By Matthew Postins
If the Dallas Cowboys are to make the jump from average team to playoff team, there are some things on the field that must change in 2013. In this series, RattleAndHumSports.com outlines five improvements the Cowboys could make in order to accomplish that goal in 2013.
Get bigger contributions from these five players
The Dallas Cowboys had to use plenty of players they weren’t expecting to use in 2012. Some of that was due to injuries and some of that was due to performance.
Every season is its own animal. If you look ahead to 2013, you can see places where the Cowboys need players already on their roster to step up and make bigger contributions.
In putting together this list, I only included players that will be under contract in 2013. Some are young players entering a critical part of their development. Others are veterans who need to get right.
But if these five players make a step forward in 2013, the Cowboys will be better off for it.
Linebacker Alex Albright. I had the chance to talk with Albright’s position coach, Matt Eberflus, in December. What the Cowboys like about Albright, a converted defensive end, is his intelligence and run stopping ability. Eberflus called it “setting the edge.” Albright saw more time than the Cowboys expected as they lost Sean Lee and Bruce Carter inside, and saw DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer banged up outside. Albright was versatile enough to play inside and out and finished the season with 31 tackles on defense.
Albright made strides in the weight room between 2011 and 2012 and he needs to do so again this offseason. The Cowboys also need him to improve as a pass rusher on the outside. The Cowboys need that improvement because Spencer could depart as a free agent, leaving a starting spot open opposite Ware. When Spencer missed the Baltimore game, it was Albright who started for him. If Spencer leaves, Albright will be a prime candidate to start in 2013.
Wide receiver Dwayne Harris. Once the Cowboys moved Harris to punt returner at midseason his value rose. His touchdown return against Philadelphia was a game changer and, in some ways, a season changer. He averaged 16 yards a return. As Harris got more playing time, his confidence – and quarterback Tony Romo’s confidence in him – rose. Harris finished the season with 17 receptions for 222 yards and a touchdown. He exhibited a penchant for breaking tackles and getting yards after the catch. His speed is top shelf.
Kevin Ogletree, the team’s No. 3 wide receiver, is a free agent and could leave. If he does, expect Harris to duel with Cole Beasley for the No. 3 position. Harris has the edge and, if he develops this offseason, could be more dangerous than Ogletree.
Cornerback Morris Claiborne. This isn’t a knock on the rookie, who I think had a solid season. He finished with 55 tackles. He defended eight passes. But he only had one interception. That’s the number that has to improve in 2013. The Cowboys drafted a player who had 11 interceptions in college, including six his final collegiate season. Claiborne used to play wide receiver, so he has great hands. No one expected him to step out of LSU and become Everson Walls, but this Cowboys defense needs to create more turnovers. A more aggressive Claiborne would help make that happen.
Right tackle Doug Free. I wrote a bit about Free in Part 4. He shared the NFL lead for most penalties committed by a single player. Now, his fellow tackle, Tyron Smith, was also the Top 5. But the difference is that Smith had a better season blocking up front than Free. In fact, Free lost playing time in December and had to share time with Jeremy Parnell, a rotation that seemed to help Free. When the Cowboys invested big money in Free after the 2010 season, it looked smart. Two years later it looks like the Cowboys made a big mistake. The Cowboys need Free to find his 2010 form in 2013. There is no doubt he’ll have competition in training camp.
Defensive tackle Sean Lissemore. The Cowboys quietly signed Lissemore to a four-year contract during the 2012 season. They see him as a versatile defensive lineman who can play inside or outside. But in 2013 the Cowboys need Lissemore to show he can play as well as nose tackle Jay Ratliff, who spent half the season injured. Ratliff should be healthy for 2013 and he has five years left on his current deal. But defensive tackle Kenyon Coleman is a free agent. It’s hard to see disgraced defensive tackle Josh Brent playing next season. Lissemore’s play must improve to the point where, if Ratliff is hurt again, the Cowboys’ run defense won’t miss a beat, because they really missed Ratliff up front in 2012.