Dallas Cowboys 2013 NFL Season Preview

Introduction

When the Cowboys signed Tony Romo to a 6-year, 108 million dollar contract extension with 55 million dollars guaranteed this off-season, it got a lot of criticism, as could be expected. After all, Romo is the media’s favorite whipping boy, for whatever reasons. And, yes, when you compare it to the contracts of other top flight quarterbacks, it looks like an overpay.

However, I say about that extension the same thing I said when the Ravens paid Joe Flacco: if the Cowboys hadn’t kept him, teams would have been lining up to “overpay” him. There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind Romo could have gotten that kind of money on the open market. Just ask fans of the Bills or the Cardinals or the Jaguars or the Browns how much they wish it could be their team paying Romo that kind of money to play quarterback for them. Because, at the end of the day, there are two types of teams in the NFL, teams with quarterbacks you can win with and teams without and, because of Romo, the Cowboys are the former.

In his career, Romo has completed 64.7% of his passes for an average of 7.9 YPA and 177 touchdowns to 91 interceptions, good for a career QB rating of 95.6, 5th highest all-time behind Aaron Rodgers, Steve Young, Tom Brady, and Peyton Manning. He has a career record of 55-38 and while he has a reputation for not being clutch, he has led 18 4th quarter comebacks in those 55 wins and he has a career record of 19-19 in games decided by a touchdown or less. He also has the highest 4th quarter QB rating of any active quarterback. He may only be 1-3 in the post-season in his career, but, like with Matt Ryan, it’s not fair to judge a quarterback’s entire career on 4 games. I don’t understand why he takes the type of criticism he does.

Romo has a reputation for being someone who throws a lot of interceptions, but his career interception rate of 2.8% is barely higher than Peyton Manning’s 2.7% career interception rate (Drew Brees is also at 2.7%). In fact, the 19 interceptions he threw last season, which led the league, tied a career high and was the same amount he threw in his last two full seasons combined. Eli Manning led the league with 25 interceptions in 2010 and his 2011 turned out to be pretty good. Romo’s interception total should regress to the mean in 2013.

Turnovers were an issue overall for the Cowboys in 2012 as they had a turnover differential of -13 and managed just 16 takeaways. That tends to be inconsistent on a year-to-year basis, however. For example, teams with 20 or fewer turnovers on average turn the ball over 25.5 times the following season, while teams that turn the ball over 35 or more times turn the ball over 28.1 times the following season. Teams with 20 or fewer takeaways take the ball away an average of 25.3 times the following season, while teams with 35 or more takeaways take the ball away an average of 27.3 times the following season. Teams with a turnover differential of +15 or higher have a turnover differential of +3.6 the following season, while teams with a turnover differential of -15 have a turnover differential of +1.5 the following season.

They should be better in that aspect this season and for that reason a better team. They actually have a good deal of talent on both sides of the ball so as long as they don’t get in their own way turnover wise or continue struggling to produce takeaways defensively, they should be an improved team in 2013. Of all the divisions in the NFC, theirs is the weakest and the most up for grabs. They should contend for the division title and the trip back to the post-season that would come with it.

Quarterback

I talked extensively about Romo in the opening and I’m not going to repeat myself. Just know that you can win a Super Bowl with Romo as your quarterback and that the media criticism of him is incredibly unfounded. The Cowboys haven’t had the supporting cast to complement him in a while, but I think this might be their most talented team in years.

Grade: B+

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

What really helps Romo is the development of #1 wide receiver Dez Bryant. Bryant has always had all the talent in the world and, as is often the case with wide receivers, he finally put everything together in his 3rd year in the league in 2012, catching 92 passes for 1382 yards and 12 touchdowns and playing in all 16 games for the first time. Among eligible wide receivers, only Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker had higher quarterback ratings when thrown to than Bryant, as Romo completed 67.2% of his passes for an average of 10.1 YPA, 12 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions when throwing to Bryant, a QB rating of 123.2.

He closed 2012 incredibly well, catching 50 passes for 879 yards and 10 touchdowns in his final 8 games and while you never like to see a receiver drop 11 passes in a season, 7 of those came in the first 7 games of the season. This off-season has actually been his first without any sort of off the field distraction so he could be even better in 2013. He finally seems to have turned a corner.

Romo also has one of the best tight ends in the NFL as Jason Witten led all tight ends with 110 catches for 1039 yards last year, to go with 3 touchdowns. Witten and Bryant were one of just five receiver duos in the NFL to each have 1000 yards receiving and the only one to feature a tight end. Witten is one of the most dependable players in the NFL regardless of position. He hasn’t missed a game since his rookie year in 2003, signing a waiver to play through a ruptured spleen week 1 of last season and his worst season since his rookie year was 2006, when he still caught 64 passes for 754 yards and 1 touchdowns.

Since 2004, his 2nd season in the league, he’s averaged 86 catches for 956 yards and 5 touchdowns per season and only going into his age 31 season coming off a career high in catches, I see no reason why that wouldn’t continue. He’s also a phenomenal run blocker who has graded out significantly above average in that aspect on ProFootballFocus in each of the last 5 seasons. There’s a reason he was their #3 ranked tight end last season.

Miles Austin almost made it 3 receivers with over 1000 yards last season as he caught 66 passes for 943 yards and 6 touchdowns, rebounding from an injury plagued 2011 season. He might never produce the kind of numbers he had in 2009 and 2010 again, when he averaged 75 catches for 1181 yards and 9 touchdowns per season, because of Dez Bryant’s emergence and Jason Witten’s presence, and his final 8 game production from 2012 is concerning (25 catches for 306 yards and 2 touchdowns), but he’s only 29 and as your 3rd option, you can do a lot, lot worse.

The Cowboys have a great top receiving trio. All of their receiving numbers might be a little inflated because the Cowboys passed the ball 658 times in 2012, which was 3rd most in the NFL and 90 more attempts than any Cowboy team in the Tony Romo era. However, this is more and more becoming a passing league and while they’d probably prefer not to have to pass that many times in 2013, they’ll still be a pass heavy team that should throw the ball at least 600 times and you can’t deny their receiving talent.

The Cowboys also spent 2nd and 3rd round picks adding to this receiving corps, which was a need considering the only other player after their top 3 who had more than 262 receiving yards was Kevin Ogletree, who is now in Tampa Bay. 3rd round pick Terrance Williams will compete with 3rd year pro Dwayne Harris, a 2011 6th round pick who caught all 17 of his career receptions in the 2012 season, for the #3 wide receiver job. Williams appears to have the upper hand in that battle and should be able to win it. Williams is a straight line speedster who was incredibly productive at Baylor, but needs to work on his route running. Whoever wins that job will line up outside and push Austin to the slot in 3-wide receiver sets, which they ran on 51% of offensive snaps in 2012.

That number could be lower in 2013 though. In 2011, they used two-tight end sets much more frequently than in 2012 and the reason for that was the loss of Martellus Bennett, following the 2011 season. Bennett was a 2nd round pick of the Cowboys’ in 2008 and while he was trapped behind Witten on the depth chart, he was secretly one of the best #2 tight ends in the NFL and saw the field frequently. There’s a reason he turned into one of the better all-around tight ends in the NFL once he got a starting job in New York in 2012. However, with John Phillips as the #2 tight end in 2012, they just weren’t able to do the same sort of things. Phillips played just 342 snaps, fewer than Bennett had in any season and he too is also gone as a free agent this off-season.

Seeing the opportunity to upgrade that spot, they used a 2nd round pick on Gavin Escobar, from San Diego State, and he should see the field plenty as a rookie. He’s not the same type of inline blocker than Bennett was, but he’s a more fluid athlete and pass catcher. He’ll be used more as a move tight end with Witten able to block inline and he’ll allow the Cowboys to get back to the two-tight end sets they love. Williams and Escobar add to this receiving corps’ depth and allow them more versatility and it really is overall one of the best receiving corps in the NFL.

Grade: A

Running Backs

One of the reasons why the Cowboys passed so much in 2012 was because they couldn’t get anything going on the ground. They averaged just 3.6 yards per carry, tied for 2nd worst in the NFL, rushed for just 1265 yards, 2nd worst in the NFL, and ran the ball just 355 times, also 2nd worst in the NFL. DeMarco Murray might be a little overrated off of his 25 carry/253 yard performance against St. Louis in his first NFL start as a 3rd round rookie in 2011. That was a completely hapless Rams defense at the time and if you take out that game, he’s averaged just 4.4 yards per carry in his career. Last season, he averaged 4.1 yards per carry and since his first 4 starts, he’s managed just 866 yards on 225 carries, a 3.8 YPC clip. He’s not as proven as people think.

He’s also been hampered by numerous injuries, missing the end of his rookie season in 2011 and being limited to 161 carries in 2012. Injuries can not only keep a running back off the field, but also sap his explosiveness and Murray has injury issues dating back to his collegiate days at Oklahoma. There’s a reason he fell to the 3rd round. In Murray’s absence last year, the Cowboys rushed Felix Jones, Lance Dunbar, and Phillip Tanner, who combined to rush for 538 yards on 157 carries, a pathetic 3.4 YPC.

Seeing the need for an insurance policy behind Murray, the Cowboys used a 5th round pick on Joseph Randle out of Oklahoma State, who will see carries should Murray get hurt or struggle. He has a good chance to see action, but I don’t know how effective he’ll be. He was just a 5th round rookie and he’s a one speed back who did most of his work in open space in college and his measurables, 4.63 40 at 6-0 204, don’t impress.

Grade: C+

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Offensive Line

Part of the reason why they’ve struggled on the ground of late has been their poor offensive line play, though they are a better run blocking offensive line than pass blocking, ranking 26th on ProFootballFocus in terms of pass protection and 23rd in pass blocking efficiency last season. Seeing the problem, they spent a first round pick on an offensive lineman.

The problem is they reached for Wisconsin’s Travis Frederick, a self-proclaimed “2nd or 3rd round offensive lineman.” While I don’t have much doubt Frederick will be a solid starter in the NFL, the time for drafting solid starting interior offensive linemen isn’t the 1st round. That being said, he will be an upgrade for them on the offensive line, though it’s unknown where he’ll play. He has the versatility to play both guard and center and they need help at both spots.

Right guard is the position where they need the most help. They signed career backup Mackenzy Bernadeau to be their starter at right guard last season for some reason and it went exactly as you’d expect. Bernadeau graded out well below average at right guard and was even worse in 2 starts at center. At center, Ryan Cook actually did a solid job in 13 games, but it’s going to be hard to count on the career backup long term. Cook was only out there because Phil Costa was hurt.

Costa, who will start at center if Frederick plays guard, graded out above average last year on 126 snaps before getting hurt, but he was ProFootballFocus’ 30th ranked center out of 35 eligible in 2011. Frederick will be able to plug one of these holes, but not both and I don’t think he’ll be a big time impact player. At left guard, Nate Livings actually played pretty well, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 16th ranked guard in 2012, but in 2011 he was 52nd out of 78 eligible and 2012 was the first season he graded out above average, so I don’t know how reliable he can be.

Things aren’t much better at right tackle. After a strong 2010 season, the Cowboys rewarded left tackle Doug Free with a 4 year, 32 million dollar contract with 17 million guaranteed, even though he was only a one year starter. He proved to be a one year wonder. He struggled at left tackle in 2011 and was moved to right tackle this year, in hopes of turning things around.

He didn’t turn things around. In fact, he was worse. He was one of the worst tackles in the league, allowing 6 sacks, 4 quarterback hits, and 42 quarterback hurries, while committing a league leading 15 penalties. He split time with Jeremy Parnell down the stretch, who didn’t impress either. Free ranked 66th out of 80 eligible tackles on ProFootballFocus. He restructured his contract this off-season to stay with the team and will compete with Parnell, who graded out below average on 267 snaps in his first serious playing time since going undrafted in 2009. They’ve been linked to free agent right tackle Eric Winston, who would be a tremendous upgrade, but they won’t meet his asking price. If it comes down, which it could if he’s remains unsigned in 2 weeks’ time, he could be a Cowboy.

Their best offensive lineman is left tackle Tyron Smith. Smith was their right tackle in 2011 and played so well, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 3rd ranked offensive tackle, that he got to move to the blindside for 2012. He didn’t play as well, committing 11 penalties and struggling some in pass protection, but he run blocked incredibly well, 8th among offensive tackles in terms of run blocking, and overall graded out above average. The 9th overall pick in 2011, he is only 22 (23 in December) so he still has plenty of upside and could emerge as an above average blindside protector this season. Their offensive line has plenty of issues still though.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

The Cowboys actually have a lot of defensive talent, but didn’t really play like it last season, allowing 25.0 points per game, 24th in the NFL. Part of this had to do with their inability to force turnovers, which should be better in 2013, as I mentioned earlier. However, a lot of the blame could fall on Rob Ryan, their Defensive Coordinator at the time. He has since been fired and replaced with Monte Kiffin.

Kiffin is an odd fit in Dallas because of cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne. They spent big resources on Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne last off-season, but both fit a man press scheme better than Kiffin’s signature Cover 2. Kiffin says he won’t force the scheme on the cornerbacks, but why hire Kiffin if you aren’t going to run the Tampa 2? Kiffin is a good coordinator, but this is a weird fit and it looks like Jerry Jones only did it for the attention and his big name.

That being said, Kiffin will move their front 7 to a 4-3 alignment, which fits their personnel much better. DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer will move from rush linebacker to defensive end. They were among the best pass rushing duos in the NFL last season. Spencer, who was franchised for the 2nd straight off-season this off-season, actually graded out as ProFootballFocus’ top ranked rush linebacker last season. While last season was the first season he had big time sack numbers, he’s always gotten consistent pressure and been one of the best run stopping rush linebackers in the NFL. He’s been in the top-13 at the position in each of the last 5 seasons, grading out above average in all 5 seasons. Last season, Spencer had 11 sacks, 2 hits, and 27 hurries on 318 pass rush snaps, a 12.6% pass rush rate.

Ware, meanwhile, has the bigger name, but was the inferior overall player last year. He rushed the passer really well, grading out 3rd at his position only behind Clay Matthews and Aldon Smith, producing 14 sacks, 13 hits, and 32 hurries on 454 pass rush snaps, a 13.0% pass rush rate. However, his struggles against the run, in coverage, and his position leading 9 penalties can’t be ignored.

He’s only going into his age 31 season and from 2008-2011 he was in the top-4 at his position on ProFootballFocus. Both are among the best edge rushers in the league and while neither has ever played in a 4-3, I don’t have too many concerns about how they’ll adjust, especially considering nickel and dime packages in a 3-4 and a 4-3 aren’t that different. They are, however, the lightest defensive end duo in the NFL, so they could have some issues against the run. Tyrone Crawford, a 2012 3rd round pick, will be the 3rd defensive end. He graded out positively on 303 snaps as a rookie and at 274 pounds, he’ll help against the run in certain situations. He can also line up inside on passing downs.

Inside at defensive tackle, Jay Ratliff and Jason Hatcher will start. Ratliff will be a better fit in a 4-3 than he was in a 3-4 because he’s at his best when he’s penetrating and getting up the field, rather than playing nose tackle. The issue is he’s going into his age 32 season and coming off a season where he played just 269 snaps due to injury. After restructuring his contract this off-season, he’s unlikely to be back in 2014 and beyond, but from 2008-2011 he was a top-11 defensive tackle on ProFootballFocus in all 4 seasons despite playing slightly out of position, so there’s some hope for a strong year from him in his new position.

Hatcher, meanwhile, might not be as good of a fit for the scheme. At 6-6 285, he’s undersized for a defensive tackle, but not quick enough to play defensive end. In a 3-4, this “tweener” was a perfect fit as a 5-technique because of his combination of size, speed, and length, but it’s unclear how he’ll fit in a 4-3. For what it’s worth, he was incredible last season, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 4th ranked 3-4 defensive end, but that was really the first season he had ever done anything like that, though he had always been good in limited action. They’ll have to hope he can be even close to that good in their new scheme.

Sean Lissemore will serve as the 3rd defensive tackle. Like Tyrone Crawford, his role will be more as a run stopper than anything. All across their starting defensive line, they have great pass rushers who are undersized and going to struggle stopping the run, but that’s how Monte Kiffin’s defensive lines usually are. They’re built on size and pass rush, as opposed to size and physicality. They were ProFootballFocus’ 8th ranked pass rushing team last season and have a chance to be even better than that this season.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

Despite their small defensive line, they might not struggle to stop the run. That’s because they have two excellent linebackers. Sean Lee and Bruce Carter are also a little smaller than the average linebacker, but they’re so fast and sticky that they are very hard to engage in the running game and they’re both excellent fits for Monte Kiffin’s new scheme. Injuries are the only issue here.

Lee has a history of injury issues dating back to his collegiate dates at Penn State, part of the reason why he fell to the 2nd round in 2010. As a reserve as a rookie, he played incredibly well on 169 snaps. In 2011, in his first full season as a starter, he was ProFootballFocus’ 14th ranked middle linebacker. In 2012, he was off to an incredible start before getting hurt and missing 10 games with a toe injury, but he was still ProFootballFocus’ 6th ranked middle linebacker despite playing just 336 snaps. He absolutely has the potential to be one of the top-3 middle linebackers in the league, especially in this new scheme, should he stay healthy. At his best, maybe only Patrick Willis is better than him.

Bruce Carter will play outside as an every down linebacker alongside Lee. When the Cowboys selected Bruce Carter in the 2nd round of the 2011 NFL Draft, they were taking a real chance. Carter had first round ability, with legitimate 4.4-4.5 speed at 6-1 241 and great weight room strength, throwing up 25 reps of 225 at The Combine, but was widely expected to go on day 2 because he had torn his ACL in the prior November. Not only would he likely not contribute as a rookie, he was a real question mark going forward. He couldn’t run the 40 at The Combine and it was a question whether he’d ever be able to regain that same explosiveness.

The Cowboys didn’t wait long into the 2nd day to take him, taking him 40th overall with the 8th pick of the 2nd round, doing so despite having 3 established middle linebackers ahead of him, Keith Brooking, Bradie James, and Lee and also despite running a 3-4 scheme that Carter didn’t seem to be a natural fit for. He’d be playing 3-4 middle linebacker, a position more focused on size and strength, coming up to plug the run, rather than speed, instincts, and athleticism, making plays in space. His sideline to sideline speed would not be best utilized in that scheme.

Carter predictably barely played as a rookie, but in his 2nd year in the league in 2012, with Brooking and James gone, Carter beat out free agent signee Dan Connor, widely perceived as the favorite for the job after landing a multiyear deal in free agency. Carter eventually became an every down linebacker at middle linebacker after injuries knocked out Sean Lee for the season, but once again, injuries found Carter when he dislocated his elbow on Thanksgiving and had to be put on IR. Still, despite only playing 625 snaps and despite playing out of position, Carter graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 15th ranked inside linebacker out of 62 eligible, with only 3 players ranked higher than him that played fewer snaps than him.

Now going into his 3rd year in the league, Carter is healthy again, but more importantly the scheme has changed. Carter will be moving outside to weakside linebacker, where he will play every down in the role that Derrick Brooks thrived in with the Buccaneers for so many years under Kiffin. Carter’s skill set fits that role perfectly as his natural athleticism, instincts, and range will be allowed to shine. Provided he stays healthy, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Carter emerged as one of the best outside linebackers in the NFL this season.

The 3rd linebacker will be Justin Durant. He’ll primarily be a run stopper and come off the field in passing downs for an extra defensive back. He’ll be a perfect fit for this role. He’s not a well-rounded player at all, but in the last three years, he’s graded out as ProFootballFocus  1st (2010), 7th (2011), and 8th (2012) ranked 4-3 outside linebacker on ProFootballFocus. Barring injury, this is one of the best linebacking corps in the NFL. I like this front 7 a lot as a whole.

Grade: A

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Cornerbacks

Brandon Carr is their #1 cornerback. He’s an overrated player who wasn’t worth what they paid him last off-season. He played pretty well in Kansas City when he had Brandon Flowers to cover #1 receivers opposite him, but he had his worst season since his rookie year last season as Dallas’ #1 cornerback. Still, he graded out as a league average player, allowing 51 catches on 87 attempts for 644 yards, 3 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, while deflecting 8 passes and committing 3 penalties.

What would really help Carr is if Morris Claiborne could develop into a #1 cornerback. The 2012 6th overall pick certainly has the upside, but he struggled as a rookie, grading out below average and allowing 48 catches on 69 attempts for 571 yards, 4 touchdowns, and 1 interception, while deflecting 7 passes and committing 8 penalties. He should be better in his 2nd season in the league, but he might be a year away from developing into a top flight cornerback, if he’s ever going to.

Orlando Scandrick will be the slot cornerback and with Mike Jenkins gone, he should see more than the 339 snaps he played last season. He graded out about league average, allowing 20 catches on 39 attempts for 222 yards, 0 touchdowns, and 0 interceptions, while deflecting 3 passes and committing 3 penalties. He never developed into the player they expected him to be when they prematurely gave him a “forward thinking” 5 year, 25 million dollar contract with 10 million guaranteed two off-seasons ago. Owed 3.5 million in 2014, this could be his last season with the team, so the Cowboys drafted BW Webb in the 4th round. Webb will be their 4th cornerback this season.

The Cowboys may use 4 cornerbacks more than most teams, like they did last year with Jenkins, because of their lack of talent at the safety position. It could be even worse this season. They’ve essentially got 5 guys competing for two spots and none of them are very impressive. Barry Church started last year as a starter before tearing his Achilles. He’s only played in 399 snaps in his career since going undrafted in 2010 and hasn’t played very well, but he should win one of the starting jobs because of his salary. In yet another “forward thinking” extension by Jerry Jones, the Cowboys extended him for 4 years, 12.4 million last year after he tore his Achilles, even though he had another year left on his contract.

Will Allen, a career backup and special teamer going into his age 31 season, is another option. He graded out about average on 432 snaps with the Steelers last season. Danny McCray, who played in Church’s absence last season, graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 77th ranked safety out of 88 eligible despite playing just 658 snaps. Matt Johnson is an inexperienced 2012 4th round pick who didn’t play a snap last season. JJ Wilcox, meanwhile, is a 3rd round pick rookie who is incredibly raw. There’s not a lot to like here at safety and it’s really the weakness of their defense. However, they still have a lot of defensive talent and barring major injury or major issues adjusting to the new scheme by some of their premier players, they should be an improved defensive group next season and they should force more takeaways as well.

Grade: B-

Head Coach

Jason Garrett gets a lot of criticism, but unlike Tony Romo, he does deserve a lot of it. His Cowboy teams have largely underachieved over the years, doing so last year while committing 118 penalties, 3rd most in the NFL. His name has been thrown around as a coach who could potentially get fired and if they don’t make it back to the playoffs this season, this could be it for him. He’s already had play calling duties taken away from him.

Grade: C+

Overall

As I said in the opening, the NFC East is really wide open. Washington won the division with 10 wins last year and they could easily not match that because of Robert Griffin’s health questions and because of the ridiculous fumble luck they had last season. The Giants are obviously a candidate to bounce back, but they still have major questions in their defensive back 7. Philadelphia, meanwhile, remains a mystery. The Cowboys could easily go 4-2 or better  in divisional play.

Outside of the division, they host St. Louis, Denver, Minnesota, Oakland, and Green Bay. Denver and Green Bay will be tough games, but they could win one of those games and they should win the other 3. On the road, they go to Kansas City, San Diego, Detroit, New Orleans, and Chicago. New Orleans should be a very tough one and Detroit and Chicago won’t be easy, but Kansas City and San Diego will be easier and they should win 2 or 3 of those games. They should be able to win the 10 or 11 games it will take to win this division.

Projection: 11-5 1st in NFC East

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