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Dec 30, 2012; Landover, MD, USA; Washington Redskins linebacker London Fletcher (59) sacks Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo (9) during the second half at FedEX Field. The Redskins won 28 - 18. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA Today Sports

The Dallas Cowboys' Season in Review and Early Mock Draft

Typically, “seasons in review” articles give out grades to players or bestow MVP awards or things of that nature. I don’t really intend to do any of that, though I may mention individual performances that were influential in the season-for better or worse. Here is a look at the 2012 Dallas Cowboys season:

Dec 2, 2012; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys injured linebacker Sean Lee on the sidelines during the game against the Philadelphia Eagles at Cowboys Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Trends:

A lack of depth. This year, the Cowboys lost the following starters for at least one game:  nose tackle, left tackle, safety, center, running back, 2 middle linebackers/leaders on defense, back-up middle linebackers, second wide receiver and punter! Those were all I could count, but the Dallas Cowboys website froze up (likely from traffic), so I couldn’t continue my search. The many starters lost to injury were backed up by some players who performed well (considering he was on the street and playing in a complex defense, I thought Ernie Sims did perfectly acceptable), and many others (Ryan “Romo Pancake” Cook) who did not. Overall, after the starters went down, the inability to find decent alternatives put a stranglehold on the teams’ ceiling, which may explain the next trend.

 

The inability to dominate. A playoff contending (though sadly not participating) team should be able to dominate at least a few games against inferior competition. That never really happened for the Dallas Cowboys in 2012. While they did beat Philadelphia by 15 points, three of those touchdowns were non-offensive, and one was basically in garbage time. Technically, the Eagles were only 8 points away, but expecting a rookie back-up quarterback to lead an awful team 90+ yards down the field and get a two-point conversion isn’t realistic. Even I felt really good about the team’s chances, and those of you who read my weekly “Looking Forward” article know that I rarely feel good about the Cowboys’ chances. Don’t get me wrong, winning by 15 is nice and all, but needing three non-offensive touchdowns to win is not a dominating performance.

The Dallas Cowboys needing some luck (and for a turnover challenged defense, getting two touchdowns is basically luck) to squeak out close wins was a hallmark of the season. Seven of their eight wins were by 7 points or less, as were 5 of their eight losses. That only reiterates what you already know: the team didn’t win or lose by much, and they were competitive in almost every game. The way I see it, the Dallas Cowboys could have been 12-4 or 3-13.

Dec 16, 2012; Arlington, TX, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) is hit as he throws by Dallas Cowboys linebacker Anthony Spencer (93) during the second half at Cowboys Stadium. The Cowboys won 27-24 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys going 8-8 is worse because it puts them drafting in the middle of each round, which deprives of them of a potential star, yet they still missed the playoffs. Still, with some key pieces (most notably Anthony Spencer) leaving, it doesn’t look like next season will bring them closer to a winning record. Though my colleague CowgirlCas has some concerns about the Cowboys’ cap room, the removal of 20 million dollars of dead money should help stabilize that front. Taking the suggestion of my fellow writer in cutting Doug Free and Miles Austin would help, though I’m not sure that would be as helpful as imagined for the Free because much of his money was a signing bonus, so cutting him would result in hit against the salary cap. Basically, the Dallas Cowboys have at least two overpriced veterans who they are stuck with since they have no better alternatives. This hurts the outlook going forward, and is part of the reason for my pessimism going into next season, but overall the cap situation may not be as bad as some people believe.

Dec 2, 2012; Arlington, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford (70) on the sidelines during the game against the Philadelphia Eagles at Cowboys Stadium. The Cowboys beat the Eagles 38-33. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The ineffectiveness of the draft class. I can’t put this one all on the Dallas Cowboys draft department. Matt Johnson, Danny Coale and Caleb McSurdy lost all or most of their season due to injury. Still, it would have been nice for Tyrone Crawford to have been more of a factor. CB Morris Claiborne (who cost them a second round pick) is the only player so far who has proved to be a legitimate, long-term starter. While he struggled in the first half with some rookie moments, I thought Claiborne played much better in the second half. Cowboys fans should look forward to seeing him grow and develop further. Still, I would hardly call a draft class with two players of any tangible value a success. Overall, it’s difficult to call the Dallas Cowboys 2012 draft class a bust yet, especially with the supposed promise of Matt Johnson, but next year will be a make or break year for my thoughts on group as a whole.

Looking Forward to the offseason:

What I’m about to write will be expounded upon later in the year, but it all revolves around the draft. Let’s look at the most pressing needs for the Dallas Cowboys in 2013:

- Offensive Line Starters and Depth

- Outside Linebacker

- Line backing Depth

- Running Back Depth

- Defensive Line Starters and Depth

- Project Quarterback

 

Oct 14, 2012; Baltimore, MD, USA; Dallas Cowboys guard Nate Livings (71) prior to the game against the Baltimore Ravens at M

Basically, the Dallas Cowboys need to fortify themselves up the middle. If you cut Doug Free, that only adds to the problem, but at the very least the Cowboys must acquire three new offensive line starters at both guard spots and center. Free agent veterans Mackenzy Bernadeau, Nate Livings, and undrafted Phil Costa were all dreadful; all three of them need to be replaced at all costs. Luckily, all of their signing bonus’ were all pretty small, so if they were simply released, their cap hit shouldn’t be much of a problem.

In addition to trimming the roster, it would be wise for the Dallas Cowboys to trade down in the 2013 NFL Draft. According to the draft chart (which isn’t always followed perfectly but it’s better than nothing), trading down to number 26 (or so) would net a third round pick. If Walter from Walterfootball is right. and the Baltimore Ravens do want a middle linebacker, they could be potential trade partners. A third round pick, while low in the round, could allow the Cowboys to draft a decent offensive lineman because the 2013 NFL draft will be littered with them. The Dallas Cowboys have so many needs, they should select the best player available in the first round, and then an offensive lineman in at least the second and third round. Here’s my unbelievably rough, hastily thrown together mock draft. Assume the Cowboys went through with the trade with the Baltimore Ravens:

1st Round: G Chance Warmack,  Alabama.

A good run blocker, he would solve a huge hole at either guard spot and would provide some help for what was truly a pathetic running attack.

2nd Round: C Jonathan Cooper, North Carolina

Also a good run blocker (notice a theme?), he would solve another massive hole at center. Some of you may think that the second round is obscene for a center, but getting the second best center in the entire draft who fills a skills need and positional need seems perfectly acceptable to me.

3rd Round: OLB Chase Thomas, Stanford

His versatility would be helpful in replacing Anthony Spencer and has “a knack for causing turnovers.” Seems like a pretty good choice to me.

3rd Round: G Gabe Jackson, Mississippi State

Another guard who could probably start.

4th Round: ILB Jonathan Bostic, Florida

As the struggles in the middle of the line backing corps showed, having adequate depth is unbelievable important. Considering that both Lee and Carter have prior injury history, I’d say having another decent linebacker for depth purposes is completely worth a mid-round pick. Even with Kyle Wilber back, the injury history with the two starters is enough to make me want a third option, just to be sure. We all saw what happened this year and the havoc wreaked because of injured linebackers, and I wouldn’t want that to happen again. Plus, he’s pretty fast, so if nothing else he should be good on special teams.

5th Round: G Braden Hansen, Pittsburgh

Played center in college. Versatility is important for a backup.

6th Round: RB Dennis Johnson, Arkansas

A 215 pound running back who can receive kickoffs and catch passes out of the backfield reminds me of someone, but I don’t know who. Maybe it’s our starting running back DeMarco Murray. I’m not saying he is or is anything near DeMarco Murray, but with a similar skill set I don’t think the offense would struggle as mightily as it did with Felix Jones. Of course Jones was suppose to be a kickoff threat who caught passes out of the backfield, but still.

6thRound*: OT Brian Winters, Kent State

* I have no idea what supplemental draft pick the Cowboys would get for Mike Jenkins, but a 6th round pick seems fair to me. Winters would provide some quality depth at tackle, which currently is thin.

7th Round: RB Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina

On a team with so many needs, taking two running backs back to back seems ridiculous. But how many times is there the opportunity to get a potential pro-bowler in the seventh round? Even if his knee never heals, it’s a seventh round pick. We’re not talking about something precious. If he fails, so did 4/5 of the other draftees in the round. But if he ever becomes anything at all, he is instantly the best pick in the round. I think of it like a lower risk, higher reward Bruce Carter.

Free Agency:  DT Montori Hughes

A legitimate nose tackle, Hughes was kicked off the Tennessee team and is now in an FCS school. However, he could be a reclamation project was, much like Josh Brent was before his tragic incident.

Conclusion:

If the Dallas Cowboys are going to improve in 2012, they must improve their offensive line and try to solidify the middle of their defense. It will start in free agency, but they must improve their drafting or else Cowboys fans will continue to be disappointed.

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