Ranking Dallas Cowboys' Top 5 Sleepers to Watch in Camp
The Dallas Cowboys have a number of players to watch during training camp as potential sleepers to not only make the roster but also contribute meaningful numbers.
Without a particularly deep starting lineup, there’s plenty of room for unheralded players to step up and steal some snaps this year.
To choose these sleepers, I looked for a combination of physical measurables and a history of production—whether that production came in college or the NFL. For players like running back Ryan Williams or defensive lineman Tyrone Crawford, for example, there just isn’t enough NFL tape/stats to grade based on professional play.
Actually, I eliminated a lot of players who’ve already shown signs that they can produce at the NFL level—guys like running back Lance Dunbar—because they aren’t really true “sleepers” anymore. I’m searching for players who are either under the radar or simply haven’t consistently produced thus far in the big leagues.
With that said, here are the top five sleepers to watch for the Cowboys this season.
5. RB Ryan Williams
I’ve written extensively about how speed—as measured by the 40-yard dash—kills for running backs, so why would I have Ryan Williams, who ran a 4.61 in the 40 according to NFL.com, listed as a sleeper?
Well, it’s not an ideal situation, and it takes a lot for me to be bullish on a back who might (might!) not have elite straight-line speed. But there are lots of reasons to think that the 4.61 time isn’t representative of Williams’ explosiveness.
First, he recorded a 10’3” broad jump and 40-inch vertical at the combine—both elite numbers. Second, Williams ran as fast as 4.49 during the draft process, according to NFL Draft Scout. So basically, we have a 24-year old back with a history of injuries (not unlike DeMarco Murray, but more severe) who has hinted at future NFL success.
If you’re wondering why I haven’t mentioned Williams’ NFL experience, it’s because he barely has any: five games and 58 carries in three seasons. We basically need to treat him like an undrafted rookie, and if you compare Williams and his numbers (including devastating production at Virginia Tech) to, say, those of Ben Malena, it’s no contest.
4. DE/DT Tyrone Crawford
From a local standpoint, defensive end/defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford isn’t a sleeper. From a national perspective, though, he’s pretty much a complete unknown who has a chance to flash on a lot of people’s radars this season.
Either way, he’s a player with 16 tackles and zero sacks in two NFL seasons, so it’s not like Crawford is a lock for success in 2014.
Nonetheless, there’s a lot to like about Crawford. First, he was productive at Boise State with 13.5 sacks and 27 tackles for loss in two seasons, according to Sports-Reference.com. Second, he’s big. At 6’4”, 284 pounds with 33.75-inch arms, Crawford has the requisite size and length to excel anywhere along the line.
That versatility is a big plus—not because Dallas needs to move him around but because it gives Crawford “outs.” If he doesn’t work out at defensive end, he still has a chance to excel on the inside, for example. His skill set gives him options that provide an unusually high floor for a player with almost no NFL production in two seasons.
3. TE James Hanna
What if there was a 6’4”, 252-pound wide receiver with 4.49 speed coming out of the NFL draft? That would be amazing, right? A wide receiver with that sort of size/speed combination would be extremely rare.
Dallas actually has that player in James Hanna, whom they continue to use as a traditional in-line tight end because “that’s what he is—a tight end.” Clearly, if Hanna can’t block, then he can’t be effective in the NFL, right?
Wrong. Give Hanna a chance to line up out wide, particularly in the red zone, and he’s going to produce. This is a player who turned 17.3 percent of his college catches at Oklahoma into touchdowns, according to Sports-Reference.
Again, you can argue that Hanna doesn’t get a chance to play because he hasn’t performed in practice, but he hasn’t been performing because he’s been asked to do the wrong things.
Coach Garrett, use Hanna as a true wide receiver during the preseason, especially near the goal line, and let’s just see what happens.
2. S Matt Johnson
Matt Johnson is injury-prone. Although I believe the majority of what we label "injury-proneness" is simply random chance over small samples, we’ve seen Johnson get hurt so frequently that it’s really, really unlikely that it’s from chance alone. He missed last season with a broken bone in his foot and was sidelined in 2012 with hamstring issues.
Since he costs next to nothing, though, there’s no reason not to give Johnson a shot and see if he can stay healthy. Maybe he needs to get lucky to remain on the field, but there are reasons to think he’ll play well if he doesn’t get injured yet again.
In addition to being the most athletic safety on the team, Johnson is also liked by the film guys. Former scout Bryan Broaddus of DallasCowboys.com wrote, “The player that has the most talent of the (safety) group is Johnson,” while more recently he wrote that “if he could somehow stay healthy enough to last an entire training camp and preseason schedule, he has a chance to prove me wrong.”
This is a situation where no one is counting on Johnson, but he has a lot of upside if he remains healthy. He’s basically Dallas’ lottery ticket at safety.
1. WR Chris Boyd
I’ll admit that I’ve kind of been looking for reasons to like one of the Cowboys’ rookie wide receivers—Devin Street, L’Damian Washington and Chris Boyd. They all have good height, but Street and Washington are really lean, which is a big negative. I also don’t like that neither Street nor Washington produced big-time numbers in eight combined collegiate seasons.
Boyd has better size at 6’4”, 205 pounds, and he was fairly productive in just two seasons at Vanderbilt. You’d like to see a little more muscle, but it’s workable. The main problem was that he ran a 4.73 at the NFL Scouting Combine, according to NFL.com, which is obviously bad.
Speed is overrated for wide receivers, but you’d still like to see a certain level of straight-line speed—certainly faster than 4.73—and of course more speed is never a bad thing.
However, according to Jeff Lockridge of The Tennessean, Boyd had a quad strain at the combine and clocked as fast as the high-4.5s at his pro day—not blazing speed, but enough.
Further, Boyd was more efficient than Street or Washington in college. In his final season in 2012, he averaged 9.4 yards per target and turned 30 percent of his red-zone looks into scores, according to Jon Moore of RotoViz.com. Compare that to teammate Jordan Matthews, who was at 9.5 yards per target and 22 percent in the red zone—and then got drafted in the second round.
I actually thought Matthews was a first-round talent, but Boyd is really starting to intrigue me. Whereas I was initially undecided between Boyd and Washington as my top rookie receiver for Dallas, I’m now 95 percent confident that Boyd is the best of the bunch...and my top sleeper for Dallas in 2014.