10. Morris Claiborne: I think Brandon Carr will be the better player in 2012, and the Cowboys now have good depth at CB this season, but with Mike Jenkins almost assuredly being on another team in 2013, Claiborne needs to get his NFL sea legs his rookie season. Speaking of Carr, (and I should note that this is not me saying that signing Carr was a bad idea), he’ll average a cap hit of about $10 million per season over the next 5 years. Anthony Spencer will count $8.8 million against the cap in 2012. And neither player makes this list.
9. Jay Ratliff: The soon to be 31 year old Ratliff may already be in decline, but he’s still one of the best NTs in the game. Ratliff’s backup is Josh Price-Brent, a player that I actually like, but we just haven’t seen all that much of. While Ratliff’s production is down sharply over the last two years (14.5 sacks in 2008-09, 5.5 in 2010-11), he is still very active and capable of getting to the QB on a team that doesn’t have many players capable of getting to the QB.
8. Sean Lee: This should be a big year for Sean Lee, who is entering his third season. Former ILBs Bradie James and Keith Brooking stunk up the place last year, but they served as the veteran presence of this defense. Both players are now gone, so Lee will need to take that next step in taking over a leadership role. When the season begins, DeMarcus Ware will be 30, and Ratliff, as I already noted above, will be 31. Those guys aren’t going to be around forever. At some point this will be Sean Lee’s defense. With so many new pieces in place on the defense, this is a critical year for Lee to play well and earn the respect of the players around him.
7. Doug Free: There are certainly better players lower on the list than Free, and Free definitely did not play well last year. And yet, the Cowboys are in a world of trouble if he gets hurt due to a complete lack of depth behind him and Tyron Smith at tackle. The only depth right now at tackle is Jermey Parnell and Levy Adcock. Parnell is a converted DE that has bounced around the practice squads of the Saints and Dolphins, before landing in Dallas. He has a grand total of 10 career snaps. They also signed Levy Adcock as an undrafted free agent, who was a player many thought would be drafted in the late rounds.
I should also note that I expect Free to much better on the right side this season.
6. Jason Witten: We don’t know what the Cowboys offense would look like without Jason Witten, who just turned 30. He hasn’t missed a game since 2003. Statistically, 2011 may have been Witten’s worst in the last 5 years, and he still racked up 79 catches, 942 yards, 5 TDs, and 47 first downs. There isn’t much behind Witten. John Phillips was looking like he might become a really nice compliment to Witten, when he tore his ACL during the 2010 preseason. I think that was a bigger blow to the team than most people realize. Post injury, Phillips has yet to show the promise he once had, although now that he is a couple years removed from the ACL tear, this could be the year. The Cowboys also drafted James Hanna in the 6th round. Obviously any sort of dropoff from Witten to Phillips or Hanna would be enormous.
4 and 5. Miles Austin and Dez Bryant: I have a ton of respect for Miles Austin, and think he has become sort of a forgotten man this offseason. In 2012, I fully expect him to return to the explosive receiver he is, provided he stays healthy.
At this point in his career, Dez Bryant is still more raw potential than he is a football player. He’s kind of like the guy in the Japanese Yakuza on the Simpsons, that Homer doesn’t want to stop watching in case he does something awesome. Marge tries to get Homer to get in the house as the Italian mafia battles the Japanese Yakuza on their front lawn, and Homer whines:
But Marge, that little guy hasn’t done anything yet. Look at him. He’s going to do something and you know it’s going to be good.
Bryant has more raw ability than any WR in the bEast, and yet, when you compare him to the rest of the young receivers in the bEast in terms of their first 2 seasons in the league, he’s behind:
|Victor Cruz (1 season)||Giants||82||1536||9|
I’m not sure if that is a good thing or not. His numbers are still good, even if he’s behind some of the other receivers noted above. The optimist will say that if he can refine his game, he’ll be scary good. The pessimist will say that the mental part of the game is the toughest part, and it’s no sure thing that Dez will ever get to the point where he’ll put it all together.
Whichever way you lean, both Bryant and Austin HAVE TO stay healthy, this year more than any other. The Cowboys already don’t have a player currently on their roster that is a surefire 3rd receiver. If they lose one of their top 2 WRs, defenses can load up on the remaining WR and Witten, leaving Romo to have to win throwing to unaccomplished players.
3. Tyron Smith: Here’s what I wrote about Trent Williams when I did this same exercise for the Redskins:
A sampling of some RDEs/ROLBs the Redskins’ LT will face this season: Adrian Clayborn (7.5 sacks, 3 FF), John Abraham (9.5 sacks, 4 FF), Jared Allen (22 sacks, 4 FF), Jason Pierre-Paul x2 (16.5 sacks, 2 FF), James Harrison (9 sacks, 2 FF), Charles Johnson (9 sacks, 1 FF), Trent Cole x2 (11 sacks, 1 FF), and DeMarcus Ware x2 (19.5 sacks, 2 FF).
Some teams are strong across the rest of their OL and can afford to give their LT additional help. This is not the case in Washington. There will be no shortage of times when Trent Williams will be asked to handle the above players one-on-one for long stretches of games. Last year, when Williams was lost for the last 4 games for failing a drug test, Willie Smith was awful. Williams needs to not only grow up, but begin to play like the enormously talented player that he is, and stay on the field. With the golden child in town, the stakes are higher.
The same rationale about Williams having his share of 1-on-1 matchups due to a weak interior OL largely applies to Smith as well. The difference between the two players, however, is that Tyron Smith is already a stud, and at 21 years of age is already all growns up.
Oh, and see the explanation next to Doug Free about the complete lack of depth at OT.
2. Tony Romo: I really struggled picking the #1 spot between Romo and Ware. I didn’t want to be the guy that picked a another player over one of the QBs, just because putting the QB at #1 for all four teams is boring. That is known as “Peter Kinging it.” But I really think this is the order. Obviously, if the Cowboys lose Romo, it’s a killer. But in the Cowboys’ case, unlike the rest of the NFC East, they undeniably have a top 5 backup QB, and maybe even the best one in the league.
1. DeMarcus Ware: If Ware goes down, opposing QBs will have all day to hang out in the pocket and pick the Cowboys’ defense apart. For as bad as Dallas’ defense has been at times over the last two seasons, I can’t even imagine how ugly it would have been without Ware rushing the passer. The Dallas secondary will of course be better this year (can’t see how it could possibly get any worse than what Terence Newman gave them last year), which would soften the blow of a Ware injury. But clearly, DeMarcus is rare force that is going to cruise into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot whenever he hangs them up… and he’s very much still in his prime.