Ranking the Dallas Cowboys' Most Irreplaceable Players
If the Dallas Cowboys want to get into the playoffs there are some players they cannot afford to lose. These players are those that bring enormous impact both on and off the field. They are the linchpins to the Cowboys accomplishing their short-term and long-term goals.
These players have not had the best of luck in this respect lately. The knee injury to defensive leader Sean Lee was a huge blow to the Cowboys. Lee was expected to be the playmaker and driving force behind a much-improved defense. However, since the injury, you have to wonder if the Cowboys' defense will be good enough to take them to get to the playoffs.
If the Cowboys expect to get over the 8-8 hump and finally reach the playoffs, the players on this list must remain healthy.
The criteria used for this ranking is based on how much production and impact these players give the Cowboys, the importance of their position and how much of a drop-off in play there is when their backups fill in.
Free is relatively irreplaceable, not because of outstanding play but because of the lack of known commodities behind him.
Free bounced back from his poor 2012 campaign by having a solid 2013 season. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) graded Free at plus-18.9 for the 2013 season, which is above average. With Free entering his ninth season with the Cowboys it is unlikely they he makes any vast improvements.
There are no players behind Free with any significant playing time in the NFL. Darrion Weems and Jermey Parnell have yet to see any significant action outside the preseason. Therefore, if Free got hurt, it would be hard to have any real expectations for Weems or Parnell.
The reason Free didn't make rank is because he doesn't have the type of production that the others do. A loss of Free would hurt, but it wouldn't cripple the Cowboys.
In 2013, PFF graded Orlando Scandrick as Dallas's best cornerback among those who played snaps to qualify. This has led to Scandrick starting the season as the starting cornerback, opposite of Brandon Carr, while also taking a leadership role on the Cowboys defense.
Scandrick has the versatility to play and excel at any of the cornerback spots. He has been known for his play at the slot corner but he has also showed the ability to be a excellent boundary corner as well.
Behind Scandrick is former sixth overall pick, Morris Claiborne, followed by B.W. Webb, Sterling Moore, and rookies Terrance Mitchell and Tyler Patmon.
To lose Scandrick would be damaging to the Dallas defense. However, they do have Claiborne who could step up to take the boundary cornerback duties, while Moore, Webb or either of the rookies would battle for the slot position.
While the loss of Scandrick would be bad, it's just not as bad as some of the others on the list.
Coming off of a torn Achilles tendon, Church did as well as you can expect in 2013. While he wasn't great by any means, Church should improve with another year under his belt. With the injury to Lee, Church needs to step into a leadership role and help improve the defense.
Church is a great tackler who is improving in coverage as he gets more and more snaps under his belt. Behind Church, there are not many good options. Seventh-round pick Ahmad Dixon would figure to be one of the options, J.J. Wilcox could also move over from his strong safety spot.
However, none of these are options with which fans should feel comfortable. While it's true that Church doesn't have an adequate backup, he also doesn't have the production that some others on the list do.
7. Jason Witten
All Dallas fans know tight end Jason Witten. They all know the leadership and production he brings to the team. He has been one of the most productive players for the Cowboys in the last decade.
Even though Witten is getting up there in age, 32, he has shown that he is still a very capable player. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) graded him at plus-11.9 for the 2013 season. The decline in his play will likely be coming in the next couple of years but Witten is not someone you should bet against.
Some of you may be wondering why Witten is so low on the list. It has nothing to do with his impact or production, which are stellar. It has more to do with the fact that the Cowboys have found some excellent backups.
Gavin Escobar was a second-round pick in 2013 and with a year under his belt should be able to help improve the Cowboys offense. James Hanna has the type of athleticism that makes him a mismatch against linebackers anytime he steps on the field. While neither have the timing, blocking nor leadership of Witten, they could do a decent job if Witten were hurt.
Witten is a player whom the Cowboys would sorely miss, however, tight end is one of the deepest positions on the team which make other players more irreplaceable.
6. Dan Bailey
A kicker on a most irreplaceable player list? Yes, Baliey is such an incredible kicker that he warrants being ranked higher then the likely Hall of Famer Jason Witten.
Bailey has been the Cowboys' most consistent player since he came in the league in 2011. Bailey has made 90.8 percent of his kicks since then and has a history of making clutch field goal after clutch field goal. At times, Bailey is one of the only players you can truly count on to do his job consistently.
Since teams don't usually carry two kickers, if Bailey were hurt his replacement would likely be from free agency. Would you trust David Akers, Lawrence Tynes or Rob Bironas to come in and be as consistent as Bailey?
An injury to the Dallas kicker would totally change the Cowboys offensive game plan. The Cowboys may punt in certain situations where they would normally trust Bailey to attempt a field goal. Many times fans overlook the impact that a great kicker has.
Since Bailey is a kicker and makes an impact on only a handful of plays a game, other players are more irreplaceable than Bailey is.
5. Henry Melton
Henry Melton was brought in to replace the incredible production that Jason Hatcher brought to the Cowboys in 2013. It may be risky to put those type of expectations on Melton, especially since he is coming off of a torn ACL.
However, the fact is that Melton is expected to bring the same type of production and impact that Hatcher brought to the defense. If Melton is 100 percent, he should be a force against the pass and the run. Melton has a quick first step to go along with violent hands that make him a terror in the middle.
In Rod Marinelli's scheme the 3-technique position and "Will" linebacker are the most important positions. For the defense to be running optimally the 3-technique needs to be getting constant pressure.
Behind Melton, there is a mixture of players who play mostly at other positions. ESPN Dallas' Todd Archer reported that McClain has been getting most of the snaps at 3-technique while Melton rehabs his knee. However, McClain should move over to 1-technique once Melton returns. Tyrone Crawford has been mentioned as a possibility but he also will get time at left (strong-side) defensive end.
While both of McClain and Crawford are quality players, you would like for them to stay at their natural positions.
However, since Melton is coming off of a torn ACL you cannot expect him to have as much production or impact as some of the others on this list.
4. Travis Frederick
Travis Frederick proved the skeptics wrong last year by proving that he was worth the Cowboys' first-round pick. Frederick was a force in run-blocking and adequate in pass-blocking. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) graded Frederick at plus-13.2, which is outstanding for a rookie center.
Frederick seems to be ready to get even better in 2014. Dallascowboys.com's David Helman reported that Frederick said:
I don’t feel like a grizzled vet – I feel like I’m not as much of a rookie. I know what’s going on. It’s the same adjustments I was talking about with Zack – you know what’s next, you know how to handle what’s going on,” Frederick said. “So that’s going to help you, in turn, focus on the little things. In general, you know what the concepts are and things, so you can really focus on the techniques and getting better at the smaller things.
With even more comfortable in the blocking scheme, there is no reason to believe that he won't have an even greater impact for the Cowboys in 2014.
If Frederick were injured it would be devastating not only because of the loss of his on-field play but because there is no depth behind him. Frederick's backup is Mackenzy Bernadeau who is primarily a guard. That has to be a scary proposition for the Cowboys.
If the Cowboys lose Frederick, their offensive line would go from one of the best to very mediocre, quickly.
The only reason Frederick is not higher on the list is because the others make a bigger impact at more important positions.
3. Dez Bryant
Dez Bryant is a beast. He makes a huge impact in every game and has the production to match. The Cowboys' offense is at its best when he is the vocal point.
Bryant is one of the leaders of the team to go along with being of its hardest workers. Jason Garrett has compared Bryant's work ethic and leadership to that of Michael Irvin.
Bryant should have another incredibly productive year and prove that he is one of the top three or four best receivers in the NFL.
The Cowboys' don't have any other receivers with the ability to be a productive No.1 receiver. Terrance Williams would likely be Bryant's replacement in the event of an injury. This has to be a big worry for the Cowboys as they enter the 2014 season.
An injury to Bryant would seriously hinder the Cowboys passing game and likely stagnate their offense as a whole. There are no other receiving options outside of Witten that the Cowboys can rely on to give constant production. With a questionable defense, the Cowboys offense would have to be running on all cylinders and an injury to Bryant would prevent that.
The top three irreplaceable players on the Cowboys are split by the smallest of margins. Losing any of them would likely result in the Cowboys severely underachieving.
The only reason Bryant is not higher is because Williams has shown the ability to be somewhat productive in the NFL.
2. Tyron Smith
Tyron Smith had a breakout year in 2013.
After looking lost at times in a somewhat of a disappointing season in 2012, Smith looked incredibly comfortable at left tackle in 2013, with Pro Football Focus (subscription required) grading him at plus-28.3 in 2013, a big jump from the plus-3.8 PFF gave him in 2012.
Smith was dominant as a pass- and run-blocker last season. At 23 years of age, Smith is the best tackle under 25 and one of the best tackles in the entire league.
Smith's impact cannot be understated. He protects Romo's blindside and does a great job of creating holes for Cowboy running backs.
Another great asset of Smith's is his durability. He has missed only one game in his first three years in the league. Therefore, it seems less likely that Smith will get hurt this season, which cannot be said for many others on the list.
The Cowboys' don't have any players on the roster who could adequately replace Smith. Weems and Parnell are relatively unknown commodities and Free proved in 2011 that he is not a very good left tackle.
An injury to Smith would be terrible news for the Cowboys. It would require them to totally change their offense and blocking schemes. They would likely have to keep a tight end in to help Weems or Parnell on most plays, which would give the Cowboys one less option to throw to. Also, it would severely diminish the Cowboys ability to run to the left side.
The only reason Smith is not No. 1 is because he doesn't play at the most important position on the team.
1. Tony Romo
Quarterback is by far the most important position on any football team. Tony Romo is a very productive quarterback who doesn't have any players who could even come close to his production. Thus, he is the most irreplaceable player on the Cowboys' roster (but you probably could have guessed that).
If Romo is healthy the Cowboys have a chance to win any game they play in. He is that good. However, keeping Romo healthy may be the hard part. The 34-year-old is coming off of his second back surgery within the span of a year.
Romo doesn't seem too worried about his back, but the Cowboys have to be. If Romo is hurt there is no way they can make the playoffs.
Behind Romo, the Cowboys have Brandon Weeden, Caleb Hanie and maybe Kyle Orton (depending on how his issue with the Cowboys works out). None of those names inspire confidence that the Cowboys would be able to endure a prolonged Romo absence. Could they fill in for one or two game? Sure, but any longer then that and the Cowboys can kiss their playoff hopes goodbye.
Because of Romo's production, impact, lack of quality backups and importance of positions, he is the most irreplaceable player on the Cowboys roster.
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