The State of the Dallas Cowboys Offensive Skill Positions
Quarterback: As they are every year, expectations are high for the Dallas Cowboys for the upcoming 2012-2013 season. The team seems to be pretty solid. As a lifelong fan, the skillset and depth remind me of the 1991 Dallas Cowboys team. A talented team with underrated depth…yet a team that was probably still a year away.
Quarterback is the first area any team is looked at when they are expected to contend for a Lombardi Trophy.
Despite what many media outlets would say, Dallas has a Super Bowl quality quarterback. Love him or hate him, many fans argue that Tony Romo is not a clutch quarterback with the game on the line. I call BS. Tony Romo, has been at the very least better than solid in his career, but I would argue that he has been spectacular. Throughout his career, he is perhaps three or four plays away from extended playoff success (the bobbled snap in Seattle, Patrick Crayton’s dropped pass vs NYG in the playoffs, followed by a rogue intentional grounding penalty in that same game, and a very slight overthrow of Miles Austin last year vs. NYG). Let me tell you though, Dallas is not in many of these games without Tony Romo at the helm.
Let’s kill this playoff choker crap. Without going into deep statistics, let me remind you that Romo drove Dallas from their own 28 yard line in the Seattle playoff game down to the Seahawk’s two yard line. If not for a questionable spot on a pass to Jason Witten, Dallas wins that game by kicking the FG (or scoring a TD) on a third down. The botched snap would never have been an issue. His 1-3 playoff record has little to do with his play on the field, rather some of his teammates not stepping up. Look for another “Romo-like” statistical year in 2012.
As Tony Romo goes, so do the Cowboys. But, if some unforeseen injury occurs, the Cowboys are in good hands with Kyle Orton. He’s an experienced starter in the league and can win with the right supporting cast. He has a good, but not great arm and is a smart player on the field. At third QB, the jury is still out on Stephen McGee. I’ll argue that McGee lacks an “it” factor when you watch him on the field. I was never a big fan of his at Texas A&M and he definitely didn’t impress me in the Shrine Game when he was auditioning for the NFL prior to the draft. I felt he was over-drafted by two rounds (should have been a sixth rounder). To date, I have never seen him make a throw that makes me think he could be the quarterback of the future for the Dallas Cowboys, and this saddens me. This is his make or break year. He needs to start getting into his progressions and not just be a check down to the running back type of QB. If he can’t do this more regularly, the Cowboys will draft a QB to groom as Romo’s eventual replacement in the next two drafts. And they’ll pick one pretty high!
Rudy Carpenter, in my opinion is just a camp arm with no true future for Dallas. If a game was on the line and the staff was forced to put him in, look out. This third spot bears watching.
Waiver Wire Bonanza/possible late round trade targets:
One player that Dallas should closely monitor is Tyler Thigpen at Buffalo. He is experienced and is on the roster bubble in Buffalo. He would be an upgrade over Stephen McGee. In my limited viewings of Thigpen, he reminds me of Rich Gannon right before Gannon became a dependable QB. I think he’s a late bloomer, much like Ryan Fitzpatrick who he backs up. Josh Portis in Seattle also bears watching. He’s young, athletic, and has an “it” factor. A cerebral player that I would also keep an eye on is Scott Tolzien from San Francisco. He is caught in a numbers game as the number 4 QB on that roster and is a winner.
Roster Grade for QB including depth (A-)
At running back, Dallas is in pretty solid shape. The big “if” on this roster is the durability of the backs. DeMarco Murray burst onto the scene last season and gave coaches and fans alike a reason to feel optimistic. On his way to 897 yards and a 5.5 yd average, he showed great vision, burst, and durability before a broken ankle ended his season. In Dallas, he ran upright like his idol, Eric Dickerson, with great body lean and decisive moves. He will be a tremendous bright spot and quite possibly a game planning nightmare for opposing defensive coordinators. I look for a 1,000 yard season out of him, but his versatility will be highlighted by his impact as a blocker and receiver in the passing game. At Oklahoma, it was said that he had the best hands on the team. He had 157 catches during his career for 1,571 yards and a solid 10 yards per catch. For Romo and the Cowboys he had 26 catches for 183 yards last season. Look for more passes coming his way next fall. This will be one player who can pick up some of the slack from Laurent Robinson’s departure.
Dallas upgraded their fullback position in free agency this spring. Originally, the Cowboys seemed slated to bring back last year’s fullback, Tony Fiametta. Fiametta was a great lead blocker when healthy. The running backs on the team at one point were averaging 8.3 yds per carry behind him, and under 4.0 when he was not in the game. Problem is, Fiametta has an injury riddled past. When the Texans surprisingly released Lawrence Vickers in a cost cutting move, the Cowboys quickly jumped on the opportunity to sign a game changer and locker room leader. He’ll give Dallas their best fullback since Moose Johnston (sorry Richie Anderson fans). He has been the lead blocker for Peyton Hillis and Arian Foster in two of their most productive seasons. His impact will be noticeable in short yardage and goal line situations, which is an area Dallas has struggled in for several seasons. Early indications are positive on Vickers’ film room study with the other running backs on the roster, as he is trying to teach them how to run behind him on certain situations. Reserve Shaun Chapas seems relegated to the practice squad again this season. I’m still surprised that the Cowboys selected him over Henry Hynoski (Giants starter and undrafted free agent).
Not far behind Murray is Felix Jones. Jones is the ultimate team player. He never complains about his role on the team, had a solid 575 yards rushing last season, and a healthy 4.5 yds per carry average. He also contributed 33 catches for 221 yards. He is best when his touches are around 10 to 14 per game. Dallas coaches would love to be able to use him as a change of pace back instead of a workhorse. If his shoulder is healthy this fall, look for his numbers to go up as well. This is his contract year. One thing to note about Jones, when healthy he’s a threat to go all the way anytime he touches the ball (he’s just never completely healthy).
Depth behind Murray and Jones is solid. Phillip Tanner earned a spot on the team last season with a great preseason. In OTA’s he has been lauded for his unselfishness helping the other rookies on the team. He is a big back at 6’0 218 and runs well between the tackles. He reminds me of former Cowboy’s running back Walt Garrison in one regard. If the Cowboys needed 3 yards, they’d hand the ball to Walt Garrison and he’d get them 3 yards. If it was 4th and 2, they’d hand the ball to Walt and he’d still get you 3 yards. 3rd and 5, hand the ball to Walt… 3 yards. You know what you’re getting with Tanner…about 3 yards. He’s a tough back who puts the team first. His second year should be even better with a better knowledge of the offense.
Other reserves that have a chance at the third position are: Lance Dunbar and Darrell Scott. Both are undrafted rookie free agents who have a shot to unseat Phillip Tanner if he falters. Dunbar has shown burst and quickness in OTA’s, while Scott has been impressive as well. Dunbar, while relatively small compared to the rest of the backs on the roster, is very sudden with his movements, and is a threat catching the ball. I’d be surprised if a roster battle between he and Tanner isn’t a dead heat by the end of training camp! Look for a roster move at the end of the summer as rosters are churned.
Waiver Wire Bonanza/possible late round trade targets:
Although he isn’t on the waiver wire, one player that I think the Cowboys should target right now is Jeff Demps, RB, Florida. This player literally is lightning in a bottle. He took the spring off to focus on making the Olympics as a sprinter. He failed in his bid, but is a definite difference maker on the field. He would be a nightmare for teams to gameplan for as a change of pace back. Dallas is in desperate need of a kick returner who invokes fear from special teams coaches across the league. Demps could be this player. In Detroit, Joique Bell sits at the bottom of their depth chart. He is a power back that could help the Cowboys roster. Depending on the way the battle shapes out with the New York Jets, the loser in the battle between Bilal Powell and Terrance Ganaway will be an interesting and solid player. Both players were workhorses in college and offer some upside. Powell is a back who runs low and can be a player a team can count on. He’s tough and gets lost in traffic. Ganaway is a true power back. Another guy to keep tabs on is John Clay. He is in an interesting battle in Pittsburgh. He currently sits third on their depth chart behind Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer, and that’s before Rashard Mendenhall and Chris Rainey are figured into the equation. Clay would be a short yardage specialist on Dallas’ roster, something that he might be more effective at than their current number three running back, Phillip Tanner. If Hell freezes over, I even see Brandon Jacobs on this list later in the summer when he drops behind Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James, and possibly Anthony Dixon. Say what you want about Jacobs, but he has been a Cowboy killer! I still have nightmares of him leaping over Terrance Newman. And Finally, the Redskins even have a couple of interesting players on the cusp on their roster in Alfred Morris from FAU and Lennon Creer. Both backs played well during the college all star games and merit a look at the end of the summer as teams churn their rosters.
Roster Grade Including Depth (B+)
At wide receiver, Dallas has two pro bowl caliber players in Miles Austin and Dez Bryant. Both of these players have a tremendous amount of talent and are game changers. Perhaps no wide receiver in the NFC East is expected to take the next step to the upper echelon of the league more than Dez Bryant. If this happens, look out NFC East corners. Bryant is gifted with great hands, has the ability to make acrobatic catches, and is a load to bring down. What he has lacked is consistency throughout the games according to most, but I think he just hasn’t been targeted enough late in games. If he taps his enormous potential, Dallas contends this year. Miles Austin will be the beneficiary of Bryant’s ascension. Teams will be forced to roll coverage toward Bryant. Austin will see a lot more of the opposing teams number two corner. If Dallas’ plans to play him in the slot more continue, he’ll be seeing a lot of teams nickel corners. That’s a win for Dallas matchup wise. Austin will have a huge rebound season this year.
Dallas is set to keep five, and maybe a six wide receivers this fall depending on the group as a whole. Their number three receiver is up in the air right now. Kevin Ogletree, Dwayne Harris, Andre Holmes, Raymond Radway, Danny Coale, Cole Beasley, Saalim Hakim, Tim Benford, and Donovan Kemp are all in the running for this important spot left open by Laurent Robinson’s defection to Jacksonville. Word out of Dallas is that Kevin Ogletree has stepped up his game. After not being tendered by the team this spring, he better have. Ogletree had a surprisingly good rookie season, but has been a disappointment ever since. I think when the dust clears, he’ll still find himself on the waiver wire.
Jerry Jones has raved about Andre Holmes since his work on the practice squad last fall and his promotion to the active roster late in the year. Is that a good thing? To the best of my memory, not since Macey Brooks, has Jones offered this much hype about a prospect. Brooks was cut later that fall. Let’s hope this isn’t a foreshadowing. What do the Cowboys have in Holmes? Holmes offers great size at 6’5 208 lbs and good hands. He had good workout numbers prior to the 2011 draft, 4.51 in the 40 yard dash, 10’10” in the broad jump, 33 in. vertical. He was Dallas’ scout team sensation last year. But lets be real, coming out of Hillsdale, he is extremely raw, even with a year of football at the NFL level under his belt.
Raymond Radway put Abilene Christian on the map for me. He had won a roster spot last fall, but on the last play of the last preseason game he broke two bones in his leg and spent the year on injured reserve. Perhaps a telling sign about his future with the team is that he wasn’t given an injury settlement last fall and was allowed to heal for another shot this year. So far in OTA’s, news about Radway has been a mixed bag. He hasn’t shown the same quickness in and out of his cuts that he had last summer before the injury, but hopefully the Cowboys remain patient with him as he recovers. When healthy, he showed sprinter’s speed, good hands, and was a tremendous target for the quarterbacks. He seemed to be a diamond in the rough and another free agent find! Memories of Jimmy Smith haunt my memory when I attach them to Radway. Each passing day should help his cause as he heads into training camp. Be patient Dallas.
After Radway and Holmes, the Cowboys have six guys fighting for one, possibly two roster spots. Dwayne Harris is coming into the fall a much leaner player and quicker player. He has good hands, returns punts and kicks, and seems to be a playmaker. Best case scenario is that he turns out like former Cowboy, Kelvin Martin. If that was the case, the team would be thrilled! Familiarity with the offense will help his cause as a second year player. I think this battle comes down to Harris, Coale, Beasley, and Benford. Coale is recovering from a broken bone in his foot as he enters training camp, which does not bode well for his chances at sticking. When healthy though, he is a well prepared WR who is capable of moving the chains and being a clutch player for an offense. He’s not Wes Welker or Danny Amendola, but maybe he could be Tom Waddle with some patience. You will not see a mental mistake from Danny Coale. Cole Beasley has impressed the coaching staff and has made the most of his opportunities this spring. He is now at least in the conversation for making the roster as a fringe player. But my darkhorse is Tim Benford. Benford is the one wide receiver that I wouldn’t bet against. Watching him this spring in the East-West Shrine Game, he was very tough to stop. He made catches all over the field and seems to gain the trust of QBs easily. Hakim, although he is blazing fast, will have to make an impact in the return game to get the coaching staff’s attention, as well as be flawless in his opportunities this summer. He’s boom or bust.
Waiver Wire Bonanza/possible late round trade targets:
In fantasy football, have you ever heard that wide receivers are a dime a dozen? While some believe that, I’ll tell you…you get what you pay for. I’m a big advocate of Dallas making a trade for Louis Murphy from the Raiders. Oakland has a lot of guys on that roster right now, and Murphy is not being utilized. Murphy would be the best WR acquisition for Dallas since Terry Glenn. In Dallas, Murphy’s 4.3 speed would be an amazing complement to Miles Austin and Dez Bryant. He has good hands and would instantly bond with Tony Romo and gain his confidence. If Oakland would take a 5th round choice in 2013, I’d send it to them today. James Jones in Green Bay is rumored to be available and Dallas currently employs his former receivers coach, Jimmy Robinson. Food for thought. Dane Sanzenbacher from Chicago is another WR who could man Dallas #3 spot. He is a very similar player to Danny Amendola and has good, not great speed. He is on the roster bubble in Chicago. Terrance Tolliver, a former LSU WR is also a player who may get caught in a numbers game in Detroit. He is very similar to Andre Holmes and Radway. If Dallas is not satisfied with the bottom of their roster, they may want to keep close tabs on him. He has great size, was a top threat for LSU, and could be a number one WR on a roster if he achieves consistency and takes to pro coaching. UDFA, Patrick Holmes, from Houston, is also on that same Detroit roster and is in a similar situation. He would be a great slot WR. He has a diminutive build and is more quick than fast. He was having a great week at the Senior Bowl up until he pulled a hamstring. Cecil Shorts and Taylor Price are two players that Dallas was rumored to be interested in prior to their respective drafts. Shorts, a 4th round pick in 2011 in particular fits the profile for a slot WR. He is buried on Jacksonville’s depth chart right now and possibly on the bubble. Greg Salas is a strong receiver from the Rams that could play the slot. He had a good game against Dallas last year. Another bubble player is Aldrick Robinson from the Redskins. Robinson, a former SMU player, is a physical specimen.
Roster Grade Including Depth (B) If Bryant or Austin go down, Dallas will be in trouble.
Dallas has had arguably the top QB/TE tandem in the NFC since they drafted Jason Witten. Witten is Romo’s security blanket. He’s a complete TE blocking and receiving. He can find the gaps in zones, he’s the team’s most vocal leader, and he’s sure handed. If Romo is in trouble, more often than not, he throws to Witten.
Behind Witten is John Phillips, a 6th round pick from Dallas’ disastrous 2009 draft. He’s versatile in that he can play TE and FB/HB. In 2010 he was having an amazing camp, was beating out Martellus Bennett, and looked like the most improved player on the roster. He looked like a genuine 35 catch number two TE. Then he tore his ACL. Last year, he didn’t look at all like that same player. Now, two years removed from that surgery, the real John Phillips should show himself. Cowboy coaches and fans are pinning their hopes on him reverting back to 2010 form. James Hanna and Andrew Szczerba are going to battle it out for the number three position. Hanna, a 6th rounder has great speed for a TE, but he has been inconsistent catching the ball in college and in the OTA’s this spring. At his best, he offers a glimpse of a TE who splits the seam. Blocking will be in question. Szczerba in my estimation is just a camp body. He’s had a serious back injury while at Penn State and just 14 career catches. Time will tell here.
Waiver Wire Bonanza/possible late round trade targets:
Call me crazy, but Dallas has 7.1 million left in cap space, but I would call Jeremy Shockey today and try to sign him. Despite his age, he can block and still poses a threat as a receiver. He would immediately upgrade the TE position. Dallas aggressively pursued Kellen Davis from Chicago in free agency, but he chose to stay at home, and they should have attempted to sign Leonard Pope before Pittsburgh brought him in. This shows that Dallas realizes that they need some more depth and another complete TE. Anthony Fasano is another player that is experienced and is supposed to be taking on less of a role with his current team. He knows Dallas offense and has played with Romo. He’s a heck of a football player. I’d give them a conditional 7th round pick in 2014 for him right now. I never liked that we gave/traded him away. I’d love to snag him. Visanthe Shiancoe might be an interesting player as well if the Cowboys want a physically imposing player. League rosters are not stocked full with 3 or more good TEs. Dallas will need to actively peruse the waiver wire/inquire to other teams about player availability. Richard Quinn from Washington is a good blocking TE, but very limited as a receiver. He is at the bottom of the Redskins depth chart. Donald Lee from Cincinnati could become available as well. The winner from the Virgil Green/Julius Thomas battle in Denver is a good football player. Both of these players have some upside. Detroit snared Alex Gottlieb from William and Mary as an undrafted free agent. He was my number one rated TE as far as undrafted free agents go. He showed some skill as a receiver in being able to split the seam in college and is sure handed. Keep your eyes on him. My last parting shot is for two players, one that I’d like to give a chance to, and the other is one that I think has an outside chance of being cut and returning to Dallas. The player I’d give a chance to is Brad Cottam. He’s a former Vol TE. He’s 6’7 270. He hasn’t played since 2010. He was a third rounder of the Chiefs. I always thought he’d be a good number 2 TE. I’d like to prove myself wrong or right…Lastly, Martellus Bennett. I think he is going to get cut by the Giants. He’s near 290 lbs. right now. He’s way too heavy. After being cut, maybe, just maybe he’ll return and have his head on straight. The Giants depth chart shows him 2nd right now: Bear Pascoe, Martellus Bennett, Adrien Robinson, and Travis Beckum. Someone’s gotta go.
Position Grade Including Depth (C) After Witten…we are in trouble unless Phillips steps up.
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