By Erik Siegrist
STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
Wade Phillips' first regular season in Dallas was a resounding success. He was as good as advertised as a defensive guru, guiding an extremely talented unit into the top 10 in rushing yards/game allowed (6th) and sacks (3rd) in 2007, while giving the offense room to blossom under coordinator Jason Garrett.
Tony Romo, Marion Barber and DeMarcus Ware all emerged as fantasy studs, the team won 13 games and (at least in the first half of the campaign) the offense seemed to score points at will. The Cowboys weren't as perfect as the Patriots, as the pass defense especially showed some cracks (including a further drop in Roy Williams' performance at strong safety), but they were good enough to seize the No.1 seed in the NFC heading into the postseason.
A funny thing happened on the way to the Super Bowl, however... they never made it out of the divisional playoff round. A loss to the eventual champions, the Giants, doesn't look so bad in retrospect, but, given the expectations surrounding the team, a one-and-done in the playoffs for a second straight season could only be seen as a huge disappointment. Owner/GM Jerry Jones resisted the urge to make sweeping changes, instead making Garrett the NFL's highest paid assistant to prevent him from taking a head coaching job elsewhere. He also spent money to keep the offensive line, one of the best units in the league, intact.
Heading into 2008, the Cowboys once again have to be considered one of the favorites to win it all. The talent level in the secondary was improved with the addition of (insert synonym for "guy who doesn't appreciate how lucky he is to be a professional athlete" here) Adam "Pacman" Jones and the drafting of Mike Jenkins in the first round, while Garrett got another toy to play with on offense with the drafting of Felix Jones. Some depth was lost as a number of veteran players such as Jason Ferguson and Akin Ayodele joined former coach Bill Parcells in Miami, but in most cases replacements were already on the roster and ready to step in, and none of the players who headed east (with the exception of special teams star Keith Davis) were key parts of their units.
The Cowboys have Pro Bowl talent all over the lineup, from quarterback to linebacker to punter, and most of their skill players are either in or just entering their prime years. It's as formidable a roster as the Cowboys have assembled since the Jimmy Johnson days. If the team can't at least win one playoff game, however, look for Jerry Jones to bring out the axe, starting at the top with Phillips.
Round, Overall, Player
1. (22) Felix Jones, RB, Arkansas
Explosive runner will split time with Marion Barber and could provide Reggie Bush-like numbers.
1. (25) Mike Jenkins, CB, South Florida
Effective all-around corner will provide injury (and Pacman) insurance as a rookie.
2. (61) Martellus Bennett, TE, Texas A&M
Big, athletic project will provide depth behind Jason Witten.
4. (122) Tashard Choice, RB, Georgia Tech
Bruising, downhill runner has drawn comparisons to Corey Dillon but would need a Barber injury to get a real chance.
5. (143) Orlando Scandrick, CB, Boise State
Day One talent with major character issues. Could be a special teams weapon.
6. (167) Erik Walden, DE, Middle Tennessee State
Another pass-rushing DE who will be shifted to LB if he wins a roster spot.
Adam "Pacman" Jones, CB (Titans)
If he stays out of trouble he'll give the Cowboys an enviable one-two punch at corner with Terence Newman.
Zach Thomas, LB (Dolphins)
His migraines hopefully behind him, he should again collect tackles by the bushel.
Julius Jones, RB (Seahawks)
Former starter will get another chance in Seattle.
Akin Ayodele, LB (Dolphins)
Useful depth defender rejoins Bill Parcells in Miami.
Keith Davis, S (Dolphins)
Special teams captain will be missed on and off the field.
WILL Tony Romo CONTINUE TO MATURE?
Coach Wade Phillips' hands-off approach with the Cowboys' locker room paid dividends, from Terrell Owens' absence from the headlines to Greg Ellis' transformation from training camp malcontent to top-10 sack artist, but it seemed to blow up in his face when Tony Romo took a brief Mexican holiday prior to the team's playoff loss to the Giants and opened himself up to criticism that he was more focused on his social life than winning a Super Bowl. Such charges are ridiculous, but it's worth remembering that Romo is still a quarterback with just 26 NFL starts under his belt, and that his production sagged down the stretch for the second straight season. The Cowboys return all their main offensive weapons, including coordinator Jason Garrett, and have added Felix Jones to the mix so there's little reason to think Romo will slow down. He needs to win a playoff game or two, however, if he wants to start getting consistently mentioned in the same sentence as Brady and Manning, or Aikman and Staubach, for that matter.
WILL THE AGING RECEIVING CORPS STAY EFFECTIVE?
While Owens had his usual huge season, Terry Glenn missed basically the entire year recovering from knee surgery, and Patrick Crayton demonstrated that he was far better suited to being a No. 3 receiver than a No. 2. The Cowboys proved in 2007 that they could survive without Glenn, but if he doesn't regain his speed and Owens breaks down (both will be 34 when the season starts) the team's receiving corps behind them is extremely inexperienced. It's not outrageous to suggest that Dallas' Super Bowl hopes rest on the aging hamstrings and ankles of Owens.
WILL PACMAN JONES EXPLODE?
The secondary remained the one big weakness of the Cowboys last season, so owner Jerry Jones attempted to address the situation by picking up Adam Jones from the fed-up Titans. Jones' lengthy list of off-field issues is well known, and he has yet to be fully re-instated by the league, but Dallas gave themselves some insurance by drafting Mike Jenkins in case commissioner Roger Goodell doesn't rule in favor of Jones. Those problems have overshadowed what Jones can do on the field, however. He can break open a game at any time on defense or as a kick returner with his speed and playmaking ability, and could partner with Terence Newman to give opposing quarterbacks fits. He's just as likely to screw up again and get booted out of the league for good, but if he can find some maturity and stay out of trouble, he'll be a huge addition.
Rising: Marion Barber has 24 rushing TDs over the last two seasons, but there's room for him to improve now that he's the official starter for Dallas.
Declining: After missing most of 2007, Terry Glenn returned in Week 17, but didn't show that he's regained his deep-threat ability. Without his speed, he's just an aging receiver who shouldn't be starting.
Sleeper: Tashard Choice was drafted long after Felix Jones but would be much better suited to taking on the workload of a feature back should anything happen to Barber.
Supersleeper: The Cowboys converted Isaiah Stanbeck from college QB to pro WR, and offensive coordinator Jason Garrett could find a use for his athleticism and skill set.
DeMarcus Ware, LB
Gets sacks like an elite DE; gets tackles like a linebacker.
Greg Ellis, LB
Rebounded from a 2006 injury to rack up a career-high 12.5 sacks.
Zach Thomas, LB
145-plus tackles in six straight seasons prior to 2007.
RotoWire Rank: 5
Article first appeared 6/02/08
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