- Tim MacMahon, ESPN Staff Writer
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You know all about the Cowboys’ six-pack of potential blossoming stars.
Dez Bryant’s breakout second half of last season can be a springboard to becoming one of the unquestionably elite receivers in the NFL. If Sean Lee and Bruce Carter can just stay healthy, they should form one of the league’s best linebacker tandems. DeMarco Murray might be a Pro Bowler if he can avoid the injury bug. At 22 years old, Tyron Smith has all the tools to be a stud left tackle. And Morris Claiborne ought to justify his draft stock as a playmaking cornerback after a typically rocky rookie season.
That’s all common knowledge. Let’s dig a little deeper into the Cowboys’ roster.
Here’s a six-pack of young Cowboys who could have significant impacts this season and in the future if they’re ready to make a leap:
DL Tyrone Crawford: The third-round pick out of Boise State performed well in a limited role last season. That role should expand in his second season, when he’ll back up Anthony Spencer at the strongside defensive end and could also get playing time at both interior spots. Can Crawford prove that he’s ready to be a starter in 2014? That would allow the Cowboys to let Spencer leave in free agency instead of signing him to a lucrative long-term deal that could be regrettable a few years down the road. There has been a lot of good buzz around Valley Ranch this offseason about Crawford, a low-fat, 285-pound physical specimen.
OT Jermey Parnell: Doug Free is back after taking a big pay cut, but that shouldn’t mean that he’s guaranteed the starting job at right tackle. It ought to be an open competition, especially considering that Free’s salary in 2014 is not guaranteed. Parnell, a 6-foot-6, 311-pound Jerry Jones favorite, was adequate when he split time with an ineffective Free and filled in for an injured Smith last season. The 26-year-old former Ole Miss basketball player, who didn’t play offensive tackle until he arrived in the NFL, has plenty of potential to improve.
S Matt Johnson: Has a small-school fourth-round pick who spent his whole rookie season nursing injuries ever generated so much hype? The Cowboys like the little bit that they’ve seen from Johnson, a big hitter with a nose for the ball (17 career interceptions at Eastern Washington). The hope is that Johnson can provide a playmaking threat at safety that the Cowboys haven’t consistently had in years. He has to beat out veteran Will Allen first.
TE James Hanna: Yes, I’m aware that the Cowboys spent a second-round pick on pass-catching tight end Gavin Escobar. That doesn’t mean the No. 2 tight end job will be gifted to the rookie. Hanna, a speedy sixth-round pick out of Oklahoma last year, showed promise late in his rookie season and got much of the work in two-tight end sets this offseason. His two catches for 45 yards in the December win over the Steelers offered a glimpse of Hanna’s big-play potential.
DT Sean Lissemore: Lissemore isn’t an every-down 3-4 nose tackle. That was painfully clear while watching Washington’s Alfred Morris run wild up the middle of the Dallas defense in the de facto NFC East championship game. The Cowboys need Lissemore, who signed a five-year, $7 million extension last season, to be a quality rotation player at both defensive tackle spots. Ideally, he’ll prove himself worthy of competing for a starting job in 2014 with Jason Hatcher entering free agency and Jay Ratliff a potential salary cap casualty.
OG Ronald Leary: The Cowboys gave Leary a third-round grade and were giddy to sign him as an undrafted free agent when concerns about his knees caused teams to pass on him last year. Then he failed to make the team and spent his rookie year on the practice squad. After an offseason working with strength coach Mike Woicik, Leary has a golden opportunity to compete for a starting job at one of the offensive guard positions, which were weak points a year ago. The health issues of Mackenzy Bernadeau and Nate Livings help Leary’s cause.