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2012 Dallas Cowboys Team Preview: Aligning The Stars

Erik Siegrist

Erik Siegrist

Erik Siegrist is an FSWA award-winning columnist who covers all four major North American sports (that means the NHL, not NASCAR) and whose beat extends back to the days when the Nationals were the Expos and the Thunder were the Sonics. He was the inaugural champion of Rotowire's Staff Keeper baseball league. His work has also appeared at Baseball Prospectus.

STATE OF THE FRANCHISE

Another season, another disaster for Jerry Jones and America's Team. Officially, the Cowboys were in the hunt for a playoff spot right up to Week 17, but given the extraordinarily creative ways they found to lose games in the previous 16 weeks and an 0-for-4 showing against division rivals the Eagles and Giants, it's amazing to think that they had any kind of chance at all. To add insult to injury, after the Super Bowl the league hit Dallas with a salary cap penalty for contract moves deemed to be questionable during the uncapped 2011 offseason, hamstringing the team's ability to improve through free agency.

There's plenty of blame to go around for the poor showing. Jason Garrett, in his first full season at the helm, seemed to struggle with the combined duties of head coach and chief play caller on offense, while the truncated offseason and a cripplingly weak secondary hampered new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's ability to fully implement his complex system. QB Tony Romo spent the early part of the season alternately giving away sure wins or turning sure losses into victories (the Cowboys didn't play a game decided by more than four points until Week 7), while WR Miles Austin had a miserable, injury-plagued campaign. LB DeMarcus Ware nearly recorded his first 20-sack season, but got very little pass rush help from anyone else on the roster despite Ryan's chaotic blitzing schemes. Even the bright spots weren't that bright. DeMarco Murray exploded onto the scene when given a chance to be the feature back, only to fracture his ankle and be lost for the stretch run. Meanwhile, wideout Laurent Robinson showed amazing chemistry with Romo after being picked from the scrap heap, but then took his skills to Jacksonville when the Cowboys couldn't meet his suddenly inflated salary demands.

Even with all their recent struggles, the Cowboys have too much talent at the top of their roster to dismiss as a potential threat to put it all together. Romo, Austin, Ware and TE Jason Witten, as well as up and coming stars like Murray, WR Dez Bryant, LB Sean Lee and LT Tyron Smith, give Dallas an enviable nucleus of Pro Bowl caliber players. They also addressed their biggest weakness this offseason, adding two new starting cornerbacks by signing Brandon Carr as a free agent and then trading up to draft arguably the best defensive player in his class, Morris Claiborne. The Cowboys still have some holes and lack depth, but if the defense and especially the rebuilt secondary can provide the offense with some cushion and keep Romo from thinking he has to win every game single-handedly, the potential is here for not just a playoff appearance, but a deep postseason run.

KEY ACQUISITIONS

Brandon Carr, CB (Chiefs)
He's not Pro Bowl material, but Carr represents an immediate upgrade over Terence Newman at cornerback.

Morris Claiborne, CB, LSU (Round 1, 6th overall)
Claiborne has the potential to be the kind of elite physical shutdown corner the Cowboys have never had, and should be a Week 1 starter.

Danny Coale, WR, Virginia Tech (Round 5, 152nd overall)
Fifth-round pick has the profile of an effective slot receiver, and could emerge as a weapon for Romo.

Dan Connor, LB (Panthers)
The veteran linebacker has had trouble staying healthy in recent years but still seems to have something left in the tank and will step in next to Sean Lee if second-year player Bruce Carter isn't ready.

Kyle Orton, QB (Chiefs)
The former Broncos' starter is an excellent insurance policy against another Tony Romo injury.

Lawrence Vickers, FB (Texans)
The Cowboys learned the value of a solid lead blocker last season, and Vickers is an upgrade over Tony Fiammetta.

KEY LOSSES

Laurent Robinson, WR (Jaguars)
His exit leaves a gaping hole in the WR corps, as he quickly became Romo's most trusted wideout last year.

Martellus Bennett, TE (Giants)
Stuck behind Jason Witten for four years, Bennett never developed as a pass-catcher, but is still a very good blocking TE.

TEAM NOTES

WHAT KIND OF RUNNING GAME CAN THE COWBOYS MUSTER?

It wasn't until DeMarco Murray got his chance to start last season that the Cowboys finally restored some balance to their offense, as Murray averaged 114 rushing yards a game between Weeks 7 and 13. He seems fully recovered from his Week 14 broken ankle, and the team signed Lawrence Vickers to replace the fragile Tony Fiammetta at fullback, so the pieces would appear to be in place for a big year. The interior of the offensive line is inexperienced and unproven though, and Murray hasn't demonstrated yet that he can hold up under a 16-game grind. If he goes down it's a given that Felix Jones won't be able to carry the load, so it'll likely be feast or famine in 2012. A healthy Murray is a good bet for a 1000-plus yard season, but if he gets hurt again expect Jason Garrett to scrap the ground game almost entirely.

CAN Miles Austin REBOUND?

Just two years after Austin burst onto the scene, he plummeted to mediocrity with an injury-riddled, inconsistent 2011 campaign. Projected over a full schedule, his stats would have been similar to 2010 but his YPC dropped to a pedestrian 13.5 and there was a scary trend line in his targets. After racking up six double-digit target games in 2009 and five in 2010, Austin saw only two in 2011 and none after Week 6. While it would be easy to blame his health for the decline, Tony Romo tends to play favorites and if he has lost confidence in his former go-to guy, it's going to be very tough for Austin to put up elite numbers. Laurent Robinson's departure helps in that regard, but there's always the possibility of another veteran WR addition or a third-year breakout from Dez Bryant to give Romo a new toy to focus on at Austin's expense. Drafting him expecting anything more than 2010-ish numbers seems foolhardy, and even that level of projection comes with some risk.

CAN THIS BE AN ELITE DEFENSE?

Last season very little went right for the Cowboys' defense. DeMarcus Ware was a beast, and Sean Lee looked like a force before injuring his wrist, but beyond them too many players simply didn't do their jobs. Things look much better heading into 2012. Two new starters at cornerback in sixth overall pick Morris Claiborne and free agent Brandon Carr should elevate the pass coverage from awful to at least adequate, which in turn should help give someone other than Ware enough time to bring down the opposition quarterback (such as LB Anthony Spencer, who had 31 QB pressures in 2011 but only managed to turn them into six sacks). It may not take much improvement on those fronts to transform the Cowboys into a very dangerous unit.

VALUE METER
Rising: With the starting RB job locked up, DeMarco Murray's health might be all that separates him from first-round worthy production.

Declining: Complacency has led to two years of diminishing numbers for Miles Austin, and a return to his 2009 level of production seems like a risky proposition.

Sleeper: A big training camp could thrust Danny Coale right into the third WR slot as a possession target, and give him nice value in PPR leagues.

Supersleeper: If age begins to slow down Jason Witten, James Hanna seems the most likely player to pick up the slack.

IDP WATCH

Sean Lee, LB
Lee was on pace for 130-plus tackles in 2011 before he injured his wrist.

DeMarcus Ware, LB
Even as a linebacker he gets enough sacks to have fantasy value.

Morris Claiborne, CB
The rookie has the skills to make opposing QBs pay if they
test him.

Team Defense:
RotoWire Rank: 15