If you were to ask the global community of fantasy managers to rate the usefulness of each NFL team, we'd focus on two traits: 1) total offensive output and 2) clarity of roles.
For obvious reasons, we like to see high-scoring, yardage-devouring offenses — prolific passing games and productive rushing attacks, with big-play potential all over the field. It's nice when a coordinator shows us something inventive, sure, but it's not necessary. Fantasy owners also prefer to know in advance — and with a high degree of certainty — where all the points and yards are going to go. That is, we like to see a small number of players dominate the stats.
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Thus, the Dallas Cowboys are a gift to fantasy managers. The real-life shortcomings of this eternally 8-8 team are scarcely relevant in our game. We don't care about Tony Romo's various failings in win-or-go-home games. We don't care that the Dallas defense regularly underperforms relative to its talent. We don't care that head coach Jason Garrett manages a clock as well as Jim Schwartz would manage a screaming toddler.
None of those things matter. The fact is, the Cowboys offense is going to look awfully good when all the numbers are in — at least in fantasy terms. And we can confidently project stats in Dallas at an individual level. There really aren't many mysteries here, fantasy-wise.
Let's review this roster, bullet-style...
Romo has ranked as a top-10 fantasy quarterback in five of the past six seasons, falling short only when injured. He threw for 4903 yards last year (despite constant harassment from pass rushers), the ninth-highest all-time single-season total. He's reportedly tweaked his throwing mechanics during the offseason — "It's going to be a great thing," he says — and he still has a pair of outstanding wideouts at his disposal, plus a record-breaking tight end. If you're not expecting another 4400-plus yards and 25-plus TDs from Romo, then you're completely rejecting his excellent fantasy history.
Also, for those of you who dismiss Romo as soft and un-clutch, I'll remind you that he once led his team to an overtime win while playing with a punctured lung and fractured rib. He actually has a respectable history in late-and-close situations, and he's been quite good in the fourth quarter over the course of his career. The numbers don't fit the narrative where Romo is concerned. But, again, that's not a fantasy consideration.
Dez Bryant was an uncoverable beast in the second half last season, catching 10 touchdown passes in Games 9-16 while totaling 879 yards. You'll also recall that he played through a finger injury in the final weeks, yet remained a fantasy terror. Calvin is pretty clearly the game's most dominant pass-catcher, but Dez is certainly in the next-best discussion. He should never fall beyond Round 2 in fantasy drafts.
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As for the rest of this team's receiving corps ... well, it ain't bad. In fact, even without Bryant, this group would be better than serviceable. Jason Witten just set a new single-season mark for receptions by a tight end (110), so he obviously has no trouble coexisting with Dez. Over the years, Witten has basically established mind-meld with Romo. Those two are as perfectly synced as any TE-QB duo in the league. Miles Austin had an uncharacteristically healthy offseason, free of hamstring trouble, so he has to be viewed as a WR2/3 until he breaks. Baylor rookie Terrance Williams has drawn recent praise from Romo, and figures to bump Austin to the slot in three-receiver looks. Williams is a nice dynasty play, presumably already ahead of Dwayne Harris in this team's target hierarchy.
DeMarco Murray is operating at full capacity these days, and the Cowboys have reportedly recommitted to the run in 2013. (I know, I know: Every team commits to run/pass balance in the offseason. It's a very easy thing for a coach to say, but follow-through is often lacking.) Murray was a revelation as a rookie in 2011, rushing for 897 yards on just 164 carries (5.5 YPC) and delivering a 253-yard breakout performance at home against the Rams. When uninjured, he's a terrific back.
Murray's biggest problem, as most of you know, has been durability. I sincerely wish he didn't finish so many runs by seeking contact, but that's part of his profile (also part of his charm). An ankle fracture brought an end to his first pro season; a foot sprain limited him to just 10 games in 2012. Eventually, Murray is going to give us a full 16-game season — he swears it's going to be this year — and fantasy owners will love the results. This is a full workload back tied to a productive offense, and he's an excellent receiver, perfect for the Cowboys' screen game. Murray caught 71 passes in his final collegiate season at Oklahoma.
If you drafted DeMarco as a third-round RB2, you've landed a player who could easily outproduce his ADP. (Or who could break both collarbones in Week 1 when he decides to launch himself into a gang of Giants, rather than step the [profane] out of bounds.) My hunch is that no single back would replace Murray in the event of an injury, so I haven't made much of an effort to land Lance Dunbar or fifth-round rookie Joseph Randle. Not every back demands a handcuff.
The Cowboys D doesn't lack talent, not with Sean Lee, DeMarcus Ware, Bruce Carter, Anthony Spencer and Brandon Carr in the team picture. Monte Kiffin takes over as coordinator this season, and the priority is to generate takeaways. This defense forced just 16 turnovers in 2012, ranking dead-last in the league in interceptions (7). Dallas' D/ST figures to be stream-worthy for fantasy purposes, based on match-up, but you likely won't hold this group throughout the year.
I'll make no bold predictions about the Cowboys' win total or their playoff odds or Garrett's future (though when they take away your play-calling duties, maybe the writing is on the wall). But as a fantasy owner, I appreciate this bunch. Dallas may not be a serious threat to win another Lombardi, but you can certainly claim a fake title with Cowboys.
2012 team stats: 23.5 points per game (15), 312.0 passing yards per game (3), 79.1 rushing yards per game (31)
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