Top 5 Most Crucial Players on Cowboys' Roster
This "Top 5" series has been a blast to write, particularly because whittling down each list to contain only five items has been a challenge. No list has been more difficult to create than this one, however. The Cowboys have a number of vital cogs on both offense and defense; remove just one of them and the team dynamic changes drastically. What would the Dallas defense really look like without DeMarcus Ware? Hopefully we won't need to find out.
Following in the footsteps of Mickey's annual Mr. Indispensable editorial, Tony Romo will not be in consideration for this list. I've talked about Romo's importance to the team on numerous occasions throughout my first few months at DallasCowboys.com. He's so obviously the most crucial player on the roster that he doesn't even need to be on the list; everyone knows the Cowboys will go as far as Romo takes them.
The Best of the Rest
Any of these players could have easily made my list of the Cowboys' top five most crucial players. For most, the depth at their position, not their own talent, kept them from cracking the top five.
- Brandon Carr
Before the Cowboys signed Carr, I wrote a piece detailing why he should be their man over fellow free agent cornerback Cortland Finnegan. Carr allowed less than 50 percent of passes his way to be completed in 2011, picking off more passes than touchdowns he allowed. Quarterbacks registered just a 61.7 passer rating when targeting Carr. With outstanding cornerback depth for the first time in a long time, though, Carr's indispensability isn't as great as it would have been in past seasons.
- Dan Bailey
Bailey was outstanding for the 'Boys in 2011, hitting on 32 of 37 field goal attempts, including a bunch of clutch kicks. The efficiency of kickers tends to fluctuate quite dramatically, however, so Bailey will need to prove himself again in 2012.
- Sean Lee
Based solely on production, Lee should be in the top five. His 105 tackles last season led the defense by a wide margin. Lee might have made it into the top five, too, prior to the Cowboys' signing of Dan Connor. I love the Connor acquisition and, combined with second-year linebacker Bruce Carter, the Cowboys have some depth inside.
- Dez Bryant
Perhaps the team's top breakout candidate, Bryant adds a vertical dimension to the offense. Bryant was superb in the first half in particular last season, racking up 58.7 percent of his receptions, 60.1 percent of his yards, and 77.8 percent of his touchdowns in the game's first two quarters. With improved conditioning heading into this season, you'll probably see Bryant rise on this list next year.
- DeMarco Murray
Murray is absolutely critical to the team and it was difficult leaving him out of the top five. He certainly added a much-needed spark to the offense last season, but don't forget that the Cowboys still have a productive-when-healthy running back in Felix Jones.
The Core Five
- Miles Austin
Bryant will be the Cowboys' top receiver this year, but Austin could be a tad bit more important. In my article on the team's slot receiver position, I noted that Austin has played 15.5, 32.4, and 44.0 percent of his snaps in the slot over the past three seasons, respectively. Almost two-thirds of his 2011 targets came when he lined up inside. Austin's versatility makes him more valuable than your average wide receiver.
- Jay Ratliff
Last year, Ratliff didn't rack up the sacks (two) that we have become accustomed to seeing from the Pro Bowl nose tackle. He actually pressured the quarterback more often than he did in 2009 (when he totaled six sacks) and the same number of times as in 2008 (when he registered a career-high 7.5 sacks). Backup nose tackle Josh Brent has shown flashes, but Ratliff's importance to the interior of the defense is obvious.
- Jason Witten
Witten is as consistent as they come at the tight end position. Even if he has lost a half-step, he's still one of the NFL's premiere receiving-blocking combination tight ends. With the loss of Martellus Bennett (who was more valuable than you might realize), Witten's health is crucial in 2012. If he goes down, unproven tight end John Phillips and rookie James Hanna will need to man the fort.
- Tyron Smith
Smith was excellent at right tackle in his rookie season. I recorded him yielding six sacks and 16 pressures. That equates to pressure on just 2.5 percent of pass protection snaps, which ranked Smith as the third-most efficient right tackle in the NFL in 2011. The 'Boys also averaged 5.43 yards-per-carry when running behind Smith. Compare those numbers to a 4.7 percent pressure rate and 3.26 yards-per-carry for Doug Free. Moving to the left side in his second season, Smith is probably the most important non-quarterback on offense this year.
- DeMarcus Ware
Mickey got it right. There's no one quite like DeMarcus Ware. He's the most critical player on the Cowboys' defense, the most important non-quarterback on the team, and probably the best defensive player in the entire NFL. The 'Boys could have a wealth of tremendous pass-rushing outside linebackers on the roster, and Ware would still claim this spot. He's just that good.
This "Running the Numbers" blog is all about stats, but Ware is one of the few players who doesn't need numbers of any sort to justify his worth. You see him play, and you know you're watching greatness. We often take Ware's sheer dominance for granted, but take a second to imagine life without Ware.
No, really, think about it. Stats aside, that's all you really need to understand the value of the Cowboys' most electrifying defensive player.