Grading the 2013 Cowboys by position

Posted Saturday, Jan. 04, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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Quarterbacks

(Starter: Tony Romo. Backup: Kyle Orton)

BTony Romo was given a $108 million contract extension in the off-season as well as Peyton Manning-like influence in the offense and followed with a solid and efficient season, finishing eighth in passing with 31 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. But he didn’t have the stirring success that his contract and the numbers suggest. He took fewer chances, thus his yards per attempt were down as well as his success throwing the deep ball. The bigger problem going forward: Romo will be coming off his second back surgery in as many years. Good thing Orton, who showed his value as a backup in the season finale, is signed on for another season.

Running backs

(Starters: RB DeMarco Murray, FB Tyler Clutts. Backups: Joseph Randle, Phillip Tanner, Lance Dunbar)

CIt was a banner season for DeMarco Murray, who rushed 217 times for 1,121 yards and a career-high nine touchdowns. He was the first Cowboys running back to top 1,000 yards since 2006. Murray was at his best in the final half of the season. His 696 over the final eight games was third best in the league. But in the end, the Cowboys didn’t run it well enough or often enough, which is why they had the league’s 24th-ranked rushing attack, even though Murray averaged 5.2 yards a carry. It’s no coincidence that Murray thrived late when the Cowboys signed a fullback, Clutts, for the final month of the season. Dunbar showed flashes of being a difference maker, but he could not stay healthy. He averaged 5 yards a carry, but had only 30 attempts.

Tight ends

(Starters: Jason Witten, Gavin Escobar. Backup: James Hanna)

BWitten remained the picture of consistency and reliability even though his streak of Pro Bowls selections ended at eight. He finished the season with 73 catches to give him his eighth career and seventh consecutive season with 70 catches — both second all time among league tight ends. Witten’s 851 yards marked his eighth career and seventh consecutive 800-yard season — both second all time among league tight ends. He is certainly a future Hall of Famer. Escobar was drafted in the second round to be his future replacement and got off to a disappointing start with nine catches for 134 yards and two touchdowns. The Cowboys drafted Escobar with hopes of moving to a two-tight end offense, but scrapped those plans because of his inability to block.

Wide receivers

(Starters: Dez Bryant, Miles Austin. Backups: Terrance Williams, Dwayne Harris, Cole Beasley)

BDez Bryant didn’t reach his goal of 2,000 yards receiving and 20 touchdowns, but he more than established himself among the league’s best wide receivers with 93 catches for 1,233 yards and 12 touchdowns. Austin, however, showed why he is likely headed out the door with 24 catches for 244 and no touchdowns for the first time since 2007. He continued to be slowed by hamstring injuries that robbed him of any explosiveness. Williams was drafted in the third round to be Austin’s replacement next season. That occurred a year early. He has 44 catches for 736 yards and five touchdowns. Among Dallas rookies all time, Williams’ receptions are tied for fourth in a season, his yards are fourth and his touchdowns tied for fourth. Beasley proved to be capable replacement for Austin as a slot receiver with 39 receptions for 368 yards and two touchdowns.

Offensive line

(Starters: LT Tyron Smith, LG Ron Leary, C Travis Frederick, RG Mackenzy Bernadeau, RT Doug Free. Backups: T Jermey Parnell, T Darrion Weems, C Phil Costa.)

CTyron Smith finally lived up to being the ninth overall pick in the 2011 draft. He was named to his first Pro Bowl and was chosen second-team All-Pro. The website Pro Football Focus ranked him as the fifth-best tackle in the league. He is part of a young and budding left side of the line that includes Leary and Frederick, both first-year starters. Leary, at best, was solid at left guard. He has room to grow and needs to work on his technique. The same is true with Frederick, though the rookie was the seventh-ranked center in the league, according to Pro Football Focus, ranking first overall as a run blocker. Bernadeau improved as the season went along, especially when he moved back into the starting lineup after a season-ending injury to Brian Waters. Free regressed some after a strong start. But he still finished with a solid season. Pro Football Focus ranked him as the 18th best tackle in the league. Overall, the group was average, giving up 35 sacks, the second-highest total of Romo’s career in a season when he got rid of the ball quicker than ever.

Defensive line

(Starters: DE George Selvie, DE DeMarcus Ware, DT Jason Hatcher, DT Nick Hayden. Backups: DE Everett Brown, DE Martez Wilson, DE Edgar Jones, DT Jarius Wynn, DT Corvey Irvin, Frank Kearse.)

DHow do you evaluate a position that had 19 players because of injury? Consider also that none of the backups on the season-ending roster — Brown, Wilson, Jones, Wynn, Irvin or Kearse — were on the team in training camp. That in itself explains why the Cowboys were last in the league in pass defense and total defense. Hatcher was outstanding with a career-high 11 sacks. Selvie proved to be quite a find as well after being called off his couch after the start of training camp. He had a career-high seven sacks, good for second on the team. But Ware, a former Pro Bowler, was slowed by injuries all season and has many wondering if he has lost a step. He had a career-low six sacks and they came in just four games. Hayden proved serviceable at best at nose tackle. The more he played, the more he was exposed as a backup getting too many snaps. Upgrading the defensive line is already the top priority of the off-season.

Linebackers

(Starters: WLB Bruce Carter, MLB Sean Lee, SLB Justin Durant. Backups: OLB Ernie Sims, OLB DeVonte Holloman, OLB Kyle Wilber, OLB Cam Lawrence, MLB Orie Lemon.)

DThis is another position that was decimated by injuries by season’s end, primarily because of the continued problems Sean Lee had in staying on the field. Lee is the team’s best defensive player, but missed five of the last six games, including the final three. He still finished second on the team in tackles with 123 and first in interceptions with four. Carter was a disappointment at weakside linebacker and could be pushed next year for a starting job by Holloman. Injuries proved to be an opportunity for Kyle Wilber, who might have found a home at strongside linebacker. He was moved there from defensive end when Durant was injured, and he started the final five games. The Cowboys need to get younger and more athletic at linebacker. Don’t look for Durant or Sims to return in 2014.

Secondary

(Starters: CB Orlando

Scandrick, CB Brandon Carr,

S Barry Church, S Jeff Heath. Backups: CB Morris Claiborne, CB B.W. Webb, CB Sterling Moore, S J.J. Wilcox, S Jakar Hamilton, S Danny McCray.)

FStart off with this: The Cowboys had the worst pass defense in team history and one of the worst in league history. Scandrick began the year as the team’s third cornerback and ended as the best and most reliable. He replaced Claiborne, the sixth overall pick in 2013, in the starting lineup two games into the season. Claiborne never regained the spot and also was limited by injuries for a second consecutive season. Carr was signed last season to a $50.2 million contract and he proved to be a liability over the last half of the season. Church was the most consistent player, leading the team in tackles with 147, though he made few game-changing plays. The free safety position was a revolving door and a target for big plays. Will Allen opened as the starter and was cut. Wilcox, a rookie project with tackling deficiencies, replaced him before being injured. Heath ended the season as the starter and was exposed for big plays.

Special teams

(K Dan Bailey, P Chris Jones, LS L.P. Ladouceur, PR Dwayne Harris, KR Dwayne Harris)

BDan Bailey was as good a kicker as there was in the league and he has been since his rookie season. He made 28 of 30 field goal attempts and was 47 of 47 on extra points. Bailey had 52 touchbacks on kickoffs, good for fourth in the league. Bailey will be a restricted free agent, so look for the Cowboys to try to sign him to a long-term deal. Chris Jones was average as a punter with a 39.1 net average, good for 20th in the league. He downed 30 inside the 20, which was seventh best. Dwayne Harris was a game-changer on returns before he was slowed by a hamstring injury. He ranked second in the league on kickoff returns and third in the league on punt returns. Harris also tied for the team lead in special teams tackles.

Coaching

CThere is no question Jason Garrett gets the Cowboys to play hard and play with effort. They don’t win enough, as three consecutive 8-8 seasons attest. That is certainly not the sign of progress. Most damning is their inability to finish and the game-management issues that cost them in close games. That’s on Garrett. But he was also let down by two veteran coordinators in offensive play-caller Bill Callahan and defensive chief Monte Kiffin. Both could be replaced in 2014.

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