Dallas Cowboys: 5 Most Important Players This Season

Bleacher ReportCorrespondent IIAugust 7, 2011

Dallas Cowboys: 5 Most Important Players This Season

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    The Dallas Cowboys are one of a few teams that did not go through a large roster overhaul this offseason. Thus, the players who are still in Big D have become even more important this season. 

    Dallas underachieved in a big way last year, struggling to a 6-10 record as their head coach Wade Phillips was fired midway through the season. 

    Jason Garrett has had the interim tag removed and Rob Ryan—yes, Rex's brother—was brought it to fix a defense that allowed the second most points in the entire league last season. 

    Of course, the coaching staff can only do so much. It will be up to the players to make things happen on the football field this year. 

5. Doug Free

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    Doug Free became the starting left tackle for the Dallas Cowboys last season, and he performed about as well as anyone could have hoped for. 

    Free was one of the better left tackles in the entire NFL last season, and Jerry Jones rewarded him with a new contract for his efforts. 

    However, quarterback Tony Romo was injured on his watch, and that is simply unacceptable for a left tackle. 

    It wasn't his missed block that led to Romo's injury—that would be fullback Chris Gronkowski—but a left tackle has to take responsibility for his quarterback no matter what. 

    Free will have to keep Romo upright this season if the Cowboys are to bounce back and make the playoffs. 

    If Free can be as good as he was last season, the Cowboys will be off to a great start along their offensive line. 

4. Jay Ratliff

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    Jay Ratliff had a subpar season—by his standards—last year and will have to rebound in a big way if the Cowboys' defense is to be improved this year. 

    Ratliff is at his best when he can shoot the gaps between the center and the guard on either side and create havoc in the backfield for both running backs and the quarterback. 

    His sack totals have trended downward in the last few years—he had 7.5 in 2008, 6.0 in 2009 and just 3.5 last season. In Rob Ryan's new attacking system, he should be able to get to the quarterback more often. 

    Ratliff may also be moved around along the line of scrimmage, something that didn't happen much when Wade Phillips was running the show. 

    This should take advantage of his quickness, and he may be able to find better angles, as an edge rusher, than from the middle of the field. If he is lined up on the same side of the line of scrimmage as DeMarcus Ware, it will be very difficult for either one of them to be double teamed. 

3. Felix Jones and Tashard Choice

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    Although the departed Marion Barber has been replaced by Oklahoma Sooners rookie DeMarco Murray, it is likely that most of the carries this season will go to returning backs Felix Jones and Tashard Choice.

    Jones officially becomes the full-time starter this season after serving as Barber's backup for much of his first three seasons in the league.

    Jones seemed to be sapped of some of his explosiveness after bulking up before last season, but he has dropped the weight and should be back to his normal self for this year. 

    Choice has earned a larger role in the offense as well, as he has really stepped up whenever called upon the past few years when Barber or Jones (or both) was out with an injury.

    Choice may, in fact, be the most complete back on the team in terms of running, receiving and blocking, but he'll still function primarily as Jones' backup. 

    Jason Garrett likes to get the backs involved with lots of draws and screens, but can get pass-happy at times if the running game is not working early on in the game. 

    It will be up to Jones, Choice and Murray to keep the Cowboys balanced, something that was not the case for most of last season. 

2. Mike Jenkins

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    Mike Jenkins had the worst season of his young career last season. If the Cowboys are to go anywhere this year, he'll have to look much more like his 2009 self than his 2010 self.

    Jenkins allowed 54 of 87 passes (62.06 percent) thrown his way to be completed last season, for a total of 935 yards and five touchdowns. 

    In the previous season, those numbers were 51 of 107 passes (47.6 percent) for 643 yards and just two touchdowns, as he looked like a true lockdown, No. 1 type cornerback.

    Now that Terence Newman is out for 4-6 weeks with a strained groin, even more pressure will be on Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick to step up in a big way.

    Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan likes to bring a lot of pressure and show opposing teams exotic looks with his front seven, so Jenkins could be left on an island early and often this year. 

    He has to be able to stand his ground against strong No. 1 receivers if the Cowboys defense is to be better this season. 

1. Tony Romo

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    Despite the Cowboys' record when he got injured against the New York Giants last season, 1-5, Tony Romo was actually in the middle of having another strong year. 

    He had a 69.5 percent completion percentage on 213 attempts for 1,605 yards and 11 touchdowns. 

    Of course, he still had seven interceptions at the time, and with the exception of the 2009 season, interceptions and fumbles have plagued Romo throughout his career. 

    He'll have to take care of the ball this year, even while spreading it around to the numerous explosive targets he has in the passing game. 

    Miles Austin, Dez Bryant and Jason Witten just might be the best 1-2-3 receiver-tight end combination in the entire National Football League. It will be up to Romo to keep them all happy with enough touches. 

    Austin is a terrific route runner, able to get separation on almost any defensive back, but he struggles with drops on passes that were a little off line last year. Witten is a master at getting open on any area of the field, and is probably Romo's favorite target. Bryant seemed to have a little more chemistry with backup Jon Kitna than Romo last season, but a full training camp with the first team offense should rectify that. 

    Romo has to become a leader of the football team, both on and off the field, for the Cowboys to succeed this season. He got off to a good start by organizing team workouts during the lockout, but that will need to carry over to the season as well. 

    Romo has all the talent in the world, but he has yet to harness that into consistent playoff success for the Cowboys, which is the only measuring stick that matters to the fans of America's team.