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2013 Dallas Cowboys Team Preview: Romo Seeks to Lead Skilled Roster to a Playoff Berth

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

For the second straight season, the Cowboys headed into Week 17 with a chance to win the NFC East title and clinch a spot in the postseason, only to come up short and have their 2012 campaign end early. There were plenty of scapegoats to go around. Dallas fans love to hate QB Tony Romo despite his consistently good-to-great numbers. Plus, injuries hit almost every important player on both sides of the ball at some point during the year. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan ended up being the fall guy for the teamís failure. Owner/GM Jerry Jones instead went all-in with his offense, as coach Jason Garrett and his uninspiring 21-19 regular season record were retained, while Romo received a contract extension to rival Joe Flaccoís massive post-Super Bowl deal.

Despite their recent mediocrity, the Cowboys still have a roster of Pro Bowl talent at the skill positions. To start, thereís Romo, who has a 7.9 YPA while averaging 4,160 yards, 28.6 TDs and 14.7 INTs per 16 games for his career. Then thereís emerging superstar WR Dez Bryant, who reeled off a 50/879/10 line over the final eight games of the season despite fracturing his left index finger in Week 14, an injury that was initially reported as season-ending but wound up not costing him a single game. Meanwhile, franchise all-time reception leader TE Jason Witten shows no signs of slowing down after a career-high 110 catches in his 10th NFL campaign.

On the other side of the ball, pass rushing DE DeMarcus Ware (coming off his seventh straight season with at least 11 sacks), late-blooming stud DE Anthony Spencer (who posted an amazing 95 tackles and 11 sacks in just 14 games) and brittle warrior Sean Lee (the LB was on pace for over 150 tackles before suffering a season-ending toe injury) lead a potentially impressive defense. The teamís issues, however, lie in places that normally donít draw a lot of fantasy attention. The offensive line was atrocious outside of young left tackle Tyron Smith, and too many key players in the defensive front seven (Lee and Ware included) are aging and/or injury-prone. The organization did spend a first-round pick on center Travis Frederick to help in the trenches, but that still leaves three offensive line spots with questionable starters. Meanwhile, the failure to add any defensive line reinforcements at all, either in the draft or through free agency seems like a glaring oversight, with the team transitioning from Ryanís frenetic 3-4 scheme to former Buccaneers defensive guru Monte Kiffinís Cover 2, which uses a base 4-3 alignment.

If the Cowboys can simply stay healthier than they did last season, especially on defense, itís hard to see how they wonít improve on an 8-8 finish. The club still lacks quality depth in a lot of key places though, and if the offensive and defensive lines struggle once again, Dallas could easily find itself missing the playoffs for a fourth straight season.

Offseason Moves

KEY ACQUISITIONS

Justin Durant - LB, Lions

Even if he doesnít start, Durant should see plenty of snaps given the injury-prone nature of the Cowboysí LB corps.

Travis Frederick - C, Wisconsin

(Round 1, 31st overall)

A nasty, smart mauler, he gives Tony Romo some desperately needed interior protection.

Gavin Escobar - TE, San Diego State

(Round 2, 47th overall)

The rangy pass-catcher could allow the Cowboys to run the two-tight end set they crave.

Terrance Williams - WR, Baylor

(Round 3, 74th overall)

Big, physical receiver will complete with Dwayne Harris and others for the WR3 role, but could eventually make Miles Austin expendable.

Joseph Randle - RB, Oklahoma State

(Round 5, 151st overall)

He may lack foot speed, but should see substantial snaps behind DeMarco Murray.

KEY LOSSES

Felix Jones - RB, Eagles

Blazing speed is still his only asset and he was cut loose after putting up a career-worst YPC despite staying fairly healthy.

Kevin Ogletree - WR, Buccaneers

Despite occasional flashes of ability, he wasnít a reliable target in Dallas.

John Phillips - TE, Chargers

A solid if unathletic two-way TE, he could see more opportunities behind the fragile Antonio Gates than he did as Jason Wittenís backup.

Team Notes

FLATTERING THE PATRIOTS

For the third time this decade, the Cowboys used a second-round draft pick on a tight end, despite the presence of the seemingly ageless Jason Witten at the top of the depth chart. Gavin Escobar is the latest youngster to get a chance to apprentice under Witten, but this time the Cowboys seem to have more in mind than simply finding the veteranís eventual replacement. Coach Jason Garrett has spoken of running a two-tight end offense similar to the Patriotsí attack, and in a league where innovations are quickly imitated this wouldnít be a surprising development. QB Tony Romo has too much chemistry with Witten for a true 1A/1B situation to develop as exists with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, but if the club commits to the new offensive focus, Escobar and even second-year player James Hanna could produce much better fantasy numbers than most might expect. Of course those snaps and targets will come at someoneís expense, and the brunt would have to fall on Miles Austin and any other wideout not named Dez Bryant. Keep a close eye on the Cowboysí passing game in camp before you invest in their lesser receivers.

DUCT TAPE AND CHEWING GUM

For all their talent, the Cowboys may just be the most brittle team in the NFL. CB Brandon Carr and kicker Dan Bailey might have been the only starters to make it through the season unscathed, and key young players such as LB Sean Lee and RB DeMarco Murray have quickly developed injury-prone reputations. While thatís a good reason to think twice about pulling the trigger and rostering the teamís more fragile stars, there is some degree of bad luck involved in the Cowboysí lengthy injury reports. If that luck changes for the better in 2013, some outstanding fantasy performances and Super Bowl contention could easily result.

REVENGE OF THE COVER 2

New defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin hasnít coached in the NFL in five years, but his version of the Tampa Cover 2 defense still retains a lot of cache. Built around speed and turnovers, it would seem to be an ideal fix for a unit that had trouble coming up with big plays under former coordinator Rob Ryan. However, the switch could cause as many problems as it solves. DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer will get to the quarterback no matter where they line up, but a lack of depth at defensive tackle and big question marks at safety could make it very tough for Kiffin to find his old mojo. Despite the name brand on the scheme, the Cowboys appear to be at least one more offseason away from making their new defense click.

Value Meter

Rising: Dwayne Harris didnít win a steady role in the offense until Week 11, and if he can hold off competition for the slot receiver job, he could make an impact.

Declining: Miles Austin battled injuries for the third straight season, and the Cowboys may now have the young talent to push him aside should his skills continue to erode.

Sleeper: Joseph Randleís 40 time cost him in the draft, but his one-cut running style and receiving ability could return solid value if DeMarco Murray gets banged up again.

Supersleeper: Gavin Escobarís size and soft hands should make him an effective red zone weapon and a promised switch to more two tight-end sets could allow him to surprise.

IDP Watch

Sean Lee - LB

His per-game numbers will remain outstanding, but health is an obstacle.

DeMarcus Ware - DE

His skills play better at DE, but age and health are becoming issues.

Barry Church - S

Physical safety could be the John Lynch in Monte Kiffinís 4-3 defensive scheme.

TEAM DEFENSE

RotoWire Rank: 23