With little salary cap space with which to work, the Dallas Cowboys are hoping that a number of young players are able to break out in 2014. Although the 'Boys have historically had some trouble developing the bottom half of their roster, there are still a handful of young talents who they really need to step up this season.
In the 2013 preseason, my breakout candidates were defensive end George Selvie, running back DeMarco Murray, cornerback Morris Claiborne, offensive tackle Tyron Smith, and safety Barry Church: four hits and one miss.
The idea when projecting any player to break out is to identify prospects with potentially elite skill sets who, for whatever reason, have yet to produce at a high level. When you're talking about a player like Selvie with ridiculously long arms and less than a half-season of pro snaps or a running back like Murray with an outstanding weight/speed combination, the breakout predictions are easy.
Take a look at the top six breakout candidates for Dallas in 2014.
It's always difficult to project a breakout for a backup running back since production at the position is so dependent on usage. If a running back doesn't see significant touches, he simply isn't going to post elite numbers.
Running back Lance Dunbar's breakout candidacy comes with an asterisk: if he sees more touches, he will be a very productive player. Thus, it really comes down to whether or not starter DeMarco Murray can stay on the field.
In terms of pure athleticism, Dunbar is an above-average running back. He ran a 4.47 40-yard dash and can catch the ball out of the backfield, meaning he has a relatively high ceiling given his workload. Capable of beating defenses both on the ground and through the air, Dunbar isn't reliant on a particular game flow for his success.
Linebacker Bruce Carter's breakout was supposed to come in 2013. After an impressive 2012 season, though, Carter struggled some last season. After recording a tackle on 11.2 percent of his 2012 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Carter's tackle rate dropped to 10.6 percent in 2012.
However, Carter's year wasn't as poor as everyone made it out to be. He had a couple poor performances in coverage in the early portion of the year, but he really picked it up down the stretch. Carter allowed 7.32 yards per attempt in 2012, and that number actually dropped to 6.67 in 2013. He actually yielded over half of all the passing yards he gave up in the first four games of the year, ultimately allowing fewer than 20 yards per game over the final 12 contests.
Look for Carter, a highly athletic player whose struggles were overblown, to realize some of his upside in 2014.
Second-year linebacker DeVonte Holloman probably would have been starting for Dallas in 2013 had he not been injured. He excelled in the preseason, showing potentially elite coverage skills.
In Week 17, Holloman got lit up by the Eagles, allowing 100 receiving yards on five attempts. The question is whether or not that game was a fluke or a sign of things to come. Given his youth, the former at least seems plausible.
Holloman is a much different sort of player from Carter in terms of projecting a breakout. While Carter has already had some success and is highly likely to turn in a career year in 2014, Holloman's chances of a breakout might be closer to a coin flip.
The Cowboys had high hopes for defensive end Tyrone Crawford before he went down for the year during the 2013 preseason. Here are three reasons I love Crawford in 2014, whether he plays outside at end or kicks in to defensive tackle:
- Arm Length
- College Production
- NFL Efficiency
Arm length is the best predictor of pass-rushing success. With 33.75-inch arms, Crawford falls into elite territory. He has the arm length and bulk to excel both inside and out.
Although Crawford wasn't completely dominant at Boise State in regards to sacks (13.5 in two seasons), he had 27 tackles for loss.
And in 2012, Crawford was graded by Pro Football Focus as a top 10 defender in Dallas, despite playing only 303 snaps. That was Crawford's rookie year, and he made a tackle on 6.6 percent of his snaps. In comparison, defensive end DeMarcus Ware checked in with a 6.2 percent tackle rate last year.
Tight end Gavin Escobar ended his rookie season with nine catches for 134 yards and two touchdowns. Those numbers aren't exactly jaw-dropping, but Escobar's lack of production came mainly due to limited opportunities. He played only 206 snaps and saw just 15 targets.
On a per-target basis, Escobar was efficient in a limited sample with 8.93 yards per target. Compare that to just 7.81 yards per target for starter Jason Witten.
Witten's been on the decline for a few years, so the Cowboys should be ready to give someone else more opportunities. With his 6'6" frame, Escobar could be particularly useful in the red zone next season.
We can't use safety Matt Johnson's history of on-field production as a sign of future success because there is none. His inability to stay on the field is obviously a major concern, and Johnson has gotten hurt so often that we can pretty much conclude he's actually injury-prone (as opposed to experiencing a string of bad luck). That's not a term I throw around loosely.
Still, the Cowboys are going to keep Johnson around because he's cheap and has upside. Johnson is due only $495,000 in base salary in 2014, according to Over the Cap. This will probably be his last shot, but Johnson has the skill set to start in the NFL.
Here's a comparison of Johnson to another safety in the NFL:
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 2013 first-round pick Kenny Vaccaro. That's not to say that Johnson is the exact same player, but a 24-year old safety with Johnson's combination of size and speed should get a few chances.