OXNARD PREVIEW: Emerging stars

Predicting the Cowboys will win a lot of games in 2008 is not exactly a reach. Nor is a guess that Dallas will send a slew of stars to Hawaii in February for the Pro Bowl. After all, Dallas was one of the NFL's premier teams in 2007, and it seemed like half the roster suited up in Honolulu in February.

But as is the case with every team, every year, some new players will emerge as vital players this season for the Cowboys — guys who weren't on the team last year, or were on the roster but played a minimal role. If the team is going to continue its winning ways, and advance past its first game in the playoffs, some new players are going to have to emerge. It's unrealistic to think that everyone will stay healthy again (just as Phillip Daniels in Washington), and there's always the chance that someone will have a "down" year.

With that in mind, who emerges from the shadows to fill prominent roles in 2008?

Mike Jenkins
Felix Jones was the higher first-round selection in April's draft, but his initial impact likely will be as a third-down back and on special teams. Jenkins, on the other hand, should play right away, and play a significant role … or several significant roles. He immediately becomes the fourth cornerback — or maybe third, if Pacman Jones doesn't adjust immediately to the Dallas defense — after Terence Newman and Anthony Henry. Jenkins' addition to the secondary will allow Henry, or perhaps even Jenkins, to slide over to safety to help out recently-signed Ken Hamlin by replacing Roy Williams in obvious passing situations.

Tank Johnson
Before his string of off-the-field incidents got him run out of Chicago, Johnson was a force on the Bears' defensive line. When he joined the Cowboys last year, he was well behind the learning curve, and wallowed in spot duty behind starter Jay Ratliff. But Johnson has been among the Cowboys hardest workers this offseason, and has gotten leaner and faster while maintaining his status as one of the team's strongest players. The other factor that might play in Johnson's favor is Ratliff's versatility. Originally drafted as a defensive end, Ratliff is quick and versatile, and if pushed hard enough by Johnson, could slide outside to bump Marcus Spears from the starting lineup. In a defense with as many weapons as Dallas has, Johnson not only could end up taking over a starting spot — he could end up in Honolulu in February.

Isaiah Stanback
This changes if Terry Glenn ends up returning to the team, but that seems less and less likely with each passing day. However, if Glenn does not return, Stanback has a very real chance to earn the No. 2 receiver job. It won't be handed to him, to be sure, but he's a big target with speed, and he was drafted largely for his open-field running ability. He doesn't have great hands, but they're above average, and he's running crisper routes and getting better at using his sizeable frame to shield the ball from would-be defenders.

Pat Watkins
With his size (6-foot-5) and speed, Watkins has the potential to be the premier pass-defending safety in the entire NFL. Even with Hamlin back in the fold after agreeing to his new contract, Watkins needs to step up this year and become the player the Cowboys envisioned when he was drafted in 2006 out of Florida State. When the Cowboys employ five defensive backs in obvious passing situations, Watkins will assume the deepest spot in the secondary, where his length and speed allow him to roam in the classic "center fielder" style of playing pass defense. He's already valuable as a special teamer and spot defensive fill-in, but he can make a national name for himself by turning in more big plays against the pass.

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