The Cowboys were decimated by injuries in 2012. Yes, great teams are sometimes able to overcome losing players to injuries, but that's missing the point. Starters run with the first-team for a reason; they're the best players. When they go down, it decreases the team's probability of winning football games. So whether a team should still win regardless of health doesn't really change the fact that, in most cases, injuries are going to have a detrimental impact on wins.
Some injuries obviously hurt more than others. If a team is absolutely loaded at a specific position, an injury might not be as crippling as at a thinner position, regardless of the starters' talent levels. So for the 2013 Cowboys, not all potential injuries are created equally.
Looking at each player and the depth at his position, I'm going to propose my top four most crucial players for the Cowboys this season. While talent is an obvious component of my thought process here, I care just as much about the depth behind each player.
Also, I'm going to remove Tony Romo from consideration on this list. He's so clearly the team's most important player – as is the case with just about every NFL quarterback – that it basically goes without saying that if Romo goes down for an extended period of time, the Cowboys probably will, too.
Just Missed the Cut
- Sean Lee/Bruce Carter: Lee and Carter are obviously talented, but the linebacker position isn't of extreme importance relative to positions like defensive end and cornerback. Further, I think the Cowboys have decent depth with players like Justin Durant, Alex Albright and Ernie Sims.
- Anthony Spencer: The Cowboys will undoubtedly have a rough time if either starting pass-rusher goes down, but Spencer's production (certainly his ceiling production) is at least theoretically replaceable, whereas Ware's probably isn't.
- DeMarco Murray: I do indeed think there's a big talent gap between Murray and rookie Joseph Randle; a quick look at their weight-to-speed ratios will confirm that. However, running back is such a dependent position that Murray's value, and that for any running back, is minimal. Murray will go as the offensive line goes.
- Jason Witten: Some of you have asked how I can possibly claim that Witten's play has been declining for years. This is how:
Now with two viable replacements, Witten's importance, while still great, isn't as monumental as it once was.
- Jason Hatcher/Jay Ratliff: I think Hatcher is far more important than Ratliff at this stage in their careers, but Hatcher just missed out on making this list because of the presence of Tyrone Crawford, Sean Lissemore, Ben Bass and other promising young talent inside.
The Top 4
4. CB Morris Claiborne/Brandon Carr
Claiborne and Carr average 5-11 ½, 201 pounds – excellent size for cornerbacks. They both checked in as low-end No. 1 cornerbacks in 2012 by allowing an average of 1.19 yards per snap that they were in coverage.
The Cowboys have two talented cornerbacks sitting behind Claiborne and Carr in Orlando Scandrick and B.W. Webb, but their mean size is 5-10, 185 pounds, quite a difference. Scandrick and Webb could both theoretically play outside, but they're certainly smaller than ideal, especially in Monte Kiffin's scheme.
Plus, since defenses basically use nickel personnel as their base these days, a Claiborne or Carr injury would affect two starting positions, forcing Scandrick outside and a fourth-round rookie into the nickel spot.
3. DE DeMarcus Ware
You knew Ware would be on this list, it's just a matter of how high. I resisted placing him higher because, entering his age 31 season, Ware is reaching the age when many pass-rushers see a steep decline in play. Much of Ware's 2012 "struggles" can be attributed to injuries, but that's also a part of aging; as players get older, their chances of injuring themselves increase.
Nonetheless, Ware offers a pass-rush threat the Cowboys simply don't have elsewhere. He draws attention and forces defenses to game plan to stop him, opening things up for the rest of the line.
2. WR Dez Bryant
The Cowboys have a deep wide receiver corps with all different sorts of skill sets, so the fact that Bryant checks in at No. 2 here shows you just how talented and productive this guy can be. Forget the debates about the NFL's best wide receivers; only one receiver in the NFL – some guy who plays in Detroit – can say he's currently a better wideout than Bryant.
Despite not ranking in the top 10 in targets in 2012, Bryant finished eighth in receptions, sixth in yards, and second in touchdowns. He saw just 24 targets at least 20 yards downfield, also ranking him outside of the top 10, but recorded the sixth-most deep receptions and second-most deep touchdowns in the league. If Bryant gets injured, there's simply no one on the roster that can replace his impact. [embedded_ad]
1. LT Tyron Smith
I labeled Smith as one of my top four breakout candidates for 2013, with his age being one of the primary factors in my decision. At just 22, Smith will enter his third NFL season at an age when many players are rookies. That's important.
I projected Smith at 20 pressures and five sacks allowed in 2013, but you can bet those numbers will be way, way higher for any offensive tackle that would step in to replace Smith if he gets hurt. Whether it's a veteran or Jermey Parnell, the Cowboys would be looking at a potential disaster. While I like Parnell's upside, his move to the left side would ensure that Doug Free starts at right tackle. Anyone interested in seeing what a Parnell/Free combination can do in 2013? Me neither, and that's why Smith is perhaps the most crucial player for the Cowboys this season.