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Dallas Cowboys Offseason Headscratcher: Which Players Make The Leap in 2013?

Our offseason headscratcher series kicks off with a look at young Cowboys players who might be poised to take a significant leap forward in 2013.

Might UDFA D-lineman Ben Bass make a big leap forward?
Might UDFA D-lineman Ben Bass make a big leap forward?
Matthew Emmons-US PRESSWIRE

Late last week, OCC authored a post in which he wondered aloud which players might be surprise cuts. Without consciously doing so, what our resident German did was effectively usher in our (er, my) annual "Offseason Headscratchers" series, in which I'll look at a wide variety of conundra that must be solved, figured out, or addressed by the team this offseason. These don't tend to be about talent acquisition; that phase of the offseason has come and gone. Rather, they tend to address that as-yet unanswered roster or scheme questions that the organization must figure out between now and opening day.

In the series, we'll look at depth chart questions: how will the backup linebacker situation resolve, or who will occupy WR slots 3-6? We'll also consider such strategy/ deployment questions as where will James Hanna and Gavin Escobar be deployed as the "second" tight ends, or where the various defensive linemen might be aligned. But we'll also look at non-position specific issues, such as today's question: which players might we expect to make a substantial leap forward in 2013?

Note: we will not be addressing the question of playcalling. I'll leave that carcass for the various hype machines to pick over.

To begin, I'll refer you to Bryan Broaddus' report entering into last week's OTA sessions, in which he wrote:

It was this time last year where I noticed several players that appeared to make that jump from one season to another. Dez Bryant physically looked in better shape and his routes were run with purpose. Dwayne Harris played with better quickness and Barry Church stepped up and begun his quest to win the starting job.

Indeed, I remember happily reading this time last year that the the wide receivers looked leaner and faster - and, indeed, both of the wideouts Broaddus mentions ended up having career years. And, before he was injured, it looked like Church was going to follow suit. So, who might make a similar leap this season? Broaddus notes that he's going to keep an eye on four guys: Jermey Parnell, Tyrone Crawford, Ronald Leary and James Hanna. Given that two of them are offensive linemen and another plays D-line, I'm sure we all hope that they make the kind of move that Bryant, Harris and Church enjoyed in 2012. Let's take a quick look at each of these fine fellows:

Parnell: One of the effects of Doug Free's reduced contract is that the team can now afford for him to engage in an actual competition with Parnell at right tackle (previously, Free simply made too much to be a backup). Parnell, a former basketball player, is athletic and strong (he's stronger than Free, with a better anchor). What he lacks is experience and technique, but he's been making up for that - nowhere more so than in the final games last season, when he rotated series with number 68. If he's going to make a push for the position, the time is now, and the stars are aligned for him to do so.

Crawford: He received the most playing time last season of any of the guys on Broaddus' short list, and may be poised to use that to his advantage. Crawford is quick, strong, and relentless, a skillset probably better suited to the new 4-3 (which is the system he played in college). Given the age among the D-line's probable starting foursome, a jump forward from a youngster like Crawford would be welcome, indeed.

Leary: Even more welcome would be a surge by Leary, given that guard is probably the team's weakest position. Leary came into the league with NFL-quality size and strength. In a season with the team, he's been able to hone these; at the rookie minicamp, he was throwing D-linemen around "like rag dolls." More importantly, he's been able to improve the mental aspect of his game. Insiders report that he's much more adept at understanding defensive formations and protections than he was a year ago.

Hanna: Although almost a draft afterthought (a drafterthought?), Hanna made strides playing on the scout team during the season, so much so that he became a greater part of the team's gameplans as the year progressed. Now, with John Phillips' departure, and the club committed to two tight ends as its base personnel, his progression seems likely to continue. Of the tight ends on the roster he has by far the best deep speed and ability to threaten safeties and linebackers on deep crossing and seam routes.

While I like the players Broaddus has chosen, I think we can add a few more to the list. Here are a few additional guys who I think could be poised for a leap forward this year:

Mo Claiborne: This is an obvious choice. After a month or two taking his rookie lumps in 2012, Claiborne steadied in November and December. Now reportedly much stronger after a "tremendous offseason," he's ready to move his game up to the level of his draft position. In addition, I think this new defensive system will allow him to do what he's good at: play a physical style, face the quarterback, and make plays on the ball. Look for him to lead the team in interceptions in '13.

Ben Bass: In training camp last year, Bass flashed surprising quickness for a big guy. That wasn't the most important trait for a 3-4 five technique, but is a premium attribute in Kiffin's 4-3. With a year's worth of seasoning, Bass may be ready to become a key member of a defensive tackle rotation, as a young, small-school Leon Lett did a year and a half after he was drafted in 1991, finally catching up to the NFL game late in 1992. I'm not saying Bass will be another Lett; rather, I think he may have a similar developmental timeline.

Matt Johnson: Given the injury bugaboo that plagued him all last season, it's easy to say that any contribution from Matty J would be a leap forward. Easy hamstring jokes aside, the team remains very excited by his ability and potential, and he will be given every opportunity to display them in live action this year. If he's all the front office appears to think he is, it might not take him long to put it all together. And if he puts it all together, he'll reward the writer who bravely included him on this list.

Danny McCray: I'm not putting McCray on the list because I think he'll suddenly become a starting-caliber safety. Quite the contrary. Because the team finally looks to have some decent depth at the position, McCray will be freed to play special teams exclusively - where he has the potential to be a Pro Bowl caliber performer. Is it a coincidence that the Cowboys gave him number 40, formerly worn by teams demon Bill Bates? I think not, and this could be the year that he grows into the number, and contributes a Batesian game: great ST, with a sprinkling of "linebacker" in "small nickle" and "dime" situations.

Other possibilities include Darrion Weems and David Arkin. The trouble with Weems is that we'll never see him play (God willing), since he backs up Tyron Smith. Arkin's development had been hampered by a bit of bad luck; In 2011, he didn't get an offseason due to the lockout; last year, due to a rash of injuries at center, he was forced to play a position he had never player before. Now, after two consecutive years in the off-season program, he may finally be ready to offer some legitimate competition at guard. And, for him, that would be a leap forward...

What do you think, BTBers? Which young player makes a leap forward in 2013? Hit the comments section and let 'er rip!


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