Dallas Cowboys: 2015 Outlook

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Dallas Cowboys

By Larry Gold, Friday, September 12, 2014

There is more uneasiness surrounding Tony Romo coming into 2014 than in recent years. The former Eastern Illinois alumnus underwent back surgery at the end of last season. It is expected he returns to start the season healthy; however, the growing concern is that the history of freakish injuries (punctured lung & broken clavicle) may be starting to take its toll on the 34-year-old. There is also an added concern that the Cowboys are on the verge of being dismantled on both the coaching and player front after three consecutive mediocre 8-8 seasons where they have severely under-performed expectations. Whether justified or not, much of that blame has fallen on the high profile quarterback who has regularly struggled with critical mistakes late in close games; even in games where his stat line was way above the rim. When healthy, the three-time Pro Bowler has been a consistent and reliable fantasy quarterback for most of his career and even more relevant, has been a clear fantasy starter the past three years. In fact Romo ranked fifth in passing TDs with 31 in both 2011 & 2013. In 2012, he passed for 28 TDs, ranking sixth. Romo's yardage totals peaked in 2012 with 4,903 passing yards, only trailing Drew Brees and Matthew Stafford. Romo fell off a bit in 2013, landing 12th in passing yardage; although he would have made the Top 10 had he not missed the last game of the season due to injury. Camp Romo will also point out that the Cowboys' much maligned offensive line is finally on the rise. The running game (led by DeMarco Murray) is keeping defenses honest and Dez Bryant (along with Jason Witten and Terrance Williams) make up an excellent supporting cast. Additionally, given the likelihood that the Cowboys' defense will continue their recent struggles (which will be further enhanced by the voids left by DeMarcus Ware [free agency] and Sean Lee [injury]), Romo may lead the league in garbage time stats while playing catch-up. Romo is currently being viewed a fringe starter as the 13th QB off the board. While he is certainly capable of being a weekly starter for your fantasy team, be sure to lock up another quality option given the injury worries and cloudiness surrounding the offense.

Brandon Weeden joins the Dallas Cowboys after two seasons with the Cleveland Browns and will serve as back up to Tony Romo. Weeden has turned in a few quality games thanks in large part to the spectacular play of Josh Gordon but his overall body of work has been unimpressive during his brief career. In 20 career starts his TD to interception ratio is not good at 23TDs/26INTs. Weeden possesses above average arm strength, but he is far from mobile and has trouble escaping pressure. While it's possible that Weeden shows improved pocket awareness as time goes on, he has no fantasy value barring an injury to Romo.

DeMarco Murray is coming off his best season. He set career-highs across the board in all rushing categories, yet fantasy owners still have concerns. The former Oklahoma Sooners RB has sustained multi-week injuries in each of his first three seasons. His rookie year was cut short from a fractured right ankle and he missed six weeks with a sprained foot in 2012. Last year, Murray sprained his MCL in the second quarter and missed two additional games, despite pushing hard to return sooner. During this period, Jerry Jones publically vented about Murray's regular bouts with injuries. This is alarming because Jones has also been vocal regarding his soft spot for backup running back Lance Dunbar. Fortunately for Murray, Dunbar was hurt during his absence and Joseph Randle was never a threat to keep the starting role. Murray returned from the MCL strain and finished the season strong, carrying the team on his back at times. His 5.2 yards per carry led all starting running backs and he hauled in 53 receptions, which amounts to fantasy gold in PPR leagues. It can be argued Murray's overall stats would have been even more impressive had the Cowboys stayed committed to the run in situations that called for it. Word has come out of Dallas that the plan is to run more this year, perhaps in an effort to keep their depleted defense off the field. The Cowboys have drafted offensive linemen in the first round two years in a row with center Travis Frederick ('13) and Notre Dame beast tackle Zack Martin ('14). This all bodes well for Murray to improve upon his aforementioned career-highs in rushing attempts (217), touchdowns (10) and total yards from scrimmage (1,471). Murray is getting drafted late in the second round (ADP 20.70), which could turn out to be great value should he get through an entire season injury-free.

Editor's note: Of all the backs around the Top 10, how many realistically could become fantasy's top RB? Especially if guys like Adrian Peterson, LeSean McCoy, Jamaal Charles and Matt Forte all have great seasons as well. Murray has to be in that conversation. He has speed and contributes on all three downs. The Cowboys have what can be a prolific passing game, which will only give Murray even more opportunities by opening up running lanes. The injury concerns are valid; however, his potential is very real.

Injuries in the backfield gave Joseph Randle an immediate opportunity to show the Cowboys what they were getting with their 2013 fifth round pick. Unfortunately for Randle, he did not impress and now finds himself down a bit on the depth chart. Randle averaged a pedestrian 3.0 yards per rush on 54 carries and started two games during DeMarco Murray's absence. With the signing of Ryan Williams, Randle is going to have to earn a roster spot and improve on his running between the tackles.

Coming into his fourth season, Ryan Williams has his work cut out for him to remove the stigma of being injury-prone. Williams, highly regarded out of Virginia Tech in the 2011 NFL Draft, had so many injuries during his time with the Arizona Cardinals that he makes Darren McFadden and Ryan Matthews look as if they are made of armor. It remains to be seen if the former Hokies back can jumpstart his career. For now, he is battling for one of the last roster spots on the team and has no fantasy value until he can prove he can stay on the field for an extended period of time.

DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH: Coming into his third year in the league, Lance Dunbar has the inside track to backing up DeMarco Murray. The undrafted free agent out of North Texas has been a factor on special teams, but has been slowed by injuries and fumbling issues. The Cowboys did get a glimpse of Dunbar's potential when he ripped off a 45-yard run on Thanksgiving Day vs. the Raiders. Given Joseph Randle's less-than-stellar performance in 2013 (and uncertainty around Ryan Williams), Dunbar is set to get more playing time. Dunbar's only value at this time is as a Murray handcuff.

Editor's note: The Cowboys really like Dunbar and plan to use him all over the field. He can contribute both as a runner and receiver. Some super sleeper potential here, but only if Murray falters.

UNSTOPPABLE: Dez Bryant comes into his fifth season as one of the premier receivers in the league. His receptions (93), targets (160) and touchdowns (13) have increased in each of his first four seasons, yet it is widely assumed that the best is yet to come. While Bryant's overall body of work is outstanding, he is still susceptible to disappearing at times. Many receivers struggle with consistency though. Regular double teams account for the less than impressive 58-percent efficiency rate on targets. Many will also point to the emotional outbursts seen on the sidelines as holding him back and there is still a concern that Bryant may explode (particularly if the Cowboys struggle to win games). Yet there is no denying Bryant's freakish abilities. He found the end-zone in each of his last five games of 2013. With the season on the line, Bryant was targeted 41 times over the last three games of the season, a trend that is expected to continue into 2014. Given the short list of running backs worthy of a first round selection in fantasy drafts, Bryant finds himself among a cluster of top receivers being drafted in the back end of the first round. Draft Bryant with confidence as he will be called upon for a career year on what looks to be a team that will be involved in regular shootouts.

While most rookie receivers struggle in Year 1, Terrance Williams quietly made a strong impression on the Cowboys. Williams seized the opportunity left open by Miles Austin's frequent injuries and hauled in 44 receptions and tallied five touchdowns. Although failing to find the end-zone in his last six games, a lot will be expected from the former Baylor Bears receiver. Williams proved to be quite versatile, connecting with Tony Romo on a handful of big plays downfield as well as being a reliable short route option. Romo showed confidence in Williams, targeting him 74 times. As a result, Williams' job opposite Dez Bryant appears to be secure coming into his sophomore year. Williams is currently the 35th receiver coming off the board in drafts (ADP 86.14) meaning he is drafted as a WR3/flex. Assuming further development and improvements, Williams can outperform his current ranking, especially with defenses fixated on Bryant.

Devin Street is a talented rookie that could eventually become a legitimate red zone target for Team Romo. At 6-foot-4, the former Pittsburgh Panther has the body to excel in jump-ball opportunities, but the scouting report is that he needs to pack on some weight to convert himself into a durable receiver. Street will likely be given the chance to make plays in some three- and four-receiver sets. Fantasy owners should expect his transition to require a year or so on the sidelines.

Now in his fourth season with the Cowboys, Dwayne Harris has a tentative lead on the receiver depth chart at the No. 3 spot. Harris will likely retain his roster spot given his effectiveness on special teams. The Cowboys drafted former Pittsburgh Panthers WR Devin Street to come in and compete for this job. Harris doesn't have reliable fantasy value until he secures his role.

Jason WItten has been the most consistent, durable fantasy tight end spanning the last decade. At 32 years old, his best years are behind him (as evidenced by his 2013 output being hislowest since 2006). Witten managed to find the end zone eight times, but saw a significant falloff in targets (111, down from a three-year avg. of 132), receptions and yards. Even with the declining stat line, Witten ranked fifth amongst tight ends in receptions (73) and yards (851), making him the obvious starter going into 2014. Tony Romo and Witten have a fine-tuned chemistry not easily replicated, but the concern is that Witten's body is starting to slow after playing 10 years without missing a game. Gavin Escobar is being groomed to eventually take over for Witten, but even if the transition picks up speed, Witten will still be worthy of his current draft position (ADP 78.02) as the seventh tight end selected. Draft Witten while maintaining slightly downgraded expectations and be sure to have Escobar on speed dial should Witten hit the fantasy wall.

Gavin Escobar (nicknamed "Pablo") was drafted by the Cowboys in the second round of the 2013 draft. He is expected to be the eventual replacement for Jason Witten. While playing time was limited in his rookie year, Escobar benefited from having one of the best in the business mentor him. At 6-foot-6 and 249 lbs., Pablo is a big target who can evolve into a premier tight end in time. At the very least, look for the Cowboys to run multiple TE sets and give the former San Diego State alumnus an opportunity to make plays in what should be a high-powered offense.

Dan Bailey has been one of the more consistent kickers since entering the league in 2011. He has averaged nearly two field goals made per game (spanning across three years) and boasts a 91-percent FG conversion percentage (93-percent over the last two years). Bailey has a strong foot and the confidence of his team, as evidenced by making 6-of-7 of his attempts from 50-plus yards. The Cowboys kicker is amongst the first group of kickers being selected in drafts and is one of the safer bets for a strong season.

DON'T DO IT!: Run away as fast as you can. Although fantasy production out of defenses is difficult to project year-to-year, the Cowboys look to be one of the worst options available. Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli will have his hands full taking over a defense that struggled mightily in 2013 and now includes voids left from DeMarcus Ware (left for Denver via free agency( and Sean Lee (lost for the year with a left knee injury). Marinelli has a strong track record of his defenses generating turnovers with aggressive tendencies, but the Cowboys will need rookie DeMarcus Lawrence step up and become a dominant pass rusher quickly if the Cowboys are going to get any pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Short of a handful of players having career-years, it is hard to imagine Dallas coming off the waiver wire all year.

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