Dallas Cowboys: 2013 position series

Cowboys position series: Cornerbacks

July, 5, 2013
The last in ESPNDallas.com’s 10-part position series:

Roster locks: Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Orlando Scandrick, B.W. Webb

On the bubble: Sterling Moore

Long shots: Xavier Brewer, Devin Smith, Brandon Underwood

What’s new? Monte Kiffin’s known as the architect of the Tampa 2, but it’s not like the Dallas Cowboys will be solely a Cover 2 defense now. Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne will still play a lot of man and Cover 3.

They won’t play off of receivers very often, though. Kiffin’s corners will play press on a regular basis, a challenge they welcome. As Carr likes to say, they’ll be in the faces of receivers who will find out the coverage after the snap.

Unlike last season, Claiborne had a healthy offseason. He was behind the curve when he reported to his rookie training camp because he missed all of the offseason practices while recovering from wrist surgery. He’s more comfortable and confident entering his second season.

Fourth-round pick B.W. Webb gives the Cowboys another natural slot cornerback, something the team lacked when Orlando Scandrick suffered a season-ending injury last year.

Camp competition: Webb would have to be phenomenal in Oxnard to challenge Scandrick for the nickel corner role. That should be a camp competition at some point, but probably not this year.

For this year, we’ll have to settle for Sterling Moore trying to hold off the undrafted rookies for the fifth corner job.

2013 hope: The starting corners need to live up to their billing. That didn’t happen in 2012, when Carr and Claiborne combined for only four interceptions, one forced fumble and two fumble recoveries.

That’s not good enough for a tandem that features a $50 million man and the No. 6 overall pick in a draft.

After Kiffin’s hiring, the Cowboys’ corners were told to study the schemes in Chicago and Seattle from last season. They saw the standard for cornerbacks in the modern-day version of the Tampa 2. They watched tough, physical playmakers in Seattle’s Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner and Chicago’s Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings.

The Cowboys believe Carr and Claiborne can be that of corner tandem.

Future forecast: The starters are set for the foreseeable future.

Carr, 27, is entering the second season of a five-year deal that was actually negotiated with the expectation that he’d play the entire contract. Claiborne, 23, has three seasons remaining on his rookie deal.

Scandrick’s future job security, on the other hand, isn’t so certain. He should be a roster lock again next year, when the Cowboys would lose a little more than $100,000 in cap space if they cut him. In 2015, Scandrick will probably have to beat out Webb to keep his spot on the Cowboys’ roster.

The Cowboys could create about $3.5 million in cap space if they cut Scandrick in 2015, which would be the fourth year of his five-year, $27 million deal. Webb is due to count only $695,845 against the salary cap that season.

The Cowboys ranked Webb as the No. 47 player on this year’s draft board. If they’re right about him, he’ll be a cap-friendly slot corner by his third season, and Scandrick will move on to another team.

Cowboys position series: Safeties

July, 4, 2013
The ninth in ESPNDallas.com’s 10-part position series:

Roster locks: Barry Church, J.J. Wilcox, Matt Johnson, Will Allen

On the bubble: Danny McCray, Jakar Hamilton, Eric Frampton

Long shots: Jeff Heath, Micah Pellerin

What’s new?: Gerald Sensabaugh is gone, deciding to go fishing on a daily basis after the Cowboys cut him. Allen, 31, who broke into the league on Monte Kiffin’s Tampa Bay defense, was brought in to be a minimum-wage veteran insurance policy and mentor.

ESPN senior NFL analyst Ed Werder joins Fitzsimmons and Durrett for his weekly visit to discuss the Cowboys and latest news from around the NFL.

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But youth is being served at safety.

Fourth-year veteran Church (torn Achilles tendon) and Johnson (persistent hamstring problems) are healthy after injuries ruined their 2012 seasons. The Cowboys were so confident in Church after he made his first three career starts that they gave him a four-year deal with $3.8 million guaranteed early on in the recovery process from the season-ending injury. Johnson set a Valley Ranch record for most buzz created by a rookie who never played a down.

The Cowboys still made safety a priority in the draft, selecting Wilcox with the 80th overall pick. They love his athleticism, instincts and toughness, but Wilcox has a difficult transition to make from Georgia Southern to the NFL, especially considering that he was a running back and receiver until his senior season.

Undrafted free agent Hamilton isn’t just a camp body. The Cowboys had a fifth-round grade on him.

Camp competition: It’s wide open.

Church, who participated in all of the offseason team workouts, has the best chance to start. Allen is penciled in alongside Church as the Cowboys pack for training camp. But Johnson and Wilcox will be given every opportunity to challenge for starting jobs.

Wilcox, who was picked as a project, put himself in that position by making plays during OTAs and minicamp. The front office and coaches are also intrigued by the playmaking ability of Johnson, a 2012 fourth-round pick who had 17 career interceptions at Eastern Washington.

The competition for the fifth safety spot, assuming the Cowboys keep that many, is just as fierce.

McCray has been the Cowboys’ best special teams player over the last few years, but his $1.3 million salary makes him the most expensive of the candidates for that roster spot. Hamilton is the cheapest and has the most upside, although he could also be stashed on the practice squad if he cleared waivers. Frampton ($715,000) is a better safety than McCray, but not nearly the special teams demon.

2013 hope: The Cowboys need some playmaking out of this group. The Dallas safeties accounted for only two interceptions, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery last season. That’s simply unacceptable.

The hope is that the scheme helps present opportunities for the safeties to create turnovers, but the players need to make the plays. That’s the primary reason Johnson is a decent bet to beat out the veteran Allen, who hasn’t had an interception since 2005, for a starting job.

Future forecast: Ideally, the Cowboys come out of the season confident that they’ve got a strong three-man safety contingent in Church, Johnson and Wilcox.

That would mean they wouldn’t have to target a safety in free agency or early in the draft again.

Church is about to begin a four-year extension worth $9 million plus incentives, a deal that led a lot of folks to criticize Jerry Jones for paying an injured, unproven player. It will be viewed as a bargain if Church is a solid starter throughout the course of the contract.

Johnson (through 2015) and Wilcox (through 2016) will have mid-six-figure salaries for the rest of their rookie contracts.

If the players pan out, this position will be productive at a low price over the next few years. If they don’t, the Cowboys will likely have to spend significant money and/or invest a premium pick or two to acquire upgrades.

Cowboys position series: Linebackers

July, 3, 2013
The eighth in ESPNDallas.com’s 10-part position series:

Roster locks: Sean Lee, Bruce Carter, Justin Durant

On the bubble: Alex Albright, DeVonte Holloman, Brandon Magee, Ernie Sims, Caleb McSurdy

Long shots: Deon Lacey, Cameron Lawrence, Taylor Reed

ESPN senior NFL analyst Ed Werder joins Fitzsimmons and Durrett for his weekly visit to discuss the Cowboys and latest news from around the NFL.

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What’s new?: Bruce Carter could be the biggest beneficiary of the switch to Monte Kiffin’s Tampa 2 scheme. Carter is the prototype to play the Will linebacker.

It’s premature to compare Carter to former Tampa Bay great Derrick Brooks, the standard for the position, but that’s what happens when Brooks’ old coordinator coaches a Will linebacker with Carter’s ability. There might not be a faster linebacker in the league, and this scheme will allow Carter to fly to the football without having to take on nearly as many blocks as he did as a 3-4 inside linebacker.

The same is true to a lesser extent for Sean Lee as the middle linebacker. The former high school safety’s playmaking ability in pass coverage will be spotlighted in a scheme that often requires him to drop deep down the middle of the field.

The Cowboys made addressing the depth of the linebacker corps an offseason priority, although they didn’t spend a lot of money to do it. Justin Durant is a proven starting Sam linebacker who signed a two-year, $2.4 million deal. They drafted DeVonte Holloman in the sixth round despite having a higher grade on Brandon Magee, who they gave $70,000 in guaranteed money to sign as an undrafted free agent.

Drew Pearson and ESPNDallas.com's Tim MacMahon join Fitzsimmons and Durrett to look ahead to Cowboys training camp. Pearson makes a bold prediction that the Cowboys will be in the Super Bowl.

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Camp competition: The battles for the backup jobs will be intense.

How many linebackers will the Cowboys keep? Six? Seven?

Ernie Sims is a veteran insurance policy. Alex Albright is the most versatile of the bunch, capable of playing two linebacker spots and defensive end in a pinch and serving as one of the Cowboys’ best special-teams players. Holloman and Magee are intriguing rookies. Of the bubble guys, 2012 seventh-rounder McSurdy probably has the longest odds after coming back from a torn Achilles tendon suffered in last year’s camp.

2013 hope: Lee and Carter can be one of the league’s elite linebacker combos -- if they can stay healthy. And that’s a big if for a couple of guys who dropped into the second round because of college knee injuries and who have had bad medical luck in their brief NFL careers.

But the hope is that the Cowboys have a couple of linebackers who will be sideline-to-sideline, every-down forces for years to come.

If those two stay healthy and the play at Sam is solid, the linebacker corps should be a major strength for the Cowboys in 2013.

Future forecast: Look for Lee to get a long-term contract extension before the beginning of the season. The Cowboys are looking for him to be a leader of this defense for a long time.

Can the Cowboys afford to pay Carter, too? It might be his turn for a rich extension next offseason, when he’ll be entering the final year of his rookie deal. Just remember that Jerry Jones tends to find ways to keep successful draft picks around Valley Ranch.

If the Cowboys keep Lee and Carter for the long haul, they can fill the Sam spot with low-cost players, whether they’re journeymen like Durant or draft picks.
The seventh in ESPNDallas.com’s 10-part position series:

Roster locks: Jay Ratliff, Jason Hatcher, Sean Lissemore

On the bubble: Ben Bass, Nick Hayden

Long shots: Ikponmwosa Igbinosun, Jeris Pendleton, Jerome Long

Jailed: Josh Brent

What’s new? Ratliff’s 32-year-old body, which endured a plantar fascia problem, high ankle sprain and sports hernia as he missed 10 games in 2012, will face a lot fewer double-teams. Playing tackle in a 4-3 scheme certainly isn’t a finesse job, but it’s not as brutal a task as being an undersized 3-4 nose tackle, which Ratliff did with remarkable durability for five seasons before last year.

Drew Pearson and ESPNDallas.com's Tim MacMahon join Fitzsimmons and Durrett to look ahead to Cowboys training camp. Pearson makes a bold prediction that the Cowboys will be in the Super Bowl.

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Hatcher has to learn a new position after spending his first seven seasons playing defensive end in a 3-4.

The Cowboys ignored the position in the draft despite Florida’s Sharrif Floyd, ranked fifth overall on their board, falling into their laps at No. 18. Jerry Jones valued the opinions of new defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and defensive line coach Rod Marinelli -- who didn’t think Floyd was “quick-twitch” enough to excel in their scheme -- over those of the scouts.

In Marinelli, whose success as a defensive coordinator makes him highly overqualified for the job, the Cowboys can confidently say they have the best D-line coach in the business. He developed Warren Sapp and coached the Hall of Famer during his best seasons. He also developed former Texas running back Henry Melton, who was a fourth-round project, into a Pro Bowler in Chicago. Marinelli’s expertise in stunt games should help free up his rush men.

Camp competition: Bass and Hayden are either competing for one roster spot or trying to play well enough to convince the Cowboys to keep an extra DT.

Drew Pearson joins Fitzsimmons and Durrett to take a look ahead to Cowboys training camp. Dez Bryant, Aaron Hernandez and gun trouble in the NFL are also discussed.

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Bass, an undrafted flier who didn’t play much at Texas A&M, earned a practice squad spot as a rookie, showed some promise after injuries led to a promotion and continued to progress during the offseason.

Hayden, 27, is a 6-foot-4, 300-pound run-stuffer who was a 10-game starter for Carolina in 2010 but was out of football last season. He might be useful as a spot 1-technique, a position that isn’t natural for either of the starters.

2013 hope: The best-case scenario is that Kiffin’s scheme and Marinelli’s coaching revitalize the career of Ratliff, a four-time Pro Bowler whose sack total dropped for the fifth consecutive year in 2012, bottoming out at zero. Jones, in particular, pumped this possibility up on a regular basis during the offseason.

Hatcher and Lissemore need to be sturdy enough to mask the fact that the Cowboys don’t have a 320-pound clogger.

Future forecast: Hatcher, whose three-year, $6 million second contract has been a bargain, is entering a contract year. Ratliff has collected most of the guaranteed money from the seven-year, $48.6 million deal he signed in 2011 and should be expendable if he has another down year.

Lissemore is locked up to a team-friendly, five-year, $7.2 million deal through 2016, and Bass has potential, but this position should be among the Cowboys’ biggest offseason needs.

Cowboys position series: Defensive ends

June, 30, 2013
The sixth in ESPNDallas.com’s 10-part position series:

Roster locks: DeMarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer, Tyrone Crawford, Kyle Wilber

On the bubble: None

Long shots: Cameron Sheffield, Monte Taylor

Drew Pearson joins Fitzsimmons and Durrett to take a look ahead to Cowboys training camp. Dez Bryant, Aaron Hernandez and gun trouble in the NFL are also discussed.

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What’s new?: Ware and Spencer will be playing with their hand on the ground every down for the first time as pros, making the transition from 3-4 outside linebackers to the positions they played in college.

With the possible exception of extremely rare occasions on zone blitzes, they won’t be asked to drop back into pass coverage any more. They won’t have to think nearly as much as they did in the 3-4, especially Rob Ryan’s relatively complicated scheme. Their mission in Monte Kiffin's 4-3: Play free and fly to the football.

On the flip side, opposing offenses won’t have to wonder where Ware or Spencer are coming from. Wade Phillips and Ryan were able to occasionally get them unblocked or matched up one-on-one against a tight end or running back with scheme deception.

Another question: Will tangling with offensive tackles every down take a toll on Ware or Spencer?

Camp competition: Is there any? The starters, two of the highest-paid Cowboys, are set. Backups Tyrone Crawford and Kyle Wilber don’t really have any threats on the roster.

Nate Newton joins Fitzsimmons and Durrett to discuss the state of the Cowboys as they prepare for training camp in a couple of weeks.

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2013 hope: A healthy DeMarcus Ware will get back to being one of the most destructive defensive forces in the NFL instead of the one-armed shadow of himself he was late last season. (You know a guy is great when 11.5 sacks is a down season.)

A hungry Anthony Spencer, playing on a one-year franchise tender for the second straight season, will be as good as he was a year ago. He might have been an alternate, but Spencer earned his first Pro Bowl trip by racking up 11 sacks – five more than his previous career high – and continuing to excel against the run.

Crawford and Wilber, a couple of 2012 mid-round picks, need to at least be good enough to make the coaches comfortable spelling the vets. The bar is actually set a lot higher for the 6-foot-4, 285-pound Crawford, who could also get some playing time inside. Some at Valley Ranch believe Crawford has star potential.

Future forecast: The Cowboys are counting on Ware, who turns 31 in training camp, to be a defensive cornerstone for at least a few more years. Due to count $16 million against the cap, it’s a good bet that the perennial Pro Bowl pass-rusher will restructure his seven-year, $78 million contract for the fourth consecutive offseason.

It appears nearly certain that this will be Spencer’s final season with the Cowboys after a mutual decision to halt talks about a long-term contract extension well in advance of the July 15 deadline for franchise players. The sides made precious little, if any, progress over the last 18 months.

The Cowboys’ front office, which has never been shy about paying big to keep players the franchise developed, might not be able to show such restraint if not for the optimism about Crawford’s future. Bidding farewell in free agency to a starter who had an eight-figure salary and replacing him with a talented young player who isn’t yet a millionaire is a heck of a way to help a franchise crawl out of salary-cap hell.

It’s on Crawford to perform well enough in 2013 to make the Cowboys comfortable with this scenario next offseason.

Cowboys position series: Offensive line

June, 28, 2013
The fifth in ESPNDallas.com’s 10-part position series:

Roster locks: LT Tyron Smith, LG Nate Livings, C/G Travis Frederick, RG Mackenzy Bernadeau, RT Doug Free, T Jermey Parnell, C Phil Costa

On the bubble: G Ronald Leary, C/G Kevin Kowalski, G David Arkin, C/G Ryan Cook, C/G Kevin Kowalski, T Darrion Weems

Long shots: G Ray Dominguez, T Edawn Coughman, T J.B. Shugarts


Which rookie do you expect to have the biggest impact with the Cowboys?


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What’s new?: For the second time in three years – and only the second time during Jerry Jones’ ownership tenure – the Cowboys invested a first-round pick in the offensive line.

There has been plenty of debate about whether Travis Frederick should have been a first-round pick, but there is no question that the Wisconsin product ranked on the Cowboys’ board as the No. 22 player and drafted 31st overall addresses a glaring need. Poor center play has been a problem for the Cowboys since Andre Gurode made his last couple of Pro Bowl trips based purely on reputation.

The Cowboys didn’t do anything to upgrade the weakest spot in the offensive line last season other than slash Doug Free’s paycheck in half, getting him to accept a $3.5 million salary that is still pretty handsome for a right tackle, particularly one who performed poorly in 2012.

Camp competition: The best battle should be at right tackle. Free is the favorite over Jermey Parnell, but his starting job is far from guaranteed.

Parnell performed adequately late last season when he shared time with Free at right tackle and during a one-game, fill-in stint at left tackle. Perhaps not coincidentally, Free’s play improved when he had to compete with Parnell for playing time.

There is supposedly a competition for the starting center job between Frederick and Phil Costa, but it’d be stunning if the first-round pick didn’t claim that job. Frederick, who was essentially anointed a decade-long starter by Jerry Jones on draft day, took all the first-team reps during offseason team workouts.

Ronald Leary, who spent much of his rookie season on the practice squad, has a chance to challenge incumbent starting guards Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau. The Cowboys considered Leary a third-round-caliber player and were elated to sign him as an undrafted free agent, but he was a disappointment during his rookie camp, in large part due to conditioning. He’s benefited from an NFL offseason. He has an opportunity to win a starting job, especially if injuries continue to be an issue for the veteran guards.

2013 hope: There’s a lot riding on Frederick. The Cowboys are counting on the 6-foot-3, 320-pound rookie to immediately be the brains of the offensive line as well as being a significant upgrade as a run blocker and pass protector.

As Jerry Jones has repeatedly said, the primary reason the Cowboys picked Frederick was to provide Tony Romo with “an extra half-second of time” in the pocket. For the running game to improve, Frederick must also be able to move defensive tackles off the line of scrimmage and be able to get to linebackers.

The expectation is that Smith, a phenomenally gifted 22-year-old, will make a major leap in his second season as the starter at left tackle.

It’d be great if Free reminded the Cowboys of the athletic tackle they deemed worthy of a four-year, $32 million contract that was torn up two years later. If the right tackle play is average, whether it’s Free or Parnell, it’d be a significant upgrade from last season.

Future forecast: Smith and Frederick will be fixtures at left tackle and center for a long time. The future for the other three spots on the offensive line is uncertain.

Right tackle could be one of the Cowboys’ top needs next offseason. If Frederick is as good as the Cowboys think he is, they believe they can get by with mediocre guard play.

Cowboys position series: Tight ends

June, 26, 2013
The fourth in ESPNDallas.com’s 10-part position series:

Roster locks: Jason Witten, Gavin Escobar, James Hanna

On the bubble: Dante Rosario, Lawrence Vickers*

Long shots: Colin Cochart, Andre Smith

*Plays fullback, a position the Cowboys might eliminate with their emphasis on multi-tight end sets.

Nate Newton, Todd Archer and Calvin Watkins join Fitzsimmons and Durrett to discuss all the latest Cowboys news as training camp approaches.

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What’s new?: Stop us if you’ve heard this before: The Cowboys intend to feature two tight-end sets after using a second-round pick on a player to complement Jason Witten.

It didn’t pan out with Anthony Fasano. Martellus Bennett’s blocking helped, but he didn’t come close to becoming the impact player in the passing game the Cowboys envisioned. Is the third time the charm or will Gavin Escobar be strike three?

It remains to be seen whether the 6-foot-6, 251-pound Escobar, the 47th overall pick, will be ready to contribute as a rookie. The Cowboys picked him with the anticipation that Escobar’s hands, height and ball skills would allow him to help right away as a receiving threat, especially in the red zone. He needs a lot of work -- in the weight room and from a technical standpoint -- before he can be a reliable blocker.

James Hanna, the speedy 2012 sixth-round pick, should be ready for an increased role after showing some playmaking promise toward the end of his rookie season. Hanna’s presence made John Phillips expendable as a free agent and the decision to draft a pass-catching tight end in the second round somewhat of a head-scratcher.

Camp competition: Escobar isn’t just going to be given the No. 2 tight end role. He’ll have to beat out Hanna, and that’s far from a guarantee.

Late free-agent addition Dante Rosario and fullback Lawrence Vickers, who missed offseason workouts after undergoing back surgery, are probably competing for a roster spot. The Cowboys are seriously considering phasing out the fullback position, although they’d have to figure out a way to fill the lead-blocker role in short-yardage situations. Fullback has been a part-time position, with Vickers averaging less than 20 snaps per game last season.

Rosario has an edge over Vickers for two reasons not related to the Valley Ranch tight-end craze.

First, Rosario has proven himself capable of being a special teams contributor while playing for new special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia the past two seasons in San Diego. Rosario had five tackles, a fumble recovery and a blocked punt on special teams for the Chargers last season. Vickers had only one special teams tackle for the Cowboys.

Second, the Cowboys can create $1.2 million in cap space by cutting Vickers, money that could be useful for linebacker Sean Lee’s long-term contract extension. Rosario would only count $620,000 against the cap.

2013 hope: The Cowboys are counting on another Pro Bowl campaign from Witten, who returned to Hawaii last season after a one-year hiatus, catching a career-high 110 passes for 1,039 yards and three touchdowns despite a slow start due in part to a lacerated spleen suffered in the preseason opener.

They need Escobar and/or Hanna to step up as a receiving threat that must be respected by opposing defenses. There probably won’t be a lot of passes thrown to the young tight ends, with Tony Romo needing to feed Dez Bryant, Miles Austin, Witten, DeMarco Murray, etc., but they should have opportunities to make a handful of high-impact plays.

Expect to see Escobar/Hanna working the seam against one-on-one coverage relatively often. They need to be able to exploit those situations.

The Cowboys plan for their multi-tight end sets to put defenses in pick-your-poison mode. Stay in your base defense and the Cowboys will have mismatches in the passing game. Go to the nickel package and good luck stopping the run with a slot corner forced to pretend he’s a linebacker. Sounds good in theory, but we’ve heard it all before around here.

Future forecast: The 31-year-old Witten hesitates to estimate how many good seasons he has left, but he feels great physically and firmly believes that he’s in the middle of his prime.

Is Escobar his eventual successor? He better develop as a blocker before the Cowboys seriously consider that option.

After restructuring his contract this offseason, it would cost the Cowboys a small chunk of cap space to cut Witten before next season. There’s no chance of that happening.

If Witten has shown signs of slowing down, it might make sense in 2015. He’d represent $5.2 million in dead money if not on the roster that season, but that’s $3.3 million less than his scheduled cap hit if he’s still under contract. The cap savings for parting with Witten would be $5.6 million in 2016.

Finances aside, Witten isn’t close to done and would love to finish his career as a one-team man.

Cowboys position series: Wide receivers

June, 25, 2013
The third in ESPNDallas.com’s 10-part position series:

Roster locks: Dez Bryant, Miles Austin, Terrance Williams, Dwayne Harris

On the bubble: Cole Beasley, Danny Coale, Anthony Armstrong

Long shots: Anthony Amos, Tim Benford, Jared Green, Eric Rogers

Nate Newton, Todd Archer and Calvin Watkins join Fitzsimmons and Durrett to discuss all the latest Cowboys news as training camp approaches.

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What’s new?: The perception of Bryant has changed dramatically over the past year.

A year ago, Bryant was perceived to be a problem child who might be more trouble than his talent was worth. You won’t hear anybody making that claim now that Bryant’s many signs of maturation include blowing up for 879 yards and 10 touchdowns in the second half of the season.

The widespread belief about Bryant now is that his breakout half-season will be a springboard to superstardom. He’s always been a physical freak. He’s worked hard -- and had a lot of help -- to develop emotionally and mentally and put himself in position to cash in on his immense potential.

It’s not his primary goal, but Bryant believes that a 2,000-yard season is within his reach. No receiver in NFL history has ever hit that mark, but why shouldn’t a guy with Bryant’s ability think big? He sets his standards high and works hard to try to reach them.

Bryant’s mixture of talent, work ethic and personality put him in a leadership role, whether he likes it or not. Bryant embraces it, saying he sees himself as an up-and-coming leader, although he still looks up to veterans such as Tony Romo, Jason Witten and Austin.

Bryant has made a point to take third-round pick Williams under his wing. Williams, a Baylor product via Dallas’ W.T. White High School, adds another big receiver with the ability to make plays downfield to the Cowboys’ arsenal.

Camp competition: The odds favor Williams, but he’ll have to beat out Harris for the No. 3 receiver role.

Harris has the advantage of experience, but the 6-foot-2, 202-pound Williams has a bigger frame, better ball skills and higher draft stock. (The Cowboys ranked Williams No. 23 on their draft board, so they considered him a steal at No. 74 overall.) If Williams wins the job, the Cowboys can continue to use Austin in the slot in three-receiver sets, which is their strong preference.

Harris, who had 17 catches for 222 yards and a touchdown as a receiver in addition to averaging an NFC-leading 16.1 yards per punt return, shouldn’t be a forgotten man even if he is the fourth receiver. He’ll continue returning punts, could be featured in certain offensive packages and needs to be ready to step in if Austin’s infamous hamstrings act up again or any other injury hits the receiving corps.

The competition for the fifth spot should be fierce between prototypical undersized slot guy Beasley, coming-off-a-torn-ACL 2012 fifth-rounder Coale and journeyman Armstrong. Maybe two of those guys are good enough to convince the Cowboys to keep six receivers. The Cowboys could also keep a couple of young receivers on the practice squad, especially since limiting Austin’s weekday workload is a priority.

2013 hope: The Cowboys are counting on Bryant to be a consistent beast. They’re expecting a bunch of big plays and a minimal amount of mental busts in what should be the first of many Pro Bowl campaigns for the fourth-year receiver.

It’d be nice if Austin played up to the level of the contract that makes him one of the league’s richest receivers, but the Cowboys really just hope he can stay healthy. Austin played in all 16 games last season, but he left two of those early and was limited in several others. He still had 66 catches for 943 yards and six touchdowns. If the hamstrings aren’t an issue, he’s a heck of a No. 2 receiver.

The Cowboys want Williams to emerge as a big-play threat as a rookie. He might not get many opportunities, but his slugging percentage, so to speak, should be high given the attention defenses have to pay Bryant, Witten and Austin.

Future forecast: Bryant has two years remaining on his rookie contract. If he stays on the right track, the Cowboys will lock him up to a lucrative long-term extension well before his deal expires.

The addition of Williams gives the Cowboys an eventual replacement plan for Austin, who turns 29 on Sunday. The restructuring of Austin’s contract this offseason might have bought him another season of job security. The Cowboys would create less than $400,000 of cap space if they cut him next offseason, which is not enough to make it worth while to dump a productive starter. That number soars to $4.5 million in 2015, when Williams ought to be ready for the No. 2 role.

Cowboys position series: Running backs

June, 24, 2013
The second in ESPNDallas.com’s 10-part position series.

Roster locks: DeMarco Murray, Joseph Randle

On the bubble: Lance Dunbar, Phillip Tanner, Kendial Lawrence

Long shots: None

Galloway & Company's Glenn "Stretch" Smith is excited about the Cowboys running game.

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What’s new? The Cowboys bid farewell to first-round bust Felix Jones while continuing to insist that he wasn’t a bad pick. Yet they believe they made an upgrade at the No. 2 back by selecting Oklahoma State’s Joseph Randle in the fifth round.

The Cowboys had a third-round grade on Randle, whose size (6-foot, 198 pounds), slashing style and versatility reminds them a lot of Murray.

Think that comparison is too optimistic? Check out their numbers while playing for Big 12 rivals.

Murray in four seasons at Oklahoma: 3,685 yards (4.9 per carry) and 50 TDs rushing; 157 catches for 1,571 yards and 10 TDs.

Randle in three seasons at Oklahoma State: 3,085 yards (5.5 per carry) and 40 TDs rushing; 108 catches for 917 yards and three TDs.

Unfortunately, Randle reminded the Cowboys of Murray for another reason during organized team activities and minicamp. He was sidelined by an injury, recovering from thumb surgery that he delayed so he could play in Oklahoma State’s bowl win.

That opened up more reps for the other rookie, Rockwall native Kendial Lawrence, an undrafted free agent who rushed for 1,025 yards and 12 touchdowns at Missouri last season. The shifty Lawrence has enough potential to be on the Cowboys’ payroll this season, whether it’s the 53-man roster or practice squad.

Nate Newton joins Fitzsimmons & Durrett to discuss Dez Bryant, Tony Romo and the Cowboys' offensive line as training camp approaches.

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Camp competition: It’s hard to envision Dunbar losing the No. 3 job. He’s the quickest of the Cowboys’ backs and can help as a kick returner. Murray, among others, made a point of mentioning how much Dunbar had improved in his first NFL offseason.

Tanner is competing against Lawrence and players at other positions for a roster spot. Tanner, a Dallas Kimball product who made the team as an undrafted afterthought a couple of years ago, is unquestionably a Jason Garrett “right kind of guy.” He needs to be a special teams force and/or show better vision as a runner than he did last season to give himself job security.

2013 hope: Start with Murray staying healthy.

Murray’s guarantee that he’ll play 16 games is swell and all, but he made that made that statement while sitting out offseason workouts due to a hamstring injury. After durability questions caused him to drop to the third round, Murray has missed nine games in his first two NFL seasons.

If Randle is as good as the Cowboys’ scouts believe, his presence could help Murray stay fresh. The Cowboys wouldn’t need Murray to be a workhorse with Randle playing a third of the snaps.

We’ve all seen how good a healthy Murray can be when he has room to run. This is a back who racked up 601 yards on 72 carries during his first four games as the Cowboys’ feature back. It’s ridiculous to project those numbers over a full season, but it’s not a stretch to say that Murray has Pro Bowl potential with a clean bill of health and good blocking.

The Cowboys are counting on the Bedlam Backfield to be one of the NFC’s better one-two punches with Murray as the headliner. And don’t count out Dunbar making a handful of impact plays in a change-of-pace role that exhibits his dynamic explosiveness in carefully selected small doses.

Future forecast: The Cowboys should be set at running back for the next two seasons. They’ll have a decision to make on Murray when his rookie deal expires after 2014.

There are some in the organization who believe that only the special tailbacks should get significant second contracts in today’s NFL. Murray has two seasons to prove that he’s in that class.

Of course, Randle’s performance in those two seasons could also affect what the Cowboys are willing to offer Murray. If he has proven he’s ready to be the lead horse, perhaps the Cowboys draft another backup and move on.

One thing is for sure: This position shouldn’t be a priority next offseason.

Cowboys position series: Quarterbacks

June, 23, 2013
The first in ESPNDallas.com’s 10-part position series:

Roster locks: Tony Romo, Kyle Orton

On the bubble: None

Long shots: Nick Stephens, Dalton Williams

What’s new?: Romo has much more money and power. He negotiated the richest contract in franchise history -- seven years, $119.5 million with $55 million guaranteed -- and the right to have a strong voice throughout the game-planning process.

Nate Newton joins Fitzsimmons & Durrett to discuss Dez Bryant, Tony Romo and the Cowboys' offensive line as training camp approaches.

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Oh, Romo also missed all of organized team activities and minicamp after having a cyst removed from his back. The Cowboys insist there’s no reason to be concerned about their franchise quarterback being ready for training camp, but he missed a month’s worth of work with rookie center Travis Frederick (drafted to give Romo an extra half-second of time), tight end Gavin Escobar and receiver Terrance Williams.

Much was made about giving that kind of money to a 33-year-old quarterback with only one career playoff win, but the Cowboys didn’t have any better options. It’s a virtual certainty that Romo would have gotten a deal at least that large on the open market next offseason, and the Cowboys couldn’t risk losing Romo after pretty much neglecting to attempt to develop young quarterbacks during his tenure as the starter.

Jerry Jones didn’t do Romo any favors with the “Peyton Manning-type time” line, which some wrongly perceived as questioning the quarterback’s work ethic in previous years. The point the owner/general manager was attempting to make is that Romo will have as much say in the creation of weekly game plans as any quarterback in the league -- and as much input in that process as anyone at Valley Ranch.

Galloway & Company's Glenn "Stretch" Smith is excited about the Cowboys running game.

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Why wouldn’t the general manager grant that request from Romo? The Cowboys offense was at its best last season when Romo was running the no-huddle offense after ineffective game plans helped put the Cowboys in huge holes.

Camp competition: The Cowboys could sign a young quarterback who has a legitimate shot of sticking as the No. 3 guy. Maybe Stephens (Flower Mound, Texas) and Williams (Coppell, Texas) end up competing for a job on the practice squad.

2013 hope: The Cowboys need Romo to perform to the expectations of his paycheck.

That means making plays and protecting the football, much like he did in 2011, when Romo threw for 31 touchdowns with only 10 interceptions and had a career-best passer rating of 102.5. (It’d be swell if his turnovers didn’t come in critical situations like the giveaways that played such prominent roles in losses to the New York Jets and Detroit Lions that season.)

More than anything, the Cowboys need Romo to play up to his standard when the season is on the line, assuming they’ll be in position for games in December and, hopefully January, to matter. His 1-6 record in win-or-the-end games isn’t all Romo’s fault, but he hasn’t played to his typical level in any of those losses and was especially bad in last season’s de facto NFC East title game, throwing three picks in a loss to the Washington Redskins.

If Romo stays healthy, the Cowboys should have postseason hope. They need him to rewrite the Romo narrative in the games when the season is at stake.

Future forecast: Romo’s contract means the Cowboys are committed to him as the starter for three more seasons at the minimum, probably at least four. He’ll be 37 then, so, at some point, searching for Romo’s successor should become a priority. They’re riding with Romo for the foreseeable future.