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2015 Team Report: Dallas Cowboys

Quarterbacks

Starter: Tony Romo
Backup(s): Brandon Weeden

Starting QB: Entering his 10th season as a starter, Tony Romo is well positioned to build off of last year's MVP-caliber season. In 2014, Romo brushed off worries about his back following offseason surgery to produce arguably his best season. He led the NFL in completion percentage (69.9%), TD rate (7.8%), yards per attempt (8.5), passer rating (113.2) and QBR (82.75). Not that anyone should have questioned his place among the NFL's elite, but last year helped dispel the doubters who argued he never delivered 'in the clutch.' He led the Cowboys to a 12-4 record, a division title, and a playoff win. Thanks to the best offensive line of his career, an innovative play-caller in Scott Linehan, and one of the league's dominant receivers (Dez Bryant), Romo is poised to push for another NFC East crown in 2015.

Backup QB: Brandon Weeden started one game in 2014, and was serviceable in Romo's stead -- completing 59% of his passes for 303 yards, 3 TDs against 2 interceptions. A strong armed passer with no fear of the deep ball, Weeden can navigate Scott Linehan's offense effectively enough to keep the Cowboys competitive should Romo get hurt. But his erratic decision-making and tendency to force balls into tight coverage would also be exposed over extended playing time. Weeden is a good, but not great NFL backup.

Running Backs

Starter: Joseph Randle
Backup(s): Lance Dunbar, Darren McFadden, Christine Michael
Fullback(s): Tyler Clutts

Starting RB: The Cowboys enter the 2015 season with uncertainty at a position that was among the team's key strengths in 2014. DeMarco Murray departed in free agency, which was shocking considering he led the NFL in rushing yards (1,835), rushing TDs (13) and total yards (2,261). Once Murray left for division rival Philadelphia, most expected the Cowboys to pursue a trade for the likes of Adrian Peterson, or at the very least draft a rookie to compete for the job. Instead the team has committed to Joseph Randle, or have they? Randle is enigmatic because he flashed ability last season (6.7 yards per carry) but was frequently rumored to be in the coaches' doghouse. An up and down preseason leaves uncertainty as we get ready for the regular season.

Backup RBs: Darren McFadden has name recognition, and was coveted by Jerry Jones coming out of college, but it's unreasonable to expect the 7-year veteran to carry a heavy workload. McFadden started just 63 of 112 possible games as a Raider, and has averaged just 3.3 yards per carry over the last three seasons. Predictably, he's already hurt and has missed the bulk of training camp. Lance Dunbar brings an impressive attitude and work ethic to the huddle, but is a player with limitations. He'll play a 3rd down and change-of-pace role; nothing more. The dark horse is Christine Michael; acquired in early September from Seattle. Michael was once considered the heir apparent to Marshawn Lynch but struggled to displace Robert Turbin as the RB2. Now he has to learn a new system, but on sheer talent may be the best running back on the roster.

Fullback: Tyler Clutts has won the fullback competition.

Wide Receivers

Starters: Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams
Backups: Cole Beasley, Devin Street, Lucky Whitehead [R]

Starting WRs: Dez Bryant avoided a lengthy contract dispute by agreeing to a 5-year, $70mm deal at the July negotiating deadline. With that out of the way, Bryant can focus on dominating opposing defenses as he did in 2014. Last year, Dez led the NFL with 16 touchdowns to go along with 88 receptions and 1,320 yards. He has few, if any, physical equals in the league and plays with fluidity and aggression. Off-the-field concerns resurfaced this offseason, but nothing tangible emerged from the rumors. Terrance Williams enters his third season with a lot to prove. Expectations for a breakout 2014 never materialized. It's not that the 6'2", 208-pound pass catcher regressed -- it's that he certainly didn't improve. Players aren't supposed to plateau in their 2nd year. At worst, Williams gives the Cowboys a credible deep threat (16.8 yards per reception, 13 TDs) opposite Dez Bryant. At best, Williams refines his route-running and extends his catch radius, providing Tony Romo with a fully formed 3rd option behind Bryant and TE Jason Witten.

Backup WRs: The Cowboys are dangerously thin at receiver. Cole Beasley mans the slot but would be outmatched in a full-time role on the outside. Devin Street (7 receptions as a rookie) will get every opportunity to earn a larger role but doesn't project as an impact player. Undrafted rookie Lucky Whitehead has opened eyes in camp, but will make his living primarily as the kick returner.

Tight Ends

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

If Father Time is catching up with Jason Witten, the box score hasn't figured it out. Entering his 13th season, Witten remains a consistent cog in one of the NFL's top offenses. The good news is Dallas didn't have to rely on Witten as much in 2015 thanks to an emergent ground attack. His targets (90), receptions (64) and yards (703) are 8-year lows but his yards-per-catch (11.0) and catch rate (71%) were in-line with his career marks. Witten is an effective two-way tight end that can, and does, stay on the field. He and Romo have an undeniable rapport and he remains the key option in the middle of the field. Gavin Escobar has flashed (13.3 yards per reception, 6 touchdowns) in two seasons, but has only managed 18 catches in 32 games. Rookie Geoff Swaim and James Hanna both made the final roster.

Place Kicker

Dan Bailey: Bailey finished in the top 10 PK's in scoring yet again despite the Cowboys giving him almost twice as many extra point attempts as field goal attempts. If the offense falls off just a little bit in touchdown efficiency, Bailey could get into the top 5 kickers, which is where he is being drafted. He hasn't fallen below 124 points scored in any year of his career, and Bailey has also been very accurate from 50 yards or longer in the last two years, making 11 of his 14 attempts. He also kicks indoors nine times this season. If you're going to take a kicker before the last round, Bailey is one of the few worth looking at.

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: Lucky Whitehead [R], 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. Safety J.J. Wilcox and receiver Cole Beasley are two options, though Beasley is likely a better fit as a punt returner. Speedster Lucky Whitehead started out atop the first depth chart but Lance Dunbar earned the nod at the start of the season. After Dunbar was lost for the season, Darren McFadden filled in briefly before becoming the primary running back. Lucky Whitehead is now seeing most of the returns in Dallas.

Punt Returners: Lucky Whitehead [R], Cole Beasley

Cole Beasley returned 10 punts for Dallas in 2013 but a lack of explosiveness contributed to Dwayne Harris taking over all returns in 2014. While Dez Bryant practices returning punts, it will likely be an emergency situation for him to handle one in a game. Rookie Lucky Whitehead has a 16.4 yard per return average in college last year and was behind Beasley for much of the season but has begun to see more returns on punts now.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: LT Tyron Smith, LG Lael Collins, C Travis Frederick, RG Zack Martin, RT Doug Free
Key Backups: T Darrion Weems, G Ronald Leary, G Mackenzy Bernadeau, G Donald Hawkins, T Chaz Green [R], T Lawrence Gibson [R]

In half of the games last year, quarterback Tony Romo was sacked once or less. Romo ended up throwing for more yards than any other quarterback in the league. A great deal of that success was due to the offensive line, and specifically, left tackle Tyron Smith. Smith made his second All Pro team, and is blooming into one of the best blind side protectors in the league. The line also featured well above average play from center Travis Frederick and right guard Zach Martin. These players are on the cusp of Pro-Bowl level play. With the addition of UDFA superstar La'el Collins, the Cowboys could have a really special unit on their hands. Collins was going to be a mid first round pick, prior to all sorts of legal red flags that appeared the week of the draft. Collins was eventually cleared and the Cowboys got a potential starter without spending a draft pick. The logical position for Collins is left guard, replacing Ron Leary. I am comfortable projecting Collins as a starter at this time, although he definately has to beat out the veteran. If Collins can win this job and reach his potential, he could be a dominant player. Certainly the team will give him every opportunity to win a starting job. In the future, Collins could also compete at right tackle where Doug Free currently does an underrated job. Bottom line, the Cowboys have one of the best lines in the league, and if Collins can play like the first rounder he was projected to be, a further upgrade to the top of the ranks is entirely possible.

Team Defense

The Cowboys defense that was supposed to be historically bad last year actually had a few respectable performances. Those came mostly on the back of a running game and offensive line that gave the Cowboys ideal game scripts to defend, and that could be an issue this year with no Demarco Murray or suitable replacement for him on the roster. Still, second-round pick Randy Gregory could be an instant impact player on the defensive line, along with 2014 second-round pick Demarcus Lawrence. 2015 first round pick Byron Jones should be an excellent addition on passing downs. Greg Hardy will miss more than half of the season unless his 10-game suspension is reduced, so his impact could be minimal. More than any personnel additions on defense, though, the state of the running game will be the determinative factor in whether we can get usable weeks for DFS and streaming out of a Cowboys defense that finished in the middle of the pack last year.

Defensive Line

Starters: DE Greg Hardy (suspended), DE Demarcus Lawrence, DE Randy Gregory, DT Tyrone Crawford, DT Nick Hayden
Backups: DE Jeremy Mincey, DE Ryan Russell, DE Jack Crawford, DT Terrell McClain, DT Ken Bishop

Starting DL: Despite a serious lack of big name talent along the defensive front, the Cowboys line managed to hold up well last year - particularly against the run. They failed to generate a ton of pressure against opposing quarterbacks however registering only 20.5 sacks as a unit. The additions of Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy and blue chip rookie Randy Gregory will surely help provide a boost to those numbers. Second year player DeMarcus Lawrence showed flashes of above average starter potential in the team's two playoff games last year and figures to be a key part of the defense moving forward, particularly early on in the year while Greg Hardy serves out his four game suspension. From an interior perspective, Tyrone Crawford was perhaps the team's best lineman last year and should see the bulk of playing time at the three technique position. Nick Hayden is the incumbent in the other tackle spot, so he figures to have the early edge on that position heading into training camp. Although the coaching staff likes his durability and intelligence, he's one of the leagues worst interior linemen grading out poorly against both the run and pass. With the relative depth they have outside, expect to see the Cowboys kick their ends inside frequently to help cover this area.

Backup DL: Jeremy Mincey was the team's most productive pass rusher with five sacks last season and should see starter-like snaps between end and tackle early on in the season as Demarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory work to build up their snap counts and Greg Hardy serves out his four game suspension. Fifth rounder Ryan Russell lacks the "star power" of fellow rookie teammate Randy Gregory but brings the physical traits and size teams often look for in a defensive end. The Cowboys will look to coach him up over the next few seasons in the hopes he becomes a solid rotational player. On a per snap basis, Jack Crawford was the most productive of all Big D linemen - garnering 2 sacks in 142 snaps. With Henry Melton departing in free agency and the Cowboys failing to bring in replacements, look for Crawford to see a good bump in playing time. He's a dark horse candidate for five to six sacks this season.

Linebackers

Starters: MLB Rolando McClain [suspended], WLB Sean Lee, MLB/SLB Anthony Hitchens, SLB Kyle Wilbur
Backups: ILB Damien Wilson, LB Mark Nzeocha, WLB Keith Smith, LB Andrew Gachkar

Starting LBs: 2014 was definitely a carousal-type of season for the Cowboys at linebacker. Starters Sean Lee and Justin Durant both went down with season-ending injuries and starting MLB Rolando McClain struggled to stay healthy down the stretch as well. There is a silver lining for Dallas coming out of that situation, however. The multitude of linebacker injuries allowed for rookie Anthony Hitchens to receive ample playing time across all three linebacker positions. He will look to leverage that experience heading into the 2015 season where he will be called upon to fill in as the team's starting middle linebacker while Rolando McClain serves out his four game suspension. All reports are saying Sean Lee is ahead of schedule in his road back from knee surgery. In order to preserve his health, the team is moving him to the weak side where he figures to be the team's most productive player (assuming he stays healthy). Lee is the only lock to be an every-down linebacker at this point. Kyle Wilber will man the strong side for the first quarter of the season and will likely return to a reserve role in Week 5 upon Rolando McClain's return.

Backup LBs: Given the myriad of injury issues the Cowboys have had at linebacker, the team focused on shoring up their depth at the position. Andrew Gachkar was brought in to serve as a special teams ace and will vye with Kyle Wilber for the top backup linebacker spot. Dallas also spent two picks on linebackers Damien Wilson and Mark Nzeoacha in this year's draft. The former has a better chance of making an impact long-term, but the general consensus and sentiment coming into the draft was that he was a backup caliber NFL linebacker. All in all, the Cowboys possess a solid, but not spectacular set of reserve backers.

Defensive Backs

Starters: CB Brandon Carr, CB Morris Claiborne, SS Barry Church, FS J.J. Wilcox, CB Orlando Scandrick [IR]
Backups: CB Tyler Patmon, CB Byron Jones, CB Corey White, CB Robert Steeples, FS Jeff Heath, S Keelan Johnson, S Danny McCray

Starting DBs: The secondary continued to be Dallas' weakest unit last year as they ranked near the bottom in passing yardage allowed and interceptions (26th in both). That said, the team spent their first round draft choice on athletic dynamo Byron Jones out of Connecticut who set the world record in the standing broad jump at 12-feet-3 inches. His ability to play in press coverage should give Dallas some much needed flexibility in terms of deploying different defensive coverage schemes. Orlando Scandrick evolved into the team's best cornerback over the last couple seasons but will miss the entire 2015 season with a torn ACL. Brandon Carr has largely been a disappointment since coming to Dallas in 2012 on a hefty, 50 million deal. However, the team is still very thin at the position and is therefore willing to carry his salary for another year. The injury to Orlando Scandrick forces Morris Claiborne back into the starting lineup. He's been a huge bust since being selected with the 6th overall pick in the 2012 draft but will get one last chance to prove himself this year.

Backup DBs: Corey White was claimed off waivers from the Saints and can fill in at multiple cornerback positions if needed, though he's no lock to make the final roster. Danny McCray was brought back to serve on special teams.

Last modified: 2015-11-10 19:20:03