IRVING, Texas -- In order to break out of their 8-8 doldrums, the Dallas Cowboys will need a lot to go right in 2014.
This week we take a best-case, worst-case look at five offensive and defensive players that will go a long way toward shaping the Cowboys' season.
Best-case: He finally reaches his potential
So much was expected of Carter when the Cowboys moved to the 4-3 scheme last year. He seemed to have the speed and athleticism to handle the weakside linebacker spot. Although he had a career-high 122 tackles, he struggled in 2013. He had only four tackles for loss, no interceptions and after two sacks in the first two games he didn't record another one the rest of the season. Carter has not faced a bigger year in his career. He is set to be a free agent after the season. After playing well in 11 starts in 2012 before suffering an elbow injury, he was viewed as part of the future core. Now he's not. The Cowboys were going to draft Ryan Shazier in the first round if the Pittsburgh Steelers didn't scoop him up with the 15th pick. Carter's job description is changing under new coordinator Rod Marinelli. He will be protected by the 3-technique (lining up on the outside shoulder of a guard) at all times, which will keep him free from offensive linemen and give him better access to roam sideline to sideline. There is no doubting Carter's athleticism. He is one of the strongest players at his position. He can run with tight ends and backs. There is something there to develop, but time is running out. If he hits his potential, the Cowboys have a chance and Carter can work his way back into the future core.
Worst-case: Same as it ever was
If players aren't getting better, they're getting worse. If Carter is the same player in 2014 as he was in 2013, then that will severely limit the defense. He has to be a playmaker on a defense that does not look to have a lot of them, especially along the defensive front. What drove the coaches and those around Valley Ranch nuts last year was the indifference Carter seemed to show when he played poorly. That's part of the reason he was benched against the San Diego Chargers and was pushed by Ernie Sims for playing time. The coaches see a physical specimen capable of doing everything necessary. Does Carter have the innate football sense? The Cowboys have changed how they drop in coverages to give the linebackers the chance to eye the quarterback more. That should allow Carter to use his athleticism. Much of the offseason has been about building up Carter for the coaches. They want to challenge him more. They know how important he is to the scheme. If that doesn't work and Carter's seeming indifference doesn't improve, then they have no chance. He does not have to become a fire-breather, but he has to show a little smoke.