QB Kyle Orton, FB Lawrence Vickers, OT Pat McQuistan, G Nate Livings, G Mackenzy Bernadeau, ILB Dan Connor, CB Brandon Carr, S Brodney Pool.
Early Draft Picks:
CB Morris Claiborne, DE/DT Tyrone Crawford, LB Kyle Wilber, S Matt Johnson, WR/P Danny Coale.
FB Tony Fiammetta, WR Laurent Robinson, TE Martellus Bennett, G Montrae Holland, G Kyle Kosier, G Derrick Dockery, ILB Bradie James, CB Terence Newman, CB Alan Ball, S Abram Elam, P Mat McBriar.
2012 Dallas Cowboys Offense:
This literally is a make-or-break year for Tony Romo. He turned 32 this offseason and will be due $11.5 million in 2013. If he doesn't lead the team deep into the playoffs, Jerry Jones, at the very worst, could spend an early selection on a quarterback to provide competition. It also wouldn't be inconceivable if Jones opted to part ways with Romo if he truly believed that moving in a different direction would give his franchise a better chance to win a Super Bowl.
There's no denying Romo's pure talent; after missing 10 games in 2010 with a broken collar bone, he came back to throw for 4,184 yards, 31 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He was also clutch in December for a change, maintaining 10-to-1 touchdown-to-pick ratio. However, the concern is his lacking leadership and inability to perform well at the end of games. Something always seems to go wrong. It's a good sign, however, that Romo has skipped his silly, annual offseason golf tournament to focus on football. There was no excuse for Romo to play golf in the spring; if he really wanted to pursue a golf career, he could do so after NFL retirement.
If Romo doesn't step up in 2012 and finally lead the Cowboys to at least the NFC Championship, he won't be able to blame his supporting cast. He has three outstanding targets to throw to. Dez Bryant is a phenomenal talent, but often faded in the second half of games because he wasn't in top shape. Entering his third year, Bryant will have a full offseason for the first time in his career, so he should have a huge 2012 campaign. Meanwhile, Miles Austin-Jones should also improve. The 28-year-old battled hamstring injuries throughout 2011 and consequently caught only 43 passes for 579 yards. He told the media after the season that like Bryant, he wasn't physically prepared to play football after the lockout was lifted. That'll change in 2012.
Romo's favorite target will continue to be close friend Jason Witten. The Pro Bowl tight end posted career-low numbers last year dating back to 2006 (79 catches, 942 yards, five touchdowns), thanks in part to the emergence of receiver Laurent Robinson. Witten won't have to worry about Robinson anymore, given that Robinson chose to destroy his football career by taking the money and running to Jacksonville this offseason.
The Cowboys could have a special player in their backfield; DeMarco Murray took over for an injured Felix Jones as a rookie last year and rushed for 895 yards on a 5.5 yards-per-carry average. Murray showed flashes of greatness, but also reminded everyone why he dropped in the 2011 NFL Draft; he missed time with an ankle in the final four weeks of the season. Murray was always banged up at Oklahoma. His YPC number may also decrease because Dallas lost fullback Tony Fiammetta in free agency to the Patriots.
Murray will also discover that it'll be more difficult for him to find running lanes. Dallas obtained two guards in free agency, but neither is as good as the player the team had at the position last year. Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau were signed away from Cincinnati and Carolina, respectively, but neither is very good. In fact, Livings was the weakest member of the Bengals' front, while Bernadeau barely played last season because he couldn't crack the starting lineup. It's hard to fathom what the Cowboys were thinking this spring, but the front office clearly didn't watch tape on either blocker.
It's also puzzling as to why Dallas didn't upgrade the center position. Phil Costa really struggled there last year, but the team didn't bring in any sort of competition for him. Meanwhile, the two tackles have flipped, with Tyron Smith shifting from right tackle to the blind side. Smith was outstanding as a rookie, so the move is understandable. It's also good for Doug Free, who struggled with speed rushers at left tackle last season.
2012 Dallas Cowboys Defense:
Enough was enough. Jerry Jones was fed up with his secondary surrendering long play after long play, so he made a bold move in the 2012 NFL Draft, moving up all the way from No. 14 to No. 6 in order to obtain LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne. The Cowboys have already penciled Claiborne into the starting lineup across from free-agent signing Brandon Carr, a talented cornerback who has played for the Chiefs since 2008.
Carr and Claiborne are both huge upgrades over the indifferent Mike Jenkins, the talentless Orlando Scandrick and the decrepit Terence Newman, who signed with the Bengals this offseason. Jenkins is still with the team, but could be traded. It's unclear why any team would acquire him for anything more than a late-round pick, given that he doesn't give a damn about football.
Unfortunately for Dallas, the safety position is still a huge question mark. Gerald Sensabaugh is just an average player, but he's a Pro Bowler in comparison to Brodney Pool, who was signed over from the Jets to replace Abram Elam. Pool played under Rob Ryan before, but then again, so did Elam, and he didn't look good in a Cowboy uniform last season. Dallas spent a fourth-round selection on Matt Johnson, but he's not expected to crack the starting lineup anytime soon.
Because the Cowboys' secondary isn't completely fixed, the front seven will have to make up for it by putting more pressure on the quarterback. The stop unit ranked 11th in that department in 2011, finishing with 42 sacks. Anthony Spencer must step up for that number to improve. Spencer had a fantastic finish to his 2009 campaign, but hasn't really flashed consistently since. He looks great one week and disappears the next, which is perplexing because he plays across from one of the league's most-feared pass-rushers in DeMarcus Ware. Spencer has been given one more chance. He was franchise tagged, so if he doesn't improve, Dallas will look for a new rush linebacker or perhaps roll with 2012 fourth-round selection Kyle Wilber.
The Cowboys also got some pressure up front via nose tackle Jay Ratliff. There was some talk that they would draft Dontari Poe to move Ratliff outside, but that obviously never occurred. Ratliff will continue to serve in the interior, and he'll be flanked by Kenyon Coleman and Jason Hatcher until third-round rookie Tyrone Crawford is ready. Hatcher is a pretty good, all-around player, but Coleman, while decent in run support, offers nothing in terms of getting to the quarterback.
Dallas will probably be using two Penn State linebackers behind their front line. Former Panther Dan Connor was signed to join Sean Lee, who had an amazing sophomore campaign. Lee will play three downs, allowing Connor to serve as a two-down specialist versus the run. Connor is coming off shoulder surgery, however, so this could allow 2011 second-rounder Bruce Carter to overtake him as a starter. Carter has a ton of upside, but is still really raw.
2012 Dallas Cowboys Schedule and Intangibles:
Undrafted rookie Dan Bailey came out of nowhere last year to perform as one of the league's top kickers. He nailed 32-of-37 attempts, including 10-of-12 from 40-49 and 2-of-4 from 50-plus.
Punter Mat McBriar didn't have a good 2011 campaign, so Dallas will use Chris Jones, who had an even-worse 42.6 average (compared to McBriar's 43.8) with 4-of-10 tries placed inside the 20.
No touchdowns were scored for or against the Cowboys on special teams. They were outgained on punt returns by 2.2 yards despite Dez Bryant's presence, but they beat their opponents by 1.9 yards on kickoffs.
The Cowboys have a brutal, early-season schedule. Seven of their first nine opponents are the Giants (road), Bears (home), Ravens (road), Panthers (road), Giants (home), Falcons (road) and Eagles (road). Things get a bit easier later on, but Dallas could be in an early hole.
2012 Dallas Cowboys Analysis: Something always seems to go wrong with the Cowboys. They botch a hold. They ice their own kicker. Their quarterback gets hurt in a must-win game. They whiff on a potential game-winning field goal. It's always something. It didn't change when the team went from Wade Phillips to Jason Garrett, so it must be someone else - perhaps Tony Romo.
As mentioned earlier, this is a make-or-break year for Romo, as another disappointment could prompt Jerry Jones to look for another starting quarterback. It's possible that Romo could finally become a great leader and engineer a long playoff run, but that scenario is unlikely to happen. Something will go wrong.
Goals Entering the 2012 NFL Draft: Jerry Jones said that he's done upgrading the offense after signing Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau. The thing is, neither Livings nor Bernadeau is a legitimate starter in the NFL, so maybe Jones will still select David DeCastro if he's available at No. 14. If he's not, Dallas will likely focus on improving its porous defense.
2012 NFL Draft Accomplishments: I usually don't like it when teams trade up and surrender early-round selections. I'll have to make an exception in this case, however. Surrendering a second-round pick to move up eight slots in order to select one of the six blue-chip prospects, while filling a glaring need? Awesome.
Claiborne doesn't completely fix the secondary, however. There is still a major hole at safety, and Dallas didn't address that area until Pick No. 135, Matt Johnson, who was a borderline draftable prospect.
I liked the Tyrone Crawford pick, but the rest of Jerry Jones' draft was questionable. The holes on defense weren't patched up, and no one was drafted to challenge the two pedestrian guards added through free agency.
2012 NFL Draft Individual Grades:
6. Morris Claiborne, CB, LSU: A- Grade
Wow. I don't think anyone saw this trade coming. I'm not a fan of moving up, but the Cowboys are getting a blue-chip player. They're filling a huge need with a prospect who could have gone No. 3 overall. Dallas surrendered a second-round pick to get him.
81. Tyrone Crawford, DE/DT, Boise State: B Grade
The Cowboys were going to pick Michael Brockers if they remained at No. 14, so they were definitely going to target a defensive end in the middle rounds. Tyrone Crawford fills a need for them and is a solid pick for the range.
113. Kyle Wilber, ILB, Wake Forest: C+ Grade
The Cowboys love drafting inside linebackers in the middle rounds. Kyle Wilber doesn't fill a need, but he does fit the range as a fourth-round prospect. This selection is understandable.
135. Matt Johnson, S, Eastern Washington: D Grade
Matt Johnson was considered by most to be a borderline draftable prospect. Major reach.
152. Danny Coale, WR/P, Virginia Tech: B+ Grade
The Cowboys needed a receiver because Laurent Robinson left for Jacksonville. They also had to find a punter. Danny Coale can be used in both areas. It's always nice to fill two needs with one pick.
186. James Hanna, TE, Oklahoma: A- Grade
The Cowboys lost Martellus Bennett in free agency, so it's not a surprise that they spent a final-day selection on a tight end. Scouts Inc. had Hanna ranked as high as No. 117, though other boards were more bearish. Hanna has immense upside, so he's worth taking in Round 6.
222. Caleb McSurdy, ILB, Montana: C Grade
It's going to be difficult for Caleb McSurdy to make Dallas' roster with so many linebackers ahead of him.
Why is it that the Cowboys always find a way to screw themselves every year? The method is always different, whether it's icing their own kicker or botching a hold on a kicking attempt, but the end result is always the same.
Cowboys sign OT Pat McQuistan
Cowboys announce retirement of OT Marc Colombo
Texans sign ILB Bradie James
Bengals sign CB Terence Newman
Cowboys claim QB Rudy Carpenter
Patriots sign FB Tony Fiammetta
Cowboys cut G Kyle Kosier
Cowboys re-sign WR Kevin Ogletree
Cowboys sign ILB Dan Connor
Cowboys sign S Brodney Pool
Jaguars sign WR Laurent Robinson
Cowboys sign CB Brandon Carr
Giants sign TE Martellus Bennett
Cowboys sign FB Lawrence Vickers
Cowboys sign QB Kyle Orton
Cowboys cut CB Terence Newman
Cowboys waive K David Buehler
Cowboys franchise DE/OLB Anthony Spencer
Cornerback: If you watched Dallas' late-season meltdown, you know that this is an area that the team needs to address. Terence Newman was torched in the second half of the year, so Jerry Jones will be desperate to find an upgrade. Dre Kirkpatrick will be off the board when the Cowboys are selecting this April, so they'll have to move up if they want him. Signed Brandon Carr; drafted Morris Claiborne
Center: I don't know where I can find the stat for this, but I'm willing to bet that Dallas had more botched snaps than any team in the NFL last year. Phil Costa cannot be allowed to start again in 2012.
Guard: Bill Nagy is not a starting-caliber guard in this league. I'm sure he Cowboys would love to use the No. 14 pick in the 2012 NFL Draft on David DeCastro. Signed Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau
Safety: Abram Elam was brought over from Cleveland because he knew Capt. Lou Albano's defense. Elam struggled, however, so Dallas should search for an upgrade. Signed Brodney Pool; drafted Matt Johnson
Inside Linebacker: Bradie James is a free agent, and all the Cowboys will have left at the position is Sean Lee and Bruce Carter. Signed Dan Connor
Defensive Lineman: This can be a defensive end to upgrade Kenyon Coleman/Marcus Spears, or a nose tackle so Jay Ratliff can move outside. There are several prospects the Cowboys will be able to target in the second round to fix this area. Drafted Tyrone Crawford
Rush Linebacker: Anthony Spencer is a free agent. Dallas may not want to bring him back because he has consistency issues. If that's the case, the team will need someone across from DeMarcus Ware. Franchised Anthony Spencer; drafted Kyle Wilber
Backup Quarterback: Jon Kitna has retired because of back problems. Stephen McGee looked lost in relief of Tony Romo against the Eagles. Signed Kyle Orton; claimed Rudy Carpenter
Punter: Mat McBriar is a solid punter who is due to hit the market in March. Drafted Danny Coale
2012 NFL Free Agent Signings:
Brandon Carr, CB, Chiefs. Age: 26. Signed with Cowboys (5 years, $50.1 million)
Brandon Carr allowed a completion percentage of 49.4 in 2011. He is a No. 1-caliber cornerback who will be rewarded with a big contract this offseason.
Dan Connor, ILB, Panthers. Age: 26. Signed with Cowboys
Don't expect Dan Connor to be back with the Panthers; otherwise, he'll have to play behind Jon Beason. Connor is talented and young, and could easily be a starter somewhere else.
Lawrence Vickers, FB, Texans. Age: 29. Signed with Cowboys
Lawrence Vickers is a decent blocker, but doesn't do anything else.
Kyle Orton, QB, Chiefs. Age: 29. Signed with Cowboys (3 years)
Kyle Orton has proven that he can be a solid game-manager when surrounded by a quality supporting cast. That's all he is though.
Nate Livings, G, Bengals. Age: 30. -- Signed with Cowboys (5 years, $19 million)
Brodney Pool, S, Jets. Age: 28. -- Signed with Cowboys
Mackenzy Bernadeau, G, Panthers. Age: 26. -- Signed with Cowboys (4 years, $11 million)
Pat McQuistan, OT, Saints. Age: 29. -- Signed with Cowboys
Dallas Cowboys Free Agents:
Salary Cap: TBA.
Tony Fiammetta (RFA), FB, Cowboys. Age: 26. Signed with Patriots
DeMarco Murray's production really dropped off when Tony Fiammetta was out of the lineup, and then it picked up once again when Fiammetta returned. Coincidence?
Mat McBriar, P, Cowboys. Age: 33.
Mat McBriar is a very good punter who usually finds his way into the top 10 of net average every year.
Laurent Robinson, WR, Cowboys. Age: 27. Signed with Jaguars (5 years, $32.5 million)
Laurent Robinson was finally able to stay healthy, and he consequently had the best year of his career, catching 54 balls for 858 yards and 11 touchdowns. He was a key contributor when Miles Austin-Jones went down, so Jerry Jones will make a strong effort to re-sign him. Robinson is injury-prone though, so Jerry better not go crazy.
Anthony Spencer, DE/OLB, Cowboys. Age: 28. Franchised by Cowboys
Great one week and invisible the next, Anthony Spencer has immense talent, but can't seem to stay consistent. At 28, time is running out for him to put it together.
Montrae Holland, G, Cowboys. Age: 32.
Montrae Holland played pretty well at left guard for the Cowboys, but tore his biceps in late December.
Bradie James, ILB, Cowboys. Age: 31. Signed with Texans
No longer a three-down linebacker, Bradie James struggled at times in 2011.
Martellus Bennett, TE, Cowboys. Age: 25. -- Signed with Giants (1 year, $2.5 million)
Abram Elam, S, Cowboys. Age: 30.
Kyle Kosier, G, Cowboys. Age: 33.
Terence Newman, CB, Cowboys. Age: 33. -- Signed with Bengals
Alan Ball, CB, Cowboys. Age: 27. -- Signed with Texans
Kevin Ogletree, WR, Cowboys. Age: 25. -- Re-signed with Cowboys (1 year)
Derrick Dockery, G, Cowboys. Age: 31.
Keith Brooking, ILB, Cowboys. Age: 36.
Sammy Morris, RB, Cowboys. Age: 35.
Frank Walker, CB, Cowboys. Age: 31.
Divisional Rival History: New York Giants: The Giants, for whatever reason, dominate this rivalry; they've taken seven of the last nine meetings. Philadelphia Eagles: The Eagles have won the past three matchups against their arch rival. Washington Redskins: The Cowboys have won 11 of the last 14 meetings, but Dallas-Washington games tend to be close regardless; 12 of the last 16 matchups have been decided by six points or fewer.
Features to be Posted This Offseason:
2012 NFL Draft Grades (Pick-by-Pick NFL Draft Grades as well - Live on Draft Day!)