May 22, 2009
By Greg Trippiedi
Continuing with the motif of trying to get equal coverage to all 32 teams here at NFL Outsider, it feels a little weird to point out that the Cowboys have been getting ignored of late, but I have had plenty to say about the Giants, the Eagles, and the Redskins in this space, and haven't really mentioned the ugly stepsister of the NFC East (since when is Dallas "east" of anything?).
But, hey, that's just my bias speaking. In actuality, the Cowboys might be a step behind the other three teams in the NFC East right now, but they would be good enough to win any of the other NFC divisions. So clearly, the talent is still here on this team. But how is it distributed? NFL Top 10 takes a cursory look at the Dallas Cowboys roster, right now.
10. LB Bradie James
James could be described as a consistent performer and a team leader, and he has accomplished as much without any help from a revolving door at the other ILB in the Cowboys' 3-4 defense. He's a tackling machine who gets overshadowed because other teams in the division have fantastic middle linebackers, but James plays at a near pro bowl level year in and year out.
9. WR Miles Austin
The one player that the Cowboys need to rely on to break out this year and help his offense. It's not smart money to suggest that Roy Williams is suddenly going to become the No. 1 receiver he has never been, he's simply not that kind of dependable. However, Austin's emergence could set the stage for a successful career in Dallas for Williams. This tandem will either succeed together, or fail together.
8. RB Felix Jones
Jones' injury was a crushing blow to the Cowboys last year, as he entered the midseason point as one of Tony Romo's most valuable receivers, out of the backfield none-the-less. Jones is good enough to be, prospectively, the lead dog in the Cowboys' rushing attack this year. The more touches he gets, the more big plays the team will make.
7. G Leonard Davis
Davis was signed to be the centerpiece of the Cowboys line in 2007, and after two years wearing the Star, he has lived up to his contract value. Following two pro bowl appearances, Davis is going to be relied on to have another big-time season because the Cowboys gave their poor offensive line no reinforcements in the draft. Uh-oh.
6. CB Terence Newman
If not for a sports hernia suffered early last year, we'd be talking about Newman's place among the shutdown corner's in the game. The guy is one of the ten best corners in football, and despite being a pro bowler, doesn't always get credit for his work. There are better cover guys in the conference than Newman, but the Cowboys extended him before last year for one big reason -- they need him. Without him, the Cowboys sport one of the thinnest defensive backfields in the NFL.
5. RB Marion Barber
Football's version of a closer, Barber just happens to be big-time in the other three quarters as well. He's still a better pure runner than Felix Jones, is an asset in the passing game, and loves to hit linebackers who come on the blitz. There's nothing not to like about Barber's game, except to point out that 2008 was a regression for him from his 2006 and 2007 seasons.
4. LB DeMarcus Ware
Ware led the league's in sacks last year. In doing so, he's built up a reputation for being more valuable than he actually is: he's a great player who likely will not enjoy a hall of fame career, but should find his way to 5 or 6 pro bowls. Ware has major weaknesses against the run, but you have to have him on the field for almost all defensive snaps simply because of the type of havoc he can wreck in opponent's backfields.
3. QB Tony Romo
If I told you a QB had never posted a passer rating under 91.0 in three years as a starter, would you tell me that we're dealing with a mental midget? Didn't think so. Romo slipped behind Drew Brees in the race for NFC's best passer last year, and fans were really hoping that he'd have the type of season that Kurt Warner DID have last year, but Romo missed three games with a broken finger, and the rest never materialized. Let's not ignore how good of a player Romo is. He's 29, so this is as good as he'll ever be, but if he plays until age 37 at this level, we're talking about a hall of fame type player. Not a player who "can't."
2. NT Jay Ratliff
Among league insiders, it seems to be widely accepted that the most valuable player on the Cowboys defense is not Ware, but former undrafted NT Jay Ratliff. For Ratliff, the big breakthrough came when he moved from 3-4 end to 3-4 nose. He doesn't look the part of a traditional nose, size-wise, but Ratliff gets sacks from that position. And if your nose tackle is making plays--Ratliff is excellent against the run as well--then you always have a shot at a top defense. Ratliff was THE major player in the Cowboys' second half resurgence last season.
1. TE Jason Witten
Witten is the best tight end in football. He blocks well enough, but his real value is in an intermediate receiving target, because he's as much responsible for Romo's success as Tony himself is. He also makes plays down the field with the ball in his hands. Where Witten really earns his keep though is in his versatility. He's become the new Tony Gonzalez, because he doesn't have to be right next to the offensive tackle to be a match-up nightmare. Safeties cannot cover him, which means nickel packages are necessary to match up with the base Cowboys offense. How awesome is that?