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2012 Team Report: Dallas Cowboys

Quarterbacks

Starter: Tony Romo
Backup(s): Kyle Orton, Stephen McGee, Rudy Carpenter

Starting QB: Tony Romo has nothing left to prove in the regular season. His legacy will be defined by whether he's able to carry the Cowboys to a Super Bowl over the next few seasons. While it's impossible to predict the future, Romo is arguably the most underappreciated quarterback in the league. Since becoming a starter in 2006, Romo has been a model of high efficiency. Romo's career 96.9 passer rating is second all time behind Aaron Rodgers, and he is among the league's best in yards per attempt (second), completion rate (fourth), and touchdown rate (second). Last year, Romo threw for 4,184 yards and 31 touchdowns against a modest 10 interceptions - which marks the fourth time in five seasons Romo has ranked as a top-10 fantasy passer.

Backup QB: Jon Kitna served admirably as the Cowboys backup in recent years, but he has finally decided to call it a career. The Cowboys added Kyle Orton as the new No. 2, which gives them one of the better backups in the league. Orton has starting experience on a number of teams and has been highly productive when surrounded with a strong supporting cast. Orton still considers himself a starter, but he opted to join the Cowboys in hopes of competing for a championship. Stephen McGee and Rudy Carpenter are developmental options, and neither is guaranteed a spot on the final 53-man roster.

Running Backs

Starter: DeMarco Murray
Backup(s): Felix Jones, Phillip Tanner, Darrell Scott
Fullback(s): Lawrence Vickers

Starting RB: When the Cowboys drafted DeMarco Murray last year, it was expected he would play a secondary role to Felix Jones and possibly earn a bigger piece of the offensive pie in future seasons. But Jones once again disappointed, and Murray was thrust into the starting role when Felix Jones got hurt - and made an impression no one will soon forget. Murray ran for 253 yards in his first start, and then set the tone with 20+ carries in five of first six starts. Unfortunately a broken ankle derailed a monstrous rookie campaign, but that should have no effect on his emergence as a bellcow in 2012. Murray was a workhorse at the University of Oklahoma, but critics pointed to his modest yards-per-rush as a warning sign that he couldn't find daylight against NFL defenses. A 5.47 yards per rush average a year ago proved the doubters wrong. Murray isn't just a productive runner, he's capable of catching a ton of passes too. Also, he is a fluid enough route runner that he can run patterns and not simply be a dump off outlet for Tony Romo.

Backup RBs: Felix Jones is due a little more than $1 million this year in the final season of his rookie contract, which means he should be in no danger of losing his roster spot. But his days as the future starter in Dallas are gone with the emergence of DeMarco Murray. Jones' best hope is to establish himself as a viable RB2 and parlay a strong season into an opportunity elsewhere in 2013. Jones is not without value, averaging a strong 5.1 yards per rush and 7.8 yards per reception during his career. But he's struggled staying healthy, and handling the pounding that comes with a steady NFL workload. Phillip Tanner has his supporters, and he would get an opportunity for 10+ touches per game if Jones is hurt or sent packing.

Fullback: The Cowboys signed Lawrence Vickers this offseason, and he'll serve as a part-time lead blocker for Murray and Jones. Vickers has just 79 offensive touches in six seasons, so he is only a minor threat to even show up in the box score in most weeks.

Wide Receivers

Starters: Miles Austin, Dez Bryant
Backups: Kevin Ogletree, Danny Coale (R), Dwayne Harris, Tim Benford (R)

Starting WRs: The Cowboys starting tandem of Miles Austin and Dez Bryant have a lot to prove in 2012. Austin has shown a disappointing regression in the last two seasons after his breakout 2009 season (1,320 yards and 11 TDs) as his receptions, yards and yards per reception have fallen in consecutive years. Austin only played 10 games a season ago due to hamstring troubles, and must do better this year to justify the commitment the team made to him financially two seasons ago; unfortunately Austin is again dealing with hamstring issues. When healthy, Austin is still among the NFC's more imposing targets, as his 6'3", 215 pound frame and fearlessness make for a compelling combination against opposing defensive backs. Austin is capable of fending off double coverage and can get over the top of backs when singled up. Dez Bryant's concerns have been off-the-field, as questionable financial decisions seemed to overtake his talents last offseason. But to Bryant's credit, he played well in his second season, improving across the board (63 receptions, 928 yards and 9 TDs) in spite of missing a game. The sky is the limit for Bryant, and perhaps a healthy offseason without a work stoppage will be the final piece to the puzzle that puts him into the All Pro level we've seen hints of in his first two years.

Backup WRs: Tony Romo could never have imagined how important Laurent Robinson would become a season ago. After four forgettable seasons in Atlanta and St. Louis, Robinson latched onto the Cowboys as a projected fourth or fifth receiver - but ended up leading the team in yards per reception (15.9) and touchdowns (11). Unfortunately Robinson parlayed that success into free agent riches in Jacksonville, which leaves the Cowboys in search of a reliable third option yet again. Rookie Danny Coale offers promise, but probably needs a year or two of seasoning before he can be entrusted with a key role. Kevin Ogletree may be the odds on favorite, but don't be surprised if Dallas adds a veteran as camp gets underway. Undrafted rookie free agent Tim Benford has flashed during the offseason, but he's likely going to be stashed on the practice squad.

Tight Ends

Starters: Jason Witten
Backups: John Phillips, James Hanna (R)

Jason Witten never seems to get the acclaim he deserves. Whether it's Antonio Gates or Jermichael Finley or Jimmy Graham or Rob Gronkowski, there is always some tight end that people consider the league's best in place of Witten. But when their careers are over, it's Witten that may stand the easiest claim to Hall of Fame consideration. The seven-time Pro Bowler has been a model of consistency, with five consecutive seasons of 900+ yards and 79+ receptions. If there's any knock on Witten, it's that he hasn't found the end zone as frequently as others (41 TDs in 143 games played), but then again he's a far better blocker than most of the other top tier TEs. At 30 years of age, Witten is crossing over into the latter part of his career, but he should have multiple seasons of dominance left, particularly when you consider he's never missed a game. All that said, Witten suffered a spleen injury in August and the team hasn't ruled out surgery yet. If surgery is required, Witten could miss a big chunk of the season, otherwise he should be ready to go by the second or third week of the season. John Phillips - a great blocker - returns as the backup, and rookie James Hanna will try to carve out a role in two-TE sets as another offensive option.

Place Kicker

Dan Bailey : Last summer the Cowboys roster was filled with competitors for the placekicking job. Dan Bailey emerged from the pack with the job and paid dividends. He made 32 of 37 (86.5%) field goals, including several game winners. He also proved capable in kickoffs, making David Buehler expendable during the offseason. His co-specialists will again be long snapper L.P. Ladouceur and punter/holder Chris Jones, who subbed in several games for injured Mat McBriar last year. This year, Jones takes over the job full-time. The Cowboys have ranked in the Top 10 in attempted kicking points in four of the past six years, including a seventh place finish last year.

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: Dwayne Harris, Felix Jones, Kevin Ogletree

The Cowboys return situation in 2012 is a murky one. In 2011, nine different player returned kick offs. Second-year wide receiver Dwayne Harris was used sparingly but turned in a few impressive performances at the end of the year returning kicks. Owener Jerry Jones may be faced with the dilemma whether to subject players like wide receiver Dez Bryant, running back Felix Jones, or cornerback Morris Claiborne to the extra injury risk.

Punt Returners: Dwayne Harris, Dez Bryant, Kevin Ogletree

Last year, the Cowboys failed to find consistency in this phase of the kicking game as well as six different players returned punts. Harris was less than effective as a punt returner, but he appears to be the current favorite for the job. Another punt returner option would be Kevin Ogletree who was re-signed to compete for the No. 3 receiver spot.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: LT Tyron Smith, LG Nate Livings, C Phil Costa, RG Mackenzy Bernadeau, RT Doug Free
Key Backups: G Derrick Dockery, T Jermey Parnell, G David Arkin, C Ryan Cook

UPDATE: Free agent addition Mackenzy Bernadeau is finally cleared to practice and can help settle a particularly unstable interior situation. Bernadeau can work at both right guard and center, as both positions have been thinned by injury. Overall this is a slight upgrade from the worst line the league to the third worst line, but it's a positive trend. PRESEASON OUTLOOK: Left tackle Tyron Smith played well at right tackle last season, and he played great at right tackle at Southern California. However, Smith hasn't played the left side for years and will need to adjust quickly to continue his upward career path. Smith is seen as a rising talent, and he does have Pro Bowl potential if he successfully makes this swap. Left guard Nate Livings was a good player for the Bengals and should be a reliable starter for the Cowboys right away. Center Phil Costa had a choppy season and will likely face competition from Bill Nagy and others for his job. Mackenzy Bernadeau was signed in free agency for decent money and was expected to start at either center or right guard. However, Bernadeau has been slowed by a hip injury this offseason, and that opens up the door for former small-schooler David Arkin to start at right guard as the season opens. Right tackle Doug Free was often overmatched at left tackle, but he is a better player than most realize. Free should find the sledding easier on the other side this season. It would not be surprising to see Free back at left tackle, however, should Smith find himself uncomfortable in that role. Swing tackle is somewhat of an open competition as Jermey Parnell will compete with undrafted rookies Levy Adcock from Oklahoma State and Jeff Adams from Columbia. The cohesion on the Cowboys line is not good, as they will have two new starters at guard and have swapped the tackles. Only Phil Costa returns as a starter in the same position from last year. New line coach Bill Callahan is one of the league's best line coaches, and he certainly will earn his paycheck this season. Overall, this line is somewhat of a mess. The Cowboys line could improve if Smith takes well to his new position and the interior of the line finds some consistency, hopefully with Bernadeau getting healthy and claiming a starting position.

Team Defense

The Cowboys plugged a huge hole in the secondary by moving up to acquire cornerback Morris Claiborne in the 2012 NFL Draft. Claiborne is a tremendous player and will instantly upgrade this defense. His ball skills are excellent, and he is a tremendous athlete. They also signed former Chief Brandon Carr. While Carr's tackling was down last year, he showed some great ball skills and was hard to slip a ball by. Those two moves alone were an impressive show of direction. Along the front seven, DeMarcus Ware continues to be a force, but the Cowboys (and fantasy owners) are still waiting for Anthony Spencer to reach the potential we've talked about for so long. The defensive line is solid, though not so much that you'd be shocked if rookie Tyrone Crawford got a shot. This defense took some real steps forward this offseason and looks poised to be a potent fantasy option in the coming season.

Defensive Line

Starters: DE Jason Hatcher, DE Kenyon Coleman, NT Jay Ratliff
Backups: DE Marcus Spears, DE Tyrone Crawford [R], DE Sean Lissemore, DE Clifton Geathers, DE Baraka Atkins, NT Josh Brent, NT Robert Calloway

Starting DL: There was some speculation that the Cowboys may move undersized nose tackle Jay Ratliff to defensive end in an attempt to cut down on his wear. However, it seems as though Ratliff will stay in the middle for now and receive occasional rests on first and second downs. Kenyon Coleman graded out as the third best 3-4 run defending end as he missed only one tackle last year. Jason Hatcher led all Cowboys linemen with 4.5 sacks, but he will continue to rotate out in running situations in favor of Marcus Spears. Like most 3-4 defensive lines, there is little here in the way of fantasy value. At one time, Ratliff was an IDP powerhouse, but his diminishing skills and overall reduction in playing time have turned him into waiver wire fodder even in the deepest of leagues.

Backup DL: Although not technically a starter, Marcus Spears rotated in quite heavily last season and continued to be a strong run defender for the Cowboys. Dallas will look to third-round selection Tyrone Crawford to fill a serious pass rushing void that is currently present along the front line of the defense. Josh Brent and Sean Lissemore both saw a significant increase in snaps as they were relied upon to take on some of the nose tackle duties from aging veteran Jay Ratliff. Expect more of the same this season.

Linebackers

Starters: ILB Sean Lee, ILB Dan Connor, OLB DeMarcus Ware, OLB Anthony Spencer
Backups: ILB Bruce Carter, OLB Victor Butler, OLB Kyle Wilber [R - Inj], OLB Alex Albright, ILB Caleb McSurdy [IR]

Starting LBs: Sean Lee was a big factor in the Cowboys marked improvement against the run last season. Lee led the defense in both total tackles (105) and interceptions (four) in his first full season as a starter. After playing a majority of last season injured, he will be heading into 2012 fully healthy and has stated that he's ready to become the leader of the defense. Top-10 level fantasy numbers are definitely in reach for this up-and-coming IDP stud. 2011 second-round selection Bruce Carter has reportedly been quite impressive in camp and has a good chance in beating out recently signed Dan Connor for the SILB position next to Sean Lee. For those in dynasty leagues, now is the time to scoop up Carter. He projects as a three down linebacker with LB2+ upside over the long-term. DeMarcus Ware continued to show why he's regarded by many as the league's top pass rusher with 19.5 sacks a year ago, running up his career total to 100. Anthony Spencer was quite solid against the run last season, but he remained extremely inconsistent when it came to rushing the passer. For this reason, the Cowboys were hesitant to give him a long-term contract and instead placed the franchise tag on him. Look for Spencer to improve upon his consistency and focus this year in an attempt to land a long-term deal with a team next season. He should be drafted as a LB4+ in the majority of IDP leagues.

Backup LBs: The Cowboys brought in run-thumping linebacker Dan Connor to further solidify the inside of their run defense. He is currently neck and neck with 2nd year player Bruce Carter for the starting inside linebacker spot opposite Sean Lee. If he does manage to win the job, he will be a two-down backer for Dallas and should be a solid fantasy contributor against run-heavy offensive teams. Look for fourth-round pick Kyle Wilber to get a decent amount of snaps later in the season after his broken left thumb is properly healed. Anthony Spencer is unlikely to be brought back next season, and the Cowboys may see Wilber as his eventual replacement. There's some sneaky dynasty fantasy value here considering he will be playing opposite DeMarcus Ware.

Defensive Backs

Starters: CB Brandon Carr, CB Morris Claiborne [R], FS Gerald Sensabaugh, SS Barry Church
Backups: CB Mike Jenkins, CB Orlando Scandrick, CB Mario Butler, CB C.J. Wilson, CB Justin Taplin-Ross, CB Troy Woolfolk, S Danny McCray, S Matt Johnson [R], S Mana Silva

Starting DBs: The Cowboys secondary was one of the worst in the league last season. Injuries, communication issues, and an overall lack of talent were all partially responsible for the team's highly disappointing season and disturbing fourth quarter collapses. With this said, the Cowboys made overhauling the defensive backfield their No. 1 off-season priority. The signing of two-time Pro Bowler Brandon Carr and the drafting of top cornerback prospect Morris Claiborne finally provides Dallas with two potential shut-down corners. Claiborne has the better fantasy value of the two and may benefit from the rookie corner rule as teams will likely test him early and often. He's not a superb tackler, however, so temper your expectations in that department. Gerald Sensabaugh has been solid, but not extraordinary during his time with Dallas. He will man the free safety position. Barry Church has impressed coaches this preseason and will enter the year as the starting strong safety for the Cowboys. What he lacks in speed, he makes up for in physicality and field presence. There won't be a ton of fantasy value for owners here however as Church may struggle to find tackle opportunity playing behind a very solid front seven.

Backup DBs: Mike Jenkins will see a significant reduction in playing time this year as Carr and Claiborne will start with Orlando Scandrick playing in the slot. Jenkins, a former first-round pick and 2009 Pro Bowl selection, has struggled mightily the last couple of seasons as he's had to deal with injury issues and an overall lack of coverage support from his surrounding cast. The Cowboys were rumored to be shopping Jenkins immediately following their selection of Claiborne; however no deal has yet to be made. Expect him to stay in Dallas and provide depth for the Cowboys in case of injury. Orlando Scandrick is a solid option as a slot cornerback but shouldn't be relied on for anything more. Matt Johnson was seen as a reach by some in the fourth round, but the Cowboys front office was intrigued by his big play ability which is something they have lacked out of a safety the last several seasons. He will be relegated to special teams play for the majority of the 2012 season and projects as a long-term, developmental-type player.

Last modified: 2012-09-02 15:22:06

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