7. Phil Costa
While I don’t agree with the release of Andre Gurode, I think Costa is ready. He looked good in the preseason and should be an upgrade over Gurode in the run game. Remember, despite the notion that Gurode’s strength was as a run-blocker, I gave him a “D” in that category in 2010.
Instead of impacting the center position, Gurode’s release indirectly affects the guard position (as Costa probably would have started there over rookie Bill Nagy).
6. Abram Elam
I didn’t talk much about Elam during the preseason, but I wasn’t impressed with his play. I like his athleticism and on paper he appears to be a good fit, but I didn’t see the sort of range in coverage this team desperately covets from the safety position.
As of now, I am holding out hope that Rob Ryan knows Elam well enough to understand he’s a good fit here. Either way, he’s a more vital cog in the defense than most realize.
5. Sean Lee
In my 2010 Inside Linebacker Grades, I gave Sean Lee a B-, the highest grade of any inside ‘backer. Lee beat out Bradie James and Keith Brooking in regards to tackles per play, missed tackle percentage, yards per attempt against and yards per snap while in coverage (despite playing the majority of his snaps in passing situations).
He was underwhelming in the preseason, but I think you’ll see a really effective player in 2011.
4. Felix Jones
Jones led Cowboys running backs in every significant category in 2010, which is why he received an 86.3 percent from me in my 2010 Running Back Grades. Jones is the team’s best inside runner, outside runner, pass-catcher and short-yardage runner. His presence on this list is less about his talent and more about his health.
The Cowboys need Jones to stay healthy throughout the season to have any shot of making the playoffs. DeMarco Murray looks promising, but the playmaking ability of Jones cannot be replaced if he goes down.
3. Tyron Smith
Smith is questionable this week against the Jets, and I think Dallas should sit him if he isn’t 100 percent ready to go. This is certainly an important game, but not as important as Smith’s future health. For a rookie, the Cowboys are leaning on Smith about as much as is possible. He’ll be an upgrade over Marc Colombo from a year ago, and perhaps a significant one.
If Tony Romo has even an average amount of time to throw the football this season, this offense will be dangerous. Smith and fellow bookend Doug Free are big parts of that.
2. Mike Jenkins
After a 2009 season in which he received one of my highest grades, Jenkins regressed badly in 2010. I gave him a 64.6 percent overall grade, including a D- against the run. Jenkins allowed a 67.4 percent completion rate (higher than his grade, which is sad), six touchdowns, 11.17 yards per attempt, 1.07 yards per snap and missed 12.9 percent of tackles.
The lack of pass rush certainly contributed to Jenkins’ struggles last season, but there is no doubt he needs to improve in a big way. With Terence Newman currently down, Jenkins’ play is more vital than ever.
1. Anthony Spencer
The player who just claimed he “mailed it in” at times in 2010 is perhaps the player the Dallas Cowboys need to improve the most in 2011. Rob Ryan’s scheme should help some, as should the push from backup outside linebacker Victor Butler.
Look for Ryan to place Spencer, Butler and DeMarcus Ware on the field at the same time often this season, as well as create innovative looks that should help Spencer get to the quarterback.
I didn’t think Spencer’s 2010 play was atrocious, but it can undoubtedly improve (click here for 2010 Outside Linebacker Grades). His success is strongly linked to the play of the secondary. Maybe I’m being naive, but I think Spencer racks up double-digit sacks this season.