Juggernaut Index No. 11: The Dallas Cowboys

Roto Arcade

Right here at the top, I'll admit to a mistake: I valued DeMarco Murray all wrong in my early preseason ranks. Like, I had him 20 spots below his proper draft value, as I currently see it.

When a player exceeds your initial expectations so massively — everyone had Murray on their sleeper list last August, but nobody thought he'd be a 5.5 YPC rusher as a rookie — there's a natural tendency to search for reasons why he might regress. In Murray's case, it's not too difficult to find negatives. There's an injury history here, stretching back to his days at Oklahoma, plus the Dallas O-line is a battered, scuffling group. Murray also gained a significant percentage of last year's rushing yards in a single game (253 of 897), while facing St. Louis' miserable run defense. Felix Jones is still lurking, too, although his News & Notes page has been full of lousy reports ever since he failed his initial conditioning test at camp.

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But when you re-watch the Murray highlight reel from 2011 — and not just the Rams game, which was an almost unfair match-up — it's impossible to dismiss the kid's talent. Murray is a potential star, a player with upper-tier traits. This is an angry runner, a back who consistently wins in one-on-one situations, yet who clearly enjoys bringing pain. His performance against Seattle in Week 9 was in many ways more impressive than his 253-yard breakout effort. The Seahawks defense only allowed 3.8 yards per carry to opposing rushers last year, the fifth lowest rate in the NFL, but Murray absolutely tore 'em up. He gained 186 scrimmage yards on 26 touches (22 carries, four catches), and it wasn't simply a case of a player getting the yardage that was blocked. I'm guessing Earl Thomas is still scarred by a few of his "tackles" on Murray, plays where the defender absorbed 100 percent of the punishment.

[Related: Over/Under: Attempting to solve the Adrian Peterson puzzle]

DeMarco is a smooth receiver, too, a tremendous fit for the screen game that Dallas likes to play. He caught 157 passes in his collegiate career, including 71 in his final season. And last year, he must have gained 300-something yards on that killer delay hand-off that the Cowboys often run, a play Tony Romo sells so well (and a play that St. Louis somehow never saw coming).

If you're targeting Murray as a mid to late-first rounder in your fantasy draft, I've got no quarrel with the selection. He could very well rush for 1,600 yards in a healthy season, thus playing his way into the top-of-draft conversation for 2013. There's been no shortage of preseason buzz surrounding Murray, so I'm not breaking any news here. I'm just joining the chorus, late. It's awfully tough to dislike Murray's situation, his skill-set, or his game tape.

Things look good for this air attack, too. Romo has averaged greater than 260.0 passing yards per game over five straight seasons, so you can pencil him in for another 4000-plus if he avoids injury — and even if he doesn't avoid injury, he can still get there. Remember, Romo actually played with a punctured lung last year. This is not a fragile QB.

I realize many of you have found non-fantasy reasons to avoid Romo — personally, I cannot trust anyone who's good at golf, or who even likes it — but he pays the bills in our game. The man finished fifth in the league in touchdown passes last season (31) and seventh in passing yards (4184), yet he's the tenth quarterback selected in an average draft (ADP 71.5). I can't say he's overvalued.

Dallas' top three receiving weapons — Dez Bryant, Miles Austin and Jason Witten — all rank as fantasy starters, and they're all coming off useful seasons. Bryant and Austin both finished among the top-20 scorers at wide receiver last year on a per-game basis, and Witten ranked as the No. 8 tight end. The problem with this trio at the moment, of course, is that they're all injured. Austin is battling hamstring issue (again), Bryant is dealing with knee soreness, and Witten suffered a "slightly lacerated" spleen in the team's preseason opener (a 3-0 win at Oakland that may have set football back 60 years). Austin and Bryant seem more likely than Witten to play in Week 1. I'm fairly sure I wouldn't blog with a hemorrhaging spleen, so I don't know why anyone would consider playing football.

Austin's draft-day price tag has really taken a nosedive (ADP 68.2, WR27), as we never like to embrace players with recurring injuries. But when Austin is on the field, he typically performs well above a WR3 level for fantasy purposes. He's a heavily targeted receiver (7.4 TPG since 2010), a tremendous route-runner, and he has great chemistry with his quarterback. There's not much risk attached at his current price. Witten hasn't dropped out of the top-10 tight ends in ADP, curiously enough, despite all the internal bleeding and generally icky updates. That's really a testament to the 30-year-old's durability and consistency. Witten has played in all 16 games in each of the past eight seasons, topping 900 receiving yards in the last five.

Romo is likely to miss Laurent Robinson this season, because he seemed to be the preferred target whenever it was time to improvise in 2011. (No question, Robinson will miss Romo. The drop down to Blaine Gabbert is huge, though it's cushioned by a $32.5 million contract). With Austin and Bryant at his disposal, however, Tony can't complain. The battle for No. 3 receiver duties in Dallas is ... well, it's ugly. Kevin Ogletree is in the mix again, along with Dwayne Harris, Cole Beasley (preseason hero!), and a couple other dudes you won't draft, except in the deepest of the deep leagues.

[Related: Seahawks rookie QB Russell Wilson shines in first NFL preseason start]

The Cowboys D finished as a middle-of-pack fantasy entity in 2011, and it enters this season at a  similar spot in the ranks. Perhaps a full offseason with coordinator Rob Ryan will help the cause. The team definitely upgraded its ability to cover, adding corners Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne, so that works. Carr picked off Philip Rivers twice in preseason action last weekend. The IDPs of interest in Dallas are linebackers DeMarcus Ware (58 tackles, 19.5 sacks) and Sean Lee (104 tackles, 4 INTs).

And so ends the 2012 Cowboys Juggernaut entry. Please share a favorite Jason Garrett story in comments. (I'm partial to the one where he iced his own kicker, but there are others worth retelling, too).

2011 team stats: 23.1 PPG (NFL rank 15), 112.9 rush YPG (18), 278.3 pass YPG (7), 32.73 yards/drive (11), 0.117 turnovers/drive (11)

Previous Juggernaut posts: 32. Miami, 31. St. Louis, 30. Indianapolis, 29. Jacksonville, 28. Cleveland, 27. Arizona, 26. Seattle, 25. Minnesota, 24. Tampa Bay, 23. Buffalo, 22. New York Jets, 21. Washington, 20. Oakland, 19. San Francisco, 18. Kansas City, 17. Cincinnati, 16. Denver, 15. Tennessee, 14. San Diego, 13. Pittsburgh, 12. Baltimore

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