I've been away for a few months, so my apologies if this sort of thing has been done several times over, but something got me thinking about where this team can be when compared to where they were last year.
A friend of mine went to Vegas and I gave him $50 to put on the Cowboys (for the 8 and a half games over/under....I said over of course). He came back and told me Caesar's wasn't taking 2012 season bets yet. I have another friend going later this summer, so I'll put the bet in with him. Neither are Cowboys fans and both think I'm crazy for wanting to make that bet. They don't understand why I'm so optimistic. Judging by what I read and hear from the media, most of them don't get it either. Well, my biased reasoning after the jump.
Looking at each position from 2011, I see a lot of improvement coming in 2012. Starting on offense....
QB - Tony Romo: As we all know, Romo played most of the year banged up. If he can manage to stay injury free, common sense says he should play even better than his exceptional play in 2011.
Backup QB - Kyle Orton: I liked Kitna, but I was extremely happy with the Orton acquisition. He showed in Denver that under the right system, he can be more than a serviceable QB. In the last season he started all 16 games (2009), he posted a QB rating of 87.5, had nearly 3,700 yards, 20 TDs and only 9 INTs. He's also still
under 30 years of age. If Romo goes down to an injury, I feel like we have a QB that will keep the team very competative.
RB - DeMarco Murray: Another skill player who was injured last year. Like all rookies I'll discuss, the lack of an off-season last year undoubtedly hurt his development. The fact he was hurt in training camp only made matters worse. When he was healthy enough to contribute he did well. When given the chance to start, he exploded onto the scene with a franchise record performance. He now has the opportunity to enjoy a full off-season and has some NFL experience to lean on. We could be looking at one of the premier runners in the league.
Backup RB - Felix Jones: Felix Jones is in a contract year and that usually equates to a player giving it his all. With limited touches, he should stay fresh and will hopefully avoid the injuries that have plagued his career. He suffered a shoulder injury in the San Francisco game that hindered him most of 2011. He's a very talented who really doesn't get the credit he deserves. With a shot at a good pay day looming, I expect to see the dynamic Felix "The Cat" back in top form this year.
FB - Lawrence Vickers: Being a Syracuse fan, I was ecstatic when I saw we brought in Tony Fiammetta last year and he didn't let me down. He showed what a good fullback can do for the running game and for the offense in general. Unfortunately, he was only able to play in 10 games and his health turned into a weekly guessing game. As much as I liked him on the team, I don't like wondering from week to week whether we'll have our fullback. Vikcers has shown to be very durable during his career and you can see the success guys have had running behind him (Hillis in his glory year and Foster/Tate last year). He has more power than Fiammetta and that should translate into better third and short conversions.
WR - Dez Bryant: Bryant has teased us over the last two years with his immense talent. In the first game of the year, he suffered a thigh bruise that, according to Bryant himself, limited him the entire year. From everything coming out of OTAs and the mini camp, it looks like he may have finally put it all together. If he has, he can be as good as anyone in the league. Even if he hasn't he's only going into his third year so I'd be amazed if he wasn't better than last year.
WR - Miles Austin: Good grief, yet another skill player who was injured most of the year. Austin had hamstring trouble right from the get-go. I think he was the veteran hurt most from the lack of an off-season. He obviously needs trainers to help him withstand the rigors of the game. We've seen what a healthy Austin is capable of and the word so far is he looks to be in great shape.
TE - Jason Witten: OK, I don't expect to see an improvement here, but I also think he has enough left in the tank that we won't see a downgrade in his play. I have no worries here.
Backup TE - John Phillips: Phillips will be an overall improvement for this offense. He won't block as well as Bennett, but he's a much better route runner and pass catcher. The way the tight ends are being used in the NFL today, those traits are the more desired.
LT - Tyron Smith: Doug Free was not what the Cowboys had hoped at left tackle, but Smith will be. He was the best linemen on the team in 2011 and he accomplished that as a 20 year old rookie (youngest player in the NFL)...talk about an arrow pointing up! The Cowboys are moving him to left tackle to improve the most important position on the line and that's a decision that will pay off big.
RT - Doug Free: I don't think Free will upgrade right tackle after Smith's 2011 performance, but I don't think he'll downgrade it either. He was very good when he was the starting right tackle and I believe he returns to that form.
LG - Nate Livings: The left guard spot was a rotation of a seventh round rookie and a few journeyman guards (no disrespect to lumpy though, who did well). Nate Livings was asked for by Bill Callahan so he obviously sees something there. Trusting in the powers-that-be, I'm going to have to assume this is an upgrade over Nagy and company.
LG - TBD: Considering Kyle Kosier played the entire year with plantar fasciitis, and having dealt with that injury myself in the past, I'm going to say that Leary, Nagy, Killer K, Mackenzy Bernadeau, or even David Arkin can play at least as well as a hobbled Kosier.
C - Phil Costa: How can we not see better play at center this year. Even if Costa is starting in week one, his experience will give him an uptick from what we saw week one of 2011.
DE - Jason Hatcher: I see six sacks in 2012 for Hatcher. He managed 4.5 and was injured part of the year. Now, he has a year of starter experience and a full off-season to learn Rob Ryans defense (which will improve all returning veterans). Expect his solid play to not only continue, but to improve.
DE - Sean Lissemore: The Cowboys may start the season with Spears or Coleman as the "starter", but Lissemore will get more playing time when it's all said and done. That alone, is a huge upgrade. This guy is a beast and people outside of Cowboys circles will be talking about him by mid season.
NT - Jay Ratliff: With improved play on either side of him, we should see a return of the Jay Ratliff that earned All Pro honors. Not only will Hatcher and Lissemore help, but bringing in Crawford on passing downs and Brent to give him quality breathers will keep Ratliff among the elite tackles in the NFL.
OLB - DeMarcus Ware: No one should expect "improvement" from the best OLB in the league. However, even with saying that, it wouldn't surprise me if he becomes the first player in NFL history to record two, 20-sack seasons. I think he's going to be out to prove the skeptics wrong and we'll see him show up big, in pressure situations.
OLB - Anthony Spencer: Almost Anthony will still be Almost Anthony, but that's not terrible by any means. He a solid contributor, not a liability.
ILB - Sean Lee: He's just started to show what he can do. I see him improving from last year, becoming a defensive leader on this team, and making his first Pro Bowl.
ILB - Bruce Carter (or Dan Connor): No matter who is starting and who is subbing of these two, they are a better duo than James and Brooking.
CB - Brandon Carr: Carr is replacing Terrance Newman and this will be one of the biggest upgrades on the entire team. Having Carr in the secondary will help the front seven as well as the safeties.
CB - Mike Jenkins: If he's still on the team (and I believe he will be) Jenkins will begin the season as a starter. If he's smart, he'll be the best player he can be since he's playing for a big contract next year. A healthy and motivated Jenkins will be an upgrade from last year's broken down model.
CB - Morris Claiborne: From a roster standpoint, Pick 6 is basically taking the spot of Alan Ball; although, he'll more than likely be a starter before the end of the season. In any event, going from Ball to Claiborne is like going from a Chevette to a Corvette.
CB - Orlando Scanrick: Not sure if he'll be a lot better than last year, but he shouldn't be any worse.
S - Gerald Sensabaugh: Sensy, like Scandrick, shouldn't be any worse than last year. I actually expect him to have his best year since he'll have a group of quality corners playing alongside him.
S - Brodney Pool (or Barry Church or Matt Johnson): Elam had no INTs and no passes defensed....you can't help but improve on that no matter who you're starting.
HC - Jason Garrett: Last year was Garrett's first full season as a head coach. He made some bone-headed decisions that arguably cost this team at least one win. Say what you want about him, but you have to admit he's no dummy. He'll learn from those gaffs and be a better game manager in 2012.
OC - Bill Callahan: The presence of Callahan helps this team be better than it was in 2011. Garrett will still be the play caller, but Callahan will be putting his experienced two cents in and he'll provide a quality sounding board for the head coach.
DC - Rob Ryan: It's always tough for a new coach to come in and do great (hats off to Wade Phillips for the job he did in Houston). Ryan now has the assistance he wanted and has a year full of game tape on his players to review. He'll create some exotic defenses with the talent he has and his unit will rise to the occasion.
DB Coach - Jerome Henderson: I never liked the fact we brought back Campo and his departure happened a few a few years too late as far as I'm concerned. Henderson is a Ryan guy and he has a ton of talent to coach.
Strength and Conditioning coach - Mike Woicik: We all know this guys credentials and he will help this team be better in all phases.
So, there you have it. The only downgrade I really see on this team is the number three WR. Hey, it's getting hot outside, OTAs and mini camps are over and training camp is over a month away. What better time to partake in a cold beverage or two (or three). I've tapped the keg, filled my blue and silver stein (several times as you can see) and am chugging the delicious goodness of Cowboys Kool Aid. Pull up a chair and join me. Come on, it's good stuff!