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2013 Team Report: Dallas Cowboys

Quarterbacks

Starter: Tony Romo
Backup(s): Kyle Orton

Starting QB: Cowboys fans may have questions about whether Tony Romo is the right quarterback to return the once proud franchise to prominence, but owner Jerry Jones clearly does not have such doubts. In spite of back-to-back 8-8 seasons, the team rewarded Tony Romo with a 7-year, $115 million extension that includes a record $55 million guaranteed. In other words, he's a Cowboy for life. Statistically speaking, it's hard to argue with Romo's place among the elite. He's coming off a career best 4,903-yard season and has averaged more than 4,000 yards and 28 TDs passing since becoming a full-time starter in 2007. Romo ranks fifth all-time in passer rating, sixth all-time in yards per attempt, and sixth all-time in completion percentage. Armed with a monster contract and greater say on the weekly game planning, the only question that remains - and it's a huge one - is whether Romo can elevate his game at the most pivotal moments; whether it be a key fourth quarter drive or in the throes of a playoff run.

Backup QB: Kyle Orton enters his second year in Dallas and remains one of the league's better backup quarterbacks. Orton has starting experience on a number of teams, and has been highly productive when surrounded with a strong supporting cast. At 30 years old, Orton understands his time as a full-time starter is behind him, but is no doubt ready to perform at a high level should an injury befall Tony Romo. Orton saw limited action in 2012, but looked sharp - completing 9 of 10 passes with one touchdown.

Running Backs

Starter: DeMarco Murray
Backup(s): Joseph Randle [R], Phillip Tanner, Lance Dunbar
Fullback(s): NONE

Starting RB: After an impressive yet injury plagued rookie season, DeMarco Murray was supposed to emerge in 2012 as a dominant feature back. Unfortunately Murray was plagued by a combination of injury and a porous offensive line, and his sophomore season disappointed on every level. He only played in 10 games, ran for just 683 yards and his yards-per-rush average fell from 5.5 as a rookie to a pedestrian 4.1 last year. In spite of the struggles, the team is counting on Murray to assert himself as an offensive cornerstone this year. From a talent perspective, Murray has much to offer. He has the size (6'0 and 213 pounds), speed and vision to break long runs, particularly once he gets into the second level of defenders. Murray is also an adept receiver, collecting 60 receptions over 23 games. The biggest questions are whether the Cowboys did enough in the offseason to improve the offensive line, and whether Murray can string together a full 16-game slate.

Backup RBs: The Cowboys gave up on the Felix Jones experiment, letting Jones leave via free agency. Jones' departure was understandable given his chronic underachievement, but the Cowboys are left with more questions than answers at the running back position. Lance Dunbar looked like a man possessed for much of training camp and outclassed rookie Joseph Randle; he looks to have the #2 role locked up provided he can protect the ball. That said, a sprained left foot in will keep him sidelined for three to four weeks, and in his absence Randle can redeem himself. Randle still has a potential role but needs to show more toughness and instincts before winning the coaches over.

Fullback: The Cowboys released Lawrence Vickers in July and appear set to go without a traditional fullback this season.

Wide Receivers

Starters: Dez Bryant, Miles Austin
Backups: Terrance Williams [R], Dwayne Harris, Cole Beasley

Starting WRs: The starting tandem of Miles Austin and Dez Bryant had a lot to prove entering last season, and ultimately it was a tale of two seasons. On a positive note, Dez Bryant emphatically silenced his critics but emerging as one of the NFL's top pass catchers. Bryant caught 92 passes for 1,382 yards and 12 touchdowns and was routinely able to beat double coverage. The physical tools were always there, but the mental aspects of the game finally clicked. As long as Bryant stays healthy, there's no reason to think he won't rate among the league's best receivers. Miles Austin's season ended up on the negative side of the ledger, reinforcing the criticisms that he cannot stay healthy. Although Austin played in 15 games, his effectiveness was limited by hamstring, hip and ankle issues. It's been four years since Austin broke out with his own 1,300-yard season, and he has regressed since. Austin had to restructure his contract in February to guarantee a roster spot, and now Austin controls his own destiny. Austin looked sharp in the preseason, and is healthy. If he can stay on the field he'll remain a fixture for years to come. Another down season though and Austin may be looking for a new home in 2014.

Backup WRs: The Cowboys struck gold two seasons ago with Laurent Robinson but lost him after one season to a ridiculous contract with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Robinson failed to live up to his free agent riches, but his absence was still sorely felt by the Cowboys in 2012. Kevin Ogletree was the Cowboys most productive backup with just 32 receptions - and he's no longer on the roster. Dwayne Harris and Cole Beasley return, but only had a combined 32 receptions for 350 yards and 1 touchdown a year ago. Dallas selected Terrence Williams in the third round of the April draft and will hope for an early contribution. Williams is a rangy receiver out of Baylor who profiles initially as a vertical threat, but showed enough on film to think he can develop into a well-rounded NFL starter in time. The best case scenario for the Cowboys is for Williams to solidify the WR3 role in 2013, with an eye toward competing for a starting role opposite Dez Bryant in a season or two.

Tight Ends

Starters: Jason Witten
Backups: Gavin Escobar [R], James Hanna, Andre Smith

At this point it's apparent Jason Witten is never going to be truly appreciated until his career is over and he's getting the nod for Canton. It seems that no matter what the 10-year veteran does is never enough to earn Witten consideration as the league's top tight end. For years Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez got that distinction, and now Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham get the adoration. Yet it's Witten that delivers the goods, both as a receiver and a blocker, year in and year out. Last preseason Witten needed emergency spleen surgery and there were doubts about his availability for the beginning of the season. Yet, he played all 16 games (for the sixth consecutive season) and delivered a monstrous season of 110 receptions for 1,039 yards. If there's one critique of Witten's game, it's his inability to find the end zone having scored just 44 times in 159 games. End zone woes aside, Witten remains Tony Romo's most trusted target and offensive linchpin. The backup roles remain unclear although James Hanna and rookie Gavin Escobar appear the logical choices to make the 53-man roster.

Place Kicker

Dan Bailey: Kicker Dan Bailey may not have a bunch of game-winning kicks last year like he did in his rookie season, but he was even more accurate in 2012, hitting 29 of 31 (93.5%) on field goals. His co-specialists will again be long snapper L.P. Ladouceur (re-signed in February) and punter/holder Chris Jones. After back-to-back years in the top ten in attempted kicking points, the Cowboys slipped to 16th last year.

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: Dwayne Harris, Joseph Randle, Terrance Williams

Dallas was a particularly valuable return game for fantasy in 2013 as a poor defense bred quantity of returns which intersected with quality in the person of Dwayne Harris. The Cowboys star returner's 30.6 yard average on kickoff returns was second only to Cordarrelle Patterson. Expect Harris to continue on as the Cowboys returner, and the question marks left about the Cowboys defense may lead to another standout year. His backups are likely to again be Joseph Randle and Terrance Williams.

Punt Returners: Dwayne Harris, Cole Beasley, Dez Bryant

In addition to being able to boast being the second most effective kick returner last year, Dwayne Harris had the fifth best punt return average in the league. Harris should handle the bulk of the returns in any game that he is healthy for. As with kickoff returns, the backups are not likely to change, with Cole Beasley waiting in the wings if needed.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: LT Tyron Smith, LG Nate Livings, C Travis Frederick, RG Mackenzy Bernadeau, RT Doug Free
Key Backups: T Darrion Weems, T Jermey Parnell, G Ronald Leary, G David Arkin, C Phil Costa

The Dallas Cowboys offensive line is led by former first round pick Tyron Smith. Smith had a rocky transition to left tackle but got better as the year finished. A top athlete, Smith could perform at a near Pro Bowl level on the blind side. Left guard Nate Livings was a free agent addition prior to last season but the coaches are making it known they are not satisfied with the quality at either guard position. Livings is likely to survive his challenge from former undrafted free agent Ronald Leary. The Cowboys drafted Wisconsin center Travis Frederick in the late first round, which some have dubbed a reach. Frederick didn't work out well at the combine but he comes from a fine school for linemen and has been a prominent prospect for years. The latest word has Frederick sliding over to guard as the Cowboys may want to move on from Mackenzy Bearnadeau more than they want to move on from Phil Costa. Ryan Cook should be the backup center again this season. The right tackle position is turning into a situation as Doug Free reportedly has refused to take a pay cut. This is a calculated position by Free, as the Cowboys may not be comfortable turning the position over to Jermey Parnell quite yet. As most free agent right tackles have reached agreement with other teams, Free seems likely to keep his starting position. Darrion Weems and David Arkin are two developmental names that the Cowboys believe have a chance to contribute. Bill Callahan is a talented offensive line coach, and will try his best to get the youth up to speed. Overall this line can improve if the youth is served and they try to improve on the status quo.

Team Defense

Despite bringing in key new additions, Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne, the Cowboys defense actually digressed from 2011 as they were 14th in total yards allowed per game and fell to 23rd in points allowed per game. This said, defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was fired in just his 2nd season with the team. To be fair however, the Cowboys were severely snake-bitten on defense with Sean Lee and Bruce Carter both suffering season-ending injuries and DeMarcus Ware significantly hampered throughout the majority of the season with a shoulder issue. Dallas is bringing in legendary defensive coordinator Monte Kiffen and his Tampa 2 style defense, which will mean a scheme change from a 3-4 to a 4-3. As long as they can stay healthy and Ware and Spencer can make the transition from linebacker to end, expect the Cowboys defense to be much improved. They have the player talent and coaching staff to have one of the top front sevens in the NFL. The main area of concern remains their secondary. Although the secondary showed signs of improvement from 2011 moving up from 23rd in passing yards allowed to 19th, their pass defense was still mediocre at best. The lack of quality and depth at the safety position especially was exposed after several injuries befell them early in the season. The team is hoping that Barry Church and Matt Johnson can play well enough to keep opposing offenses at bay. However, this group is likely what prevent the Cowboys from being an elite level team defense.

Defensive Line

Starters: LDE Anthony Spencer, LDT Jay Ratliff, RDT Jason Hatcher, RDE DeMarcus Ware
Backups: DE Kyle Wilber, DE Tyrone Crawford [inj], DT Sean Lissemore, DE Monte Taylor, DT Nick Hayden, DT Ben Bass, DT Landon Cohen, DE George Selvie

Starting DL: The move back to a 4-3 defense has the most significant impacts on DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer as they will now be faced with the task of converting from standup outside pass-rushing linebackers to hand in the dirt defensive ends. Spencer enjoyed a breakout season last year with close to 100 total tackles and 11.5 sacks. Ware was hindered by a nagging shoulder injury nearly the entire season, but still managed 11 sacks. At age 30 and coming off off-season shoulder surgery, he does carry some risk. However, we need to give him the benefit of the doubt, and draft him as a low-end DL1, top level DL2. Jay Ratliff will move to the more suitable three-technique position this year, a position in which Jerry Jones thinks he will flourish. The fact of the matter is that he hasn't been a dominant force for the last couple of seasons and isn't a player we should draft unless we are playing in very deep DT-required leagues. Jason Hatcher was arguably the Cowboys best defensive lineman last year as he posted a respectable 54 total tackles and got to the quarterback four times. Look for him to build upon those figures come this season.

Backup DL: The Cowboys likely won't rotate their linemen as much as they have in previous seasons now that they are switching to a 4-3 scheme. However, the season-ending Achilles injury suffered by 2nd year player Tyrone Crawford is a big blow to an already undersized front four. Kyle Wilber will slide down from OLB to DE this season as Dallas likes his size better at that position. Sean Lissemore will rotate in at defensive tackle behind Ratliff and Hatcher and it wouldn't be a surprise to see him see an increase in year over year playing time.

Linebackers

Starters: WLB Bruce Carter, MLB Sean Lee, SLB Justin Durant
Backups: ILB Alex Albright, OLB Ernie Sims, OLB DeVonte Holloman [R], ILB Cameron Sheffield, OLB Caleb McSurdy

Starting LBs: The one silver lining in the Sean Lee injury was that it allowed 2nd year player Bruce Carter to get experience in running the defense. He showed during the several games he played before suffering a season-ending elbow injury that he was capable of playing at a Pro Bowl level. Now that both players are close to 100% healthy, the Cowboys will have a serious one-two punch at MLB and WLB in Monte Kiffen's Tampa 2 style defense. Lee and Carter are both great fits for this defensive scheme and should flourish in their new roles. Lee should be drafted as a LB1 with Carter making a nice high upside LB3 option. Justin Durant was brought in on the cheap to serve as a stop-gap player at strong side linebacker.

Backup LBs: With all the injuries to the Cowboys linebacker core last year, Alex Albright and Ernie Sims both saw a good amount of playing time. Neither player is overly talented and probably won't factor much into the outcome of many games. DeVonte Holloman was selected in the 6th round out of South Carolina and will bring coverage experience as a reserve outside linebacker for the Cowboys.

Defensive Backs

Starters: LCB Brandon Carr, SS Will Allen, FS Barry Church, RCB Morris Claiborne
Backups: CB Orlando Scandrick, S Matt Johnson,S Danny McCray, S J.J. Wilcox [R], CB Sterling Moore, CB B.W. Webb [R], S Brandon Underwood, S Micah Pellerin

Starting DBs: It's been quite some time since the Cowboys secondary as produced a worthwhile fantasy candidate and that's not likely to change this season. Both Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne played well last season, but still only managed 4 interceptions between them. Tackle opportunities figure to be low for the safeties playing behind a very proficient group of tackling linebackers. This is an area to avoid for fantasy purposes.

Backup DBs: As previously called out, there is very little, if any, fantasy value to be had within the Cowboys secondary. J.J. Wilcox could figure to become a contributor down the road, but it's not likely to happen this season. Scandrick will continue to serve as a nickel corner with rookie B.W. Webb fighting for a reserve role.

Last modified: 2014-05-15 15:53:44