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Can Cowboys Expect More Starters From Class Of 2010?

There is a widely held belief, particularly among fantasy football players, that many NFL receivers do not 'break out' until their third year in the league. While this belief has no statistical merit, there may be some truth to the underlying assumption.

The logic behind the third-year theory is that many young players need at least two years to develop. They need the time to learn how to hone their craft, understand the playbooks and develop physically and mentally. On paper, this would be particularly true of late-round draft picks or undrafted free agents who join teams when they are usually much less ready to play at an NFL level than their first or second round counterparts.

Here's a look at some later round picks and UDFAs on the current Cowboys roster and when they had their 'break outs' as measured by number of starts per season:

Player Draft Round 1st year 2nd year 3rd year 4th year
Bradie James 4th 0 2 16 16
Doug Free 4th 0 7 16 16
Jay Ratliff 7th 1 0 14 16
Tony Romo UDFA 0 0 0 10
Miles Austin UDFA 0 0 0 9

Young players are mercurial. They can improve suddenly. But they often need time to realize their full potential. After the break, we look at the class of 2010 and try to figure out if the Cowboys can expect any 'break outs' from the players entering their third year in the league.

The class of 2010 is of course headlined by Dez Bryant and Sean Lee, picked in the first and second round respectively. For different reasons, neither was a starter in their first year, but both were starters in their second year, just as their draft pedigree would lead you to expect.

The Cowboys traded away a third and fifth-round pick to get Bryant and Lee, and of the remaining picks from the 2010 draft, only Sean Lissemore (7th round) and Josh Brent (7th round supplemental draft) remain on the team. The class of 2010 is augmented by a handful of undrafted free agents, as the following table shows:

Player Draft Round 2010 2011
Dez Bryant 1st 2 13
Sean Lee 2nd 0 15
Sean Lissemore 7th 0 0
Josh Brent 7th 0 0
Phil Costa UDFA 1 16
Barry Church UDFA 0 1
Jesse Holley UDFA 0 0
Danny McCray UDFA 0 0
Jermey Parnell UDFA 0 0

So far, the Cowboys have gotten two bona fide starters out of the 2010 draft class in Bryant and Lee, plus one additional starter in Phil Costa whose future as a starter is unclear. Are there any more potential starters on this list?

Sean Lissemore showed great promise in a limited role at both defensive end and nose tackle. He was on the field for about a quarter of all defensive snaps and very productive in his limited opportunities. He'll likely see an increased role in the defensive line rotation in 2012, but whether that will result in some starts remains to be seen.

Josh Brent is a solid, if so far unspectacular backup to Jay Ratliff at NT. He missed a four games last year due to a sprained MCL and a kneecap injury for which he underwent surgery after the season. At 320 lbs, he could easily bulk up and become the plugger in the middle many Cowboys fans are clamoring for. More four-man fronts in 2012 could see his playing time increase further, but is he good enough to start?

Phil Costa may have been thrown into the NFL water a year too early. His performance at center left a lot to be desired at times, but he began to come into his own in the second half of the season. The Cowboys will not give up on Costa, but it's unlikely he'll start at center for the Cowboys in 2012. Instead, he'll likely be a solid backup who may get a shot at another starting role in perhaps a year or two.

Barry Church and Danny McCray are probably career special teamers at this point (albeit darned good ones). Church played 171 defensive snaps last year, with the bulk coming at the beginning of the season, and the coaches using him less and less as the season wore on. McCray saw only 31 defensive snaps but led the team in special teams tackles for the second straight year.

Jesse Holley spent the entire 2009 season on the practice squad, so while 2010 technically counts as his rookie season, he's already been with the Cowboys for three years. He turned 28 a month ago, and there is no mystery anymore about his potential ceiling: he has reached it. And it's likely not enough to hold off the likes of Andre Holmes, Raymond Radway and Dwayne Harris.

Jermey Parnell played 10 snaps in 2011. But that's already something, considering that Parnell didn’t play any high school football and only one season of college football - at defensive end. The Cowboys like something about the 6-foot-6, 305-pound Parnell whom they kept on the roster instead of 2010 6th-round OT Sam Young. Parnell remains a project though.

Many players don't fully develop until their third year in the NFL. Which of the players above do you see taking a bigger role in 2012, perhaps even becoming starters?