But while the new players often draw a majority of the preseason spotlight, it is not uncommon for the biggest impact to be made by players who bounce back after a sub-par or injury-shortened season the year before.
So who needs to bounce back for the Cowboys to enjoy a successful season in 2011?
Quarterback Tony Romo has been the unquestioned leader of the Dallas offense since 2006, when he played in 16 games, starting 10. Since then, he has been the key to the offense and one of the NFL's better quarterbacks, thanks to an ideal blend of passing ability, mobility and playground-style improvisation. Since taking over the Dallas offense five years ago, Romo has thrown for 16,650 yards and 118 touchdown passes. When he went down last year with a broken collarbone, Jon Kitna was a capable substitute, but this team is Romo's going forward. Coaches and teammates alike have raved about Romo's apparent maturation over the offseason, as he took the lead in gathering teammates for players-only workouts during the NFL lockout, and Romo has said repeatedly that he feels healthy, strong, and ready to re-take the reins of the Cowboy offense. Playing the most important position on the team, Romo's return to form — and good health — is vital for the team's fortunes.
Cornerback Mike Jenkins appeared to be on the cusp of stardom in 2009, when he had five interceptions and capped his sophomore campaign with an appearance in the Pro Bowl. At the very least, he seemed poised to eventually replace Terence Newman as the team's top cornerback. But 2010 was a disappointing year for Jenkins, whose 55 tackles were an increase from the 49 he collected in 2009, but whose one interception was indicative of the dropoff in his production as a playmaker. Coaches and teammates seam unanimously convinced that Jenkins' performance last season was a one-year aberration, and Jenkins has said his confidence is back, and that he fully anticipates returning to the form that made him one of the NFL's elite young corners in 2009. If he can do so, and with a healthy Newman joining Orlando Scandrick and Bryan McCann, the Cowboys should feel comfortable with their cornerback rotation under new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.
Like Romo, wide receiver Dez Bryant had his season cut short by injury. But in the time he did play, Bryant showed flashes of jaw-dropping ability, the kind of talent team officials saw when they drafted him in the first round last year. Bryant caught 45 passes for 561 yards and six receiving touchdowns, but it was his potential for a game-changing playmaker — including as a return specialist on kickoffs and punts, two of which he took back for scores that left observers eager to see more. He no longer has to deal with the questions about whether he should unseat Roy Williams as the team's starter opposite Miles Austin. The job is Bryant's to lose, and if he can harness his enormous potential, he will be a dangerous weapon who will scare opposing defenses (and defensive coordinators) and shift the Dallas offense into another gear.
One of the less-discussed position battles is at the backup tight end position. Heading into last year's training camp, it was assumed that Martellus Bennett was the backup to Pro Bowler Jason Witten, and the second player on the field when the team went to a two-tight end set. But before hurting his knee last summer in the Hall of Fame game against Cincinnati, John Phillips forced a lot of people to take notice. Once viewed as an afterthought among candidates to impact the Dallas offense, Phillips showed vastly improved hands last summer and proved to be a solid blocker. In drills during last year's camp, Phillips was getting as much time as the team's second tight end as Bennett. If he returns to full health and continues to improve, Phillips will find ways to force himself into the lineup.
When he was the Cowboys' "other" first-round pick in the 2005 draft that also produced DeMarcus Ware, defensive end Marcus Spears arrived with high expectations. He contributed right away, playing in all 16 games as a rookie, starting 10. Spears hasn't put up eye-popping numbers — he has had 30 or more tackles four times in six seasons, but never more than the 45 he collected in 2006 and has eight sacks in his career — but the 3-4 defense isn't designed to generate glitzy statistics for its defensive ends, who instead are asked to foul up offensive blocking schemes so linebackers like Ware and Anthony Spencer can run free to the ball. Spears is a big (6-4, 311), powerful end whose importance to the team was magnified when Stephen Bowen, who many felt had the inside track on the starting left defensive end job, signed as a free agent with the Washington Redskins. Spears and Jason Hatcher likely will rotate again in 2011, and his production will be noticed less than if he had left. Keeping him in Dallas was an important part of the offseason for the Cowboys, who made the right move by keeping him in the fold.
Bounce back players for Dallas
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