Let's do a review to see how things have changed since last season, what's set, and what's not, where the fiercest competition is likely to be, and what's still left to be done.
The roster from last year, and the depth chart are still up on Cowboys.com. The roster has 59 names on it, plus the 7 draft picks. It's missing some of guys we have already cut, like Buehler, James, Brooking, Holland, Dockery, Kosier, and Elam. I'm going to do a comparison, by position, of last year's players to this year's players, identifying what's firmly set, pretty set, and wide open. I'll put my commentary under each position. Bold means set for 2012.
2011 -- Romo, Kitna, McGee
2012 -- Romo, Orton, ??? -- Expect McGee to be traded, and a practice squad guy to be #3.
By signing Orton, and with McGee on the last year of his deal, the Cowboys have made it clear that McGee is not the heir apparent to Tony Romo. I expect McGee to get traded before the season begins, opening a roster spot, with the 3rd stringer likely a practice squad QB. Definite backup upgrade, but if we need Orton to play much, we're screwed.
2011 -- Jones, Murray, Tanner
2012 -- Murray, Jones, ???. Lot's of competition here for 3rd RB. Tanner's back, but so are several UDFAs.
We didn't draft another RB, and I was hoping, but we've brought in several UDFA's to give Phillip Tanner a run for 3rd RB. Tanner didn't help his security by getting hurt last year despite having almost no carries. He's going to have to win this job all over again. With Murray #1 to start the year, and a better FB leading him and Jones into the hole, look for better rushing totals even with an iffy OLine. Main issue is keeping both Murray and Jones healthy.
2011 -- Fiammetta
2012 -- Vickers
Isaiah Greenhouse is also on the roster at FB, and our 7th round ILB has also been checked out at FB. But this is Vickers' job, and his punishing style is sorely needed. With Bennett gone, Garrett may use his FB more and 2 TE sets a bit less this year. Our best rushing came out of sets with a FB. Here's Bob Sturm's final breakdown. 6.8 YPC! out of 21 personnel (2 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR), and 5.5 YPC out of 22 sets (2 RB, 2 TE, 1 WR).
2011 -- Austin, Bryant, Robinson, Harris, Ogletree
2012 -- Austin, Bryant, ???, ???, ??? One of the most open competitions of the camp. Nobody's set. Some names on the roster: Coale, Harris, Holmes, Radway, Ogletree.
We need Austin and Bryant to stay healthy and pass 1,000 yards each because behind them we have a lot of unproven wannabes. I like the selection of Coale, and expect him to stick. He could move all the way up to #3 on this depth chart. Raymond Radway will be back, but after his injury, will he flash the same speed? Dwayne Harris may also stay on the depth chart, but there are no guarantees. Kevin Ogletree has been given another shot, Andre Holmes is around, and we've got lots of UDFA's lined up.
2011 -- Witten, Bennett, Phillips
2012 -- Witten, Phillips, Hanna? Will Hanna stick? Can he improve enough to pass Phillips?
I like the pick of Hanna. He's got more speed than Phillips, but he's also got flaws that don't guarantee him a roster spot. A lot depends on how quickly John Garrett can coach him up. I expect Hanna to make the roster and begin the year 3rd, but I hope we take advantage of Hanna's speed to get him open down the field this year. Loss of Bennett's blocking prowess may hurt YPC average with 22 personnel, however.
2011 -- Free, Holland/Dockery/Nagy, Costa/Kowalski, Kosier, Smith
2012 -- Smith, Livings, ???, ???, Free. This will be the most important competition of the camp. I hope we aren't done looking for some interior line talent, either. On the roster: Costa, Kowalski, Arkin, Bernadeau, Nagy, Parnell. We've signed Leary as a UDFA and perhaps others.
The success of our season could hinge on what kind of offensive line coach Callahan is able to put together and coach up. We know Smith and Free are flipping spots, and that should be good. Smith is clearly our best lineman, and Free might return to form back on the right side. But in the middle? It's wide open. I expect Nate Livings to take one guard spot because he has the most experience and the biggest contract. It could be anyone in the other two slots, including someone not currently on the roster. We started last year with Nagy and Dockery, but quickly brought back Holland when it was clear he was needed. Swing tackle is also open, but word is we like Parnell. His competition for now is whatever UDFAs we've brought in.
OVERALL OFFENSIVE ASSESSMENT
It's difficult to project any improvement to the offense this year. The OLine is the biggest question mark. Can it run block? Keep Tony Romo upright and healthy? Austin and Bryant might make up much of Robinson's lost yards, but unless we have a viable 3rd WR, teams will be able to roll coverage to them. According to Bob Sturm's chart, 46% of our passing yardage came from 3 WR sets. Bennett's receiving can be replaced, but his blocking will be missed. Vickers' is an upgrade at FB who should help the run game.
I think our best hope is that our D will give our offense more and better opportunities, which will yield more points, even if not more yards.
2011 -- Newman, Jenkins, Scandrick, Ball, Walker
2012 -- Carr, Claiborne, Scandrick, ???, ???. Will Mike Jenkins be kept, or traded? Behind that, it's a wide open competition.
This is the area of greatest improvement for the team. With ability to press cover, it will allow Rob Ryan to unleash his full defensive arsenal. The ripple effects could be enormous. More pressure on the other team's QB, more turnovers, better field position, more defensive TDs, more forced punts. It's possible this could knock of 3-4 ppg surrendered (from 21.7 down to 18ish), and increase our offensive ppg by a couple points. Of course this stat may be overrated -- the Giants who won the Super Bowl gave up more points than they scored last year. The questions here are whether Jenkins will be kept or traded, and how quickly Claiborne improves. There will be a wild scramble for 4th and 5th on the depth chart, but it likely won't have much impact on the team. Hopefully Carr and Claiborne will play all the time, unlike Newman and Jenkins, who were often sidelined.
2011 -- Elam, Sensabaugh, Church, McCray
2012 -- Sensabaugh, Pool, Church, ???, ???. Another open competition area among Johnson, McCray, and others.
Sensabaugh will play the most here. The other slot is fairly open. Pool only played half the snaps for the Jets last year, and he's on a one-year deal, so I don't consider his position set. We drafted Matt Johnson, still have McCray and Mana Silva on the roster, and have likely brought in several UDFAs. Will this area be better or worse than last year? Hard to say. Pool might get us more INTs, which would be good. But this is still a middling group, and probably the weakest link on the D.
2011 -- Lee, James, Brooking, Carter, Lemon
2012 -- Lee, Connor, Carter, ???, ???. We drafted McSurdy, but also have Orie Lemon and others in the mix. Expect fierce competition for the 4th spot. We may not carry 5 ILBs.
This is another area of significant upgrade. Gone are James and Brooking, who had smarts, but no speed left. Connor is a solid run stuffer, and Carter's speed should help us cover underneath passes better and perhaps generate more turnovers.
2011 -- Ware, Spencer, Butler, Albright
2012 -- Ware, Spencer, Butler, Wilber, ???. Another fierce competition for the 4th spot.
Thank goodness we have Spencer back. For all the guys who wanted to replace him, I don't think there was an OLB in the draft who could have outplayed him in 2012. Is Wilber his heir apparent? He'll have to bulk up considerably. But his drafting at the top of round 4 bodes ill for Alex Albright. Not much changed here from 2011. Better CB coverage might give Ware and Spencer a tick more time to get to the QB.
2011 -- Hatcher, Ratliff, Coleman, Spears, Brent, Lissemore, Geathers
2012 -- Hatcher, Ratliff, Lissemore, Crawford, Brent, ???, ??? Another area for fierce competition.
The Cowboys are starting to churn this part of their roster to get younger, and save some money. I expect Lissemore to move into the starting lineup in place of Coleman, with the veteran let go. If Crawford comes on, and Geathers looks like he can join the rotation, Spears may also be on the bubble. Hopefully these moves can generate more pass rush without sacrificing run stuffing. Nobody stands out among this group as dominant -- even Ratliff (who had only 2 sacks last year) -- but it could be better overall and generate more pressure than last year.
OVERALL DEFENSIVE ASSESSMENT
The defense needs to be the strength of the team this year. With a potentially weak offensive line, the offense cannot be expected to be better. For the team to be better and win more games, the defense has to get it done. And it may. Our CBs have improved dramatically, as have our ILBs. We have Spencer back, so OLB play should remain a team strength. And our Dline looks to be modestly better, and definitely younger. Our safety play will likely remain mediocre, but hopefully they will generate more than 2 picks.
2011 -- Bailey (K), McBriar/Jones (P), Ladouceur (LS), assorted kick and punt returners
2012 -- Bailey (K), ??? (P), Ladouceur (LS), assorted kick and punt returners.
Bailey is locked in as kicker and the Buehler experiment is over. Will McBriar return as punter? I think so if he's healthy and the price is right. We could really use improved returns this year, but with Robinson gone, will we risk having Dez return punts? He did nothing in 2011 after a stellar 2010 when he broke a few for TDs. We didn't draft any obvious return guys, so this is another area for wide open competition. It's possible it will be a UDFA who sticks around at CB or WR.
OVERALL SPECIAL TEAMS ASSESSMENT
It will be hard to repeat what Bailey did last year. Let's hope he comes damn close. Punting could be better. I'm hoping for a healthy McBriar back. Where we need the most help is in the return games.
Jason Garrett wants competition. He's got lots of it, up and down the roster. The team should be a lot younger this year. All the free agents we signed were in their 20s except Nate Livings, who is 30. Meanwhile, we let go or likely will release the following guys over 30: Brookings, James, Newman, Elam, Coleman, Kitna, Kosier, Holland, and Dockery.
Let the competition begin!