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Roster Roundouts ’10: A Dallas Cowboys Season Preview

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Dallas Cowboys (projected finish: 11-5)

Team synopsis: The Cowboys are already dealing with multiple injuries on their offensive line.  LG Kyle Kosier is out for the season opener vs. Washington, and RT Marc Columbo might be as well.  Will this mean anything?  It might, if more hits on QB Tony Romo result in missed games for the quarterback.  We saw that happen in 2008, and that year’s 9-7 record was not good enough to make the playoffs.  Provided that Romo stays healthy, the Cowboys should have just enough depth on the OL to overcome rampant injury and muster some semblance of a running game to help Tony Romo complete downfield passes.  The Cowboys can win a lot of games this year with Romo, but the dropoff to backup Jon Kitna is greater than the dropoff between any non-Peyton Manning starter in the league.  And if there’s anything that is certain this year, it’s that Romo is going to get hit, and often.

Best Players

  • QB Tony Romo (signed — Eastern Illinois/2003 undrafted free agent)
  • RB Marion Barber (drafted — Minnesota/2004 2nd round pick)
  • WR Miles Austin (signed — Monmouth/2006 undrafted free agent)
  • TE Jason Witten (drafted — Tennessee/2003 3rd round pick)
  • LG Kyle Kosier (signed — Detroit/2006 free agent)
  • C Andre Gurode (drafted — Colorado/2002 2nd round pick)
  • RG Leonard Davis (signed — Arizona/2007 free agent)
  • NT Jay Ratliff (drafted — Auburn/2005 7th round pick)
  • LB DeMarcus Ware (drafted — Troy/2005 1st round pick)
  • LB Anthony Spencer (drafted — Purdue/2007 1st round pick)
  • CB Mike Jenkins (drafted — USF/2008 1st round pick)

Best Prospects

  • RB Felix Jones (drafted — Arkansas/2008 1st round pick)
  • RB Tashard Choice (drafted — Georgia Tech/2008 4th round pick)
  • WR Dez Bryant (drafted — Oklahoma State/2010 1st round pick)
  • WR Kevin Ogletree (signed — Virginia/2009 undrafted free agent)
  • TE Martellus Bennett (drafted — Texas A&M/2008 2nd round pick)
  • LB Sean Lee (drafted — Penn State/2010 2nd round pick)
  • S Akwasi Owusu-Ansah (drafted — Indiana (PA)/2010 4th round pick)

The Cowboys’ prospects are made up of players from this draft, and undeveloped players from the 2008 draft.  In between, there was the 2009 draft, or more specifically, Roy Williams, who came over from Detroit in 2007 for a first, third, and a sixth round pick.  Fantastic.  Now, just to get two players to develop a year, they need 5 out of those 7 prospects to become quality starters.  And Martellus Bennett is blocked by one of the league’s best TEs.

Fantasy owners and league executives alike are really excited about Felix Jones’ potential, especially after averaging 5.9 yards per carry last year.  I can say this about Felix Jones: here’s a guy who has really been given every possible opportunity to make a difference for the Dallas Cowboys in the last two years.  For all of his promise, Jones has yet to rush for 700 yards in a season.  Here’s a guy who I think might fail to rush for 1,000 yards at any point in his career, and six or seven years down the road, people will still be espousing about his great promise.  Jones sets up his blocks well, and he’s very dangerous on the edge, and he makes people miss — but Jones can’t really stay healthy, and both Marion Barber and Tashard Choice strike me as the kind of guys you’d want in the backfield as more complete players anyway.

Choice might be the best of the three.  He doesn’t run as violently as Marion Barber, but like him, he’s a threat out of the backfield, and he seems to be a lot quicker in and out of his cuts.  The fact that Choice is only relevant when others are hurt is emblematic of the big issue with the Cowboys: when Jerry Jones makes the decisions, the team is built in his image.  It’s loaded with talent, and the most marketable players will play, if not necessarily the best.

Along these lines, the Cowboys spent their first overall pick on a college Cowboy, Dez Bryant, the best wide receiver in the draft.  That’s unquestionably a good pick by Jones and his staff.  But Bryant will be buried this year, because the Cowboys aren’t ready to part ways with Roy Williams, now in his third season with the team, and no closer to working positively with Tony Romo to help win games.  Miles Austin clearly emerged as the number one receiver last year, but only because he emerged so obviously and forcefully that the Cowboys couldn’t possibly bury him any more.  It would have been easy and beneficial for the Cowboys to take Williams’ reps and give them to Austin, but Williams didn’t lose nearly as much of his role in the offense as did Jason Witten and Patrick Crayton.  The fact that Williams is back should scare Cowboys fans.  Romo has a great rapport with Witten, Crayton, and Austin.  Passes to Roy Williams always seem to be uncatchable and off the mark.  Williams isn’t ready to blame Williams just yet for that, but he might be the only one left.

The team was also trying to work TE John Phillips into the offense before he was lost for the season with an ACL tear.  That’s a blessing for Martellus Bennett, who is quickly falling out of favor with Romo and Jason Garrett.  He’s now still in the plan, as the Cowboys love to use multiple TE sets.  But Bennett may just have this season to make good on the promise he displayed as a rookie.  There’s only one football, and you know, Austin, Williams, Bryant, Crayton, Ogletree, Sam Hurd, Witten, and three running backs to feed.  Bennett cannot afford to stay 11th on the Cowboys offense pecking order, and still make a difference, especially when Austin is the only one making the most of his plays.  Jason Witten is still very, very good, but his role is being cut by pure circumstance, not by a decline in skill.

And then theres the offensive line, where Doug Free is drawing plenty of acclaim and criticism for his job replacing Flozell Adams on the front line.  Free’s not the problem here, he’s just a guy who will line up at left tackle and need help against the best pass rushers in the division: Brian Orakpo, Trent Cole, Andre Carter, and Matthias Kiwanuka.  The problem is on the other side, where 6th round rookie Sam Young is stepping in for Marc Columbo at RT right now.  That, and the left guard while Kosier is out is Montrae Holland, who was freely available for any team after the draft who wanted to sign him.  No one did.  He’s back with the Cowboys, and now could potentially start on a playoff team.  The Cowboys OL depth is better than last year, but more importantly, four of the five starters are a year older, and that depth which was irrelevant last year — except for Free — is going to play a lot this year.

That’s a lot of words on what is wrong with the Cowboys.  I still have them winning 11 games and making the playoffs.  So there’s plenty that is right with the Cowboys, namely, Tony Romo.  Romo is on a loaded offense, and yet, he’s the best player on it at any position.  As long as Romo is in the lineup, the Cowboys go into every game with a good chance to win.  When he’s out, they would not be favored over any team in the division, and perhaps not any game on the schedule.

The defense also appears to be something that is right.  It’s a watered down version of the Ravens defense.  The front seven is it’s strength, the secondary is a weakness.  The Cowboys have two good cover corners, Mike Jenkins and Terence Newman, and a good nickelback in Orlando Scandrick, so corner is not an issue.  Safety, however, is a big issue.  Neither Gerald Sensabaugh or Alan Ball is a league average player.  They have a single prospect in Akwasi Owusu-Ansah, the team’s fourth round pick, a college corner being converted to safety in the pros.  That’s a large learning curve that puts his career in doubt, even if the player is more that talented enough to make the jump.  Michael Hamlin is the backup strong safety, and could be in the mix to start for Sensabaugh around mid season.  Pat Watkins is just a special teamer, and wouldn’t play defense before someone the Cowboys might sign due to injury.

This whole defensive group should remain pretty healthy.  Marcus Spears does appear to be spending his final year on the Cowboys as a backup, with Stephen Bowen and Jason Hatcher battling for one spot, Spears will back up Igor Olshansky on the other side.  An undrafted rookie from Illinois, Josh Brent has been making noise in camp, and could beat out Marcus Dixon for the last spot on the defensive line.  The Cowboys will back up Jay Ratliff with Junior Siavii at nose tackle.  These guys simply aren’t the same body type or player.  If DeMarcus Ware got hurt, the Cowboys would replace him with Victor Hobson, play the same scheme, and accept the loss of an elite player.  If Ratliff gets hurt, the entire Cowboys base defense changes.  They cannot afford to lose him.

Speaking of Ware, his sack totals dropped to 11.0 after leading the league with 20.0 in 2008.  If 11 sacks is a down year, you’re doing pretty well for yourself.  His sack totals should see a bump this year thanks to a full season contribution from Anthony Spencer on the other side.  The Cowboys moved Greg Ellis out last offseason to try to spur Spencer’s growth, and it didn’t work out at first.  Ware didn’t have a sack in his first four games.  Spencer didn’t have one in his first ten.  But from that point, they were a great complement for one another.  They combined for 10 sacks in the final six games, 6 of which were actually Spencer’s.  And one of those six games, Ware left with a neck injury, and neither had a sack.  If Spencer and Ware can somehow muster a two sack per game pace over the season, they will split 32 sacks, and once you add in Ratliff’s contribution Dallas will have their best defense since the Parcells days.

A lot of responsibility in the run game relies on inside linebackers Keith Brooking and Bradie James to be stout at the point of attack.  They were in 2009, after a down year from James and Zach Thomas in 2008.  Brooking is unlikely to have such a season again, but the Cowboys added Sean Lee, a linebacker in the same mold, in the draft.

The defensive weakness is against the pass, particularly in the middle of the field.  Neither ILB is much of a pass coverage player, and neither safety is really going to challenge opposing tight ends and receivers down the field.  With strong corners, teams will likely go to this well again and again against the 2010 Cowboys.  There may not be a better option.

Fighting for a spot on the roster

Receiver on the Cowboys may be the most tightly contested roster position in the entire NFL this summer.  If Dez Bryant and Kevin Ogletree split fourth receiver duties this year (Bryant will likely also split third receiver duties with Crayton, and second with Roy Williams), then Sam Hurd is pushed to the bubble.  This season, Jesse Holley, who once won this competition, has really shown a knack for making plays on special teams.  That’s what you want from your sixth receiver.  The Cowboys have already tried to aggressively trade Hurd — who is a good player, by the way — so he could be a late release or trade.  Though, the Cowboys have plenty of special teamers, so they might keep Hurd as the sixth receiver.

Phillips’ injury has opened up a new hole at third TE, where undrafted TE Scott Sicko is now competing with Jason Pociask and DajLeon Farr to make the Cowboys.

The Cowboys could keep up to five offensive tackles.  Last year’s third rounder, Robert Brewster, hasn’t impressed.  Neither has Alex Barron, who came over in a trade with the Rams.  Sam Young has impressed, and appears to be safe as the backup RT.  The big hole on the offensive line appears to be depth at center.  It is unclear who would play if Andre Gurode could not.  Travis Bright is listed as the first backup on the depth chart.  If he makes the team, that is.  Perhaps the Cowboys could try Brewster inside?  Pat McQuistan could be a two position backup, but would need to beat out Bright to make the roster.  Phil Costa, an undrafted rookie from Maryland, is in the mix as well.

Behind Ware, Spencer, and Butler, Steve Octavian and Brandon Williams, the latter a rookie from Texas Tech, are locked in a position battle for the fourth OLB spot.  Jason Williams, an inside linebacker from Western Illinois, has rare straight line speed, and will take that speed to special teams, and could hold off Sean Lee as the backup ILB this season.

The Cowboys like CB Cletis Gordon as their fourth corner, which puts corner Jamar Wall in a bit of a bind.  The 6th round pick from Texas Tech is in a tight battle with undrafted rookie Bryan McCann (SMU) for the final roster spot in what appears to be a ten-man secondary.

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