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2016 Team Report: Dallas Cowboys

Quarterbacks

Starter: Dak Prescott [R]
Backup(s): Tony Romo [Injured], Mark Sanchez

Starting QB: How quickly things can change. A few weeks ago Prescott was a raw but talented rookie that would be groomed slowly and given a chance to eventually push for a starting job in a few years once Tony Romo's career had come to an end. Then, an injury to Kellen Moore forced Prescott into the #2 role and he thrived all preseason. He was so electric Dallas opted against signing a veteran quarterback to replace Moore. Then, in the 3rd preseason game, Tony Romo broke a bone in his back and will miss significant time. Prescott appears set to be the Cowboys starting quarterback far sooner than many hoped. While his preseason play has been illuminating, it's important to remember he's been seeing plain vanilla defense schemes.

Backup QB: Tony Romo is 36 years old and his latest injury is a crushing blow for a franchise that already knows what it's like to take the field without him. Dallas fell from 5th in points in 2014 to 31st last year, but the hope is Dak Prescott (and a healthy Dez Bryant) will leave the team in better standing. The Cowboys insist Romo will be able to return mid-season, but time will tell. When healthy, he's among the most accurate passers in the game -- as exhibited by his ranking in the top 5 all time for passer rating, yards per attempt and completion rate. If Prescott struggles, which is entirely possible, Mark Sanchez could step in as a veteran placeholder until Romo returns.

Running Backs

Starter: Ezekiel Elliott [R]
Backup(s): Darren McFadden, Alfred Morris, Darius Jackson, Lance Dunbar
Fullback(s):

Starting RB: In an era where the running back position has become commoditized, it was refreshing to see the supremely talented former Ohio State Buckeye given his due on draft weekend. Dallas selected Elliott with the 4th overall pick, and in doing so immediately handed him the reins to a rushing offense that should be at or near the top of the league standings. Elliott gets the privilege of running behind the league's best offensive line -- the same line that saw DeMarco Murray lead the NFL in rushing two seasons ago. Elliott is a powerhouse runner who should be a fixture in the lineup and play in all subpackages. While fantasy owners will be thrilled with his running abilities, the coaches will also love his natural gifts as a blocker. Barring injury and new developments in his off-the-field legal situation, Elliott will run away with the Rookie of the Year honors and has the chance to lead the league in rushing. He's that talented and the system and situation are ready made for success.

Backup RBs: Darren McFadden appeared washed up last year, signing with Dallas after seven seasons in Oakland. It had been five seasons since McFadden ran for 1,000 yards and was considered a long shot to be the starter behind Joseph Randle. As the season wore on, McFadden dispelled the critics and delivered a solid season. He ran for 1,089 yards (4.6 per carry) and caught 40 passes for 328 yards. McFadden's reward for his strong play were the additions of Ezekiel Elliott and Alfred Morris. Elliott is going to be the centerpiece of the offense, and Alfred Morris has been far more impressive than McFadden this preseason. Morris is the handcuff and has shown he'll be an effective workhorse running behind the Cowboys line if given the opportunity. Darius Jackson may push McFadden for a roster spot after a strong preseason.

Fullback:

Wide Receivers

Starters: Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams
Backups: Cole Beasley, Lucky Whitehead, Brice Butler

Starting WRs: The Cowboys offense fell off a cliff last year (from 5th in points in 2014 to 31st in 2015) and Dez Bryant's injuries were a major factor. Bryant has established himself as one of the truly dominant receivers in the league, but must shake off a disappointing and injury plagued 2015. Bryant had a second bone graft in January to repair his broken foot, the same injury that robbed him of seven games and limited his effectiveness otherwise. The good news is Bryant has been a full participant in camp. Bryant is in his prime (27) and has evolved into an astounding route runner to complement his physical instincts at the point of attack. Terrance Williams will start opposite Bryant and must continue to improve his game. Entering his fourth season, Williams has improved each year but at an incremental rate. Last season he set career highs in catches (52) and yards (840) but only scored three touchdowns and simply couldn't take over in games despite the absence of Dez Bryant. It's fair to say Williams is miscast as the top target, but should help the offense as an effective number two.

Backup WRs: Cole Beasley led the Cowboys with 5 receiving touchdowns last year and provided stability to an offense that was without key cogs for much of the season. He'll return to his normal role as the primary slot receiver, but in Jason Garrett's offense that makes him effectively a third starter. Beasley compensates for less-than-ideal size with lateral quickness and glue-like hands (71% career catch rate). Butler outplayed Devin Street in the preseason to earn the #4 role. Lucky Whitehead is on the roster because of special teams.

Tight Ends

Starters: Jason Witten
Backups: Gavin Escobar, James Hanna, Geoff Swaim

Jason Witten enters his 14th season as a sure-fire future Hall of Famer. His 1,020 career catches ranks 10th all time and he needs only 75 grabs this year to vault into #5 (ahead of Tim Brown, Terrell Owens, Reggie Wayne, Andre Johnson and Isaac Bruce). He already ranks 2nd among tight ends in yards (11,215) and 5th in touchdowns (60). While some will say Witten is on the decline, the numbers don't bear that out. Last year he was targeted 104 times for 77 catches, 713 yards and three touchdowns. Although those numbers are down a bit from previous seasons, it's important to remember Tony Romo missed 3/4ths of the season and the offense sputtered to a 31st place finish. There's no question he will deliver another above average season both as a receiver and blocker with the healthy return of his long-tenured quarterback. Depth is a concern for the Cowboys as neither Gavin Escobar (8 for 64) nor James Hanna (9 for 79) distinguished themselves last season.

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: Lance Dunbar, Lucky Whitehead

The starting kickoff returner to open the season, Lance Dunbar suffered an early season-ending injury and opened the door for punt returner Lucky Whitehead to take over kickoffs, too. Whitehead remains the favorite to retain the job, especially with a touchdown on his first kickoff return of the preseason.

Punt Returners: Lucky Whitehead, Cole Beasley

Dallas returns both its top punt returner from 2015, Lucky Whitehead, and his top backup, Cole Beasley. With no major competition brought in so far, look for the dynamic to remain unchanged in 2016.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: LT Tyron Smith, LG La'el Collins, C Travis Frederick, RG Zack Martin, RT Doug Free
Key Backups: Joe Looney, Ronald Leary

The Cowboys boast three current All-Pro's (Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin), a feat unmatched by any other team this season. In fact, in the brief history of the offensive line rankings, it has only happened one other time. The fact that the team also returns all five starters from last season, in all of the same spots, give them a huge advantage in cohesion. Add it up and the Cowboys are far and away the best line in football. Even the two players that aren't All-Pro's, left guard La'el Collins and right tackle Doug Free, are at least above average. Collins especially has serious physical upside and was responsible for several memorable pancakes last season. Doug Free will be backed up by Charles Brown and Collins will be backed up by Ronald Leary but the team hopes these players don't have to participate. Should they all stay healthy, the Cowboys' running attack should be memorable this season. Tier Ranking: Top Tier.

Defensive Line

Starters: DE Demarcus Lawrence (suspended), DE Randy Gregory (suspended), DT Tyrone Crawford, DT Cedric Thornton
Backups: DE Benson Mayowa, DE Ryan Russell, DE Charles Tapper [R], DE David Irving, DT Maliek Collins [R], DT Terrell McClain, DT Jack Crawford

Starting DL: Even with the addition of Greg Hardy, the Dallas pass rush was below average in 2015. They only managed 33 sacks and were second to last in defensive hurries with a paltry 71. Demarcus Lawrence took a big leap forward in his sophomore season and was one of the lone bright spots up front for the Cowboys. However, the team will be extremely thin upfront to start the season with Lawrence and Randy Gregory suspended at least four games and ten games, respectively. This said, rookies Charles Tapper and Maliek Collins will likely see a fair amount of playing time over the first half of the regular season. Cedric Thornton was brought in from Philadelphia to play the 1-technique role. He's an above average run defender and should serve as a significant upgrade over Nick Hayden at the position. He may even see some time at end early on to help cover the lack of depth outside. With a stable two-gapping presence inside, Tyrone Crawford will be able to return to what he does best - rushing the passer from the inside. Expect defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli to utilize a heavy rotation of bodies. Even if the Cowboys can get the most out of their high upside rookies and developmental players such as David Irving continue to progress, they will likely still be a below average NFL unit in 2016.

Backup DL: Due to their reliance on a heavy rotation up front, Dallas has one of the deeper defensive reserve fronts in the NFL. In recent years, the team has employed a strategy of seeking out lesser known players who have elite measurables relative to their size. Rookies Charles Tapper and Maliek Collins are both great examples of this fact. The 270+ pound Tapper ran a 4.50/40 and had the highest SPARQ score of any defensive lineman. Many draft pundits were referencing him as one of the bigger steals of the draft. Collins projects as a high upside 3-technique. He needs to improve his play against the run, but with the right coaching, he can make an impact as a pass rusher as soon as this year. David Irving was signed off of the Chiefs practice squad in late September and has become an intriguing developmental prospect for the Cowboys. Benson Mayowa was signed as a restricted free agent from the Raiders and will eat up some snaps while Lawrence and Gregory serve out their suspensions.

Linebackers

Starters: MLB Rolando McClain (suspended), WLB Sean Lee, SLB Anthony Hitchens
Backups: MLB Andrew Gachkar, SLB Justin Durant, LB Mark Nzeocha, WLB Damien Wilson, SLB Kyle Wilber, LB Jaylon Smith [R], MLB Keith Smith, LB Ka′Lial Glaud, LB Jerrell Harris, LB Derek Akunne

Starting LBs: The Cowboys finished in the bottom half of the league in terms of run defense, allowing over 120 yards rushing per game. They were particularly poor in power/short yardage situations. If the offense can control the ball like they did in 2014, their run defense should show improvement. For a player annually plagued by injury, Sean Lee missing only two games last year may be considered a success by many within the organization. When on the field, he was one of the league's most productive players registering a tackle on 15.8% of snaps played which led the NFL. His ability to stay healthy will be critical to the success of the defense. MLB Rolando McClain has revitalized his career since joining the Cowboys in 2014 but another failed drug test will cost him the first 10 games of the season and potentially his roster spot. Dallas could opt to move third your player Anthony Hitchens to the middle of the defense as he's proved a capable player in that role when filling in for McClain in past seasons. The team could also decide to move Sean Lee back to his old position at middle linebacker, but are likely trying to avoid that scenario as he's a greater health risk there. The third starting linebacker spot will be an open competition between Andrew Gachkar, Damien Wilson, Mark Nzeocha, and newly-signed veteran Justin Durant. Expect Lee and Hitchens to be the two every down linebackers.

Backup LBs: In one of the bigger surprises of the draft, the Cowboys selected Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith with the 34th overall pick in this year's draft. Smith was widely regarded as college football's top linebacker and a consensus top 5 selection before tearing his ACL and LCL in January's Fiesta Bowl. There is some concern that Smith may never play again due to nerve damage suffered in his knee. The Cowboys' team doctors are the same that performed Smith's surgery, so they feel particularly close to his injury and recovery. He's unlikely to play in 2016, but if everything heals properly, he should be ready to go for the 2017 season and has All-Pro potential. That is a big if, however. The rest of the reserve linebacker group isn't nearly as exciting. With Rolando McClain suspended for the first 10 games of the season and his role with the team in question, one of the team's reserves will need to step up and fill his role for a good majority, if not, all of the season. At this point in the year, there is not clear front runner to replace McClain. Kyle Wilber saw the most playing time of the bunch but still only logged 225 snaps. He's a former defensive end who brings some pass rush ability and holds up well enough against the run but is likely slated for more of a situational role. Andrew Gachkar served as one of Dallas' key special teams players last year but has enough experience to carve out some serious playing time for himself with a good camp. Second year players Damien Wilson and Mark Nzeocha are also in the mix for that starting position but may be at a disadvantage due to their inexperience. Justin Durant started 12 games with the 'Boys between the 2013 and 2014 seasons and is a favorite of defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli. Although he's the oldest player of the bunch and on the downturn of his career, he's very familiar with the scheme and is figures to have a decent shot at snagging the starting role.

Defensive Backs

Starters: CB Brandon Carr, CB Morris Claiborne, CB Orlando Scandrick, SS Barry Church, FS Byron Jones
Backups: CB Anthony Brown [R], CB Ayodeji Olatoye, CB Terrance Mitchell, FS J.J. Wilcox, FS Jeff Heath, SS Kavon Frazier [R]

Starting DBs: Given their general lack of talent at the cornerback position, it's a bit surprising that Dallas was one of the better secondaries in terms of passing touchdowns and yardage allowed. However, it's important to note that they had the 2nd fewest pass attempts against. When you take that into account and look at other metrics such as opposing QB passer rating, they become more of a middling secondary. Brandon Carr has been a disappointment considering the Cowboys originally agreed to pay him $50 million dollars over five years. He recently took a pay cut to stay on the team and will once again be an every down starter at corner. In a similar vein, Morris Claiborne has failed to live up to expectations since being drafted with the 6th overall pick back in 2012. He's struggled with injuries over the last 3 seasons and is heading into a make or break season for his career. Orlando Scandrick mans the slot for Dallas and was their best cornerback heading into 2015. However, he missed the entire season with an ACL injury. He's on track to be healed in time for training camp and will provide a much needed boost to the secondary. Bryon Jones had a stellar rookie campaign especially considering he was forced to bounce between cornerback and safety all season. The Cowboys plan is to move him to free safety permanently; however, he may be required to fill in at cornerback if a starter gets injured. Barry Church will continue to man the strong safety position. He's filled up the box scores in the tackle department over the last three years but is a borderline NFL starter.

Backup DBs: With the emergence of Byron Jones, former two year starter J.J. Wilcox will move into a reserve safety role. Although he's been adequate against the pass, he's been a major liability in run defense. He will likely only see major playing time again if an injury occurs in the secondary. Jeff Heath will return as a key special teamer. Rookies Anthony Brown and Kavon Frazier were both late-round picks but possess high upside athleticism. Frazier is the more likely of the two to turn into a potential starter but will need time to develop as he was a one year starter at a Mid-American conference school. Terrance Mitchell and Ayodeji Olatoye are both below average NFL players and are not ensured a spot on the final 53 man roster.

Last modified: 2016-09-04 23:14:22