Following the unfortunate injury to Tony Romo there is a natural tendency to wonder which players on the roster are most irreplaceable to the success of the 2016 Cowboys. When considering this, one can become conflicted when considering the trade-off between which players are the most irreplaceable and which players are purely the best and most talented. For example, Zack Martin is perhaps the top guard in the entire league and likely one of the top fix or six players on the roster based on talent alone. But how irreplaceable is he compared to a player like Byron Jones when you consider the fact that Ronald Leary could start and play well for probably about 75% of the league while our backup safeties may not even make some NFL rosters?
It’s a very difficult call but after considering a scenario where a particular player is lost for the year I attempted to weigh several factors while compiling this list:
- Who the viable backups and alternatives are
- The impact of the player on their position group, entire unit and the overall team
- How well the team could scheme around losing the player
- Pure talent
With the regular season opener only a few days away, here are the top 10 most irreplaceable Cowboys in 2016:
1. Tony Romo: Self-explanatory. The team is a potential Super Bowl contender with a healthy Romo and without him, well, who knows? Dak Prescott’s impressive preseason has provided hope but there is no telling what will happen once the games start to count. At least we aren’t looking at Brandon Weeden or Matt Cassel here.
2. Tyron Smith: Arguably the best player on the team as far as pure talent and he may be the best at his position league-wide. More importantly, the Cowboys seemingly don’t have a viable alternative behind him. Chaz Green has been inconsistent through the preseason and some have suggested that Zack Martin or La’el Collins would be the choice to replace Smith if necessary, which would only further shake up the offensive line. Of course as the left tackle Tyron is tasked with protecting Romo’s blind side, making him perhaps the most important player when it comes to ensuring the safety of the number one player on this list. Combine all of that and he is a clear number two.
3. Sean Lee: On a defense riddled with uncertainty Lee is not only the best defensive player on the roster, he is also the brains of the unit and the emotional leader. Despite a thin linebacker corps, if Lee is around linebacker play will not be much of a concern when you consider how often defenses are now playing in nickel and dime formations. Without him, Justin Durant and Anthony Hitchens are likely your best and most versatile linebackers. That is not a place you want to be.
4. Dez Bryant: This is a tricky one, primarily because when Dez is healthy he is arguably the best player on the roster. He is also the only Cowboys receiver who defenses truly fear and devote double coverage to, he is who Romo and Prescott will target to punish defenses for dropping an eighth defender in the box to stop the run. When considering all that some may think this is low, but he is ranked below the other three mostly because the offense will be more run-centric than ever with or without Romo and with a strong preseason showing from Brice Butler the talent behind him is not quite as meager as it is behind Smith and Lee, nor as uncertain as it is behind Romo.
5. Travis Frederick: Somewhat of a forgotten man behind Tyron Smith and Zack Martin, Frederick has been an All-Pro the last two years and is the brains of the offensive line as far as making pre-snap reads and line calls. He may be the most critical piece on the line to the success of the inside running game and behind him is only Joe Looney, a serviceable but underwhelming replacement. Perhaps Zack Martin could switch inside to center if need be, allowing Leary to get on the field over Looney, but that could throw off the entire balance of the line with so many moving parts.
6. Jason Witten: Not as fast or athletic as he once was but he is still a Pro Bowl caliber player who never misses a snap. He is on the field more than any other receiver, running back or tight end and he is still Romo’s preferred target when things aren’t going well. He is who Romo looked towards when the season was on the line on 4th and 6 against Detroit in the 2014 playoffs, and in Romo’s absence he will be a reliable safety valve for Prescott. He is a critical piece to both the run and pass game, and the depth at this position is not as reliable as some may think considering that James Hanna will miss the first six games of the season and that Gavin Escobar is coming off a torn Achilles. For anybody who may think that he’s nearly done or significantly diminished, please take a look at him going up for a touchdown grab in the dress rehearsal over K.J. Wright, Seattle’s best linebacker after Bobby Wagner.
7. Orlando Scandrick: Probably the second-best defensive player on the roster after Lee and the emotional leader of the secondary. Behind him is a solid but unspectacular Brandon Carr, the oft-injured and inconsistent Morris Claiborne, and two rookies. You also must consider that Scandrick is the team’s primary slot cornerback, arguably the toughest position in football, and with him gone they would likely have to rely on rookie Anthony Brown at that position.
8. Ezekiel Elliott: He isn’t higher for two reasons. One, he hasn’t played a regular season snap yet so placing him on this list is mostly a projection of talent, and two, I think Alfred Morris could put up 1,200 yards and 4.5 YPC behind this offensive line. However, Elliott can’t be left off the list when you consider how much of the season’s game-plan relies on the running game, whether it is keeping Romo out of harm’s way, not asking Prescott to do too much, or protecting an uncertain defense. The only way the Cowboys contend for the Super Bowl (aside from Romo staying healthy) is if Elliott lives up to his billing as an elite talent and forms a special synergy with the offensive line. That’s enough to put him on the list.
9. Demarcus Lawrence: Probably the toughest decision on the list because Tyrone Crawford is a better, more consistent player right now, but with that said the team has several players who play a similar role as Crawford. Much like Crawford, David Irving and Jack Crawford can play as a run-stuffing defensive end in spots, but are at their best as a pass rusher when lined up inside, not to mention third-rounder Maliek Collins who was drafted as a 3-technique tackle, which is Crawford’s primary position. Behind Lawrence there is nobody to bend the edge except for Benson Mayowa and his two career sacks. Unless Mayowa, David Irving, Jack Crawford, or Charles Tapper significantly outperforms expectations, or Randy Gregory is somehow able to return and is prepared to play, Lawrence is the only chance the team has at getting 6+ sacks out of a defensive end.
10. Byron Jones: The only safety with true sideline-to-sideline range on the roster and in a pinch he can play corner if absolutely necessary. After him the Cowboys only have box safeties and special teamers, although that was also the case in 2014. He may not be a bonafide top 10 player on the team just yet but he has the potential to get there soon if he improves on his rookie year.
Zack Martin is the most glaring omission, but having a third guard in Leary who could potentially make a Pro Bowl or two is a rare circumstance. Having that much depth to go along with what is probably the best offensive line in the league is even rarer. If Leary were traded Martin jumps to at least sixth on the list.
Tyrone Crawford is arguably the best defensive lineman on the roster. He is the team’s best interior rusher and versatile enough to play snaps at end if needed. The only reason he isn’t on the list is the fact that there are several viable players on the roster who could play a similar role, albeit not quite as well. There has been no indication that there is anybody on the roster who could be a viable replacement for Lawrence.
So that’s my list, who do you think are the 10 players most critical to the Cowboys success in 2016?