Dallas Cowboys: 2012 Position Series

Cowboys position series: Special teams

February, 20, 2012
This is the final installment of our 12-part series breaking down the Cowboys roster. Today we look a special teams.

Mat McBriar
J. Meric/Getty Images2011 was not Mat McBriar's best season, mainly due to a nerve problem that prevented him from planting his non-kicking foot.
Players: Mat McBriar (free agent), David Buehler (signed through 2012), Dan Bailey (signed through 2013), Chris Jones (signed through 2013), LP Ladouceur (signed through 2012)

Top free agents: Kickers: Nick Folk, New York Jets; Joe Nedney, San Francisco 49ers; Matt Prater, Denver Broncos; Punters: Donnie Jones, St. Louis Rams; Steve Weatherford, New York Giants

Top draft prospects: Kickers: Greg Zuerlein, Missouri Western; Phillip Welch, Wisconsin; Blair Walsh, Georgia; Punters: Drew Butler, Georgia; Bryan Anger, California

2011 review: This was not McBriar's (36.7 net average) best season, mainly due to a nerve problem that prevented him from planting his non-kicking foot. McBriar had his best game in holding down Arizona's Patrick Peterson. Bailey, a rookie, tied a franchise record with 26 consecutive made field goal tries. He emerged as probably the third best rookie on the team. Buehler lost the field goal job to Bailey, and had his conditioning questioned by Jerry Jones toward the end of the season. Buehler's season ended with surgery on his groin.

Offseason preview: McBriar underwent surgery to repair a cyst that caused his nerve damage. Doctors said that McBriar should make a full recovery, and as an unrestricted free agent, the Cowboys need to decide whether to sign him to a two-to-three year deal. They should. Buehler might not return and Bailey has emerged as someone the team can rely on. The return game was a mess as a host of players returned punts and kicks. Dwayne Harris should take over both spots going forward, but Dez Bryant is also a threat even though he was inconsistent on punt returns. When the Cowboys evaluate the skill position players in the draft, they need to find a player who can also return punts and kicks.

Need meter (0-5): 1

Cowboys position series: Cornerbacks

February, 19, 2012

This is the 11th installment of our 12-part series breaking down the Cowboys roster. Today we look at cornerbacks.

Players: Terence Newman (signed through 2014), Mike Jenkins (signed through 2012), Orlando Scandrick (signed through 2016), Alan Ball (unrestricted free agent), Frank Walker (unrestricted free agent), Mario Butler (signed futures contract), C.J. Wilson (signed futures contract)

[+] EnlargeMike Jenkins
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezMike Jenkins performed well in 2011 considering the long list of injuries that he dealt with during the season, but he only intercepted one pass.
Top free agents: Brent Grimes, Atlanta Falcons; Cortland Finnegan, Tennessee Titans; Brandon Carr, Kansas City Chiefs; Carlos Rogers, San Francisco 49ers; Stanford Routt, Oakland Raiders

Top draft prospects: Morris Claiborne, LSU; Dre Kirkpatrick, Alabama; Janoris Jenkins, North Alabama; Alfonzo Dennard, Nebraska; Trumaine Johnson, Montana

2011 review: The cornerbacks’ poor play was the primary reason the Cowboys ranked 23rd in the NFL in passing defense. Terence Newman had four picks in the first seven games, but he was terrible in the second half of the season for the second consecutive year. Opponents averaged almost 10 yards per attempt against Newman for the season, which is completely unacceptable for a cornerback. The New Year’s Day game against the Giants, when Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks torched him repeatedly, might have been the worst of Newman’s career. Orlando Scandrick, who signed a five-year, $27 million contract extension during the preseason, also struggled most of the season. Mike Jenkins performed well considering the long list of injuries that he dealt with during the season, but like Scandrick, Jenkins only intercepted one pass.

Offseason preview: It’s a no-brainer to release Newman, which would create an additional $4-6 million of cap space, depending on the date of the roster move. The Cowboys cannot make the mistake of just handing Scandrick a starting role just because he’s paid at that level. He hasn’t done anything to prove he’s capable of being anything more than a nickel back. Acquiring a cornerback to pair with Jenkins should be one of the Cowboys’ top priorities. The only good, young corner on the free agent market is Kansas City’s Brandon Carr, which means he’s likely to be paid like a Pro Bowler even though he’s never been one. Newman’s contract should have taught the Cowboys the danger of investing heavily in corners who are nearing 30, such as Brent Grimes or Cortland Finnegan. The Cowboys need to pick a corner in the first couple rounds of the draft.

Bryan Broaddus’ Scout’s Eye: If the pass rush for the Cowboys was better, maybe the cornerbacks wouldn't have had so many problems during the season. I believe it would have helped, but I will not allow that to be the reason for all of the issues. Other than Jenkins, the cornerbacks were awful and it didn't matter who the Cowboys put in the mix. It's time for Newman and Ball to move on. At the nickel, I am not going to give Scandrick a pass either. I understand that playing the nickel slot is difficult, but he was nowhere near as good he needed to be. I am not sold on Scandrick as a starter but the front office and coaching staff might be. I don't see them spending big money in free agency for the corner spot but instead looking at affordable options off the street or in the draft. Scandrick might start, and I think even if they draft a player in the first round, such as Kirkpatrick, Scandrick will start until the new addition gets his feet under him. This is a position the Cowboys need to address quickly and with a quality player.

Need meter (0-5): 5

Cowboys position series: Safeties

February, 16, 2012
This is the 10th installment of our 12-part series breaking down the Cowboys roster. Today we look at safeties.

[+] EnlargeAbram Elam
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesFree agent Abram Elam knows Rob Ryan's defensive scheme, but he might want a longer deal than the Cowboys are willing to offer.
Players: Gerald Sensabaugh (signed through 2016), Danny McCray (signed through 2012), Abram Elam (free agent), Mana Silva (signed through 2013), Barry Church (signed through 2012).

Top free agents: Tyvon Branch, Oakland Raiders; Michael Griffin, Tennessee Titans; LaRon Landry, Washington Redskins; Dashon Goldson, San Francisco 49ers; Mike Adams, Cleveland Browns.

Top draft prospects: Mark Barron, Alabama; Antonio Allen, South Carolina; Harrison Smith, Notre Dame; George Iloka, Boise State; Markelle Martin, Oklahoma State.

2011 review: The Cowboys were inconsistent at this position in 2010. Last season, Elam's return brought some stability, but he became inconsistent, too. Sensabaugh played well at the start of the season but a foot injury slowed his progress. The Cowboys valued Sensabaugh and gave him a new contract. Church showed defensive coordinator Rob Ryan he could play a little linebacker and should see more playing time in 2012. McCray was a solid contributor on special teams but a shoulder injury late in the season slowed him down.

Offseason preview: Signing Elam might be a good thing for the Cowboys since he knows Ryan's defensive scheme, but he might want a long-term deal and that's something the franchise might be unwilling to offer. Sensabaugh can play both safety spots, and seemed to excel as a free safety. Finding a strong safety willing to play the run with a force is must for the Cowboys. If the team elects to draft a safety, Barron most likely will be gone at No. 14, so waiting until the second or third day of the draft might be the best move. A free-agent safety might command too much money on the open market, which the Cowboys don't seem willing to offer.

Bryan Broaddus' Scout's Eye: Since losing Darren Woodson, Jerry Jones has attacked this position with poor results, either through the draft (Roy Williams, Tony Dixon) or free agency (Ken Hamlin, Gerald Sensabaugh). As other NFL teams have been able to fill this all-important position, the Cowboys have continued to struggle to find the right mix. During 2011, the Cowboys made a two-year commitment to Sensabaugh and nothing to Abram Elam. When he signed, Elam was praised as a player that would help his teammates master Rob Ryan’s scheme. As the season wore on, however, it was clear that Elam and his teammates were far from prepared on a weekly basis. I don’t have a problem with the Sensabaugh signing, but this team needs a safety that can play with some range and help these corners on the outside. Too many times, the ball went down the field and receivers were able to make plays to keep drives going. I like younger players like Barry Church and Danny McCray, but they are more forward players and aren’t safeties with range. Ryan needs a guy that can make plays down the field or the defense will continue to struggle to get off the field. To me, fixing that problem is just as important as finding a player that can rush the passer.

Need meter (0-5): 3

Cowboys position series: Outside linebacker

February, 15, 2012
This is the ninth installment of our 12-part series breaking down the Cowboys roster. Today we look at outside linebacker.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Spencer
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezThe Cowboys have an important decision to make about free-agent linebacker Anthony Spencer.
Players: DeMarcus Ware (signed through 2015), Anthony Spencer (unrestricted free agent), Victor Butler (signed through 2012), Alex Albright (signed through 2013)

Top free agents: Mario Williams, Houston Texans; Anthony Spencer, Dallas Cowboys; Ahmad Brooks, San Francisco 49ers; Jarret Johnson, Baltimore Ravens; Manny Lawson, Cincinnati Bengals.

Top draft prospects: Courtney Upshaw, Alabama; Melvin Ingram, South Carolina; Chandler Jones, Syracuse; Nick Perry, USC; Ronnell Lewis, Oklahoma; Zach Brown, North Carolina.

2011 review: Ware put together another Pro Bowl season, ranking second in the NFL with 19.5 sacks. You can question how many of those sacks were game-changing plays, but there’s no doubt that Ware is one of the most dominant pass-rushers of this era, if not NFL history. Spencer, on the other hand, had another average season. He was solid against the run, tying for the team lead with eight tackles for losses, but wasn’t a difference-maker as a pass-rusher again (six sacks). Butler, who had three sacks in limited playing time, shows flashes as a pass rusher but apparently hasn’t earned the coaches’ trust to play a significant role.

Offseason review: Whether to use the franchise tag on Spencer might be the most important decision the Cowboys make this offseason. That would mean paying Spencer $8.8 million in 2012. That’s too much for a non-impact player, but letting Spencer walk in free agency would create a big hole opposite Ware. Signing Spencer to a long-term contract would be rewarding mediocrity, a mistake the Cowboys would likely regret down the road, considering he’s likely to be overpaid in a weak free agency crop of outside linebackers. Even if the Cowboys use the franchise tag on Spencer, they would be wise to use an early-round draft pick to find the long-term solution at this position. If they let Spencer go, this becomes arguably the Cowboys’ biggest need in the draft.

Bryan Broaddus' Scout's Eye: Maybe the position that has the most question marks. Will the Cowboys use the franchise tag on Anthony Spencer, or will they use the 14th overall selection in the draft to fill the need, or will they do both? Regardless, the position opposite Ware needs to be addressed. Too many times, Ware was a one-man show this past season. When the Cowboys needed pressure in the passing game, it fell to Ware to provide it.

The decision to potentially franchise Spencer tells me a couple of things: that the coaches and the front office like what they have in Spencer and don't like the current group of outside linebackers on the current free agent market; and they have questions about those players available in the draft. The tag wouldn't surprise me one bit because I have always believed that coaches love the known more than the unknown. As fans you might not feel that Spencer is worth the tag, but it allows the Cowboys to buy time and go with a player that has had some productive moments.

I have always liked Victor Butler and have seen a productive player when given the chance to take snaps. Why not give him a shot? Like at inside linebacker, the depth at this position has been killed by the draft or the lack of it. Alex Albright made the 53-man roster last season, and was a nice player on special teams and did see snaps during the season in some packages. However, he was on the field when the defense gave up some big plays.

The team can best fix this position through the draft with Ingram or Upshaw AND by keeping Spencer in the mix. That'd allow the Cowboys an opportunity to get that corner, guard or safety that could also make a difference.

Need meter (0-5): 4

Cowboys position series: Inside linebacker

February, 14, 2012
This is the eighth installment of our 12-part series breaking down the Cowboys roster. Today we look at inside linebacker.

[+] EnlargeSean Lee
Zumapress/Icon SMISean Lee had four interceptions and five games with 10-plus total tackles in 2011.
Players: Bradie James (free agent), Sean Lee (signed through 2013), Bruce Carter (signed through 2014), Keith Brooking (free agent).

Top free agents: London Fletcher, Washington Redskins; David Hawthorne, Seattle Seahawks; D'Qwell Jackson, Cleveland Browns; Stephen Tulloch, Detroit Lions; Dan Connor, Carolina Panthers.

Top draft prospects: Luke Kuechly, Boston College; Vontaze Burfict, Arizona State; Dont'a Hightower, Alabama; Mychal Kendricks, Cal; Audie Cole, N.C. State.

2011 review: A changing of the guard occurred as Lee emerged as the full-time starter and force in the middle of the 3-4 defense. Lee had five games with 10-plus total tackles and 10 games with five or more tackles. James and Brooking took the reduced playing time like true professionals, and offered to play special teams to help the team. Carter didn't get going until later in the season as he recovered from knee surgery. He should have gotten more playing time as the season progressed, but it seemed the coaches relied on the veterans.

Offseason preview: James and Brooking most likely will not return. The Cowboys want to go younger at this spot and it appears they have the two players to take them into the future with Lee and Carter. Depth is a major issue here if James and Brooking are gone. Cowboys most likely will need to draft an inside linebacker or possibly find a veteran in free agency willing to be a backup. Lee was a force against the run and pass last season and there is some concern if Carter can duplicate that. Carter has the athletic gifts to become a good player and might be better suited to rush off the edge sometimes. This group has gotten faster with Carter getting full-time snaps.

Bryan Broaddus' Scout's Eye: We saw this position begin to change when Lee was paired with James and then with Brooking. There will be another transition from James and Brooking to Carter, who early in the season was given an opportunity to finish games with mixed results. To Carter's credit, he was much better later in the season with his fits and reads, which gave me hope that he was adjusting to what the coaches were asking him to do. I really like Carter and I liked him a year ago when I studied him at North Carolina but coming off that knee injury was probably more than he realized. The problem for the Cowboys will not be Carter and Lee, but who is behind them? This front office has struggled to bring young players through the draft other than the two I mentioned. Orie Lemon is a college free agent who spent the year on the practice squad but other than him, that is it. This front office can not afford to miss on picks like it did with players like Jason Williams. Look for them to be aggressive not only in the draft but in college free agency, which is an area where they usually find a player or two because depth here is beyond thin.

Need meter (0-5): 3

Cowboys position series: Defensive line

February, 13, 2012
This is the seventh installment of our 12-part series breaking down the Cowboys roster. Today we look at the defensive line.

[+] EnlargeCowboys
Hannah Foslien/Getty ImagesJason Hatcher (4.5) and Pro Bowler Jay Ratliff (2.0) had the lion's share of the 10.5 sacks compiled by the Cowboys' defensive line last season.
Players: NT Jay Ratliff (signed through 2017), DE Jason Hatcher (signed through 2013), DE Marcus Spears (signed through 2014), DE Kenyon Coleman (signed through 2012), NT/DE Sean Lissemore (signed through 2013), NT Josh Brent (signed through 2013), DE Clifton Geathers (exclusive rights free agent), NT/DE Robert Callaway (signed futures contract)

Top free agents: DE Calais Campbell, Arizona Cardinals; DE Mario Williams, Houston Texans; NT Sione Pouha, New York Jets; DE Jason Jones, Tennessee Titans; DE Cliff Avril, Detroit Lions.

Top draft prospects: DE Quinton Coples, North Carolina; DT/DE Michael Brockers, LSU; NT Brandon Thompson, Clemson; NT Jerel Worthy, Michigan State; DT Devon Still, Penn State.

2011 review: The defensive line performed respectably against the run for the most part. However, it left a lot to be desired in the pass-rushing department. The Cowboys’ defensive line combined for only 10.5 sacks, led by Hatcher (4.5). Ratliff made his fourth consecutive Pro Bowl appearance despite his sacks total declining for the fourth consecutive year. He finished the season with two sacks, tied with reserve Lissemore for second among the team’s defensive linemen. Coleman and Spears were solid against the run but nonfactors against the pass, which is particularly a problem with a secondary as vulnerable as the Cowboys'.

Offseason preview: The Cowboys need more playmaking at this position. Maybe they get that by moving Ratliff to defensive end, a subject that gets discussed every offseason but has not been seriously considered since he established himself as the starting nose tackle. Coples and Brockers, the best 3-4 defensive end prospects in the draft, are likely to be gone by the time the Cowboys get on the clock with the 14th overall pick. Arizona’s Campbell, who dominated Doug Free when the Cowboys played the Cardinals this season, would be a major upgrade in free agency. However, there’s a decent chance that the Cardinals will use the franchise tag to prevent one of the NFL’s best 3-4 ends from testing the open market this offseason.

Bryan Broaddus' Scout's Eye: When the Cowboys played well on defense last season it was usually because the defensive line was handling the run and getting pressure on the quarterback. When things were going badly, I could usually tell on tape it was because the line wasn't getting off blocks and struggling with the pressure. The biggest problem I had with the line was at defensive end. The team lost Stephen Bowen to the Redskins and in my view, that was a tough blow for the defense. The club brought back Spears and Hatcher but also signed Coleman. Hatcher moved into Bowen's role with Spears and Coleman as the starters. As the season wore on, Coleman wore down and his play hurt the defense. Spears was up and down as well. Where there is a need of an upgrade would be at end. I am a big fan of Lissemore and I would not be surprised to see him in the starting lineup next season for Coleman or at nose if Ratliff shifts to end. Speaking of nose, Ratliff made the Pro Bowl which surprised me. I like Ratliff and respect the way he played, but there were times where he was clearly better than the centers that he was playing against and he didnt always take advantage of the matchup. Ratliff doesn't always face double teams. Where Ratliff struggles the most is when he gets wore down. That's why guys like Brent and Lissemore are key to keeping him as fresh as possible. I like the nose men on this team but the front office needs to find some upgrades at end to give the defense a chance.

Need meter (0-5): 3

Cowboys position series: Center/guards

February, 12, 2012
This is the sixth installment of our 12-part series breaking down the Cowboys roster. Today we look at centers and guards.

[+] EnlargeTony Romo
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezIt's uncertain if the Cowboys want to bring guard Kyle Kosier back, but it appears that they do.
Cowboys players: Derrick Dockery (free agent), David Arkin (signed through 2014), Phil Costa (signed through 2012), Kevin Kowalski (signed through 2013), Kyle Kosier (signed through 2013), Daniel Loper (restricted free agent, Montrae Holland (free agent), Bill Nagy (signed through 2014).

Top free agents: Guards: Carl Nicks, New Orleans; Dan Connolly, New England; Ben Grubbs, Baltimore. Centers: Chris Myers, Houston; Scott Wells, Green Bay.

Top draft prospects: Guards: David DeCastro, Stanford; Cordy Glenn, Georgia; Brandon Washington, Miami. Centers: Peter Konz, Wisconsin; Mike Brewster, Ohio State.

2011 review: Jerry Jones said the evaluation process of these two positions needs to get better. The Cowboys overestimated the talent level of the guards after training camp, going with younger players who proved to be inconsistent. The health of three veteran guards raised more questions. It's uncertain if the Cowboys want to bring Kosier back, though it appears that they do. Holland and Dockery might not return in 2012. Both players dealt with health issues during the 2011 season. Nagy started the season at guard, but an ankle injury in October ended his season. When Tony Romo was pressured from the outside, he didn't have solid footing in the middle of the line.

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Offseason preview: Drafting a guard or center might be a possibility, but Nicks is a free agent if the Cowboys are interested in making him a significant offer. The Cowboys need to get better in this area. Finding more talent in the interior positions could help an improving run game and also assist the passing game. Dallas has to decide if a pass rusher is more important in the first round or an interior lineman.

Bryan Broaddus' Scout's Eye: Other than third wide receiver and backup tight end, the area of the offense that needs the most work is this position. I'm not a fan of center Phil Costa, and I feel that you need to do better than Holland, Dockery or Nagy at left guard. Free agent Carl Nicks (Saints) would be a huge upgrade, and it would allow you to play with a little less of a center if you choose to do so. In the draft, the Cowboys will have a shot to draft Stanford's David DeCastro -- the best guard -- or they could trade down and think about Cordy Glenn, a massive left tackle from Georgia who is projected to play inside. I think the best way to fix the position is via free agency, so the Cowboys can use the draft picks to help fix the corner or outside linebacker spots. But if they do decide to draft DeCastro, you can plug him in right away -- much like you did with Tyron Smith.

Need meter (1-5): 3

Cowboys position series: Offensive tackle

February, 10, 2012
This is the fifth installment of a 12-part series breaking down the Cowboys roster. Today we look at offensive tackles.

[+] EnlargeNew York's Justin Tuck
Matthew Emmons/US PRESSWIREOffensive tackle Tyron Smith was one of the bright spots in the Cowboys' dismal season and likely will be moving to the left side.
Players: Doug Free (signed through 2014), Tyron Smith (signed through 2014), Jermey Parnell (exclusive rights free agent).

Top free agents: Jared Gaither, San Diego Chargers; Demetrius Bell, Buffalo Bills; Max Starks, Pittsburgh Steelers; Kareem McKenzie, New York Giants; Jeff Backus, Detroit Lions.

Top draft prospects: Matt Kalil, USC; Riley Reiff, Iowa; Jonathan Martin, Stanford; Mike Adams, Ohio State; Zebrie Sanders, Florida State.

2011 review: Smith, who didn’t turn 21 until December, was one of the biggest bright spots in the Cowboys’ disappointing season. He immediately established himself as one of the NFL’s best right tackles, displaying all the tools to develop into an elite player for at least a decade. Free, on the other hand, was a major disappointment during the first season of his four-year, $32 million deal. There was a significant dropoff from Free’s first season as the starter at left tackle. He was dominated by Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul in the two meetings that determined the NFC East title and struggled in several other games.

Offseason preview: Although Free is coming off a down season, the Cowboys’ starting tackles should be set for at least the next few seasons. It is extremely likely that Smith and Free will switch sides. Smith is by far the Cowboys’ best offensive lineman, so it makes sense to put him in the premium spot of left tackle, protecting Tony Romo’s blind side. There would be less pressure on Free if he returns to right tackle, which he played when Marc Colombo was injured in 2009, although he’d still have to face fearsome NFC East pass rushers like the Giants’ Justin Tuck, the Eagles’ Jason Babin and the Redskins’ Ryan Kerrigan. The Cowboys need to address the lack of depth at the position, but that doesn’t merit a major investment in free agency or a high draft pick. Parnell is a developmental project who turns 26 this summer. He should have to compete to be the swing tackle again.

Bryan Broaddus’ Scout’s Eye: When looking back on the offensive tackle play for the Cowboys last season, the word "surpising" comes to mind. It was surprising that Doug Free went from a player that there were no worries about to a player that you really were not sure what you were going to get week to week. It was surprising that a 20-year-old rookie in Tyron Smith was your best and most consistent linemen. No one on the coaching staff or front office saw before the season what was going to happen to Free. The more questions I asked, the more different answers I got. Former offensive line coach Hudson Houck told me that it was a technique problem, while others stated it was the lack of an offseason in the weight room that hurt Free. To be honest, I really believe it was both. When I studied Free, he just couldn't get a in groove when it came to the use of his hands and feet. His punch was off and lacked power, and his footwork was like he had never executed a pass set. This time last year was when I observed Smith for the first time on tape when getting ready for the 2011 NFL Draft. In those games I watched, you could see a special player. To his credit, he came into camp and worked as hard as any young linemen that I had seen in my 13 years in the league. Day after day he worked on his craft, and it carried over into his play. Though he played right tackle in college, there is talk of shifting him to the left side. I don't have a problem with this, but what you have to remember is that there are different techniques on the left side that he will have to master. But if he works as hard as he did before his rookie season, there should be no problems. In 2012, I see a bounce-back year for Free if he is shifted to the right side. Look for the Cowboys to try and work some young tackles in the mix in the latter part of the draft or through free agency.

Need meter (0-5): 1.

Cowboys position series: Tight ends

February, 8, 2012
This is the fourth installment of a 12-part series breaking down the Cowboys roster. Today we look at tight ends.

[+] EnlargeTBD
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireJason Witten, who returns for his 10th season, led the Cowboys in catches and receiving yards in 2011.
Players: Jason Witten (signed through 2017), Martellus Bennett (free agent), John Phillips (signed through 2012)

Top free agents: Martellus Bennett, Dallas Cowboys; John Carlson, Seattle Seahawks; Jermichael Finley, Green Bay Packers; Marcedes Lewis, Jacksonville Jaguars; Visanthe Shiancoe, Minnesota Vikings

Top draft prospects: Coby Fleener, Stanford; Dwayne Allen, Clemson; Orson Charles, Georgia; Ladarius Green, Louisiana-Layayette; Michael Egnew, Missouri

2011 review: First the good news: Bennett will not return. He didn't like how he was being used in the offense and his locker room and off-the-field antics rubbed some in the organization the wrong way. Now the bad news: Bennett was the Cowboys' best blocking tight end and most athletic. He will find a home. More good news: Witten returns for his 10th season and is in line to have the longest tenure on the team if Bradie James and Terence Newman don't return. He's a professional and despite not making the Pro Bowl last season, led the team in catches (79) and receiving yards (942). Phillips was average last season, after coming off knee surgery.

Offseason preview: Free agency isn't the way to go here because the class is top heavy with world-class talent. The draft is a possibility and a mid-to-late round pick could be the answer. Green might be around on the third day and he's worth looking at. The Cowboys want tight ends who can block well and are not afraid to mix it up. Witten is the perfect example of how to do that.

Bryan Broaddus' Scout's Eye: It's hard to believe that Witten will be playing in his 10th season for the Cowboys. The Cowboys need to work on finding the next tight end who will be reliable and productive like Witten has been. I am not saying that Witten is done, but it would be a nice time to start finding a replacement. It's a shame that Bennett played at a higher level toward the end of the season so other teams would have decent film to watch when he becomes a free agent. Don't fool yourself into thinking that Bennett was this great run blocker because he wasn't. There were times he was good but not as good as he could have been. His career in Dallas will always have me wondering "what if." Phillips should be better than he was in 2011 coming off knee surgery. He is a productive player run or pass. Shaun Chapas was drafted last season, but I don't see the necessary skills. If the Cowboys get an extra pick in the middle of the draft, it could be a good time to look at tight ends.

Need meter (0-5): 4

Cowboys position series: Wide receivers

February, 7, 2012
This is the third in a 12-part series on the Cowboys roster.

[+] EnlargeLaurent Robinson
Tim Heitman/US PresswireThe Cowboys' biggest offseason decision regarding the receiving corps will be whether to re-sign Laurent Robinson.
Players: Miles Austin (signed through 2016), Dez Bryant (signed through 2014), Laurent Robinson (unrestricted free agent), Kevin Ogletree (restricted free agent), Dwayne Harris (signed through 2014), Andre Holmes (signed through 2013), Raymond Radway (signed through 2013), Teddy Williams (reserves/future contract)

Top free agents: Wes Welker, New England Patriots; Marques Colston, New Orleans Saints; DeSean Jackson, Philadelphia Eagles; Vincent Jackson, San Diego Chargers; Dwayne Bowe, Kansas City Chiefs.

Top draft prospects: Justin Blackmon, Oklahoma State; Michael Floyd, Notre Dame; Kendall Wright, Baylor; Alshon Jeffrey, South Carolina; Mohamed Sanu, Rutgers.

2011 review: Robinson, who was signed in early September after being cut by the Chargers, ended up being the Cowboys’ most effective receiver. It took an injury to Austin and ineffectiveness by Ogletree for Robinson to get a significant role, but he led the Cowboys with 11 touchdown catches and was second among the team’s wideouts in catches (54) and receiving yards (858). Bryant didn’t have a 100-yard game all season, but he made significant progress, finishing his second year with 63 catches for 928 yards and nine touchdowns. Austin was a disappointment in the second year of a $54 million contract. He missed six games due to two hamstring strains, finishing the season with only 43 catches for 579 yards and seven touchdowns.

Offseason preview: The Cowboys’ biggest decision regarding the receiving corps will be whether to re-sign Robinson. He’s made it clear that he wants to return to Valley Ranch and has indicated that the Cowboys wouldn’t necessarily have to be the top bidders to keep him. What the Cowboys would be willing to pay for a No. 3 receiver who has proven he can be a quality fill-in starter isn’t clear. If the Cowboys don’t re-sign Robinson, they’ll need to find another third receiver, whether it’s in the draft or another free-agency bargain.

Bryan Broaddus’ Scout’s Eye: The Cowboys will be set at starters with Austin and Bryant. The biggest question will be if the club makes the effort to try and re-sign Robinson or if it allows him to leave via free agency. I would not be surprised if the front office allows Robinson to walk. If that is the case, then his numbers will need to be replaced. Let's be honest, Ogletree can't do the job as the third receiver. Ogletree has been given every opportunity to step up and take that job, but he can't do it. If not Robinson or Ogletree, there is Holley, Harris, Radway and Holmes. Holley had some productive snaps but mainly on special teams. Harris was off and on the practice squad. Radway is an interesting player because if he didn't get injured on the last play of the preseason game against the Dolphins, there was a great chance he was going to make the roster. The plan will be to try and find another Robinson in free agency with the available receivers. I don't see them using a high pick on a receiver but taking the approach of looking at a height-weight-speed player later.

Need meter (0-5): 2

Cowboys position series: Running backs

February, 6, 2012

This is the second-part of a 12-part series on the Cowboys roster. Today we look at the running backs.

Players: Felix Jones (signed through 2012), Tony Fiammetta (free agent), Shaun Chapas (signed through 2014), Sammy Morris (free agent), Chauncey Washington (free agent), DeMarco Murray (signed through 2014), Phillip Tanner (signed through 2013).

[+] EnlargeDeMarco Murray
AP Photo/Sharon EllmanDeMarco Murray rushed for 897 yards in his rookie season before suffering a fractured ankle.
Top free agents: Matt Forte, Chicago Bears; Arian Foster, Houston Texans; Peyton Hillis, Cleveland Browns; Marshawn Lynch, Seattle Seahawks; Ray Rice, Baltimore

Top draft prospects: Trent Richardson, Alabama; Lamar Miller, Miami (FL); David Wilson, Virginia Tech; LaMichael James, Oregon; Doug Martin, Boise State.

2011 review: The season started off with uncertainty as Jones took over the starting role after Marion Barber was released. An injury to Jones opened the door for Murray, a rookie, who set a franchise record with a 253-yard rushing performance against St. Louis. Murray's season ended with a fractured ankle, but he rushed for 897 yards. He will become the starter in 2012 and Jones will go back to coming off the bench. Murray is the future and has the skills and mindset to have a bigger season. Fiammetta burst onto the scene as a strong fullback that cleared the way for Murray and Jones to pick up big yards. Tanner has a future as Murray's backup but must have a strong training camp to make the roster again.

Offseason preview: Should the Cowboys consider trading Jones this offseason? It's hard to accomplish a trade with Jones entering the final year of his contract. The Cowboys should explore whether a fourth-or fifth-round pick is available for the former first-round pick. The team doesn't trust Jones to become a 20-down back in the NFL. He's a solid backup, which leads us to Tanner. He should compete with Jones for more playing time. If he makes the roster, he should get more game-day carries and special teams snaps. The Cowboys need to re-sign Fiammetta to maintain the chemistry he developed with Murray. Fiammetta was the glue to a solid running attack in the middle of the season. If Fiammetta's health issues (inner ear infection) are solved, then his return should be considered a positive.

Bryan Broaddus' Scout's Eye: Running back will be a position of strength for the Cowboys going into the 2012 season. Murray was outstanding when given the opportunity to start for the club, which allowed Jones to return to the role for which he is better suited -- backup off the bench. Tanner was a nice fit as a third back who contributes on special teams -- a role that Jerry Jones likes.

The learning curve for Murray was not that steep and he was able to do things as a pass protector that allowed him to stay on the field for more than two downs. The Cowboys were a different offense with Murray in the lineup, and Garrett was a better playcaller. If the Cowboys try to upgrade the position, it will most likely be for Tanner, but he will be tough to replace. I don't see the club using a draft pick on this spot unless it's late and it's a height, weight and speed player with high-quality traits.

Need meter (0-5): 2.