Dallas Cowboys: 10 Players to Watch for the Future

Christian Blood@@cowboysguruContributor IIIOctober 10, 2011

Dallas Cowboys: 10 Players to Watch for the Future

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    The Dallas Cowboys, from top to bottom, represent a typical blend of highly talented players mixed in with gaping holes throughout the roster and front office.

    Sticking with the roster, it is well known that recent moves by Jerry Jones and staff, such as the Roy Williams trade in 2008, have gone far in leaving voids at positions of great need that have caused a trickle down effect. 

    But there is light at the end of the tunnel. Even despite the awful draft of 2009, there are players beginning to emerge as recent cuts have created the opportunity for young players to make an impact.

    If the Cowboys were completely rebuilding, these 10 players would almost certainly be playing many more snaps than they are at the present time. Better yet, these players could begin to fill voids that strengthen the roster which is already bolstered by Pro Bowl players such as Tony Romo, DeMarcus Ware, Jay Ratliff and Jason Witten.

    Here they are ...

10: Josh Brent No. 92 DT 2 Years

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    I have stated for about four seasons now that Jay Ratliff is too small to play nose guard, and I still feel this is the case, especially as the season wears on. But in first year defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's version of the 3-4 alignment, this noticeable lack of size up front has yet to hurt any aspect of the Dallas defense.

    If the Cowboys ever wise up and put Ratliff back at his natural defensive end spot, which would certainly create more pass rush opportunities, Josh Brent is better built to plug the middle of the defensive line.

    Still a young player with great athleticism for his size, Brent is a guy to watch whenever he is on the field, offense or defense. That's right—offense too. Brent has a handful of plays at fullback on his resume, as of the first quarter of 2011, and no team in football could some additional blocking in short yardage or goal line situations than Dallas.

9: Clifton Geathers No. 96 DE 2 Years

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    The departure of Stephen Bowen to Washington not only created some confusion for center Phil Costa in snapping the ball when the Cowboys and Redskins met in Week 3 but also opened up some room on the depth chart. What little room there was, especially after retaining Marcus Spears was immediately filled when Dallas picked up Clifton Geathers.

    Coming from a bloodline of previous NFL players, Geathers brings enormous potential despite the fact he is a very raw product. But when you consider his size and athletic potential you have to take note. After all, Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow did in the preseason when Geathers not-so-politely introduced himself.

    I have seen Geathers listed at 6"7" and anywhere from 310 to 320 pounds. If he keeps gaining strength and experience he could definitely be a key contributor on the Dallas defensive front as decisions will have to be made regarding Jason Hatcher and Spears.

8: John Phillips No. 89 TE 3 Years

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    Among the most wasteful and redundant draft picks in recent memory, the Cowboys opted to choose Texas A&M product Martellus Bennett in the second round of the 2008 NFL draft. They did this despite the fact they already had among the game's best tight end already in Jason Witten.

    Almost four years later it appears that Bennett will likely not be back. This is just fine given the presence of John Phillips.

    Phillips does not possess the athleticism or rapping ability of Bennett, but he is pretty good at everything. He blocks, catches and is never called for needless penalties.

    This third-year player still has room to grow and also make a greater impact and could very well see the No. 2 spot at tight end all his own for years to come.

7: Phillip Tanner No. 34 RB Rookie

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    Kimball High School product Phillip Tanner may or may not offer the solution to a tepid Dallas running game. If rookie head coach Jason Garrett has anything to say, which he unfortunately will, Tanner probably won't. Never hurts to hope, right?

    Tanner runs with an explosiveness that just isn't seen in any other Dallas running back. Sure, Felix Jones is a registered weapon in the open field but doesn't bring enough between the tackles. DeMarco Murray is pretty much the same kind of niche and/or pass catching back that Jones is, and we'll never really know what exactly Tashard Choice will be because there's just too many running backs lurking around Valley Ranch. This has been true since the departure of Emmitt Smith following the 2002 regular season.

    The above video clip offers a classic example of how Tanner runs the football. Granted, this was a pre-season game so the level of competition isn't exactly the same as a regular or post season contest. And it's true that the play was whistled dead, thus nullifying an apparent touchdown. Notice that Chargers defenders on this play also didn't realize that the play was dead.

    Tanner has a physicality similar to former ball carrier Marion Barber except Tanner is a better and faster athlete all the way around. He likely won't get too much action this season, but keep an eye on the health situation concerning the brittle Jones and equally raw Murray. Should things have to change on the depth chart due to injuries then Tanner could be a surprise to many.

6. Jesse Holley No. 16 WR 2 Years

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    At this point everyone is aware of Jesse Holley. There have not been too many other players who had a bigger spotlight on them while they simply waited for an opportunity.

    The winner of Michael Irvin's reality show "4th and Long" in the summer of 2009, Holley received an invitation to training camp as a long-shot prospect, especially considering a wide receiver corps consisting of Roy Williams, a soon-to-be emerging Miles Austin and savvy veteran Patrick Crayon.

    Despite returning a punt 82 yards for a touchdown against Minnesota in the final pre-season game that same summer, Holley was cut the very next day. 

    But Holley has never been gone for long, Dallas keeping him close by on the practice squad until things opened up some, which they did with the departure of both Roy Williams and Sam Hurd prior to the start of this season.

    If anything could top the visibility of "4th and Long" or that punt return against the Vikings, it was Holley's 77-yard catch and run, a la Alvin Harper, on Week 2 in overtime against San Francisco. He didn't reach the end zone, but because of my No. 5 player up next, it was no issue.

    Holley stands 6'2" and weighs in around 215 lbs. He's got the classic build of a possession receiver who can sneak passed the secondary from time to time. It's time for Holley to start getting four to five passes thrown to him each game, and in the Garrett-Top offense, that is a piece of cake.

5: Dan Bailey No. 5 K Rookie

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    Want to hear something shocking? It's been 25 years since Rafael Septien was unceremoniously released from the Dallas Cowboys after being indicted for the "mishandling of a minor". He was a much better place kicker than he was a babysitter, so to speak.

    In the time since, I count at least 17 different kickers residing on Dallas rosters from 1987 through 2011. This averages out to a new kicker almost every season and a half.


    Even as we speak, the Cowboys have two place kickers on the roster: one who does hit field goals and another who just kicks the ball real far.

    Rookie Dan Bailey has been just what the doctor ordered, and you could easily argue that without him the Cowboys would be 0-4.

    Bailey went 6-for-6 against Washington easily earning the MVP in an 18-16 "slop-fest" win over the Redskins in the home opener. A week before he nailed two field goals that sent the game into overtime with zeros left on the clock and also a game-winner right after Jesse Holley's 77-yard completion to the 1-yard line. 

    Anyone think that Dallas is not 0-4 if David Buehler is still handling field goals?

    Decades went by with no stability whatsoever at a position as simple as kicker. Three Super Bowl wins in the '90s saw three different place kickers.

    Bailey changes this horrible trend. In four games he's hit 12-of-13 attempts and is 100 percent between 40-49 yards. The miss was a 21-yard chip shot.

    Dallas needs to keep this guy around, period.

4: Victor Butler No. 57 OLB 3 Years

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    Perhaps the most intriguing role player on the entire Dallas roster is Victor Butler, a pure pass rusher who seems to do a lot with limited opportunities.

    During last season's debacle of a campaign, the Dallas defense had the worst season in its 50-year history. I vividly recall hearing rumblings about Anthony Spencer heading towards bust category based on his limited number of sacks.

    While I still maintain, with proof, that Spencer is not the issue, I still agree with the idea that more snaps for Butler could serve the Cowboys very well.

    Playing mostly in nickel situations, Butler gets pressure on the quarterback quite often. The sack total may not jump out at you, but those combined with his credited quarterback hurries are no accident.

    The issue is that Spencer is clearly better in run support and is no slouch of a pass rusher himself. Remember it was Spencer who chased down Rex Grossman in the waning seconds against Washington. He got the sack and caused the fumble that ended a desperate Redskins comeback. Butler also had a sack earlier in the contest.

    Really seems like Butler has some clutch in him and that he does an awful lot with a lower number of snaps. Not as bulky as Spencer, Butler is a relentless torpedo at the snap and more closely resembles Pro Bowler DeMarcus Ware as a pure pass rusher.

    Look for more from Butler, as he's only 24 years old and keep in mind that Spencer is a free agent following 2011. 

3: Tyron Smith No. 77 RT Rookie

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    Not since 1981, and never in Jerry Jones' 22 years as owner, had the Cowboys selected an offensive lineman in the first round of the NFL draft. 

    That changed in 2011 ... finally.

    Jerry Jones had spent big money on free agent linemen Leonard Davis and Kyle Kosier as well as draftees Flozell Adams and Andre Gurode in recent seasons. The result was a good offense that could pass but not run the ball well.

    Age and salary cap issues finally forced the Cowboys to start infusing better talent and youth into its collapsing offensive line.

    Enter Tyron Smith out of USC.

    Smith is as prototype as it gets and could very well end up playing left tackle sooner than later. Unlike in decades passed, young players have to be on the field in the NFL, especially if they have the skill set and mentality to do their job well.

    Smith has shown after only four professional outings that he is the total package. He has the size, the strength and the football I.Q. to play tackle for the next 10-12 years.

    The only question is on which side.

2: Sean Lee No. 50 ILB 2 Years

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    It's a good thing whenever you see a linebacker with the football. Sean Lee is providing that exact scenario early and often in his career to this point.

    In a span of just nine regular season games which dates back to last season's meeting against the Colts in Indianapolis, Lee has picked off four passes which includes one returned for a touchdown. 

    Put it this way: Lee is everything as a second-round pick that former first-round bust Bobby Carpenter will never, ever be.

    You don't play linebacker at Penn State for Joe Paterno on accident. Politics or a pretty smile won't get it done there, and Lee has the position written all over his body and soul. This guy was described as an animal by former Nittany Lion teammates coming out of college. 

    Time will come soon for a replacement for the average, but solid Brady James at one inside linebacker spot. The other spot, however, is well manned for hopefully the rest of this decade by a soon to be Pro Bowler.

1: Dez Bryant No. 88 WR WR

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    From the moment he was drafted in the first round of the 2010 NFL draft, you knew Dez Bryant was going to be something special.

    You also knew he was going to be a bit of a lightning rod.

    If Bryant can manage to pay his jewelry bills, learn how to dress in certain public situations and keep some kind of record of time, the sky is the limit.

    Bryant is the total package as an elite wide receiver. He's already in the top three in the NFL and can do just about everything.

    He has adequate speed to get deep. He has tremendous body strength. He has hands that make Jerry Rice offer a nod of approval. He seems to have the leaping ability of another guy named Bryant who plays in the NBA.

    Bryant does it all.The only thing more difficult than trying to cover him is trying to tackle him ... and then it's too late.

    Any team with this guy in its offense has a chance to make the playoffs just because of him. In the Cowboys case, Bryant is one of a few weapons, among them future Hall of Fame tight end Jason Witten.

    The instant Dallas develops a strong rushing attack to balance this silly college spread of Jason Garrett's, they go right to the top of the NFC as an eminent Super Bowl contender.

    Don't expect Garrett-Top to figure this out before he's fired, but the talent is certainly there and Bryant leads the way.