State of the Team: Dallas Cowboys

State of the Team: Dallas Cowboys
State of the Team: Dallas Cowboys
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Andy Benoit

The 2013 "State of the Team" articles will run daily through the NFL draft. These offer a snapshot look at a team’s roster, with players classified by color based on how they fit their role. My analysis is based on film study, not statistics, although we will try to note when my judgment differs significantly from FO's advanced stats, and explain a little bit why. Starters are in bold, and you will notice that many units are listed with 12 starters rather than just 11. This denotes the extra playing time that nickelbacks and third receivers usually get in today's NFL.

Color Legend:

  • Star
  • Good
  • Adequate
  • Jury’s still out
  • Just a guy
  • Upgrade needed
  • No longer on the team

Some players colored pink as "just a guy" are younger low-round picks who just haven't seen much playing time, but keep in mind that 99 percent of the time, there’s a negative reason why such a player has rarely seen the field.

Players colored red as "upgrade needed" are not necessarily bad players. Sometimes, this simply means the player is a decent backup who should not be starting.

Since I generally don't do analysis on special teams, those categorizations are based strictly on FO stats, with any comments written by Aaron Schatz. We're only listing kickers and punters, as most teams go into training camp without specific players set as return specialists.

Click here for an archive of all State of the Team articles.



Once again, despite copious talent, the Cowboys enter a season looking to avenge the disappointment of last year. And once again, fair or unfair, the disappointment is perceived to mostly be Tony Romo’s fault. His costly interception at the end of the Week 17 Redskins game is fresher in our minds than his stellar 10-touchdown, one-interception month of December. Even if Romo is as "un-clutch" as his critics believe (which is debatable; last year he had a 26.0% passing DVOA in "late and close" situations, the same as Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers), the bigger issue is the team around him. The running backs have been hit or miss, the line has been prone to mistakes, and the receivers have a habit of running incorrect routes. Whoever is calling the shots for this offense (Jason Garrett? Bill Callahan?) must simplify the ever-expanding playbook. Otherwise, this group will never find its identity and settle down.


QB: Tony Romo, Kyle Orton

RB: DeMarco Murray, Phillip Tanner, Lawrence Vickers (FB); Lost: Felix Jones

Romo’s ticket to improvement hinges on him getting smarter in the pre-snap phase and more disciplined and trusting of the play designs in the post-snap phase. Skill-wise, there’s nothing to complain about with the 10-year veteran. Performance-wise, Romo’s internal clock can run too fast at times and too slow at others. I see this in the way he occasionally gets frenetic in the pocket, reckless in downfield attempts, or latched on to certain progressions.

On the ground, Murray offers good north/south decisiveness. He’s not much of a wiggler, though. If Tanner ever wants to have a bigger role -– including more third-down reps –- he must become a sounder pass-blocker. Vickers can be a stout, stabilizing presence on early downs.


WR: Dez Bryant, Miles Austin, Dwayne Harris, Cole Beasley; Lost: Kevin Ogletree

TE: Jason Witten, James Hanna; Lost: John Phillips

Bryant is one of the three or four most gifted receivers in the NFL. If he could just learn to play the position, he’d be unstoppable. Right now, he struggles to read defenses and run precise routes, particularly late in the down. That might be one reason the Cowboys only aligned him on the far outside. Another reason could be because having Bryant at the X-Iso spot is a great way to stretch the double teams that he so often attracts. That benefits guys like Harris, Beasley, and, of course, Austin. (Austin, by the way, was considered a star after 1,320 yards and 28.6% DVOA in 2009 but has averaged 8.8% DVOA and only 856 receiving yards in the three years since.)

Inside, Witten is the consummate pro, while Hanna, a 2012 sixth-round pick, is an intriguing project with upside. It will be fascinating to see if he can develop into a lighter version of Aaron Hernandez.


LT: Tyron Smith LG: Nate Livings C: Phil Costa RG: Mackenzy Bernadeau RT: Doug Free

Backups: Jeremy Parnell, Ryan Cook; Lost: Derrick Dockery

Free has struggled immensely with penalties and against anyone with even a modicum of bull-rushing ability. Perhaps he’ll bounce back and regain his pre-contract form of 2010, but all evidence from the past two years suggests he’s somehow getting worse. On the other side, Smith had similar problems last year, though not nearly to the same degree. His gradual improvement suggests the promising future the Cowboys expect, though he must continue to hone his footwork. That will curtail his occasional problems with power in the run game and speed in the pass game. In the middle, the hope is that Costa can stay healthy and continue to evolve into a much-needed steadying force between these two so-so guards. He was looking good before his foot injury last October.



No defense in 2013 will undergo as dramatic a scheme change as the Cowboys. Rob Ryan and his profusely complex 3-4 scheme are out; Monte Kiffin and his simpler 4-3 are in. The Cowboys are determined to create more turnovers in 2013. They believe a simpler scheme with more zone concepts will propagate this. To teach these zones, Jerry Jones wanted the guy who originally masterminded a lot of them. But there are many not-so-subtle whispers of doubt around the league about Kiffin's viability as a coordinator. He’s a legend, yes, but he’s also 73 and three years removed from his last pro job. Even worse, his scheme was extremely overmatched during his three-year sojourn in the college ranks.


DE: DeMarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer, Kyle Wilber, Tyrone Crawford Lost: Marcus Spears, Kenyon Coleman

DT: Jay Ratliff, Jason Hatcher, Sean Lissemore, Rob Callaway; Lost: Josh Brent

Ware will excel at defensive end because players like Ware excel just about anywhere. Having been the weak outside linebacker in a 3-4, Ware has spent the bulk of his career essentially playing the same one-gap edge concepts that he’ll play in this scheme. The guy making a real change is Spencer. He was a terrific playside run-defender as an outside linebacker; can that continue now that he’s lining up with a hand in the dirt? Ratliff and Hatcher are both built for one-gap penetration, but it’d be smart for the Cowboys to cultivate better depth and long-term prospects behind them. If the Cowboys decide they need a wide-bodied plugger inside, they may have to look in the draft, as Lissemore is just barely north of 300 pounds and Callaway is a young journeyman.


OLB: Bruce Carter, Justin Durant, Alex Albright, Ernie Sims; Lost: Victor Butler, Brady Poppinga

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ILB: Sean Lee, Cameron Sheffield; Lost: Dan Connor

Carter and Lee both have sensational speed and instincts. The change in scheme was centered largely around putting them in position to make more plays on the ball. The key is staying healthy, which neither did last year. Durant was a solid signing given his experience in Detroit’s similar Cover-2 based scheme. Of course, given the proliferation of three-receiver sets across the NFL, he’ll play less than half the snaps. Sims is solid depth, but the Cowboys will need Albright to develop and learn to firmly take on lead-blockers in traffic. He looked okay at that last season, though the sample size was small.


CB: Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Orlando Scandrick, Sterling Moore; Lost: Mike Jenkins, Michael Coe

S: Barry Church, Will Allen, Danny McCray, Matt Johnson; Lost: Gerald Sensabaugh, Eric Frampton, Charlie Peprah

Cornerback is set for the next few years, while safety is up in the air. In a zone scheme, there’s not a lot of stress placed on the outside defenders -- but that’s only if the safeties are adept. Thus, the development of Church and Johnson will play a critical role in how this defense does. The fact that Allen was signed late in free agency might suggest that the Cowboys are not entirely comfortable with either player at this point.

Claiborne, like Janoris Jenkins of the Rams, is colored "black" to indicate that he's already established himself as a reasonable starting corner after just one year. Obviously, his potential is much higher, depending on how Kiffin uses him. It’s somewhat perplexing that the Cowboys are committing to a zone scheme considering they inked Carr to a $50 million deal, traded a boatload to draft Claiborne, and secured Scandrick, a rising man-to-man slot corner, to a six-year, $28 million deal in 2011. It’s possible they envision running the type of "zone" scheme that Seattle runs, which means these corners will essentially play press-man with outside leverage. That’s a very challenging coverage for offensive players to beat, but it's also just as challenging for defensive players to execute. We’ll have to see what Kiffin does here.


K: Dan Bailey; P: Chris Jones; Lost: Brian Moorman

Bailey had a good year on field goals in 2012, but that's typical field-goal kicker inconsistency. He was average the year before, and he's not very good on kickoffs. Jones tore his ACL in October but will be back in the job again come September.

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42 comments, Last at 23 Apr 2013, 11:25am

#1 by Insancipitory // Apr 18, 2013 - 8:15pm

I think Kiffen already made references to installing a scheme like the Seahawks run around the time he was hired.

Points: 0

#2 by dbostedo // Apr 18, 2013 - 8:56pm

I guess I'll ask it before anyone else does... Flacco's blue, but Romo's green?

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#3 by jonnyblazin // Apr 18, 2013 - 9:09pm

Please, for everyone's sake, let's not turn every state of the team article into a Joe Flacco debate.

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#13 by nat // Apr 19, 2013 - 10:17am

I agree. The Flacco rating was a clear brain-fart. So let's all pretend it was an understandable green instead, and discuss the new ratings as they come up on that basis. And out of kindness to the fans of Flacco's star rating, let's try to do our comparisons to other QBs instead.

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#17 by Insancipitory // Apr 19, 2013 - 12:25pm

I would guess a projection of Flacco's new 'true' level might look something like 350 completetions at 55% for 4000 yards and 33 TD against like 8 picks. He had a phenominal playoff run.

If the opinion of the writer is that Flacco "turned a corner" in the playoffs, and that some measure of that performance will be sustained. Then Flacco should be blue.

Points: 0

#8 by Audiris2 (not verified) // Apr 19, 2013 - 5:50am


On the other hand Ratliff is not a blue anymore, he is on the downside of his career and has become injury prone.

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#4 by gyeek (not verified) // Apr 19, 2013 - 2:11am

Dan Bailey is greatly undervalued. A kicker being automatic within 50 yards should be rated at least "adequate" if not "good". Consistency was never a real issue for him and he nailed more nail-biting game winner FGs than he missed (3 game winners vs. 1 miss from 50+ yards) His kickoffs aren't bad either.

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#5 by gyeek (not verified) // Apr 19, 2013 - 2:16am

...oh, and Lance Dunbar is ahead of Philip Tanner on the depth chart as of now.

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#6 by theslothook // Apr 19, 2013 - 3:28am

See...its even happening at FO. No matter what kind of career numbers romo has put up...he gets a green and one great post season earns flacco a blue...somehow putting him ahead of ryan as well. Come on Andy, you're going down the same ugly tortuous path so many other analysts do with postseason winner sauce.

Points: 0

#11 by Ryan D. // Apr 19, 2013 - 9:11am

To be completely fair to Flacco, he threw the would-be game-winning touchdown in the 2012 AFC Championship game, but Lee Evans didn't hang on to it. The Ravens might not have beat the Giants in the 2012 Super Bowl, but they definitely should have been playing against them based on Flacco's last throw. Would you feel any better about Flacco if he was coming off of back-to-back Super Bowl appearances?

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#32 by theslothook // Apr 19, 2013 - 8:19pm

Ill be the first to admit...flacco's post season performance was pretty much the best qb performance I've seen in a long time- rivaled only by aaron rodgers' in 2010. Still, what gets me about flacco is he can simultaneously look so terrible for larger stretches of the season. Its the inconsistency that makes me hold him back, regardless of how he did this postseason. Obviously, i think hes pretty good.

Points: 0

#34 by RickD // Apr 20, 2013 - 9:59pm

Lee Evans "didn't hang onto it" because the defender knocked it out of his hands. I don't think that falls into "coulda, shoulda" territory.

"The Ravens might not have beat the Giants in the 2012 Super Bowl, but they definitely should have been playing against them based on Flacco's last throw. "

The argument blaming Cundiff would be stronger. But it's still just a "woulda, coulda" argument.

Points: 0

#38 by jonnyblazin // Apr 20, 2013 - 10:28pm

It could be argued that Lee Evans actually had possession of the ball and both feet down before it was knocked out of his hands. I thought it should have been reviewed, though it probably would have been upheld.

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#7 by theslothook // Apr 19, 2013 - 3:29am

One shudders to think what Andy would give Brady after the 01 season. After all, he did clutch his way to the sb. And why stop with brady? Eli in 07 clutched his way to the sb too. And then there's dilfer, doug williams, brad johnson, and a slew of other sb winners too!

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#9 by komakom (not verified) // Apr 19, 2013 - 7:48am

While I basically agree with you, Flacco is somewhat different in that his postseason run was legitimately great QB play. The others you mention were carried by the rest of their teams.

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#35 by RickD // Apr 20, 2013 - 10:00pm

Well, Eli's blue. Duh!

Because two good postseason runs offset many regular seasons of inconsistency.

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#37 by jonnyblazin // Apr 20, 2013 - 10:18pm

At the same time, when teams break training camp, the goal is to win the super bowl, not to come in 1st in DVOA. If you have a QB who has the tools to play at an elite level occasionally, rather than to play well consistently, you may have a better chance at winning the super bowl. But, you also may endure inconsistency during the regular season.

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#10 by BlueStarDude // Apr 19, 2013 - 8:02am

I think this a fair assessment.

As noted by a commenter above, Dunbar supplanted Tanner on the depth chart (this happened somewhere around the halfway mark of last season). I'd say Dunbar is pink while Tanner is red.

Austin should be black at this point, maybe pink. Contrary to Aikman's repeated expressions of shock, Austin has never had consistently good hands. He also is terrible at locating the ball on deep routes. He's not really great at separation either. The main thing he excelled at was yards after catch, but the accumulated injuries of the past few seasons have really diminished his abilities there.

Witten is still a solid blocker and a very good all-around tight end, but the past two seasons have shown he's simply not a dynamic enough threat to be considered a "star" TE in the current NFL. Green.

Per Kiffin himself, the defense is expected to resemble Seattle's scheme.

And Romo is clearly correct at green. I don't understand why complaints about Flacco's rating have to appear in every new post.

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#12 by Aaron Brooks G… // Apr 19, 2013 - 10:16am

Witten is still a solid blocker and a very good all-around tight end, but the past two seasons have shown he's simply not a dynamic enough threat to be considered a "star" TE in the current NFL.

Let's give him a year in which his spleen isn't trying to leak out of his anus before we regard him as washed up.

Points: 0

#20 by BlueStarDude // Apr 19, 2013 - 2:10pm

I was arguing for him being green over blue. That's hardly the same as saying he's washed up. Aside from the first month or so of last season when he was clearly affected by the spleen injury, his play in 2012 was very much at his 2011 level, which is a good, real good, level to be at. But he's also clearly not the threat he once was, and going forward Romo and the offense will be best served to target him less. His false starts are also a bit annoying; I think his five last year led the league for non-linemen (not an anomaly but a problem that has plagued him for a while: four in 2010, seven in 2009).

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#24 by Tim Wilson // Apr 19, 2013 - 2:27pm

Witten remains the best combination of blocking and receiving in the league outside of a healthy Gronkowski.

Witten certainly saw his YPA numbers come down last year, based on the way he was used in the offense. However, he was Pro Football Focus’ #3 overall ranked TE, with a grade of 19.0 for the season:

Second, Witten’s low YPC numbers are heavily slanted toward his first three games of the year, when he was suffering from a lacerated spleen and his YPC was 4.0. In the Bears game in Week 4, Witten returned to an 8.0 YPC, which is in line with his historical averages.

KC Joyner had Witten as one of the best vertical TEs in the game in 2011 on vertical routes (although the Cowboys didn't use him that way enough in 2011, and even less in 2012). Detail below. What do we think is more likely– he went from insanely good in 2011 to awful in 2012, or his spleen injury threw off your full-season 2012 averages a bit?

From KC Joyner in May 2012:
“When Witten flexed out as a wide receiver, he had 31 passes thrown his way in 2011. He gained 335 yards on those plays. That’s almost 11.0 yards per attempt. He either had a reception or drew a defensive penalty on 22 of those plays. He’s 22 of 31 for 335 yards, when he’s in the slot or lined up wide as a receiver.

That’s really good. He ranked 3rd in vertical yards per attempt by a tight end. But he only had 32 vertical passes. That total ranked 12th among tight ends. So you’ve got a guy who’s incredibly productive as a flex tight end. You’ve got a guy who’s incredibly productive as a vertical threat.”

Please also note the massive help that Witten is as a decoy in the offense (which also indicates that yes, opposing defenses do fear him):

Points: 0

#33 by speedegg // Apr 20, 2013 - 6:27pm

uhhh, I wouldn't be referencing KC Joyner so much, he has a tendency to make the wrong assumptions or presents numbers without context. He ran an article saying the NY Jets should use Dustin Keller in a vertical role, flexed out as a receiver, and it would be a big mistake if they let him walk. Dustin Keller isn't that kind of TE.

Witten is a little like Antonio Gates, he's not as vertical as he use to be. He still is Tony Romo's favorite target and teams will key on that in critical situations.

Points: 0

#40 by Tim Wilson // Apr 21, 2013 - 2:22pm

Joyner's numbers are not perfect but are often useful. Just like FO's numbers and PFF's. In this context, I certainly find what they say about Witten's 2011 compelling. I understand this is a FO message board, but I'm not going to blindly throw out all other analyses available to us.

I think the Gates comparison was just a throwaway comment, but he and Witten are extremely different TEs and always have been, in terms of how much blocking they do, how often they're flexed out, etc. Don't think the comparison is very useful here.

Points: 0

#14 by Jim W. (not verified) // Apr 19, 2013 - 10:22am

I don't know which color Austin should be but I share your concern about his recent play. His play last year didn't match his play from '11, and it wasn't close to his '09/'10 years. Austin is still an effective receiver but I think Dallas will draft his replacement a week from now or next year. His injuries are a major concern.

As someone else mentioned above, Ratliff doesn't deserve a blue rating at this point in his career. For all the press that the offensive line gets the defensive line concerns me about as much. Ware might not have that many more good seasons left. Ratliff is a bit of an unknown considering age/recent injuries. The team is gambling, unwisely in my opinion, that Spencer will replicate his '12 performance. Hatcher is old and will be an UFA next season. Behind them they have Crawford, who I like, and Lissemore, who is probably a career backup.

Points: 0

#21 by BlueStarDude // Apr 19, 2013 - 2:15pm

Your assessment of the defensive line is spot on. I can see Ratliff being rejuvenated by, and having a nice rebound year in, the new scheme. But, like you said, there's no way to really know what the team will get out of him at this point. I kind of thought they should have cut him rather than renegotiate (I forget whether he would have had to be designated a June 1 cut or not in order to save $$$).

Points: 0

#31 by LionInAZ // Apr 19, 2013 - 7:25pm

If anything, I think that Bryant is less deserving of the 'blue' grade than Witten. In what universe would a WR who "has trouble reading defenses and running precise routes" deserve to be called a star? He might have the talent, but if he's failing to use it he doesn't deserve credit for it. Moreover, his QB doesn't deserve to be downgraded because of it.

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#36 by RickD // Apr 20, 2013 - 10:02pm

Yeah, that was hilarious. Bryant would be elite, if only he knew how to play the position.


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#39 by Sifter // Apr 21, 2013 - 5:11am

So a star player can't have any weaknesses at all? That's going to be a VERY short list. I know it sounds bad as written, but not being able to read defenses or run precise routes didn't seem to affect Bryant's production much, especially in the back half of the season. You don't get close to 900 yards and 10 TDs in the last 8 games if you don't know how to play the position.

Points: 0

#15 by Steve in WI // Apr 19, 2013 - 11:09am

Useless quibble here...maybe it's silly to rate any backup QB as more than adequate, but judging as a backup (which is the point of these ratings), I'd put Kyle Orton at green. If my team has an established franchise QB, I can't think of anyone else I'd rather have backing him up than Orton.

Points: 0

#19 by justme_cd // Apr 19, 2013 - 12:56pm

I have been thinking that too, but every player seems to be judged as a starter throughout this series, i.e. Backup QB is not graded on a separate scale from Starting QB. From my understanding, this rating is not comparing Orton to other backups, this rating is comparing Orton to every QB. Comparing him to other backups Orton is probably a blue, consensus best backup QB.

You might try to argue he is a green overall QB, but that doesn't seem to be your case, and arguing he is a green because he is a backup is irrelevant in my opinion.

Points: 0

#27 by Anonymous- (not verified) // Apr 19, 2013 - 2:36pm

Matt Moore was green. No argument for Matt Moore over Kyle Orton. The whole exercise is fraught with inconsistency. Perhaps Andy should have grouped players from each position into colors and then released one team's results at a time rather than doing the evaluations on a team by team basis.

Points: 0

#30 by Steve in WI // Apr 19, 2013 - 5:37pm

From this blurb at the start of every article, I assume that starters and backups are judged on a separate scale: "Players colored red as "upgrade needed" are not necessarily bad players. Sometimes, this simply means the player is a decent backup who should not be starting."

You're right that it's irrelevant - I'd never say that Orton would be anything more than an adequate (maybe) starter, and I don't know that there's a material difference between having the best backup in the league and any backup who's competent.

Points: 0

#42 by justme_cd // Apr 23, 2013 - 11:25am

Yeah you're right. I think one of my problems comes when I try to make the colors into a grading scale, when I don't think that was the exact intention perhaps. The rating that doesn't really fit into a scale is yellow - the jury is still out. Yellow doesn't necessarily mean he's graded at worse than the black, it just means we don't know yet.

Both comments seem to prove my opinion wrong. There does appear to be different grades for backups.

Points: 0

#16 by Tim Wilson // Apr 19, 2013 - 11:32am

Agree which most of the content here-- these "State of the Team" pieces have been much more spot on than the "Four Downs" pieces which historically ran. It's tough to get it right when you're not a team-specific blog and you've got fanatical fans for those teams parsing your every word. So I was impressed here.

The only item I'd directly object to is the Dez Bryant commentary. The comments about his mastery of the route tree and competency as a receiver would have been accurate through Week 6 or 7 last year, but he demonstrated a massive in-season improvement that had him doing every single thing you'd want out of a #1 WR in Weeks 10-17:

Also, on Witten, he was an ELITE vertical TE threat according to KC Joyner's numbers in 2011. I'm not willing to believe that he fell off a cliff in 2012 due to natural skill erosion instead of, say, a massive spleen injury and a need to use him on shorter routes due to the utter lack of a run game and a porous OL. Let's see how he does in 2013.

Points: 0

#22 by BlueStarDude // Apr 19, 2013 - 2:19pm

I certainly hope Witten can return to an elite level. (I swear, he's one of my favorite players!) I'm no scout or stat expert but I didn't see an elite TE in 2011 either. But anyway, if he's going to get back to that level, they need to save him a bit. He has taken a beating the past couple of seasons.

Points: 0

#23 by Tim Wilson // Apr 19, 2013 - 2:26pm

See my comments above. If you're talking about him being a "threat," I assume you're taking issue with his vertical game. Every other area of his game last year was pretty much unimpeachable after the first 3 weeks. In the vertical area, he was certainly elite in 2011, and his 2012 issues were more about usage and a bit of spleen trouble based on the data I've seen, rather than a dropoff in his skill set.

Points: 0

#25 by Tim Wilson // Apr 19, 2013 - 2:30pm

Not trying to be argumentative, just wanted to throw some numbers out there that I think paint a positive picture and might restore a bit of your excitement for your favorite player, the Senator.

Points: 0

#41 by BlueStarDude // Apr 22, 2013 - 10:43am

No problem. I appreciate a good argument. I certainly hope Witten plays at a high level and the team turns the corner.

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#26 by Tim Wilson // Apr 19, 2013 - 2:31pm

Removing accidental double-post

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#18 by Lindsay C. (not verified) // Apr 19, 2013 - 12:31pm

TE James Hanna:
"Hanna, a 2012 sixth-round pick, is an intriguing project with upside"

Same question here as in the Falcons article: If he was a rookie last year, is "intriguing", and has "upside", why is he "Just A Guy" instead of "Jury's Still Out"?

It's not as egregious as in the Falcons article, as some of their guys didn't even play their rookie year, due to preseason injury (FB Bradie Ewing) or being Matt Ryan's backup (QB Dominique Davis), but I feel it's a bit harsh to write these guys off as "Just A Guy" this early in their careers.

Points: 0

#29 by Sifter // Apr 19, 2013 - 5:08pm

On the other side of the coin though, you don't want guys who are obviously bottom feeders to be given yellow grades just because they haven't played many snaps eg. practice squad guys. They obviously haven't been given snaps for a reason. The exception of course being injury as you mention for Bradie Ewing. My rule of thumb might be any 5th round pick or later who has barely played should written off as just a guy. Similarly, you could probably safely write off 3rd and 4th round picks who can't get on the field if they have had 2 years in the league to prove themselves.

Points: 0

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