Last season, a few breakout players helped turn around the Cowboys’ season, most notably Miles Austin. Following a Week Four loss in Denver, the ‘Boys were reeling. Starting receiver Roy Williams got injured, opening the door for Austin’s 10 catches for 250 yards and two touchdowns in an overtime win in Kansas City. Who knows how the team’s season would have unfolded without Austin’s presence?
This season, a variety of players are primed for breakout seasons. In uncovering these players, I like to look at statistics which are not generally utilized, but still provide an idea of how efficiently a player can perform. Defensive end Jason Hatcher, for example, racked up 17 quarterback pressures in 2009, yet totaled just one sack. With his snap count figuring to increase, the rate that Hatcher reaches the quarterback could put him in line for six to eight sacks this season.
In this slideshow are 10 Cowboys players who are ready to become household names.
A lot is riding on the shoulders of Free–perhaps more so than any “new” Cowboys starter. Free will have to beat out newly-acquired Alex Barron to win the starting left tackle job. On paper, his athleticism and quick feet make him a natural fit for the left side.
Prediction: If Free starts every game and can yield less than six sacks, he's done his job. Also expect him to give up in the vicinity of seven hits and 25 pressures.
I just posted an analysis of a potential Alan Ball and Michael Hamlin training camp battle. Ball’s coverage ability should be enough for him to retain the job, but he needs to improve his tackling. Like Free, the competition behind Ball should force him to be at his best.
Prediction: The Cowboys are in dire need of a play-making safety. Will Ball be that guy? Expect him to grab in the neighborhood of 3-5 interceptions.
With starter Marcus Spears a restricted free agent, the Cowboys figure to increase Bowen’s reps as the season progresses. There is even talk of Bowen starting over Spears immediately.
While I expect Spears to remain the starter, Bowen will come in on more and more running downs (only 99 of his 484 total snaps came against the run).
Prediction: Expect Bowen to secure close to 600 snaps this season, including about 175 against the run.
Okay, so Jones has basically already broken out–but only in terms of efficiency (yards-per-carry), not totals. In his short career, Jones has yet to reach 1,000 total rushing yards and has tallied just seven all-purpose touchdowns.
To take his game to the next level, Jones needs to stay healthy enough to obtain the touches necessary for big-time production. With offensive coordinator Jason Garrett supplying him the ball more (particularly on counters, tosses, and so on), he will put up big numbers in 2010.
Prediction: Expect Jones to get about 200 carries this season, surpass 1,000 rushing yards, and score approximately eight total touchdowns. He could also approach 40 receptions.
I’ll be the first to admit I was hesitant about the Cowboys drafting Lee. The ‘Boys had such a high grade on him (click here to see their draft board) that they couldn’t pass up the value.
Lee has been magnificent in camp and looks to even have a slight advantage over Jason Williams for the nickel linebacker job. I detailed the Lee/Williams battle previously.
Prediction: Lee’s snaps will be limited with Bradie James and Keith Brooking ahead of him, but he could make a real impact as a nickel linebacker and special teams player. He is an instant upgrade over Bobby Carpenter and any big plays he makes will be a bonus for Dallas.
Scandrick was picked on quite a bit last season, allowing a 62.9 percent completion rate while getting thrown at on 13.9 percent of all snaps–one of the highest rates in the NFL. Teams will continue to test Scandrick this season with studs Terence Newman and Mike Jenkins outside.
So why will Scandrick improve? Well, this is more of a hunch than anything, but there seemed to be a disconnect between Scandrick’s statistics and the game film. He was almost always in position to make a play on the football, yet, for whatever reason, just did not do so.
Prediction: If he can improve his ball skills in the offseason, Scandrick could come down with five interceptions in 2010.
Williams missed the entire 2009 season after tearing his ACL. In his absence, rookie Victor Butler stepped up and showed he can be counted on as a pass-rusher. The only problem? Butler isn’t particularly stout against the run (we gave him a D+).
It is essential for Dallas to find a quality backup behind starters Ware and Spencer, particularly with the duo combining to play 2205 snaps last season. That number must drop, and Williams is probably better suited to handle the load than Butler. Williams has reportedly been sensational in offseason activities.
Prediction: Last season, Butler got 125 snaps. Williams could see as many as 200 this season, particularly on running downs. Hopefully he can rack up a sack or two in the process.
Bennett has gained more notoriety for his off-field antics than his on-field play. Still, Bennett’s 2009 season was actually slightly underrated because his blocking was so tremendous (we gave him a B+ in blocking and a B- overall grade).
Despite the myriad of offensive weapons in Dallas, Bennett still has an opportunity to improve this season. His blocking ability should allow him to hold onto the No. 2 tight end job. The Cowboys will probably run less two-tight end sets in 2010, but when they do, Bennett will be single-covered.
Prediction: 30 receptions and a couple of touchdowns is a reasonable expectation. He should also gain more respect as a blocker as long as he can remain consistent in that department.
There really isn’t much to say about Bryant. Everyone knows he is talented. The only person that can hold back Bryant is himself.
The key to his 2010 production will be if he can overtake Roy Williams for the starting job opposite Miles Austin. If so, he figures to put up some big-time rookie numbers.
Prediction: I expect Williams to retain his starting gig. Since I think Williams could have a bounce-back season, it will be hard for Bryant to rack up huge stats without a ton of reps. If he does not start, 45 receptions for 600 yards and five TDs is still possible. If he can overtake Williams, however, Bryant has the talent to put up 1,000+ yards and perhaps even double-digits TDs.
Hatcher is essentially the Cowboys’ No. 4 defensive end right now. So why is he my No. 1 candidate for a breakout season? First, like Bowen, he will gain more snaps in 2010.
Like I said above, Hatcher tallied 17 pressures last season, despite playing just 391 snaps. This 4.40 percent pressure rate led all defensive ends. If he can maintain that rate with increased reps, the 25 or so pressures he will acquire will put him in position for multiple sacks.
Prediction: Hatcher will increase his sack total dramatically in 2010. Six sacks is a realistic goal, which is an impressive number for a 3-4 backup defensive end.