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2012 Fantasy outlooks: Dallas Cowboys

Senior Fantasy Writer
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The years might roll by, but the expectations for the Cowboys remain the same: Put up a ton of yardage, score a ton of points and get to the Super Bowl.

In this case, two out of three is bad as the Cowboys have lacked playoff wins -- just one since 1996. It's enough to drive a Dallas fan crazy.

But Fantasy fans can appreciate the offense under the guidance of Jason Garrett. Since he rode into town in 2007, the Cowboys have finished in the Top 13 in total yards every season and have averaged just over 24 points per game. With Tony Romo leading the charge for the majority of that time, there's no reason to believe the offense will slow down now. In fact, it might be ready to become even more explosive thanks to a breakout from 2011.

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Not since Marion Barber's golden years have the Cowboys had a running back Fantasy owners have been hot for like DeMarco Murray. He ran roughshod over the Rams in his first game with meaningful playing time last season and held down the starting job until he broke his ankle against the Giants in Week 14 and missed the rest of the season. But Murray is healthy now and has participated in all of the Cowboys' offseason workouts without incident. His ability to not only run inside and outside but catch the ball makes him a tremendous difference maker that the Cowboys haven't had in a singular back since Emmitt Smith.

The hope is that Murray can provide enough of a problem for defenses to keep their passing attack strong. Miles Austin, Dez Bryant and Jason Witten all will reprise their roles as receiving options for Romo, with the No. 3 receiver job wide open after 2011 breakout sensation Laurent Robinson signed with the Jaguars. Combined, their offense could be among the best in the NFC, and that means big points for Fantasy owners.

Defensively, Cowboys fans and haters alike have to give credit where it's due after Dallas made moves to shore up its biggest weakness: The secondary. The Cowboys moved up in the draft to take lockdown cornerback Morris Claiborne after shelling out big bucks for Chiefs cornerback Brandon Carr and not-quite-as-big-bucks for Jets safety Brodney Pool in free agency. Retaining pass rusher Anthony Spencer and adding Dan Connor to bulk up the linebacking corps led by DeMarcus Ware won't hurt either.

Look, if the Cowboys have won one playoff game since '96 and have produced a solid offense since Jason Garrett arrived, then the defense hasn't been doing things right. Now's the time for the defense to step up, and if it does, the Cowboys can make that third aforementioned expectation a reality.

Fantasy Value Chart
Player Draft Day value Estimated round
Quarterbacks
Tony Romo 4
Running Backs
DeMarco Murray 2
Felix Jones 10
Wide Receivers
Dez Bryant 5
Miles Austin 5
Danny Coale ND
Tight Ends
Jason Witten 6
Kickers/Defense
Dan Bailey 14
Cowboys DST 14
ND - not expected to get drafted

Handcuff him ... DeMarco Murray, running back
This is the most obvious point that can be made about a Cowboys player: Murray is to the injury report what barbeque sauce is to ribs. Murray had multiple knee and hamstring issues in college -- all late-season injuries -- and picked up a hamstring strain in training camp last summer to go with the broken ankle suffered last December. So while he's an unbelievably talented player with five games over 100 total yards as a rookie, he's also one who could break down by the time the Fantasy playoffs roll around. Picking up Felix Jones with a mid-to-late pick on Draft Day is a must if you spend an early-round pick on Murray.

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Bounce-back candidate ... Miles Austin, wide receiver
Austin averaged 57.9 yards per game in 2011 after averaging 65.0 yards per game in 2010 and 82.5 in 2009. That kind of decline is enough to make any Fantasy owner queasy, but Austin has recanted for his past production, saying he came into camp last year out of shape and that it led to the hamstring problems he had last season. By default his numbers will be better this season if only because he'll play in more games and should be in the shape he wants to be in. Not having a third receiver like Robinson to cut into his production won't hurt either. He's also been a steady target of Cowboys quarterbacks ever since bursting on the scene in 2009, averaging 7.5 per game and scoring at least seven touchdowns in each of his last three seasons. Even with Bryant expected to play big in his third year, Austin should be a safer pick in 2012 as a good No. 2 Fantasy option with the potential to play like a No. 1.

Keeper-league target ... Danny Coale, wide receiver
We'd be more excited about Coale if he didn't break his foot in spring OTAs, but the fact remains that the short, shifty receiver will be in the running for the No. 3 receiver job with the Cowboys this summer. Assuming he's healed up in time for camp, he'll be a contender for the job. Coale hauled in 157 passes for 2,541 yards in just 53 collegiate games, and his route running and hands are considered excellent. His speed is an issue, but for a slot receiver in the Cowboys' diverse offense, he'll never see more than a single nickelback in coverage anyway and can beat them. The idea of drafting Coale for beyond 2012 is a good one.

Schedule breakdown

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17
@NYG @SEA TB CHI bye @BAL @CAR NYG @ATL @PHI CLE WAS PHI @CIN PIT NO @WAS

There could be trouble for the Cowboys to begin the year; they might be 1-4 after six weeks. In fact, seven of their eight road games will be challenging for them. An interesting wrinkle: They play five home games between Weeks 11 and 16, but at least three could be losses with the Eagles, Steelers and Saints coming to town. Expect their defense to yield a lot of points (more than the 21.7 points per game they allowed last year).

Training camp topics

2011 Touches Leaders
Player Touches
DeMarco Murray 164 carries, 26 catches
Felix Jones 127 carries, 33 catches
Jason Witten 79 catches
Dez Bryant 63 catches, 1 carry
Laurent Robinson 54 catches

Coale was highlighted as a good long-term prospect for dynasty- and keeper-league owners, but he's just one name in the mix for the No. 3 receiver job. He's a lock for the roster as the team invested a draft pick in him, but players like Kevin Ogletree, Raymond Radway, Dwayne Harris and Andre Holmes will fight for that playing time. Radway's a curious name -- he caught six passes for 91 yards and a touchdown last preseason before breaking his leg and missing all of 2011. Whoever can separate from the pack and claim the gig is worth at least monitoring for the start of the season. Heck, if Laurent Robinson could go from street free agent to Dallas superstar, who's to say one of these guys can't?

The development of Bryant is another issue worth watching this summer. Bryant has the muscle and speed that can make a receiver great, but not the stats to go with it. Through two hyped-up seasons he has yet to register 1,000 yards and while he did score nine times in 2011, he had more than 50 yards to go with it in five games and more than 100 yards zero times. In fact, he has just one 100-yard game in 27 career games. Questions about his conditioning and late-game focus were brought up this offseason by team owner Jerry Jones; coaches and teammates have come to Bryant's defense but anything he can do to alleviate concerns about either issue will only make him more appealing for Fantasy purposes. It wouldn't be a surprise to see him end up as Dallas' most productive wide receiver.

Other minor questions will make up the rest of the Cowboys' training camp quiz but none have significant Fantasy purpose. Will Felix Jones see enough snaps to feel comfortable in a limited role? Who will be the backup tight end behind Witten? How quickly will new backup quarterback Kyle Orton pick up the Cowboys offense?

Really, this season should come down to the defense and whether or not Rob Ryan's crew can get to the quarterback and create some plays in the defensive backfield. If they can, the Cowboys should win some games and put pressure on their NFC East rivals for the division crown. If they can't, Romo will find himself in a bunch of high-scoring games and could top the five 300-yard games he had in 2011. Whether or not you're a Cowboys fan will determine which side you want the defense's play to come out on.

Injury update

DeMarco Murray (ankle; probable for the start of training camp) ... Felix Jones (shoulder; probable for the start of training camp) ... Danny Coale (foot; questionable for the start of training camp).

Stay in touch with the most passionate Fantasy staff in the business by following us via Twitter @CBSFantasyFB . You can also follow Dave at @daverichard and on Facebook .

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Player News
Tony Romo says best football still in front of him
by Jamey Eisenberg | Senior Fantasy Writer
(12:10 pm ET) Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, who turned 34 in April and is coming off his second back surgery in less than a year, said he's just now starting to play the best football of his career, reports ESPN.

"I feel personally like I've just started to come into the player that wanted to be six, seven years ago," Romo said. "I think -- and I've said it before -- but I think over the course of the next four or five years, you'll see the best version of me that I've had throughout my career. That's for a lot of different reasons. But I really believe that, and I believe that will show as we go forward. So I'm excited about that. As my body continues to get healthier and healthier, it's going to be better."

Romo said he will spend three to four hours a day doing rehab, maintenance or strengthening exercises for his back. He said there is no pain in it.

"They'll definitely get sick and tired of me over here in the training room and just all the areas around the facility here because you're going to want to get inflammation and all that stuff," Romo said. "If anyone's ever had surgery, you have to do all those things. A back, any time you've ever had a back, the smart people change the routine going forward. They make sure that they commit to a routine that's going to give them the best chance to be strong in all the other areas you need to be."


Andre Johnson prepared to finish his career with Houston
by Dave Richard | Senior Fantasy Writer
(12:10 pm ET) Andre Johnson reported to training camp on time after missing the offseason program while being unhappy with his situation with the rebuilding Texans. But Johnson told the Houston Chronicle on Friday that his "plan" is to finish his career with the Texans, suggesting that he's on board with the team's new direction after all. 

Eagles excuse Keelan Johnson from training camp
by Dave Richard | Senior Fantasy Writer
(11:59 am ET) The Eagles announced Friday that safety Keelan Johnson was excused from training camp "for an undetermined amount of time" to attend to a personal matter in Arizona. Johnson was recently arrested and charged with assaulting a police officer, resisting arrest and disorderly conduct. 

Johnson will still count on the 90-man roster while he's away. 


Harbaugh: I'm very confident in Bernard Pierce
by Jamey Eisenberg | Senior Fantasy Writer
(11:49 am ET) With Ray Rice suspended for the first two games of the season, the Ravens have to figure out who will start at running back in his absence, reports ESPN.

The top choice to fill in for Rice is Bernard Pierce. He was limited all offseason after having shoulder surgery, but he looked to be in good shape as the Ravens opened training camp this week. 

"I'm very confident in Bernard. I've always liked Bernard," coach John Harbaugh said. "He's a heck of a player. He’s worked very hard, he’s 217 pounds, [and] he's in the best shape of his life. He looked good out here the last couple of days. We'll know more by Tuesday once we get the pads on and seeing him move with the pads on and how the shoulder holds up -- that'll be important."

Outside of Pierce, the Ravens have Justin Forsett and rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro, but Pierce is the likely starter with Rice out.

"I have a lot of confidence in all of our guys," Harbaugh said.


Brandon Bolden off to bad start in camp
by Dave Richard | Senior Fantasy Writer
(11:44 am ET) The Boston Herald has noticed that Patriots running back Brandon Bolden has had two bad practices to begin training camp. He's fumbled twice and had a bad drop. Fumbles were a part of Bolden's rookie training camp as well. 

It's believed Bolden is in the running for the backup running downs job behind Stevan Ridley in camp, but if he keeps fumbling he could be released. 


White: Julio Jones will 'destroy the NFL'
by Jamey Eisenberg | Senior Fantasy Writer
(11:40 am ET) Falcons receiver Roddy White is hoping teammate Julio Jones (foot) will be healthy all season because he's counting on a big year for Jones in 2014, reports ESPN.

"I'm worried about him in a sense that I just want him to play football," White said. "Being with Julio for the last few years, I know how great of a player he is. I know how great of a player he can be. And I just want him to be the best he can be. That's all I care about. If he's the best he can be, we're going to win. There's no doubt about it. 

"I don't have any other concerns with him because we're like brothers. I want to see him be on the field throughout the whole season and just watch him destroy the NFL."


Roddy White not expected to be limited in camp
by Jamey Eisenberg | Senior Fantasy Writer
(11:34 am ET) Falcons receiver Roddy White, who dealt with a high ankle sprain and hamstring injury last year, isn't sure if he'll be limited at all during the early portion of training camp, reports ESPN. 

"I don't know," he said. "I haven't gone over the schedule or anything yet. But probably not, because I didn't do too many OTAs [organized team activities]. We've got to work on timing."


Saints expect Jairus Byrd back 'sooner than later'
by Dave Richard | Senior Fantasy Writer
(11:33 am ET) Saints coach Sean Payton expects safety Jairus Byrd (back) to rejoin the team "sooner than later" but still put him on the PUP list to begin training camp.

"Clearly, before we leave here he'll be back on the roster," Payton told the media Friday. 


Belichick impressed with Kenbrell Thompkins
by Jamey Eisenberg | Senior Fantasy Writer
(11:30 am ET) Patriots coach Bill Belichick likes what he sees from second-year receiver Kenbrell Thompkins.

"Hard working kid; one of our hardest workers," Belichick told the media Friday. "He really tries hard to do everything right. Very attentive, very coachable and he's very hard working."

Thompkins had a solid first day of training camp Thursday when he "caught nearly everything thrown his way." He has the chance to be a starter this year with Aaron Dobson (foot) out for the start of camp.


Kenny Stills sidelined by quad injury
by Dave Richard | Senior Fantasy Writer
(11:29 am ET) Saints receiver Kenny Stills left practice early Friday with a quad injury but Sean Payton doesn't believe it's a big deal. 

"He had a tight quad two weeks ago when he was training and it's the same right quad," Payton told the media Friday morning. "I dont think it's real serious."


 
 
 
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