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2011 Team Report: Dallas Cowboys

Quarterbacks

Starter: Tony Romo
Backup(s): Jon Kitna, Stephen McGee

Starting QB: A year ago the Cowboys were a preseason favorite to contend for a Super Bowl and Tony Romo was finally being widely recognized for the excellent quarterback many of us already knew him to be. Coming off his first playoff win, with a loaded team, Romo was expected to be ascendant. Unfortunately, Romo and the Cowboys got off to a 1-5 start and then he was shelved for the remainder of the season with a broken collarbone. Entering this season, Romo is 100% healthy, and remains among the NFC's best pure passers. A career 64% passer, his 5.7% TD rate is the best among active passers, as is his 7.4 net yards/attempt. He's elite, and should be due for a bounce back year under new head coach Jason Garrett.

Backup QB: The backup situation remains stable as the Cowboys passed on drafting another QB in the April draft. While Jon Kitna will be 39 years old this season, the Cowboys are confident in his role as Romo's backup, particularly after his heroic efforts last year in Romo's stead. In 10 games, Kitna threw for nearly 2,400 yards and 16 TDs, completing nearly 66% of his throws. He clearly has a handle on Coach Garrett's system. Stephen McGee remains as the emergency QB, although his place on the active roster remains unclear.

Running Backs

Starter: Felix Jones
Backup(s): DeMarco Murray [R], Tashard Choice, Phillip Tanner [R]
Fullback(s): John Phillips

Starting RB: Three years into the Felix Jones era and Cowboys fans are still waiting for his breakout season. Last year, in spite of playing a full 16 games, Jones managed only 800 yards rushing and 1 TD. To his credit though, he caught 48 passes and was the Cowboys most dynamic running threat on a rushing offense that took a major step backward. This year, GM Stephen Jones has made it clear Felix will be the main guy again, but will not be asked to carry the ball 20 times, either. At this point, Jones has the tools but hasn't quite put them together on Sundays. The hope is that more focus from head coach Jason Garrett, and a rebuilt offensive line, will make his 4th season evocative of why the Cowboys took him 22nd overall in 2008.

Backup RBs: Rookie DeMarco Murray was highly coveted by Jerry Jones (as was Felix a few years ago), and it's clear they intend to give him a big role right from the start. While Murray was productive on a major collegiate program, it's important to note that he only averaged 4.2 yards per carry in his final two seasons at Oklahoma. His straight line speed and ability as a receiver do argue for a compelling option as a 3rd down change of pace back, however. Tashard Choice remains in a familiar role, as the 3rd option in what's likely a 2-back committee. Phillip Tanner out played Lanyae Miller for the final RB spot entering Week One.

Fullback: The Cowboys opted to start the season without a traditional fullback, and have instead decided to use TE John Phillips in the role.

Wide Receivers

Starters: Miles Austin, Dez Bryant
Backups: Kevin Ogletree, Jesse Holley, Dwayne Harris [R]

Starting WRs: Miles Austin wasn't able to duplicate his transcendent 2009 season (81 for 1,320 and 11 TDs) last year, but still led the Cowboys with 69 receptions for 1,041 yards and 7 TDs. He uses his size well, and was 3rd among NFL receivers last year in yards after the catch. Austin was at his best with Tony Romo under center, which bodes well for rebound into elite territory in 2011. Dez Bryant's rookie season was a mix of good and bad. On a positive note, he caught 45 receptions for 561 yards and 6 touchdowns and looked, at times, like a dominant, physical receiver. On a negative note, immaturity and nagging injuries cast a shadow on whether he'll ever achieve his maximum potential. Bryant missed the final four games with a broken fibula, but has looked healthy this preseason. From a pure talent standpoint, Bryant has few peers. He's strong, fast, disciplined and has excellent body control. As long as his head is on straight, he is on a short list of 2nd year receivers that could be set for a breakout.

Backup WRs: The Cowboys released Roy Williams, which is an endorsement of Kevin Ogletree's readiness to assume the 3rd receiver position. It's a major endorsement for a 3rd year receiver who has 10 career receptions. Ogletree has shown a strong work ethic, and has been able to gain separation consistently in practice. Rookie Dwayne Harris and little used Jesse Holley round out the WR corps.

Tight Ends

Starters: Jason Witten
Backups: Martellus Bennett, John Phillips

Jason Witten is one of the best players no one seems to talk about. Witten is coming off his third 1,000-yard season in four years (94 catches for 1,002 yards) and is as sure handed and reliable as anyone at his position. While not explosive (11.3 yards per catch), he's always in the right position and has vacuums up anything thrown in his vicinity. After two years of struggling to find the end zone (6 TDs in 175 receptions), Witten led the Cowboys with 9 scores. Martellus Bennett has a lot to prove, as a combination of off-the-field immaturity and lack of on-field productivity (a woeful 7.9 yards per catch last year) puts him on a short leash.

Place Kicker

Dan Bailey, David Buehler, Kai Forbath : While long snapper L.P. Ladouceur along and punter/holder Mat McBriar each have a rookie behind then in camp, the kicker position holds all the intrigue and competition. Incumbent David Buehler is back, looking good on kickoffs but struggling on field goals. Undrafted rookie Dan Bailey, the 2010 Lou Groza Award winner, from Oklahoma State has started camp very strong on field goals but not as well on kickoffs. That prompted owner Jerry Jones to state they could carry two kickers, although coach Jason Garrett said such talk is very premature. Further clouding the picture is the recent signing of injured undrafted rookie kicker Kai Forbath, the 2009 Lou Groza Award winner, from UCLA. Even further clouding the picture is the very recent signing of Shayne Graham. And then... after Detroit released Dave Rayner, Jerry Jones flew him down to Dallas and signed him. The Cowboys ranked 12th in 2009 and 8th last year in attempted kicking points.

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: Bryan McCann, Dwayne Harris

Punt Returners: Dez Bryant, Bryan McCann, Dwayne Harris

Just like last year, the coaching staff would like to get WR/PR Dez Bryant involved on kickoff returns. Currently atop the depth chart at that position is CB Bryan McCann, followed by CB Akwasi Owusu-Ansah, rookie WR Raymond Radway, and WR Kevin Ogletree. The team will also give rookie WR Dwayne Harris a try. HC Jason garret noted, �You practice it in drill work and non-contact type situations, so we�ll see, we�ll see. ... We�ll look at all those guys at different times throughout the preseason and as the season goes on�.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: LT Doug Free, LG Bill Nagy, C Phil Costa, RG Kyle Kosier, RT Tyron Smith [R]
Key Backups: OG David Arkin, C Kevin Kowalski, OG Derrick Dockery, OT Jeremy Parnell

The Cowboys were able to free enough cap space to re-sign Doug Free, who played well at left tackle and will protect Tony Romo on the edge yet again. Free has good technique and, while not the strongest at the point of attack, rarely gets beat by speed rushers. Kyle Kosier was also re-signed, and will man one of the guard positions. But whole sales changes are underway on the rest of the line. Long-time starters Marc Columbo, Andre Gurode and Leonard Davis were released and a youth movement has won out. Bill Nagy and Tyron Smith, two rookies, will man the LG and RT spots, respectively, and 2nd year Phil Costa will start at center. The Cowboys line needs to be more effective run blocking this year, particularly if the team has hopes of returning to playoff contention.

Team Defense

Improving the defense was a critical offseason goal, as the Cowboys ranked 31st in points allowed (27.2 points per game). While the rush defense can be better (it ranked 12th), it was the pass defense (31st in TDs allowed) that needed a major overhaul. Unfortunately not a lot has changed in the secondary after the Cowboys struck out in their pursuit of Nnamdi Asomugha. The corners remain Terence Newman and Mike Jenkins, with Orlando Scandrick filling in for the injured Newman and then resuming his exemplary nickel duties. Where the Cowboys hope to see improvement is in their scheme, as Wade Phillips has been replaced by Rob Ryan. Ryan will have a familiar face in free safety Abram Elam -- who played for him in Cleveland. Elam joins returning SS Gerald Sensabaugh and provides an adequate, but uninspiring tandem. The front seven returns intact, as the team re-signed Marcus Spears and brought on Kenyon Coleman to step in for Stephen Bowen. DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer will continue to provide pressure from the outside; and Ryan will need Spencer to elevate his play in order to run the aggressive system he's known for.

Defensive Line

Starters: DE Marcus Spears, NT Jay Ratliff, DE Kenyon Coleman
Backups: DE Jason Hatcher, DE Sean Lissemore, NT Josh Brent

Starting DL: A year ago Marcus Spears appeared to be the odd man out, as Stephen Bowen and Jason Hatcher were in higher regard. Yet this offseason the Cowboys let Bowen leave in free agency and re-signed Spears to a 5-year, $19mm contract. He will anchor one of the end positions while Kenyon Coleman (who played under Rob Ryan in Cleveland), will man the other side. Jay Ratliff is the Cowboys' star on the defensive line and is the only one who holds any fantasy value. Ryan has gushed about Ratliff's potential, and the intent is to use multiple fronts that give Ratliff the opportunity to use his speed and power-rushing skills more -- he's far too disruptive to be just a space eater. Ratliff is undersized, but gives great effort, is strong and quick off the ball.

Backup DL: In spite of losing Stephen Bowen to the rival Redskins, Dallas has compelling depth at the defensive end position. Jason Hatcher re-signed for another three years and will be on the field more than last year (he played primarily in obvious passing downs in 2010). Sean Lissemore is an effort player that will be embraced by the fiery Ryan. Depth at the tackle position is less favorable, with last year's supplemental draft choice Josh Brent penciled in as Ratliff's backup.

Linebackers

Starters: OLB DeMarcus Ware, ILB Bradie James, ILB Keith Brooking, OLB Anthony Spencer
Backups: OLB Bruce Carter [R], ILB Sean Lee, OLB Victor Butler, OLB Alex Albright

Starting LBs: DeMarcus Ware is one of the league's best defensive players. Last year he racked up 15.5 sacks, which is the 5th consecutive season he's notched double digits. In addition to being an elite pass rusher, Ware has turned into an effective run stuffer. Anthony Spencer may not be in Ware's class, but he's turned into an excellent two-way 3-4 OLB. He graded out as one of the top run defenders at his position last year, and added 5 sacks and 45 tackles. He'll get more chances to get after the quarterback under Ryan's amorphous system. The ageless Keith Brooking is entering his 14th season, and continues to hold his own. He's not an impact playmaker anymore, but he doesn't need to be. His job is to handle his assignments and tackle anything that comes into the middle of the field, and his 70 tackles last year illustrate an ability to do just that. Bradie James is a one dimensional 'backer. He plays the run exceedingly well, but can be thrown on and doesn't provide much pass rush.

Backup LBs: The Cowboys used a 2nd round draft pick on Bruce Carter, who projects as a starter in the future, but will likely have minimal impact in his first season as he recovers from a torn ACL. Sean Lee should see a bigger role in his second season, and could displace either Brooking or James sooner rather than later. Lee showed glimpses last year with a 2 interception performance against Peyton Manning and the Colts. He projects as a much better coverage 'backer, and will likely be on the field in obvious passing downs. Butler was the star of the preseason, and if he can sustain that level, the team will work hard to find snaps for him.

Defensive Backs

Starters: CB Terence Newman, SS Gerald Sensabaugh, FS Abram Elam, CB Mike Jenkins
Backups: CB Orlando Scandrick, CB Alan Ball, S Danny McCray, S Barry Church, CB Bryan McCann

Starting DBs: The Cowboys opted to keep Terence Newman and pay him $8 million this year, and when he's healthy that's a justifiable position. Unfortunately Newman is hurt, again, and will miss 4-6 weeks with a groin injury. Mike Jenkins is the starter on the other side and has a lot to prove after a terrible 2010 season. Jenkins was among the league leaders in touchdowns allowed, and ranked 2nd worst among qualifying corners by allowing a 122 passer rating to opposing QBs. Needless to say, he's not equipped to be the Cowboys CB1 if Newman misses significant time. The safety position is in a bit better shape. Gerald Sensabaugh re-signed and is effective. He had 5 interceptions last season and opposing QBs struggled to a 47.0 passer rating against him. Rob Ryan will have a familiar face manning the the other starting safety position, as Abram Elam hops from Cleveland to Dallas. Elam played strong safety in Cleveland, but will need to make the transition to FS in Dallas.

Backup DBs: Alan Ball was among the worst starting safeties in football last year, but was out of position. He has been moved back to cornerback, which is a curious move because he was unable to cover last year but was reasonably effective against the run. Orlando Scandrick played better than the starting corners last year, allowing only 52% of passes thrown against him to be completed, and the Cowboys rewarded him with a new long-term extension. He will need to match last year's productivity (3 sacks, 53 tackles) at a minimum if this defense is going to rebound.

Last modified: 2011-09-05 14:55:50

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