The 2012 season got off to a promising start for the Dallas Cowboys. They went into New York and dealt the Giants a surprising upset on national TV. Optimism abounded, and it looked like the team was going to have a better year than 2011.
But things did not turn out as we hoped, and there was a harbinger of things to come in the pre-season when five of the Cowboys' draft choices, plus free agent guard Mackenzy Bernadeau, were out for significant time with injury, some never making it to the field. Then Phil Costa was hurt in that giddy opening victory, in the third game of the season against Tampa Bay starting safety Barry Church went down, and things just continued to get worse.
By the end of the year, the Cowboys were reduced to playing just about any street free agent with bus fare to Valley Ranch they could scrape up. Injuries were the immediate cause, but the killer was the lack of depth on the roster. And that was driven by the number of starting positions that the team had to fill last offseason.
Dallas has some true stars as starters, but by the end of the season, almost all of them had been injured. And in almost every case, the drop off in performance by the backups was, well, like expecting to go out to a bar with Taylor Swift and having Larry the Cable guy answer the door.
This is one more problem that goes back for several years, starting as least as early as the now legendary awfulness of the 2009 draft. Dallas has done a horrific job of bringing talent players with upside onto the team, or in the case of last year, was unable to get promising players to the field.
2013 is the year the team should turn the corner here. As well as the group of Redshirt Rookies, as OCC has termed the draftees like Matt Johnson and Danny Coale that the team is hoping will deliver on their promised abilities this season, six of the seven draft choices this year fit into this category very well.
Understand, I am not talking about put him on the sidelines and pray with all your heart he doesn't have to go in type players. I am talking about players who will go in and give you 90% or better of the production and capability of the player they replace. Players that can carry on for a game or the rest of the season and leave you with about the same chance to win as the starters they step in for. The kinds of players that were about as plentiful in Dallas last year as honest, incorruptible politicians in Washington.
Obviously this does not apply to Travis Frederick, who is going to start barring unforeseen things best left unmentioned here. The only question is where. I know OCC thinks he becomes a guard with Phil Costa staying at center, while I believe his football knowledge and skills at making line calls at Wisconsin will put him in the middle. I think Bill Callahan is dropping some hints about that, based on what he told Frederick.
But you expect the first round pick to start with the current structure of the CBA, the salary cap, and the rookie pay scale. And a starter from the draft that beats out someone else for the position essentially creates depth by pushing a former starter to a backup position. If the starter is cut, the assumption is that the player taking their place is better than they are, so the team still comes out ahead.
After the first round, while you are looking for potential starters at some point in their career, building quality depth is just as important with your other picks, and in the last two or three rounds, a player who spends his entire career as a backup can still represent a good value.
Player by player, here is how the 2013 draft class answers this yawning need.
Gavin Escobar. The Cowboys were already down to two tight ends in Jason Witten and James Hanna, and with the apparently firm plans to use more of the 12 set, possibly as the base offense, Escobar steps as a player that is expected to fill in for Hanna with very little drop off. He may well see a great deal of action in certain situations, such as the red zone, where his 6-6 height gives him a little advantage over Hanna. He may challenge for the second spot on the depth chart, but with talk of the team having four tight ends on the roster to incorporate 13 formations and to get a better blocker than any of the top three, he provides instant depth that allows the team to make significant modifications to the offense.
Terrance Williams. Given the injury history of Dez Bryant and particularly Miles Austin, Williams is almost a certainty to be starting at some point this season. He is forecast to move into the third WR position, demoting Dwayne Harris and letting the rest of the wide receivers in camp fight with Harris for the backup jobs. Given the expectations, he should allow the team to have two starting caliber receivers even if one of the current starters is out.
B.W. Webb. There has been a lot of discussion about whether he would be ahead of or behind Sterling Moore on the depth chart. It really doesn't matter. The Cowboys need at least two backup corners. There is more than enough room on the team for Webb and Moore.
Joseph Randle. This is the most important signing after Frederick. All the other players I'm discussing are coming into a position where there are at least two players ahead of them. Randle is backing up DeMarco Murray. Lance Dunbar is a change of pace back, not an every down runner. Randle is largely a carbon copy of Murray, and that is exactly what the team needs. With the disappointing showing from Phillip Tanner last season while Murray was out, Randle has the potential to have more impact on the team than anyone on this list (again, excluding Frederick). Whether or not you want to categorize Murray as injury prone, the fact of the NFL is that running backs get hurt a lot. A quality backup here is necessary if you depend at all on the ground game, and Dallas has repeatedly demonstrated that they are in big trouble without a credible running threat. Given recent history, I feel confident making the prediction that there will be two or more games this year where Randle's presence on the team is one of the keys to victory.
DeVonte Holloman. Logically, the last guy taken would be expected to be in the shakiest position, and Holloman fits that description, largely due to the signing of free agents Justin Durant and Brandon Magee. However, with the only established backup linebackers on the team being Ernie Sims and Alex Albright, there may be room for all of them, depending on how many linebackers wind up on the final roster. But even if Holloman gets cut or relegated to the practice squad, the depth at linebacker should be significantly improved by the others. And strong competition just helps the team.
And if the draftees falter, there are several additional UDFA players besides Magee that may prove to be an even better alternative to the draftee at their position. How things actually play out remains to be seen, of course, but right now the chances of improved depth for the team at many positions look very good. Part of it is that, outside the offensive line, almost all the starters are pretty much penciled in, or down to a couple of veteran alternatives. The team is not looking to fill multiple starting jobs with draftees or free agents the way it was last year, when Brandon Carr, Morris Clairborne, Nate Livings, Mackenzie Bernadeau, and Lawrence Vickers were all acquired to fill starting jobs, and the emergence of Church in training camp essentially replaced injured draftee Matt Johnson as another new starter. That was six holes the team had to fill with new players going into training camp last year. This year, Frederick and possibly a Doug Free replacement are the only truly new starters the team is looking to field. That is a tremendous difference and really a major improvement. That fact is why the Cowboys were able to draft for depth. This is a very good step towards getting the Cowboys back to a winning level.