5 Things to Watch for this Preseason with Dallas Cowboys
Dallas Cowboys Preseason: Five Things to Watch
The Cowboys are one of the most talented teams in all of the NFL. But year in and year out recently, they have failed in meeting the expectations that are constantly bestowed on America's Team.
They have a quarterback in Tony Romo who has the fifth best passer rating in league history, has the highest completion percentage in team history, highest yards per completion average and is the all-time leader in touchdowns for a franchise whose quarterback history includes Hall of Famers Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman. He is also a little over 7,000 yards off of Aikman's team record for passing yards, a mark he should pass in the next two seasons.
The Cowboys also have a great talent at running back in DeMarco Murray, who, if he stays healthy, can be a great back in this league. They also have two pro-bowl caliber receivers in Miles Austin and Dez Bryant, with the latter wideout poised for a huge 2013. Jason Witten is an all-time tight end, so is DeMarcus Ware at outside linebacker. Defensive tackle Jay Ratliff is a four-time pro bowler — albeit now oft-injured and slowing down — Anthony Spencer is a very good compliment to Ware, Sean Lee and Bruce Carter at middle linebacker have future pro bowler labels written all over them, and cornerbacks Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr could develop into one of the game's best cornerback tandems.
If this current group of Cowboys doesn't win now and win big, they will be viewed as nothing more than a bunch of individual talents who couldn't win the NFL's ultimate prize.
Prior to September 8 though, when the Cowboys host their division rival New York Giants on Sunday night in the team's newly named AT&T Stadium, there are preseason games to play.
Of course, people can argue that in the grand scheme, the preseason doesn't matter; you can look at the 2008 Detroit Lions to defend your position, a team that went undefeated in the preseason only to go 0-16 in the regular year. But for NFL teams, the preseason serves as more of a process of evaluation for the younger players trying to make the team, and also to get early indications on veterans and positions and how they could perform once the games start to count.
With that being said, here are the five things to watch for this preseason for the Cowboys.
The Offensive Line
It is no secret to NFL observers and Cowboys fans that the team's biggest weakness heading into this season, and for the last couple seasons, is the offensive line.
Last season, the Cowboys ranked next to last in the league in rushing. Part of that was due to DeMarco Murray missing six games, but an even bigger part of that probably was the five men up front. Throughout the year, the Cowboys rushing attack only boasted a 3.6 yards per carry average, also second last in the entire league.
The bullseye will be on two of their starters in 2013 — Doug Free and rookie Travis Frederick (pictured) — and the preseason should be a good indication of what is to come in the regular year, particularly for Frederick. Talented defensive fronts in Miami, Arizona Cardinals, Cincinnati Bengals, Oakland Raiders and Houston Texans — the team's preseason opponents — should provide stingy and legitimate tests for the rookie.
Meanwhile, Free needs to show that he was worth the $32 million the team gave to him in 2011, though he took a paycut for this season, set to earn $3.5 million
Monte Kiffin's Defense
The Cowboys are making the switch to the Tampa 2 (4-3) defense this season, the first time they will run the 4-3 defense since 2002 after running the 3-4 for the last 10 seasons. Monte Kiffin brings experience and past success to the team, and it will be interesting to see what early indications there are in the preseason.
Worthy of attention during the preseason will be Bruce Carter, whose middle linebacker role changes to the WIL (weakside) linebacker spot, a position that suited former Tampa Bay Buccaneer and Kiffin pupil Derrick Brooks' abilities well and turned him into a Hall of Famer. Sean Lee, who is coming off of toe surgery, is also a point of interest.
The team also has two cornerbacks in Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne who will play a more physical style this year, so it's worth a look to see how things look there early on as well.
Also something to key on will be DeMarcus Ware playing defensive end for the first time in his career. Anthony Spencer will miss the preseason because of minor knee surgery, but it will be interesting to see Ware playing with his hand on the ground for the first time.
Really though, the entire defensive line will be something to keep an eye on, with injuries to Spencer and Tyrone Crawford — who is out for the season.
The Cowboys' workhouse has a world of talent and ability, but his inability early on in his NFL career to escape injuries hasn't allowed him to truly maximize his potential as an elite running back. If he can stay healthy, he can be one of the game's best at his position for a long time.
It's only preseason, but it should be a good barometer of where he's at physically. If he shows the burst, power and aggressive style that he has shown in his early career — which enabled him to rush for 1,560 yards in 23 games, including leading the league with 5.5 yards per carry in his rookie year that included a franchise record 253 rushing yard game against the St. Louis Rams — it will be a good sign for the team going forward.
Much has been made this offseason of Romo's role in the offense — which will now be led by new playcaller Bill Callahan — with Jerry Jones in the spring stating that Romo will have a bigger role in the play calling and he wants Romo to put in "Peyton Manning-type time" into preparation and consequently give the Cowboys quarterback a bigger, more prominent role in the offense.
Romo will not play in next week's Hall of Fame Game in Canton against the Dolphins, but we should get a good read on what the offense will look like in 2013 in the other games when Romo sees the field.
He also underwent surgery in April to take care of a back cyst, so it's worth looking to see how he does in live game action, though he says he feels good.
The Tight Ends
The Cowboys may have surprised some with their selection of tight end Gavin Escobar (pictured) this past May. However, as the spring went along, Jason Garrett and Jerry Jones made it clear that the team wanted to implement a two tight end offense.
That vision became a definite when fullback Lawrence Vickers was released earlier this month, and the team feels that pairing Escobar with the All-Pro Witten creates a dynamic combination at tight end. The team also still has 2012 draft choice James Hannah, and signed blocking tight end Dante Rosario, a collective effort to replace Vickers, who was the only fullback on the roster.
Witten is probably not going to see a ton of preseason action, but the rookie Escobar figures to see quite a bit.
For a team that will rely on its two tight ends more in 2013, the rookie is a key element and is one to watch in the preseason.
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