STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
That sound you heard back in January was the entire city of Dallas exhaling. Tony Romo finally got that playoff monkey off his back, as for the first time in the Romo (and Wade Phillips) Era the Cowboys won a game in the postseason. A crushing loss in Minnesota in the second round ended any hopes of a Super Bowl though, and sent Phillips and owner/GM Jerry Jones back to the drawing board to retool a roster that seems tantalizingly close to glory.
Jonesʼ solution was a trip down memory lane, as his big moves all seemed to revisit past triumphs or correct past mistakes. Does Jones still regret not drafting Randy Moss back in the day when he had the chance? Jumping up a few spots in this yearʼs draft to grab a sliding Dez Bryant should help heal those wounds. Did cutting Terrell Owens pay dividends in terms of team chemistry, while giving Miles Austin an opportunity to blossom? Then try the same thing the following offseason with Flozell Adams, and cross your fingers that Doug Free or Alex Barron can emerge as a credible left tackle. You can forgive Jones for not wanting to tinker too much with a core that seems headed in the right direction, but his laid-back approach left the team with potential holes on the offensive line and at safety, and the Cowboys even lack a player on the roster who has kicked a field goal in an NFL game.
Despite those weaknesses this is still a very talented roster, among the favorites to win the ultra-competitive NFC East once again and possibly represent the conference in the Super Bowl. The offense is stacked with skill players, with Felix Jones expected to supplant Marion Barber as the first option out of the backfield, and Bryant joining 2009 breakout star Miles Austin, Pro Bowl tight end Jason Witten and the overpriced (but still occasionally productive when healthy) Roy Williams in Romoʼs dangerous arsenal of weapons. The defense has its share of weapons, too: A healthy DeMarcus Ware should again be among the league leaders in sacks in Phillipsʼ defense, while the further development of 2008 draft picks Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick will help steady the secondary.
Given the key positions that werenʼt addressed in the draft or through free agency so far, the Cowboys could still be active in acquiring starters at a time when most clubs have already begun practicing together. The club has most of the pieces in place to challenge the Saints, but Jerry Jonesʼ ability to evaluate and identify the right players for the jobs, whether internally or externally, will play a big part in determining whether Dallas can get over the hump and become champions once again.
Round, Overall, Player
4. (126) Akwasi Owusu-Ansah, S,Indiana (PA).
Athletic, small-school DB project could help in the return game right away.
6. (179) Sam Young, OT, Notre Dame
Right tackle potential if he solves consistency issues.
6. (196) Jamar Wall, CB, Texas Tech
Smart and instinctive, but lacks the speed to be anything more than a nickel package player.
Alex Barron, OT (Rams)
Came to Dallas for linebacker Bobby Carpenter in a swap of first-round busts. He figures to be the top backup at both offensive tackle positions.
Flozell Adams, OT (FA)
Age, salary and declining performance made the former Pro Bowler expendable.
Shaun Suisham, K (FA)
He’ll look for a chance to miss short kicks in another uniform.
Ken Hamlin, S (FA)
After two disappointing seasons, the Cowboys will look for a younger solution at safety.
Cory Proctor, G (Dolphins)
Team will seek offensive line depth/versatility elsewhere.
WHO WILL LINE UP OPPOSITE Miles Austin?
Roy Williams gets paid like an elite NFL wide receiver. The price the Cowboys paid in draft picks to get him was what youʼd expect an elite NFL player to cost. And yet in 25 games with Dallas heʼs managed a miserable 57 catches for 794 yards. The biggest impact he had on the teamʼs 2009 season came when he got hurt and opened the door for Miles Austin to explode. With Austin now locked in as the No. 1 wideout there may be less pressure on Williams to produce, but the drafting of Dez Bryant puts a different kind of pressure on him. Williams did find some utility last season as a red zone target and finished with seven touchdowns, but if he canʼt provide more value than that, look for Bryant to bump him one rung further down the depth chart and then out of town entirely in the offseason.
CAN Felix Jones HANDLE A STARTING ASSIGNMENT?
Jones ended up getting about half the carries Marion Barber did in 2009 but, once again, proved to be the more productive runner. Now the Cowboys are leaning towards using Jones as the starter this season. Barber will still get a share of the workload, and Jones isnʼt about to go all Chris Johnson on us, but, even if he and Barber swap carry totals, his career yards per carry would point to Jones easily breaking the 1,000-yard rushing mark. The question is whether Jones can take the pounding that would come with 200-plus touches. Even in college he never topped 170, and in two years as a pro Jones has yet to hold up through a full 16-game schedule. Itʼs an optimization problem: Can the Cowboys double his workload without causing his performance to degrade significantly? The fact that theyʼre going to try gives him tremendous sleeper potential.
WILL FLOZELL ADAMS BE MISSED?
The former Cowboy had issues when it came to false start penalties, but he also earned Pro Bowl honors protecting Tony Romoʼs blind side. His age and salary led the team to cut him loose, and while the move makes sense in the long term, for this season Dallas will hand the job to 2007 fourth-round pick Doug Free. Free was solid at the end of 2009, filling in for Marc Colombo at right tackle, but handling the trickier assignment on the other side of the line could be more than he can manage. The Giants and Eagles both beefed up their pass rush in the draft, and if Free isnʼt up to the task the performance of both Romo, and the Dallas offense, will suffer.
DECLINING: Patrick Crayton has been a useful third WR for the Cowboys but he won’t hold off first round pick Dez Bryant for long.
SLEEPER: Tashard Choice and his 5.0- plus career YPC is just a Jones or Barber injury away from seeing significant action.
DeMarcus Ware, LB Injuries slowed Ware down in 2009, but expect him to roar back to the top of the sack charts.
BRADIE JAMES, LB He’s a near-lock for 100-plus tackles with some sack upside.
ANTHONY SPENCER, LB Started to emerge last season as an effective sidekick for Ware in the pass rush.
RotoWire Rank: 14