STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
To the frustration of their fans, the Cowboys have turned into the NFL's version of the movie Groundhog Day, reliving the same mediocre season over and over. The club finished 2013 at 8-8 and for an amazing third straight year lost a Week 17 tilt that could have clinched an NFC East title. Owner and GM Jerry Jones' unwillingness to commit to a full rebuild – and his belief that the club is just a lucky break or two away from the promised land – is evident in the $100 million contract he handed quarterback Tony Romo. The fact that that he was willing to cut ties with aging sack master DeMarcus Ware is a ray of hope for those who believe the owner will need to blow up the roster before Dallas' four-season playoff drought (and 18-year Super Bowl drought) can come to an end.
Ware's departure puts an exclamation mark on the massive amount of work needed on the defensive side of the ball for the team to become competitive again. The closest thing the Cowboys had to a defensive star was fragile linebacker Sean Lee, who is fantastic when he's on the field. Alas, he suffered a torn ACL in May.
The club's adoption of the Tampa 2 defense last season was a complete and utter disaster, as the lack of a pass rush and deficiencies in the secondary handed the opposition yards and scores by the bushel. Cornerback Morris Claiborne and linebacker Bruce Carter haven't panned out despite their status as high draft picks. While free agent defensive tackle Henry Melton should help stiffen the defensive line and the return of Anthony Spencer from microfracture surgery could slightly soften the blow of losing Ware, this is still a unit riddled with holes at every level.
The offense remains one of the most potent in the league however, as wideouts Dez Bryant and Terrance Williams, tight end Jason Witten, as well as running back DeMarco Murray provide Romo with a target-rich environment. The front office also keeps adding first-round talent to the offensive line to protect the investment in their quarterback, as 16th overall pick Zack Martin joins center Travis Frederick and Pro Bowl left tackle Tyron Smith in the trenches. However, until the team figures out how to stop the opposition from getting into the end zone, Romo's best efforts will only keep the team treading water.
2014 could be a make-or-break season not just for head coach Jason Garrett and the rest of the staff, but for the remaining veterans on the roster as well. Another rerun of a season without a playoff appearance could leave the Cowboys with no choice but to dispense with the likes of Witten, Lee and maybe even Romo, and start over from the bottom.
Henry Melton - DT, Bears
If healthy, Melton's reunion with Rod Marinelli should be a happy one.
Zack Martin - OT/G, Notre Dame (Round 1, 16th Overall)
Might play guard as a rookie, but his future is likely at right tackle.
DeMarcus Lawrence - DE, Boise State (Round 2, 34th Overall)
He's no DeMarcus Ware, but the Cowboys need his pass rush.
Devin Street - WR, Pittsburgh (Round 5, 146th Overall)
The tall target will compete for the team's third wide receiver spot.
Amobi Okoye - DE, Bears
Another Marinelli alum who missed all of 2013 due to injury.
DeMarcus Ware - DE, Broncos
The franchise career sack leader looked old and broken down in 2013.
Jason Hatcher - DT, Redskins
Career year led to a big contract from an NFC East rival.
Miles Austin - WR, Browns
Hamstring woes continue to plague the Cowboys' former top wideout.
SQUARE PEGS IN ROUND HOLES
When the Cowboys' brain trust brought in defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin last year, there apparently wasn't much thought put in to whether the players they had on the roster would actually be good fits for his Tampa 2 defense. Safety Barry Church blossomed in the enforcer safety role, but the resources invested in man coverage corners Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr seemed wasted in the new zone scheme. Meanwhile, Bruce Carter looked lost with his coverage assignments as the weak side linebacker. The defensive line not only lacked a disruptive presence to pressure opposing signal-callers, it lacked healthy, competent players capable of merely taking snaps and making a useful contribution. D-line coach Rod Marinelli, a Kiffin disciple, takes over for his mentor to try and salvage the scheme. The decision to trade up in the draft and select defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence could give the Cowboys a new sack specialist, but an awful lot still depends on players with checkered medical histories managing to stay on the field. A bout of good health in the locker room could make Marinelli look like a genius, but with Sean Lee already sidelined, if Anthony Spencer or Henry Melton come up lame once again, the unit could repeat its ranking as one of the worst in the NFL.
KEEPING ROMO UPRIGHT
Tony Romo's regular season numbers in his eight seasons as a starter would seem to more than justify the six-year, nine-digit contract extension he received last offseason, but his many critics point to his age (34), repeated back problems and poor postseason record (one win in just four games) as reasons why Jerry Jones made a huge mistake in committing that much money to his quarterback. The front office at least recognizes that to justify the team's investment in Romo the Cowboys need to provide him with as much support as they can, using three of their last four top picks on offensive linemen and stocking up on secondary targets behind stars Dez Bryant and Jason Witten to give Romo plenty of receiving options. His per-game averages over the last three seasons (24 for 36, 275 yards, 1.9 TDs and 0.8 INTs) are certainly outstanding, if not quite elite for the modern pass-happy NFL, and assuming the fortified line in front of him can prevent too much wear and tear from accumulating on their field general, Romo probably has about a three-year window in which to lead a charge deep into the postseason and at least somewhat justify that contract. Jerry Jones may do a lot of things wrong as a GM, but putting his quarterback in a position to score points is not one of them.
Rising: With Miles Austin gone and Jason Witten showing his age, Terrance Williams is in perfect position to have a big season as the Cowboys' No. 2 receiver.
Declining: Jason Witten has a lot of miles on him and is coming off his lowest reception mark since 2006. Tony Romo may soon need to find a new security blanket.
Sleeper: Lance Dunbar showed flashes of big-play ability last season, and could be the guy to take advantage if DeMarco Murray breaks down or loses effectiveness.
Supersleeper: Gavin Escobar was almost invisible as a rookie second-round pick, but as Witten ages out someone is going to need to step up for the Cowboys at tight end.
Barry Church - S
One of the few Cowboys who thrived in the Tampa 2 defense.
DeMarcus Lawrence - DE
The team is counting on him to at least partially replace Ware's production.
Anthony Hitchens - LB
The fourth-rounder is a candidate to help fill the void created by the absence of Sean Lee.
RotoWire Rank: 30