I'm drinking the kool aid. For a few years, my expectations for Dallas have been guarded optimism, mostly because our roster, frankly, had too many holes to realistically expect a deep playoff run from it, but this year looks different. I think that the Dallas Cowboys will win at the very least 11 games this year, an NFC East championship, and a playoff game. I could go into a bunch of reasons about coaching changes, a weak NFC East, and whatever else is working in the Cowboys favor, but what I see as the most important change from years past is that this is a deep roster with very few holes in it.
Starter: Tony Romo
Backup 1: Kyle Orton
Tony Romo is a Pro Bowl level QB that is capable of winning a championship with the right roster around him no matter what the haters say. Kyle Orton is a good backup that could win 2 out of 4 games if Romo goes down.
Left Tackle: Tyron Smith
Right Tackle: Doug Free
Swing Tackle: Jeremy Parnell
Tyron Smith performed at an above average level at LT the second half of last season and has immense potential. It's very possible that he performs at an elite level this season. Right tackle Doug Free, however, is one of the few holes that I see on the roster. On the bright side, he can't really be worse than he was last season and he did seem to improve at the end of last season. Also, Romo is adept at dealing with edge pressure, it's inside pressure that gives him the most trouble. Parnell is a good swing man who just may win the starting job at RT from Free, he can fill in at either spot if the starter goes down without causing the o-line to fall apart.
Interior Offensive Line
Left Guard: Ron Leary
Center: Travis Frederick
Right Guard: Mackenzy Bernadeau
Livings is a start or get cut guy and I think he gets cut. Leary has been holding his own with the first team so far and he's developing chemistry with Tron and Fredbeard. Why would you mess that up? Frederick is our first round pick who allegedly broke his teammate's arm in practice because he didn't know how to turn off his nastiness... I'm weeping tears of joy that he ended up with us. Bernadeau was actually solid at the end of last season when he wasn't moving around on the line and got a few games under his belt with the same o-line in place, expect continuity to be key for how well he performs. That being said, I do think he has way more potential than Livings and it would be dangerous to go with 3 first time starters on the offensive line. As for the backups, no surprises here. Costa is the backup center, while Arkin can be the swing guard and Cook can play all positions on the line except for LT.
WR1: Dez Bryant
WR2: Miles Austin
WR3: Terrance Williams
Dez is a monster. I did some projection math on him and got 1400 yards and 14 TDs as a really conservative estimate with 1600 yards and 16 TDs being more likely. Miles Austin gained more yards than the number 1 receiver on 16 NFL teams last season. He has 1200+ yard potential and is an extremely good WR2. After the starters, it gets interesting. With the way things have been going so far, Terrance Williams will probably be 3rd on the depth chart with Harris being a close 4th. They'll both see the field because of their different skill sets. Williams is more of a stretch the defense guy who will probably be put in 3WR packages where the intent is to go deep, but I would choose Harris on more intermediate and short routes because he is a playmaker in space with the ball in his hands. As for Beasley, he's not really the fifth receiver, he's the second slot receiver. At the end of last year, he seemed to make the most of his opportunities and was almost always open when he was on the field. He could be a good player in the slot.
TE1: Jason Witten
TE2 between the 20s: James Hanna
TE2 in the red zone: Gavin Escobar
TE4: Dante Rosario
Jason Witten is an elite TE and a future HOFer who is just coming off a record setting season... 'nuff said. James Hanna is an athletic player who showed potential at the end of last year, he could be a great mismatch against safeties and linebackers when the team is in 12 personnel in between the 20s. Gavin Escobar is a really big, really tall guy with hands that seem to act as vacuums whenever the ball is near him, I could see 8TDs this year for him all from short curl and out routes at the goal line just because of his catching skills when he uses his body to box out the defender. Rosario is a good 4th TE who can catch and block. Basically the replacement for the fullback on the roster when we want to go with heavy 12 personnel.
Feature back 1: DeMarco Murray
Feature back 2: Joseph Randle
Change of Pace back: Lance Dunbar
DeMarco Murray is an extremely physical runner with great vision that is a difference maker on the field... when healthy, which is where Joseph Randle comes in. Randle is a huge upgrade over Felix Jones, who is not a feature back. Randle's running style is extremely similar to Murray's and should allow the offense to function properly in the case of Murray's absence. Dunbar is a good change of pace back who has reportedly made huge improvements this offseason and should see the field in different situations than the feature backs.
So that's the offensive depth chart and I only see one gaping hole (right tackle) and one small one (right guard). Romo can more than make up for those deficiencies and has done it for pretty much his whole career. Other than that, this is a really scary offense capable of putting a lot of points on the board. Now for the defense.
Weak Side DE: DeMarcus Ware
Strong Side DE: Anthony Spencer
Backups: Kyle Wilber and Tyrone Crawford
Two Pro Bowlers (one of them a future HOFer) starting at DE, we're good there. Kyle Wilber is probably a better fit in this scheme with his hand on the ground and has reportedly bulked up and been doing well so far under Ware's tutelage. Crawford is one of my favorite players on the roster who will probably break out in 2014, but can contribute as a 3rd down pass rusher this season. He was known for rushing the passer with speed as a strong side 4-3 at Boise State and is the exact kind of player that Kiffin loves in this scheme. I can see him as being one of our starting ends of the future.
3rd String: Nick Hayden
The reason that I didn't specify position differences here (1 tech and 3 tech) is because both starters can play both DT spots. The reason that it's been Hatcher at 1 and Ratliff at 3 so far is because Kiffin is getting them used to playing the position that the other one has been playing his whole career (3 tech is similar to 3-4 end and 1 tech is similar to 3-4 NT). That being said, Ratliff should flourish in this scheme because it allows him to just pin his ears back and rush the passer without having to worry about covering multiple gaps and whatnot, which plays right to his strengths. Hatcher has been our best pass rusher on the defensive line for the past few seasons, so he shouldn't have a problem with the scheme change either. Lissemore always seemed to be the guy who didn't fit at end or tackle in the 3-4, switching to tackle in the 4-3 should be good for him as well. One thing about Lissemore is that he's a very efficient player who doesn't waste a lot of unnecessary motion in getting to the ball. Bass is a great story and yet another example of the Cowboys developing undrafted players. He came here last season on a tryout basis and impressed enough throughout camp to earn a spot on the practice squad, where he gave the scout team o-linemen fits. This year, he seems to have bulked up a bit and gotten the mental side of the game down and should earn a spot on this team as a primary backup at DT. He's a very quick player and that's something that Kiffin likes from his DTs. Hayden rounds out what should be a very good DT group. He's making himself very hard to cut by impressing so far in the snaps that he's gotten with the 1st and 2nd team while Ratliff and Hatcher are resting.
WILL: Bruce Carter
MIKE: Sean Lee
SAM: Justin Durant
Bruce Lee has the potential to be the best LB duo in the league and they're already noted as being extremely good. At SAM, Justin Durant is another athletic backer who is extremely good against the run and has held up in pass coverage so far in OTAs. Albright is a Swiss Army Knife player who can play anything from DE to MIKE in a pinch while contributing on special teams as well. He'll be around for awhile. Holloman is a great prospect who used to play safety that excels in coverage. I think he could develop into a starting player in a few years. Magee is in pretty much the same boat, although I think he's more of an inside type than Holloman. This team picked up two really good young linebackers this offseason. Ernie Sims adds another veteran as an insurance policy in case Carter or Lee goes down and he provides solid depth. Caleb McSurdy has a reputation of being a monster tackler and has reportedly been practicing as a goal line fullback. He'll make the team as a core special teams player. Right now, I see a very good, very young LB group that should immensely bolster our special teams while being a strength on defense.
SS: Barry Church
FS: Matt Johnson
Backups: Will Allen, JJ Wilcox, and Jakar Hamilton
Barry Church is reportedly back to his 2012 training camp form in which he earned a starting spot and flat out balled until an achilles tear ended his season. I pick Matt Johnson to win the FS job, but I do so with very little conviction because I've read from Broaddus that he and Allen are neck and neck right now with a slight edge to Allen. I still think that Johnson wins the job because his game tape from college is excellent and he should be able to truly show his great range once the pads come on. However, if Allen does win the job, then I think he's a good safety net (pun intended) and should be a capable starter. Wilcox is a raw prospect who should take some time to develop, but has immense potential. Hamilton takes McCray's place as an excellent special teams player, but he might not be a liability on the field.
Slot CB: Orlando Scandrick
Claiborne should take a huge step forward in year two after being able to participate in a full offseason and bulking up a bit. Plus, the new scheme should put him in a position to make plays on the ball, where he excelled in college. Brandon Carr looked and played like a $50 million corner the last 8 game last season and I expect that to continue. Though Scandrick gets a bad rap, he's actually one of the better slot corners in the league. I remember when we played the Patriots in 2011, he absolutely shut down Wes Welker for the entire game. In an league where you need at the very minimum 3 good corners, he's a pretty damn good 3rd corner to have. Sterling Moore filled in admirably for players that were injured all over the secondary last season and he's been good in OTAs so far, so I think he gets the backup spot for the outside corners. He can play safety as well, so that's a bonus that works in his favor. Webb was the best player on the field at rookie minicamp, but he's quieted down since then, though he did turn some heads in the last few days of minicamp. He backs up Scandrick as the 2nd slot corner and will probably take his job in 2014 or 2015.
On the defense, I only see one small hole at safety, but that's more because of inexperience than the presence of bad players. This defense has the potential to be a top 5 unit with Monte Kiffin and Rod Marinelli running the show.
Kicker: Dan Bailey
Punter: Chris Jones
Long Snapper: L.P. Ladoceur
If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
Shoutout to Zmen for pointing out that I had forgotten specialists. Thanks.
Overall, that's one big hole at RT and two small holes at right guard and safety. I'd say that this team has the personnel to make whole lot of noise and surprise a whole lot of people in 2013. The best thing about this roster is that it's very young and should set the Cowboys up to be successful for a long time.