Predicting Dallas Cowboys' Starting Lineup After First Free-Agent Signings

Jonathan BalesAnalyst IMarch 18, 2014

Predicting Dallas Cowboys' Starting Lineup After First Free-Agent Signings

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    Although the Dallas Cowboys are still likely to make at least one splash in free agency, their 2014 starting lineup is close to being set. Chances are they'll pick up one free-agent starter and perhaps one immediate starter in the draft as well.

    Do the Cowboys have a good enough team to win the NFC East? While they're probably not the favorite, it's not like the Cowboys are so bare of talent that they can't win 10 games and take down the division. They really need a few upgrades on defense, though, which is where projecting their starting lineup will be most difficult.

    Let's take a look at one possible combination of starters the Cowboys could roll out on opening day in 2014.

Offensive Skill Positions

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    Evan Vucci/Associated Press

    QB: Tony Romo

    RB: DeMarco Murray

    WR: Dez Bryant

    WR: Terrance Williams

    TE: Jason Witten

    We can lump these players together because they're pretty much set in stone.

    Like it or not, quarterback Tony Romo will be leading the Cowboys for the foreseeable future. The truth is, that's a good thing; never has a quarterback coming off of a season with 31 touchdowns and 10 interceptions been so despised. If you think a passer with a career adjusted yards-per-attempt of 7.7 is incapable of leading a team into the playoffs, you'd better think again.

    Running back DeMarco Murray will receive the majority of the rushing workload again in 2014, although there's a very real chance it will be his final year in Dallas. If the Cowboys are smart, they'll draft Murray's replacement this year. Joseph Randle certainly isn't the answer.

    There's more of a possibility than most think that the Cowboys will select a wide receiver fairly early in this draft. Even if they do, however, Terrance Williams will likely start opposite Dez Bryant.

    The question is: Who will Dallas use as their No. 3 option?

    Unless something changes in a hurry, it will be Cole Beasley. He has a very limited skill set and won't help Dallas score many touchdowns, so it's in the team's best interest to upgrade there.

    Although veteran Jason Witten's play has been declining for years, he'll be the man at tight end. Based on historic tight end aging and Witten's recent play, he's going to be a liability for Dallas. Second-year tight end Gavin Escobar should be given a lot more playing time.

Offensive Line

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    Tim Sharp/Associated Press

    LT: Tyron Smith

    LG: Ronald Leary

    C: Travis Frederick

    RG: Mackenzy Bernadeau

    RT: Doug Free

    The Cowboys offensive line is interesting because, although it's basically set at this point, there are only two players that we know will be starting beyond a shadow of a doubt: Left tackle Tyron Smith and center Travis Frederick.

    Left guard Ronald Leary, right guard Mackenzy Bernadeau and right tackle Doug Free are all penciled in to start for the Cowboys, but they don't have the talent to be considered locks. Leary and Bernadeau were just okay in 2014 and, after a hot start, Free was horrific down the stretch; he allowed 30 pressures in the final 11 games, according to Pro Football Focus.

    Don't be surprised to see the Cowboys give a little competition to Free, in particular. If a player like Notre Dame's Zack Martin falls to them in the first round, Dallas could have a new starting right tackle come September.

Defensive Line

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    Gus Ruelas/Associated Press

    DE: George Selvie

    DE: Anthony Spencer

    DT: Henry Melton

    DT: Nick Hayden

    The Cowboys defensive line is incredibly difficult to project because there's not a single player guaranteed to be a starter this year. Defensive end George Selvie is the most likely, for sure, and he should be in for a quality year.

    The question is who will be starting opposite Selvie. The Cowboys have a number of free-agent options, including Jared Allen, who visited the team on Tuesday, according to ESPN's Ed Werder. Allen has said he wants big bucks.

    Because of Allen's financial demands, bringing back Anthony Spencer seems more probable for Dallas. ESPN Dallas' Calvin Watkins has reported the Cowboys haven't moved on from Spencer. It all comes down to the price; Spencer isn't a long-term solution for Dallas, but he could be a nice fill-in as the team searches for their pass-rushing force of the future. 

    On the inside, free-agent defensive tackle Henry Melton is a strong possibility. He visited Dallas on Monday, according to NFL.com's Ian Rapoport. Coming off of a knee tear, Melton is a potential bargain for the Cowboys.

    If Pitt's Aaron Donald falls to the Cowboys in the draft, you have to think they'll be thrilled to select him and immediately plug him in as a starter, regardless of Melton's status.

    Chances are, Donald will get drafted before Dallas is on the clock, however, in which case, a trade down is the most likely scenario. That could actually alter who starts for the team at defensive end; if they move down and select someone like Oregon State defensive end Scott Crichton, we could see a fresh face on the outside.

    Also watch out for Tyrone Crawford, who could start at either defensive end or defensive tackle for Dallas.

Linebacker

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    Tim Sharp/Associated Press

    MLB: Sean Lee

    OLB: Bruce Carter

    OLB: DeVonte Holloman

    Sean Lee and Bruce Carter are set to start at linebacker for Dallas, but their exact alignments aren't necessarily set in stone. There have been some rumblings that the Cowboys could move Lee outside and draft someone like Alabama's C.J. Mosley to play middle linebacker. That's a low-probability scenario at this point, especially since Dallas is unlikely to even be in a position to land Mosley.

    If Lee stays inside, Dallas will need to determine who starts outside opposite Carter. Second-year linebacker DeVonte Holloman showed a lot of promise in his oft-injured rookie campaign. There's no ruling out a rookie in his spot, but Holloman appears to be the most likely option at this point.

Secondary

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    Evan Vucci/Associated Press

    CB: Brandon Carr

    CB: Orlando Scandrick

    CB: Morris Claiborne

    SS: Barry Church

    FS: Matt Johnson

    The Cowboys secondary is set at both starting cornerback positions, nickel cornerback and strong safety. In all likelihood, Brandon Carr and Orlando Scandrick will start outside, with Scandrick moving into the slot in nickel situations and Morris Claiborne playing out wide.

    Barry Church is locked in as the starting strong safety, but the free safety position is totally up for grabs. J.J. Wilcox and Jeff Heath got time there last season, and an early-round rookie is always a possibility. My choice will be an unpopular one, but it's a player the Cowboys still really like in Matt Johnson.

    Johnson has obviously been unable to stay healthy for Dallas and, if he gets injured again this year, his time with the Cowboys will come to an end. But since the Cowboys have a number of second- and third-tier players vying for playing time, they're likely to give Johnson a chance to overcome his past injury history.

    If he can stay on the field, Johnson has a highly underrated skill set on which he can cash in. Take a look at how Johnson compares to 2013 first-round pick Kenny Vaccaro from a purely athletic standpoint: 

    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

    Vaccaro: 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

    Johnson is the Cowboys' most athletic safety and, if he can remain healthy (admittedly a huge 'if'), he has a good chance to be starting for Dallas in 2014.