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2014 Team Report: Dallas Cowboys

Quarterbacks

Starter: Tony Romo
Backup(s): Brandon Weeden, Dustin Vaughan

Starting QB: Last offseason Tony Romo was awarded with a monster contract extension that assured he would be a Cowboy for life. In spite of that, it seemed many expected the Cowboys to bring in someone like Johnny Manziel to at least create a competitive environment. As we know, that never happened. Romo will be back under center for his ninth season as the starter. While Romo's position in the pantheon of NFL quarterbacks is hotly contested, few would argue that, statistically, he's elite. A career 65% passer (6th all-time), Romo is accurate and prolific. Last season, in spite of missing a game, Romo threw for 3,828 yards and 31 touchdowns against only 10 interceptions. The best news for the talented veteran passer was the Cowboys addition of new play-caller Scott Linehan. Linehan has coordinated NFL offenses in Minnesota, Miami, St. Louis and Detroit -- and is best known for his ability to optimize quarterbacks. Marc Bulger, Matthew Stafford and Daunte Culpepper all enjoyed career seasons under Linehan's watch.

Backup QB: Dallas acquired Brandon Weeden via trade this offseason, and he will be handed the #2 role now that Dallas has decided to release Kyle Orton. Weeden's ascension is not necessarily a great thing for the Cowboys offense. He has a strong arm, and is fearless, but that gunslinger mentality is also what made him an ineffective starter in Cleveland. Rookie Dustin Vaughan made the 53-man roster after a strong preseason.

Running Backs

Starter: DeMarco Murray
Backup(s): Joseph Randle, Lance Dunbar
Fullback(s): Tyler Clutts

Starting RB: DeMarco Murray finally delivered on his considerable promise. The talent has never been a question. 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 and more than adequate pass protector. After two injury plagued seasons, Murray set career highs with 217 carries for 1,121 yards (5.2 yards per rush), 9 rushing touchdowns and 53 receptions for 350 yards and a receiving touchdown. Murray gave the Cowboys offensive balance for the first time in years, and was among a handful of true 3-down runners in the league. Platitudes aside, Murray's legacy hasn't been completely vindicated. Minor injuries caused Murray to miss another two games, and the Cowboys limited his workload; he ranked 18th in rushing attempts. There's no question Murray will be a focal point of the offense this year as long as he stays healthy, but the Cowboys must establish compelling alternatives in the likely even Murray misses time.

Backup RBs: New OC Scott Linehan has his work cut out for him trying to figure out the RB pecking order beyond DeMarco Murray. Joseph Randle and Lance Dunbar return, but neither impressed in limited 2013 action. Randle started the two games Murray missed, and averaged less than three yards per carry. He looked like a plodder and lacked drive at the point of attack. Nevertheless, Randle will be given a chance to impress his new coach and rekindle the excitement Cowboys brass had when they drafted Randle last spring. Lance Dunbar enters his third season without much of a resume. At 5'8", 191 lbs. Dunbar lacks the size to handle a major workload, and yet his skill set hasn't argued for a regular third down role. He has just 13 catches for 92 yards in 21 appearances.

Fullback: Clutts will serve as the main blocking back.

Wide Receivers

Starters: Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams
Backups: Dwayne Harris, Cole Beasley, Devin Street [R]

Starting WRs: Dez Bryant didn't quite match his 2012 breakout season, but he came close. In 2013, Bryant dominated the league yet again with 93 receptions for 1,233 yards and 13 touchdowns. Entering his fifth season, Bryant is one of the league's best receivers and the offensive gem of the Cowboys passing attack. At 6'2", 225 lbs., Bryant can physically outmatch virtually any defensive back. That's to say nothing of his precise route-running, aggressiveness at the point of attack, or blistering speed. Most importantly, Bryant's once-notable maturity concerns have died down. Bryant will have a new partner in the starting lineup, as Terrance Williams steps into the #2 spot after an encouraging rookie season. Williams caught 44 passes for 736 yards and 5 touchdowns while starting eight games. Williams should take a natural step forward in his second season, and benefit greatly from a preseason of starter reps; remember Miles Austin held down the number two role last preseason. Williams provides the Cowboys with a vertical threat on both sides of the lineup -- he averaged 16.7 yards per catch in 2013; among the best in the NFL.

Backup WRs: Dallas is in desperate need of a talent infusion beyond the projected starters. Cole Beasley led all returning backups with 39 receptions, but only averaged 9.4 yards per reception. He can be an effective but ordinary slot option. Dwayne Harris caught nine passes and averaged 8.9 yards per catch. Simply put, neither offers enough to credibly start in place of either Bryant or Williams in the event of an injury. Rookie Devin Street is raw but has an opportunity for an early role.

Tight Ends

Starters: Jason Witten
Backups: Gavin Escobar, James Hanna

It seems every year NFL observers discount Jason Witten in favor of the flavor of the month. Whether it's Jimmy Graham or Julius Thomas or Rob Gronkowski or Vernon Davis or Antonio Gates before them, there's always an uber-athletic tight end that gets people's attention. Yet it's Witten that not only provides the Cowboys fantastic offense, he also provides elite pass protection and run blocking. At 32 years old, Witten is in the twilight of his career, but there are no signs he's due for a major falloff. Last year Witten caught 73 passes for 851 yards and 8 touchdowns. He has been, and will continue to be Tony Romo's most trusted outlet. Escobar is a big target with soft hands who is just getting the hang of blocking with some effectiveness. He and speedy #3 tight end James Hanna should benefit from the hiring of former Giants TE coach Mike Pope.

Place Kicker

Dan Bailey: After kicker Dan Bailey’s third straight impressive season (28 of 30, 93.3% on field goals, including 6 of 7 from 50+ yards in 2013), the Cowboys gave him a 6-year contract extension this past offseason. Both his co-specialists are back, however both will be challenged for their jobs by undrafted rookies. Long snapper L.P. Ladouceur will be pressed by Casey Kreiter (Iowa), one of the top snapping prospects in this year’s class. Punter/holder Chris Jones faces Cody Mandell (Alabama). Over the past five years, the Cowboys have ranked in the upper half of the league in attempted kicking points: 12th, 8th, 7th, 16th and 12th last year.

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: Lance Dunbar, J.J. Wilcox, Cole Beasley

Dwayne Harris departing to the division rival Giants in free agency leaves a gaping hole in the Cowboys special teams unit. Harris handled almost every return in 2014, and the majority in 2013 as well. The lack of ideal candidates on the roster may give Lance Dunbar a chance to land the return job. Dunbar has handled 15 returns for Dallas, most of them in 2012, though only has a 22.3 yard career average. Safety J.J. Wilcox and receiver Cole Beasley are two other options, though Beasley is likely a better fit as a punt returner.

Punt Returners: Cole Beasley, Terrance Williams, J.J. Wilcox, Lance Dunbar

Cole Beasley returned 10 punts for Dallas in 2013 but a lack of explosiveness contributed to Dwayne Harris taking over all returns in 2014. Beasley may be at the top of the list now if the Cowboys are wary of exposing starting receivers Dez Bryant and Terrance Williams to the extra injury risk.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: LT Tyron Smith, LG Zack Martin [R], C Travis Frederick, RG Mackenzy Bernadeau, RT Doug Free
Key Backups: T Jermey Parnell, T Darrion Weems, G Ronald Leary, G Ronald Patrick [R]

Coming off his first All-Pro season, left tackle Tyron Smith has fully lived up to his high draft status and is the cornerstone of the Cowboys offensive line. Smith should have an easier job this season, as first round pick Zack Martin should slot in next to him at that left guard position from day one. While it is theoretically possible that Martin could get reps at right tackle (some scouts believe he can also play guard and even center), Martin actually is more likely to unseat one of the current guards for the week one starting lineup. I am picking left guard Ronald Leary to lose his job for the purposes of this preseason ranking but it could just as easily be right guard Mackenzy Bernadeau. Neither of these players are above average starters and Martin would be an instant upgrade over both. The appeal of Martin is he’s super solid and can start at any position right away. Second year center Travis Frederick is coming off an encouraging rookie campaign, where he seized a starting job and never looked back. Frederick has the look of a player who will man the position for many seasons to come. Right tackle Doug Free bounced back from a seriously terrible 2012 campaign to be among the league’s better right tackles (believe it or not). It bears watching to see if Free can maintain his 2013 form or if he will lapse back into bad habits. In terms of depth, Jermey Parnell and Darrion Weems are interesting names who could face competition from the bevy of undrafted free agents brought in after the draft. South Carolina guard Ronald Patrick is an example of one to watch. Overall, this line has taken serious strides forward and has risen in the rankings to the cusp of the top ten in the league. This line can get better if Doug Free keeps his recent form and they find more consistency at the guard spot that isn’t taken by Zack Martin.

Team Defense

A Cowboys defense that struggled in 2013 could be even worse in 2014. They lost their best player in DeMarcus Ware and replaced him with a rookie in DeMarcus Lawrence who will now be on the shelf for 8-10 weeks due to a broken foot suffered in training camp. Henry Melton should shore up the interior but Lawrence is going to have to be an impact player in his rookie year if this team is going to get a consistent pass rush. With Sean Lee set to miss the entire 2014 season, the linebackers are another below average unit. The Cowboys made no improvements to a secondary that struggled mightily in 2013, instead hoping that a change in schemes would solve their problems. The key to any improvement will be Carr and Claiborne proving correct the theory that they'll both be better in man coverage. If that's true, this defense has a chance to be improved, but more than likely they are set up again to be one of the league's worst.

Defensive Line

Starters: DE George Selvie, DE DeMarcus Lawrence [R], DT Henry Melton, DT Nick Hayden
Backups: DE Jeremy Mincey, DE Anthony Spencer, DE Tyrone Crawford, DE Ben Gardner [R], DT Ben Bass, DT Terrell McClain, DT Ken Bishop [R]

Starting DL: The loss of seven time Pro Bowler DeMarcus Ware and last year's breakout defensive star Jason Hatcher left the Cowboys with perhaps the weakest front four in the league early this off-season. The signing of Henry Melton does help fill a huge void on the interior line but that remains only a small piece of the puzzle they need to solve. Melton, a Texas native, will be reunited with old defensive coach Rod Marinelli and has the potential to be a top-tier fantasy defensive tackle if the rest of the line can keep some of the double teams away from him. The Cowboys surrendered their 2nd and 3rd round picks in this year's draft to move up and grab Boise State prospect DeMarcus Lawrence. Unfortunately, he's going to miss the first month to month and a half of the season with a broken foot. That said, journeyman retread Jeremy Mincey will see the lion's share of snaps at end until Lawrence returns and could provide owners with decent DL4+ value for the first few weeks of the season. George Selvie, a former 7th round draft choice of the Rams, was signed off the street by the Cowboys last year during the off-season. He turned out to be a key addition to a beleaguered Dallas defensive line, registering 39 tackles and seven sacks. He will continue to serve as a rotational strong side end likely splitting snaps with Tyrone Crawford. Nick Hayden rounds out the starting front four for Dallas and is a player who will once again be relied on to play 800+ snaps, which is a scary fact for the Cowboys considering Hayden graded out as the 150th out of 151 defensive tackles last season. Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli is renowned for getting the most out of his linemen and was able to make the best of a bad situation last season. It looks like he's got his work cut out for him again this year as the Cowboys defensive line unit is currently the weakest in the NFL.

Backup DL: Due to the uncertainty and inexperience of the starting lineman, the Dallas backups will likely be called upon to see more snaps than your typical backups. After receiving little to no interest on the open market, Anthony Spencer was brought back on a one year deal; however, he will start the season on the PUP list as he recovers from off-season micro-fracture surgery on his knee which leaves doubt surrounding how much he will be able to contribute moving forward. Tyrone Crawford is a player who could wind up becoming a solid contributor along the line if he has a strong preseason and can stay healthy.

Linebackers

Starters: MLB Rolando McClain, OLB Bruce Carter, OLB Justin Durant
Backups: OLB Kyle Wilbur, OLB DeVonte Holloman [I], OLB Anthony Hitchens [R], OLB Martez Wilson, OLB Caesar Rayford, OLB Will Smith, OLB Jonathan Stewart, OLB Cameron Lawrence, MLB Orie Lemon

Starting LBs: With Sean Lee out for the season with a torn ACL, the Dallas linebacking crew is shaping up to be one of the more questionable units in the league. Rookie Anthony Hitchens has seen time at the MLB position and recent off-the-street signing Rolando McClain actually projects to be the Week 1 starter. Both of these players are certainly in the mix for snaps. 4th year player Bruce Carter has struggled to stay healthy and has missed significant chunks of playing time during his career. Despite being an above average coverage linebacker, he really struggled against the run last year. So much so, he was demoted to backup for a handful of games in favor of journeyman linebacker Ernie Sims. With Sean Lee out of the picture, the Cowboys will depend on Carter to improve his play and become the every down player they envisioned when drafting him. Justin Durant has supplanted himself as the starter on the strong side for the time being. Although nothing special, he brings a veteran presence and experience to a very young and inexperienced unit. All in all, this is a unit I would mainly steer clear of in shallow fantasy IDP leagues until we get more clarity on the situation.

Backup LBs: Similar to their other defensive units, the Cowboys are quite thin depth-wise at the linebacker position. DeVonte Holloman showed brief flashes of starter potential while filling in during the season finale last year, but has basically all but retired due to a serious neck injury. Rookie Anthony Hitchens and Kyle Wilber will both see a good amount of snaps as the Cowboys plan to use a heavy rotation early in the season to see what works for them on the field. 7th round selection Willi Smith will likely just contribute on special teams during his rookie season.

Defensive Backs

Starters: CB Morris Claiborne, CB Brandon Carr, FS Barry Church, SS J.J. Wilcox
Backups: CB Orlando Scandrick, CB B.W. Webb, CB Sterling Moore, CB Terrance Mitchell [R], SS Jeff Heath, FS Matt Johnson, S Ahmad Dixon [R], FS Jakar Hamilton,

Starting DBs: The Cowboys secondary struggled mightily to defend the pass last season, giving up a whopping 287 passing yards per game. Granted the dysfunction of the rest of the defense put unnecessary and unsustainable pressure on the defensive backs, but Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr need to step up their game in 2014. The switch to more man-to-man coverage under new defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli should help them as both were asked to play against their strengths last year in zone coverages. From a stat sheet perspective, there was perhaps no greater surprise last year than Barry Church who registered a ridiculous 127 total tackles (100 solo) and 3 forced fumbles - mighty impressive for an undrafted player out of Toledo. Although we may see some regression in those numbers, Church has a great chance to be a top 5 fantasy DB again this year considering how weak the Dallas front seven projects to be in 2014. Dallas Cowboys secondary coach Jerome Henderson said FS J.J. Wilcox is the leading candidate for the starting free safety job this upcoming season but he's likely to see some competition from Matt Johnson and Jeff Heath.

Backup DBs: Orlando Scandrick has quietly developed into one the Cowboys' best secondary players and has carved out a role for himself as a slot corner. He'll be a skey player for Dallas once he returns from a four game suspension. Despite being a 7th round choice, rookie Terrance Mitchell is a player who may vie for playing time this season. Considered a day two prospect, the Cowboys got great value in Mitchell as the 3rd to last pick in the draft. His skill-set is more suited to the outside versus the slot, but that doesn't necessarily mean he won't see time there this year. 3rd year safety Matt Johnson is a player the Cowboys remain intrigued by despite the fact he has yet to appear in an NFL regular season game. He's a small school prospect with big play making ability, but he remains a long shot to contribute. Jeff Heath started in a few games for the Cowboys in place of an injured J.J. Wilcox, but struggled in pass coverage and did not do much to distinguish himself as much other than a reserve type safety. Rookie Ahmad Dixon should have an immediate impact on special teams and could get into the mix at safety due to the youth and inexperience on the roster.

Last modified: 2015-05-03 20:49:41