I think that one of the major determinants of whether or not the Dallas Cowboys will be successful this year is how much they have improved their depth. 2012 showed that the team was shallow in talent, as the loss of several key players like Sean Lee and Barry Church had a tremendous effect on the team due to the significant dropoff in performance with the players that were pressed into service. The topic is also on the mind of at least one of our members. DannyPhantom sent an e-mail to the FPW with this question:
As I look through our roster I'm trying to determine which "lesser-known" guys will make the biggest impact. What are your top 3 choices for players that you think stand the best chance to surprise us? Let me define "lesser-known" for the sake of this discussion. All clear cut, penciled in starters are removed from consideration. Any guy that was in a position battle, whether they earned a starter spot or not, are eligible for consideration. And clearly all reserves are eligible.
Here are my suggestions for which players may be that kind of player for the Cowboys.
RB Phillip Tanner. This is a very close call, because I go back and forth between him and Lance Dunbar. However, Dunbar is out for the first game, and I am in the camp that he is really a change of pace/third down type back. Tanner was disappointing last season when he was called on to fill in for DeMarco Murray, but all signs are that he came into camp this year with a renewed dedication and clear evidence that he had put a lot of work into his conditioning and skill in the offseason. With Murray's history, the team needs someone who can not only spell him as an every down back when he needs a breather, but who can carry the main load for a stretch of games if need be. Bill Callahan has made an effective running game (defined as one that defenses cannot discount and just come after the passer) a priority this year, and I think Tanner is ready to step up to the challenge.
LB DeVonte Holloman. The rookie linebacker may be one of the best values the Cowboys got in the draft. He certainly looked a lot better than is normally expected from a sixth-rounder, and he has a knack for finding the ball. In the pre-season he was very effective in pass defense, with ProFootballFocus grading him at 4.1 overall and positive marks in every game. This was mostly due to having an interception for a touchdown in the first game, but he also got a sack, a quarterback hurry, and a quarterback hit. And during practices he was frequently around the ball. I think he will see a good bit of work on passing downs and might become a candidate as a nickel linebacker with his surprisingly good coverage skills. Plus, with a total of nine tackles and four assists, he looks capable of spelling one of the starters during games. Mainly, though, he seems to be a true disciple of the Monte Kiffin Church of Taking The Ball Away. That is what I am hoping to see on the field.
S J.J. Wilcox. Although we don't really know how Kiffin's defense will look quite yet, strong safety play has always been a hallmark of his 4-3. After what happened when Church went down last year, this is certainly one place the team needs someone who is ready to step up, and with the nature of the position, you can expect to see the backups getting some snaps under normal position to let the starters have a break. Wilcox got off to a bit of a rough start, but by the "dress rehearsal" game against the Cincinnati Bengals, he was looking like the lights were coming on, putting up a respectable 1.3 rating in pass defense according to PFF. He also does not look afraid to hit, racking up 16 tackles in the four pre-season games he appeared in. He appears to be the number three safety overall, since Kiffin's system does not have a great distinction between strong and free safety, so the team is going to be relying on him a lot.
There are certainly many other down-roster players who will be important, but some, like DE George Selvie and DT Nick Hayden, have already been penciled in as starters due to injuries ahead of them. I am looking just at the backups as the roster stands going into the opener against the New York Giants. These are three backups for that game I think will play a prominent role this year.
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