The NFL season is almost upon us. When the real games start, all the preseason protections will fade quickly into our memory and only be called up to verify or refute their accuracy. But for now, we are still looking forward and trying to see how teams may do based on what they carry forward from the previous year added to the additions made in the offseason.
Another batch of those kinds of projections have landed recently. Fans of the Dallas Cowboys should be hoping they know what they are talking about, because the message from all of them is pretty consistent: The Cowboys have what looks like an awesome offensive machine going into the 2015 regular season.
The biggest one of these is the ESPN ranking of the top 100 players in the NFL, regardless of position. They used a broad based survey to come up with the numbers:
More than 70 voters. NFL analysts, reporters and statisticians -- both from ESPN and outside ESPN -- including former players and NFL front-office members.
They then devised a numerical score for the players and used that to rank them. Here are the Cowboys who made the grade.
T-6. Dez Bryant | Cowboys | Rating: 93.66
Tied with Calvin Johnson for No. 6 overall, Dez compares most to Megatron in terms of what we'll call coverability. "Those two are in their own class. If you have two defenders on [Bryant], it's even. One-on-one, he's open," said a voter and ex-NFL front-office member. The average season for Bryant over the last three seasons: 91 catches and 14 touchdowns. Another overlooked stat over those three seasons: zero games missed. "It's aggression and nastiness with everything he does," said one panelist. And after five NFL seasons, Bryant is still only 26.
Add it up: Bryant's 56 receiving TDs are the third-most in NFL history for a player through five seasons.
First up is arguably the most talented player on the roster as well as the emotional heart of the locker room. This is a ringing endorsement for the $70 million contract extension he got. It is interesting that he wound up exactly tied with Johnson. There is a real argument to be made that they are at the point where Bryant is moving ahead of Megatron as the premier wide receiver in the league.
And he still caught the ball.
29. Tyron Smith | Cowboys | Rating: 88.21
Not only is Smith one of the best left tackles in football -- if not the best right now -- consider that he has played 63 NFL games and has been on the last two Pro Bowl rosters and still won't turn 25 until December. For perspective, he's less than a month older than Eric Fisher, who was drafted No. 1 overall two years after Smith was the Cowboys' pick at No. 9. "Start a team with any left tackle tomorrow, this is your guy," said an NFC evaluator.
Add it up: DeMarco Murray averaged 5.4 yards per rush toward the left side (Smith's side) last season, and 4.2 yards per rush in all other directions.
Next up is the most talented of the extremely loaded offensive line (who are far from done on this list). If Bryant's contract looks extremely smart, the long term, very team friendly deal that Dallas locked him up with is positively brilliant. The Cowboys offense starts with the big guys up front, and in Smith, they may have the best one in the league.
31. Tony Romo | Cowboys | Rating: 88.07
"The high-profile mistakes disappeared when the Cowboys gave him an offensive line and a ground game," said one voter. Man, did they ever. In 2014, Romo wasn't just good; he blew away the field in Total QBR, and after leading the NFL with 19 interceptions in 2012, he has thrown a total of 19 over the last two seasons behind that improved Dallas O-line. Block for Romo, and you have one of the NFL's best quarterbacks.
Add it up: Romo's 3.42 TD/INT rate since 2013 ranks third among QBs with at least 25 starts over that span, behind only Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning.
Finally, the world at large is realizing something we here have been pointing out for some time: Romo was never the problem in Dallas. He was the reason the team won many of the games it did while it was going through the massive reshaping after Jason Garrett took over as head coach. Never forget that he was still recovering from back surgery during that very impressive 2014 season. With good health to start this season, who knows how high he can reach?
54. Jason Witten | Cowboys | Rating: 83.85
Anquan Boldin. Steve Smith. Larry Fitzgerald. Wes Welker. Calvin Johnson. Just a few of the guys with Hall of Fame trajectories with fewer career catches than Witten, who should reach No. 1,000 sometime in the second half of 2015. "He's an all-around blocking and receiving tight end, and he has the best third-down route-running instincts at his position," said a voter. He also hasn't missed a game since 2003.
Add it up: Witten's 943 career receptions are the most in Cowboys history.
Father time eventually catches up with everyone - but he seems to be having a hard time overtaking the Senator. There is probably no man on the team more respected by his teammates, and that respect evidently extends throughout the league. Plus all evidence is that he is one of the best human beings you can find on any NFL roster. Romo's long-time security blanket is going into the Ring of Honor and the Hall of Fame. Both will be enhanced by his inclusion.
57. Zack Martin | Cowboys | Rating: 83.48
Call it a good first impression. In 2013, the Cowboys finished 24th overall in rushing. Enter Martin, and in 2014, Dallas jumped to No. 2 overall -- and they were only topped by Seattle because of Russell Wilson's scrambling exploits. "He has an excellent combination of power and quickness, which will allow him to play tackle as well," said one voter. Martin, a former tackle at Notre Dame, has been superb at guard.
Add it up: Martin is the first Cowboys rookie to be named a first-team All-Pro since Calvin Hill in 1969.
Remember all the speculation about a certain flashy but troubled quarterback that the Cowboys could have taken instead of Martin? Yeah, no one is regretting the decision now. It is hard to imagine a more NFL ready player than he has proven to be. As opposed to you-know-who.
66. Travis Frederick | Cowboys | Rating: 82.13
One of the more maligned picks of the 2013 draft (by you too, Dallas fans), Frederick has been everything the Cowboys could have hoped for. Yeah, a center better be good if you take him in Round 1, but Frederick is really good. The best run-blocking center in the league last season, he's only beginning what could be a long stretch of Pro Bowls. "You hear about Tyron Smith and Zack Martin, but Frederick is the linchpin," said an NFC evaluator.
Add it up: Frederick was one of three Cowboys offensive linemen named to the Pro Bowl last season. Smith and Martin -- all former first-round picks 25 or younger -- were the others.
Speaking of the draft, remember all the eye-rolls, snide comments and barely disguised laughter when the Cowboys "reached" in the first round to take Frederick? A first round pick on a center? Well, no one is laughing now - except Jerry and Stephen Jones, Will McClay, Jason Garrett and Cowboys fans everywhere.
That is six players on the list, all in the top two-thirds. Only the Seattle Seahawks had more with nine, and the Green Bay Packers were tied with Dallas with six. With 32 teams, the average for most would be three. To have this many players, all on one side of the ball, indicates that points and yards should be no problem for the Cowboys.
Just as a postscript, Demarco Murray landed at number 38 on this list. And we all know where he earned that rating. It is also worth noting that Sam Bradford of the Philadelphia Eagles did not make the list, which is about regular season performance, not the preseason.
And that is not the only praise being heaped on the Cowboys' offensive stars. ESPN also did a list of the top 25 players in the league under the age of 25. It is unfortunately behind their paywall, but the Dallas Morning News provided the key information for Dallas fans.
The Cowboys have three Pro Bowl offensive linemen — Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin. All three are under the age of 25.
ESPN took notice.
Mel Kiper, Jr. and Mike Sando put all three on their list of the top 25 NFL players under the age of 25. Smith checks in at No. 2 (just behind Raiders linebacker Khalil Mack at the top spot), while Frederick and Martin rank 11th and 12th, respectively.
This tracks with the joint ranking by ESPN and Football Outsiders of all NFL rosters based on the quality and quantity of players under the age of 25, which has the Cowboys perched at number one. And we are not done yet. The stats-obsessed guys at Pro Football Focus compiled a ranking of the top receiving corps in the NFL. Dallas came in at number two.
2. Dallas Cowboys (78.9)
There are only six teams in the league who have both a wide receiver and tight end with PFF ratings above 80. The only one with a pair both above 83 are the Cowboys with Dez Bryant and Jason Witten — and both are above 87. While Terrance Williams and Cole Beasley aren't big names, they aren't liabilities to the team, either. Williams averaged 18.3 yards per catch last year with only three drops. Beasley had only one drop, and forced 11 missed tackles.
Any doubts as to whether this team is loaded on O?
Meanwhile, the Cowboys' defense is looking to be much improved this year. One thing that must be remembered is that one of the most talented defenders and the real on-field general, Sean Lee, is back.
Back in Action pic.twitter.com/BzJPHTUL8g— PFTonNBCSN (@PFTonNBCSN) September 2, 2015
Add in the acqusition of Randy Gregory, Byron Jones, Greg Hardy, Damien Wilson, Corey White, and even Andrew Gachkar, who is showing surprising competence beyond his special teams ability. Then factor in the expected improvement over last season from DeMarcus Lawrence, Tyrone Crawford, Jack Crawford and Anthony Hitchens, and these lists next year may well be including some of the D on them.
Of course, this all become moot when the first game against the New York Giants kicks off. Then we will see the reality of what the Cowboys have. There are still issues to be resolved (running back, special teams), but the omens are very good indeed.