Monday, August 31, 2009

Juggernaut Index No. 9: The Dallas Cowboys

By Scott Pianowski
Source: Yahoo Sports

No. 9: Dallas Cowboys

When a team falls as far as the Cowboys have over a year's time – they were last year's Juggernaut No. 1 after all – a lot of critics take their shots. I'm here to make excuses.

The Pokes were actually living up to the hype until midway through 2008 – that's when everything fell apart. Tony Romo(notes) busted his pinkie, and replacement Brad Johnson(notes) wasn't equipped to run the offense. Marion Barber(notes) dislocated his toe. Felix Jones(notes) came down with hamstring and toe injuries. Roy Williams came over from Detroit and couldn't pick up the scheme. Terrell Owens(notes) whined about his role in the offense. And so it goes.

The key to getting the offensive gravy train going again is Romo, of course. He's looked pretty snappy in the preseason, completing 70 percent of his passes and getting 7.5 yards per attempt. Keep in mind this guy posted 265 yards per game and 2 TDs per start last year, elite numbers. Owens didn't help the bottom line as much as you might think; TO only caught about half of the balls intended for him last year and at times was counter-productive to the offense. If you can wait on quarterback and still land Romo in the 5-8 range, you've done well.

Assuming Williams can quickly recover from the shoulder problem he ran into last week, I like him as a bounce-back player in 2009 and a good value. You rarely see NFL trades around the October deadline because mid-season scheme changes are so daunting. Williams was a very good if not great receiver in Detroit while he had a collection of scrubs throwing him the ball. Keep him hale for four months and this looks like 1,100 yards and 7-9 TDs, easy.

Tight end Jason Witten(notes) is the most reliable pass-catcher in this offense, a fact that drove Owens crazy over the years. He's been to four straight Pro Bowls and his moderate TD count (12 in three years) figures to get a push now that TO is gone. I don't think it's the type of year where a designed tight end makes a lot of sense for fantasy – there's outstanding depth at this position – but if the rest of the room agrees with that and Witten slides to the fifth or sixth round, I'd at least consider him.

The secondary receivers aren't particularly exciting. Miles Austin(notes) entered camp with a chance to secure a starting spot, but he's been outplayed by Patrick Crayton(notes) and Sam Hurd(notes) for most of the summer. All three of those guys are going to get their share of snaps, and No. 2 tight end Martellus Bennett(notes) is also talented enough to demand looks. Lump all of these players into the "prove it to me" file as we enter the regular season.

Barber's stock has slipped during the summer, in part because of the fantastic depth behind him (Jones gets everyone excited, Tashard Choice(notes) can play too). But let's not forget everything Barber has going for him. He's capable of being a lead back, he's dynamic at the goal line (37 scores in three years), he's vastly underrated as a receiver and borderline unfair when the Pokes are salting away a fourth-quarter lead (defenders don't want to tackle him). Barber's been slipping to the middle-to-late part of the second round in a lot of drafts and that sounds great to me. He legitimately deserves a push forward in the PPR format, too.

Jones was too good to be true on a per-touch basis last year (8.9 YPC), but Jason Garrett struggled to include the rookie at times; Prince Felix never had more than nine carries in a game, and somehow we went without a touch in Week 4's loss to Washington. Garrett is a little handcuffed when it comes to Jones in the passing game; Felix is far behind the learning curve in that area. Look for about 10-12 touches per week for Jones this year and probably something around five yards a carry, but even if Barber were to get hurt, Jones isn't ideally suited for every-down play. He'll also get work in the return game, which takes away from how many scrimmage snaps you can expect.

Choice won't see as much action as Jones initially, but if Barber can't stay healthy Choice might get a look in the No. 1 role. He quietly collected 5.1 yards a pop on his 92 carries last year and he's a far better receiver (21 catches) than Jones is. That said, Jones has worked with the first-team offense in preseason games this month while Choice has not.

Cowboy Up: Nick Folk(notes) is coming off hip surgery but he looked healthy in the third preseason game, nailing two short field goals and connecting on a 49-yarder that was negated by a penalty. He only missed two attempts last year. … Jon Kitna(notes) is no longer qualified to be an NFL starter but he can't be any worse at the backup position than Johnson was last year. His rapport with Williams doesn't hurt the cause either. … There's plenty of IDP juice in the Dallas linebacking corps. DeMarcus Ware(notes) is a monster with the sacks and forced fumbles, Bradie James(notes) is a safe source for tackles (plus eight sacks last year), and Keith Brooking(notes) was an interesting addition from Atlanta. … Terence Newman(notes) is the best cover guy in the secondary but that's typically not a place to look for stats – teams throw away from him. He's never had more than four picks in any season. … If Witten suffers any significant injury during the year, run to the waiver wire and grab Bennett. He quietly collected four scores over his last 10 games as a rookie and turned out to be a more-developed receiver than the team expected. … I don't know about you, but I'm rooting for every punt to hit the video screen in Dallas this year – followed by the obligatory Jerry Jones reaction shot. … On paper the schedule looks friendly enough, as the Pokes get a full go-round with the ordinary NFC South and the leaky AFC West. But our perceptions of those teams might be completely different in 4-5 weeks.