Special teams is a mixed bag. Dan Bailey looks great but the coverage teams have looked poor. They need to improve on last year if they want to avoid dragging this team down. There is cause for legitimate concern and more time in practice needs to be dedicated to Special Teams or it could lose us a game.
Special Teams Grade: C
Offensive line is the biggest concern entering the regular season. Every player on the line is lining up next to someone brand spankin’ new. Let that sink in. In a position group known for success-through-continuity, that is a concerning thing. New players were brought in this offseason but all of them have concerns of their own. After the first preseason game this looked like a nightmare situation but as the preseason progressed they began to show improvement. For the offense to be acceptable this unit needs to prove it is not a liability. As this unit grows together and plays together improvement will be seen. Doug Free was beat with inside and outside pass rush moves this preseason. He needs to get his technique under control before he gets Tony Romo hurt or injured. If the offensive line can keep Romo clean and opens holes for Murray, this offense has the potential to be top 5. Those expectations are probably a stretch…
OL Grade: C
The guards on the O-line are limited in their ability to pull and move laterally so Lawrence Vickers will be very important this season. Vickers should be able to get Murray to the next level and provide some great highlights along the way. If Murray can stay healthy this could be the key to success in 2012. Run blocking is going to be much easier for this O-line so if a run game is established early in the season, Romo will see much less pressure when passing. Depth is strong at RB but for the run game to succeed, Murray will need to stay healthy this year. Unfortunately the odds don’t really support that so Felix Jones will need to chip in often.
RB Grade: B
Jason Witten cannot be expected to carry this unit by himself. With troubles on the offensive line, the TE’s are going to be asked to assist in pass protection. I predict Witten to have a statistically down year. His lacerated spleen will leave him a little hesitant for contact. He is still a master of finding soft spots in zone coverage but expect much less run after the catch this year. James Hanna has good offensive potential but he will have to earn his playing time. John Phillips isn’t amazing at anything but he’s reliable at everything so he will be involved in most two TE sets.
TE Grade: B-
If there is one thing Miles Austin has taught us it’s his hamstrings will be always be injured. Austin has a pattern of injury impossible to ignore. It’s irresponsible to believe he will not be significantly impacted by injury so we need to look at what we have besides him to cast full judgment. Dez Bryant should absolutely explode this season. He will spit time returning punts through most of the season but frequency of him returning punts will decline as his statistics as a receiver increase. After this year, Dez will be firmly entrenched in conversations of the NFL’s best receivers. Wide Receiver will prove to be a position of depth and strength. Cole Beasley will provide an excellent outlet for Romo when the pocket breaks down and Tony’s forced to scramble. They share the same chemistry Romo previously shared with Patrick Crayton and Laurent Robinson. They will combine for some very important plays this season.
Wide Receiver: B+
It all comes down to the quarterback. Over the years the rules have focused on helping the passing game. Rules have limited defenses so much, a dominant QB can singlehandedly win any game. If your team has a top QB it has a shot. The Cowboys are blessed with a top 10 QB. We can save an in-depth discussion on Romo’s rank within the league for another day. At this point just accept he is good and has the ability to win (and lose) any game for Dallas. The main question is how much time will he be given in the pocket and will he miss games this year. Romo has taken a beating the past few years so it’s almost a reasonable expectation to say he will miss a couple games. Enter in the fact most of our questions and concerns revolve around the O-line and it’s probably wise to expect Romo to miss two games. Jerry Jones expects it or he wouldn’t have invested in a top quality QB backup. The quarterback position will produce but exactly how much really depends on the O-line.
QB Grade: A-
The units grade out fairly well individually. Upgrades have been made across the board and players who are expected to develop have shown the ability to do so. The issue is really around injuries. Probablity of injury was taken into account on the position grades but it’s impossible to predict a catastrophic, season ending injury. One or two season-ending injuries can mean the difference between finishing first in the division and last.
Did you know the defense is only returning 4-6 starters to their original positions this year? The exact number depends on what the DL rotation looks like but the point is, this is a relatively new group of players who need to play together before the kinks are worked out. Of those returning 4-6 players, 3-4 have missed substantial time in the preseason. Expect the defense to have some communication issues at the start but to improve as the season progresses.
The offense is in a similar situation. They are only returning 6 starters to their original positions. Phil Costa is the only linemen expected to return to his original position assuming Ryan Cook doesn’t overtake him. Of those six returning starters, four missed substantial portions of the preseason to injury. Fortunitly Tony Romo has been healthy so it’s not panic time but certainly cause for concern. What the injuries tell us is we should expect the season start out pretty rocky. This team holds potential for improvement throughout the season so dont be too critical with how they start. As long as the injuries cease, or at least slow down, we can compete.
Typically each year there is a 50% playoff churn, meaning roughly 6 teams that made the playoffs in 2011 will not make the playoffs in 2012. This is very comforting when you are a team on the edge (specificall the wrong side of last year’s edge). The Cowboys have a very good chance to be a playoff team in 2012.
Looking at the schedule the Cowboys have a brutal road ahead. They will need to minimize mistakes in the beginning because they have a chance to start 3-1 with the sole loss being the NY Giants in the opener. The schedule gets considerably tougher after the bye week so having a strong start is very important. If key players stay healthy, it’s reasonable to believe the Cowboys can get 10 wins and a shot at the Wild Card. It very well could come down to some division tiebreakers to decide. I’m predicting the same record as the Giants so our second match-up will be the most important game of the season if the Cowboys want to have a chance with the tie-breaker.
Division Winner: (11-5) Philadelphia Eagles
WildCard Contender: (10-6) New York Giants
WildCard Contender: (10-6) Dallas Cowboys
Improving: (7-9)Washington Redskins