There aren't a shortage of reasons to be optimistic about the Cowboys in 2012. They've got the league's best defensive player in DeMarcus Ware and a top quarterback in Tony Romo. The offensive line has been overhauled. DeMarco Murray, Miles Austin, Dez Bryant, and Jason Witten are about as electric of skill position players as you could want, and the free agent acquisitions on defense will surely take pressure off of the offense. Yup, the Cowboys are a much-improved team, and here are my top five reasons why it will show up on the field:
5. The 'Boys have some maulers inside.
In my article on why the running game is still important, I noted the Cowboys have not ranked better than 23rd in short-yardage rushing efficiency over the last three years. By converting on even a league-average rate of short-yardage runs, I calculated the 'Boys could score around eight more points per year. In the highly-competitive NFL, that's some nice extra change.
Whether or not you're on board with the Cowboys' signings of guards Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau, there's really no doubt the team should improve their short-yardage efficiency. Livings will start, and at 6-5, 332 pounds, he'll be able to drive defenders off of the ball. At nearly the same size, undrafted guard Ronald Leary could do the same if he beats out Bernadeau for a starting job. With a much stronger Phil Costa at center, Dallas should be able to convert at least a few more of those crucial 3rd-and-1 plays.
4. The window really might be closing.
If Jerry Jones is correct in his assessment that the Cowboys' window of opportunity is closing, it might be a good thing. Veterans like Romo, Ware, and Jay Ratliff know that their time is running out.
But the sand in the proverbial hour glass isn't finished trickling just yet. Whether or not the Cowboys have a year or a half-decade to make a move with their current roster, the sense of urgency that often begets winning seems to be there.
3. The pass rush will improve.
A couple of months ago, I projected team sacks using a combination of pressures and sack rate. Even if nothing at all changes in Dallas, the defense is in line for more sacks. If the 'Boys pressure the quarterback just as much as they did in 2011, they should record right around 50 sacks this season – eight more than last year.
Ware is going to get his sacks, but the Cowboys are likely to see more sacks from the defensive line and Anthony Spencer. I've even gone on record as saying I think Spencer, who pressures the quarterback at a rate right in line with the league's top-10 outside linebackers, will post at least eight sacks in 2012.
Now throw in another year in Rob Ryan's scheme, and you have the recipe for a whole lot of headaches for opposing quarterbacks.
2. Tyron Smith will thrive on the left side.
Smith was sensational in his rookie season. I tracked the Cowboys as rushing for 5.43 yards-per-carry behind the youngster, compared to only 3.26 when running behind Doug Free. Smith also allowed only six sacks and an overall pressure rate of just 2.5 percent, ranking him as the third-best pass-protecting right tackle in the NFL.
As a lean, athletic offensive tackle, Smith should prosper on the left side of the line. Plus, the Cowboys can move Free back to his more natural right tackle position where he can face inferior pass rushers and potentially get more help from Jason Witten.
1. The Cowboys will sport the best secondary they've had in over a decade.
Allowing only a 49.4 percent completion rate and 6.47 yards-per-attempt in 2011 as a member of the Kansas City Chiefs, newly-acquired cornerback Brandon Carr is one of the NFL's premiere cornerbacks. Of defensive backs that played more than half of their team's snaps last season, the 61.7 passer rating Carr allowed was the eight-best mark in the league. He also yielded only three touchdowns and committed three penalties.
Starting opposite Carr will be rookie Morris Claiborne. Fresh off signing his rookie contract, Claiborne will be at training camp on time and ready to learn. As perhaps the top playmaker in the entire draft, Claiborne will team with Carr to bring some much-needed physicality to the Dallas defense.
And to cap it off, the Cowboys final have something they haven't had in years at the cornerback position: depth.