't quite as good as people think on the right side. He again led the Cowboys in pressures allowed with 34, which is just seven fewer than in 2012. Free was really good to start the year, but as we say in the statistical world, his play "regressed toward the mean."
DT Jason Hatcher: B
DT Nick Hayden: D-
The Cowboys defensive tackle position was a tale of two extremes this season, with Hatcher playing extremely well and no one else giving meaningful production. Hatcher led the Cowboys in sacks, which is remarkable for a defensive tackle on the same team as DeMarcus Ware, and he pressured the quarterback nearly just as much as Ware and defensive end George Selvie.
The Cowboys probably won't be able to bring Hatcher back in 2014, which might be a blessing in disguise. As well as Hatcher played, he's still a soon-to-be 32-year old coming off of a career year, which isn't exactly the best time to acquire value.
Meanwhile, Hayden didn't record a sack all year.
DE DeMarcus Ware: C
DE George Selvie: C
Before lashing out at seeing Ware and Selvie with the same grade, let's just throw out the names and look at the numbers. Ware had 26 tackles, six sacks and 34 pressures. Selvie had 36 tackles, seven sacks and 31 pressures. Seems pretty equal to me.
The truth is that we should have seen Ware's decline coming, as I predicted early in the year. Down the stretch, Ware was not only failing to give the Cowboys an elite pass-rushing threat, but he was also a liability as a run defender.
I think the Cowboys should give Selvie an extension, but only if it's short and the price is right. He's relatively young and showed the Cowboys he has the potential to get to the passer, and I think he's going to develop into a nice No. 2 pass-rusher.
LB Sean Lee: B
LB Bruce Carter: C-
DE/LB Kyle Wilber: C+
The Cowboys linebackers were a mess all season. I gave Lee a "B" grade because it's becoming apparent that he's indeed injury-prone (a label I don't throw around loosely). After an injury history in college, Lee has now missed 28.1 percent of all possible games during his NFL career. He's an "A" player when on the field, but he can't be counted on to remain healthy.
Carter's 2013 decline was really surprising to me. If I missed on one player this year, it was him. He was particularly poor in coverage, allowing a 109.4 passer rating to opposing quarterbacks heading into Week 17, according to PFF.
Wilber is playing out of position as an outside linebacker, but he adjusted well. He's not meant to continually be in coverage and I think he's best-suited as a backup wherever he plays, but he was better than Carter on a per-snap basis.
CB Brandon Carr: C-
CB Orlando Scandrick: A
CB Morris Claiborne: D
There's absolutely no doubt that Scandrick was the Cowboys' top cornerback this year. Not as many people are laughing at my 2012 grades, which had Scandrick as the top player on the entire team. He was even better this year, allowing under a yard per route that he was in coverage.
Meanwhile, Carr entered Week 17 at 1.45 yards per route and Claiborne was down at 1.52. To give you an idea of how poor those numbers are, consider that neither player ranked in the top 75 in the NFL.
The cornerbacks get just a small pass because there wasn't much of a pass rush for the majority of the season, meaning they needed to cover receivers for way too long.
I'm confident Carr will improve in 2014, but there should be major concern surrounding Claiborne. He's been injured, but the bigger issue is that he isn't improving. And with his 5'11", 188-pound frame, there should be long-term concern about his ability to cover big, physical receivers.
S Barry Church: B+
S Jeff Heath: D-
I was extremely bullish on Church to begin this season, due to both his skill set and Kiffin's scheme, and he delivered in a big way. I projected Church for 38 receptions allowed on 50 targets for 350 yards, as well as 80 tackles and two picks. He finished with 339 yards allowed on 35 catches (and 45 targets), with an unbelievable 136 tackles and just one pick. He's a strong safety for the future.
On the other hand, Heath (and rookie J.J. Wilcox) were horrible in the back end. Heath allowed well over 10 yards per attempt and always appeared at least a step out of position on basically every play. He's not an NFL-caliber safety.
K Dan Bailey: A
P Chris Jones: B
LS L.P. Ladouceur: A
Bailey finished the year 28-of-30 on field goals. While kicker production is highly volatile and we shouldn't be so foolish to think that Bailey is always going to be so automatic, his 90.8 percent career conversion rate is good evidence that he's a unique talent.
Jones improved as the season rolled along, ultimately averaging just over 45 yards per punt. Ladouceur is basically an unknown player in Dallas, which is a great thing for a long snapper.