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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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