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NFL team preview: Dallas Cowboys

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INSIDE SLANT

Cowboys' owner Jerry Jones has dreamed the ultimate dream.

Going on the "if you build it they will come" theme, the new $1.2 billion Cowboys Stadium has been everything Jones wanted and more.

With the Cowboys hosting Super Bowl XLV there this season, Jones doesn't mind being a little greedy.

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"I don't mind telling you it's a great feeling to have a competitive team this year," Jones said. "It's a great feeling. And for this team to do the ultimate this year would be on par with having won the first Super Bowl. I haven't gotten over that. It would be something out of a story book. A man can dream."

With 20 of 22 starters back from last year, the Cowboys have the talent to make Jones' dream a reality.

To make it happen, however, the Cowboys will have to navigate a tough schedule that features a difficult closing slate. And even that might not be good enough.

If the Cowboys truly hope to end the season at home, they will likely need to be home throughout the playoffs. By all accounts, the Cowboys are looking at an 11-5 record, and they will need to be 12-4 or even 13-3 to truly compete for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

If not, they will be hard-pressed to win in the playoffs at Minnesota, New Orleans or Green Bay -- the three other consensus Super Bowl contenders.

The Cowboys also have some injuries to overcome that robbed their starters of some playing time in the preseason. None are considered serious and all should be available for the bulk of the season.

The good news is that rookie top pick Dez Bryant is all that he was hyped up to be and should give the team another exciting weapon to plug into what was already an explosive attack.

The Cowboys ranked No. 2 in the league last on offense. Now they have another big-play option to go along with tight end Jason Witten and receiver Miles Austin. Bryant will be involved from the outset. First as the third receiver, but he will eventually replace Roy Williams in the starting lineup.
Receivers coach Ray Sherman said the Cowboys have potentially the best receiver corps he's ever had.

And that's saying something since Sherman has coached Jerry Rice in San Francisco; Randy Moss, Cris Carter and Jake Reed in Minnesota; and Javon Walker and Donald Driver in Green Bay.
Since breaking into the NFL in 1988, Sherman has been with the Oilers, Falcons, 49ers, Jets, Vikings, Steelers, Packers and Titans before the Cowboys.

"Time will tell. I can't say that right now," Sherman said. "We have to wait and see. I think we've got a little more talent than we had in Minnesota, little more than I had in Green Bay and even in San Francisco. Overall, talent-wise as a group. Now we had some individuals that were very talented, but overall this talent is probably the best."

Bryant should help the Cowboys improve in the red zone.

If quarterback Tony Romo continues to mature as a quarterback, limiting his mistakes, while still making the big plays, this offense could be unstoppable.

Defensively, the Cowboys want to take the final stop from being very good to dominant. That means forcing more turnovers.

They have two of the league's most feared pass rushers in DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer; they just need to get their hands on more balls in the secondary.

Overall, this team has Super Bowl potential. They are certainly the class of the NFC East and should make a deep run in the playoffs.

IF they are at home for the playoffs, look for them to be at home for the Super Bowl.

If not, look for Jerry Jones' dream to be deferred.

COACHING: Wade Phillips, 9th year (82-59), 4th with Cowboys (34-17).
REMEMBERING: 2009 record: 10-6 (1st in NFC East); lost in divisional playoffs to Vikings, 34-3.
PREDICTING: 2010 regular-season record: 11-5 (1st in NFC East); lose in NFC title game.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

PLAYER NOTES

--TE John Phillips was officially moved to injured reserve after having surgery to repair a torn ACL.

--TE Scott Sicko was released, ending a national story that began after the draft when he was passed over in all seven rounds and announced his intentions to quit football. Sicko was talked out of retirement and signed a free-agent contract with the Cowboys. He never made an impression once on the field and showed a general lack of passion.

--WR Terrell Hudgins was released. He could be re-signed to the practice squad.

--S Pat Watkins was released, ending his five-year run with the Cowboys. He was primarily a special teams player and had no future as a starter with the team. He was injured much of camp, and that combined with his $1.176 million salary and the emergence of rookies Danny McCray and Barry Church greased the skids for his departure.

--LB Stephen Hodge was moved to the reserve/PUP list because he has yet to return to the field following microfracture surgery.

--WR Roy Williams missed practice Tuesday and will sit out Thursday's game with a back strain and hip flexor.

DRAFT PICKS TO STICK

Rd. 1/24, WR Dez Bryant, Oklahoma State -- He missed all of the preseason with a high ankle sprain. But he is ready to go and will open the season as the primary kick returner and third receiver.

Rd. 2/55, LB Sean Lee, Penn State -- He was slowed in camp because of a college knee injury and a quad strain so much so that the expectations for him to immediately fill in as the third inside linebacker and nickel linebacker have been put on hold. He has not grasped the nuances of the passing game as fast as the Cowboys had hoped.

Rd. 4/126, S Akwasi Owusu-Ansah, Indiana (Pa.) -- He missed the first two weeks of camp rehabbing from shoulder surgery. It put him back in his development as a safety but is expected to have a role on special teams, possibly as the primary punt returner.

Rd. 6/179, T Sam Young, Notre Dame -- He had a strong camp and showed potential for the future. However, he suffered a sprained knee in the fourth preseason game and will be sidelined the first three weeks of the season.

UNIT BY UNIT ANALYSIS

QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Tony Romo. Backups -- Jon Kitna, Stephen McGee.

Is Tony Romo ready to move to the next level and take his rightful place in the Cowboys' championship quarterback lineage with Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman? The time is now for Romo to get it done. Last season's effort -- when he redefined himself as a complete quarterback and leader while shedding the label as a gunslinger with gaudy stats and a penchant for mistakes -- has him ready to ascend to the top. The Cowboys like Kitna and believe they can win games if Romo is injured.

RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- Marion Barber, FB Deon Anderson. Backups -- Felix Jones, Tashard Choice, FB Chris Gronkowski.

Tashard Choice is the best all around back on the team. But he will never get a chance to be the lead dog in Dallas because of Marion Barber's contract and Jones' Arkansas roots and pedigree as a first-round pick. So for now Barber is still the starter but look for him to be used in complete tandem with Jones. The Cowboys want to get the speedy Jones involved more after he blossomed as a possible star late last season when he rushed for 685 yards and averaged 5.9 yards per carry, including a 148-yard effort in the wild-card playoff victory against the Eagles. Barber could return to his role as the closer, which he does best. The bottom line is he is now healthy again after playing last season with a strained quad. Choice will remain the third-down back and the point man n the wildcat offense.

TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Jason Witten. Backup -- Martellus Bennett.

Jason Witten has made six straight trips to the Pro Bowl. He is the fourth tight end in NFL history to have six straight seasons of 60 or more catches. What more needs to be said? What's also true is that Witten remains Tony Romo's most trusted receiver, despite the emergence of Miles Austin or the addition of Dez Bryant. Martellus Bennett had a strong offseason and close to training camp. The Cowboys are counting on him to be finally ready to live up to his enormous potential. The loss of tight end John Phillips for the season with a knee injury makes it especially important for Bennett to finally come through.

WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Miles Austin, Roy Williams. Backups -- Patrick Crayton, Kevin Ogletree, Dez Bryant.

There will be no slippage for Austin. He is hoping to cash in with a breakout season that will bring a long-term contract extension. The Cowboys won't give it to him until he proves he is no one-hit wonder. They don't believe he is. But they have been burned before by prematurely rewarding players with big deals only to see them falter. But there is no question that Austin is the teams's go-to receiver and a game-breaking threat that must be accounted for. His breakout performance last season -- 81 catches for 1,320 yards and 11 touchdowns to earn his first Pro Bowl selection -- was no fluke. Roy Williams, so far a bust since his trade from Detroit, needs to have a better year or the Dez Bryant train will pass him by. Williams caught just 38 passes last year for 598 yards, which certainly didn't justify his $9 million annual salary. That won't cut it. Bryant, the rookie top pick, is a potential game-breaker and could be Williams' replacement in the starting lineup before the season is over. He missed all of the preseason with a high ankle sprain. But he is now healthy and ready to go. Look for him to replace Crayton as the third receiver initially.

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Doug Free, LG Kyle Kosier, C Andre Gurode, RG Leonard Davis, RT Marc Colombo. Backups -- G Robert Brewster, T Alex Barron, T Sam Young, G Montrae Holland.

Injuries are a huge concern for the Cowboys and the offensive line, as this unit has suddenly gotten old and brittle after being considered among the league's most dominant. Right tackle Marc Colombo missed seven games last season with ankle and knee injuries and missed the final two preseason games with arthroscopic knee surgery. He will be ready to go for the start of the season, but how long will he hold up? At least he will be there. Left guard Kyle Kosier could miss the first three games with a sprained knee, putting Montrae Holland in the starting lineup at the start of the season. The only sure things are center Andre Gurode and guard Leonard Davis. Remember, the Cowboys were already going into the season with a question mark at left tackle, considering first-year starter Doug Free is replacing the departed Flozell Adams in protecting quarterback Tony Romo's blind side.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LE Marcus Spears, NT Jay Ratliff, RE Igor Olshansky. Backups -- DE Jason Hatcher, DE Steven Bowen, T Junior Saivii, DT Josh Brent.

Jay Ratliff is the heart and soul of the defense and he may be the team's best player. A first team All-Pro in 2009, Ratliff is considered the best player in the league at his position because of his ability to stop the run and rush the passer. No tackle has had more sacks the past two years combined. Olshansky is solid in run support at right end and can push the pocket in a pinch. But this where the Cowboys' depth makes a difference. Stephen Bowen is an excellent pass rusher and he replaces Olshansky on passing downs. Marcus Spears will again man the left end position as he has held off a challenge from Hatcher. Ironically, absence made the heart grow fonder with Spears, who suffered a sprained knee before the first preseason game, giving Hatcher time to make a move. The Cowboys found out how valuable he is on running downs and will continue to use Hatcher as a nickel pass rusher.

LINEBACKERS: Starters -- OLB DeMarcus Ware, ILB Keith Brooking, ILB Bradie James, OLB Anthony Spencer. Backups -- Sean Lee, Brandon Williams, Victor Butler, Jason Williams.

Spencer ended the 2009 season as the Cowboys' best linebacker. He was unstoppable down the stretch and heads into this year hoping to build on that strong finish. The scary part is that he is still the team's second best linebacker. Pro Bowler DeMarcus Ware led the team in sacks last year with 11 despite battling, ankle, neck and wrist injuries throughout the season. He is now healthy and is expected to return to beast mode. The Cowboys have a legitimate No. 3 rusher in Victor Butler. Bradie James and Keith Brooking are the glue of the linebacker corps. James is as solid as they come if not spectacular. He has led the team in tackles the past five years. Brooking is the wily veteran who can still run and around and make plays. He is also the team's emotional leader.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- CB Terence Newman, S Gerald Sensabaugh, S Alan Ball, CB Mike Jenkins. Backups -- CB Orlando Scandrick, CB Bryan McCann, S Barry Church, S Danny McCray, S Mike Hamlin, S Akwasi Owusu-Ansah.

Terence Newman has seemingly gotten better with age. While Jenkins is getting all the hype as an emerging star, Newman has quietly reasserted himself as the team's most trusted cornerback. The good thing is both made the Pro Bowl last year and are as good as any tandem in the league. Add in Scandrick at nickel back and the Cowboys will put their three corners up against anybody's. Sensabaugh battled a shoulder injury in camp but should be ready for the opener. He should make more plays this year after playing in 2009 with a broken thumb. Alan Ball has more range at free safety than the departed Ken Hamlin and should make more plays but he is a liability in run support as a converted cornerback. Look for Danny McCray to get on the field first among the rookie safeties because of his dominant play on special teams.

SPECIAL TEAMS: PK David Buehler, P Mat McBriar, LS L.P. Ladouceur, PR Dez Bryant, KR Kevin Ogletree.

Buehler is going into the season as the fulltime kicker despite not having many opportunities in the preseason to prove himself. The Cowboys say he has kicked well in practice. Still, there is still a question of whether the team should chance their Super Bowl hopes on an unproven first-year kicker. Time will tell and he certainly will be on short leash. McBriar and Ladouceur are as solid as they come and they present no concerns. Look for Bryant to give the Cowboys a legitimate game breaker on returns.

Tagged: Bengals, Cowboys, Vikings, Ravens, Steelers, Keith Brooking, Jon Kitna, Leonard Davis, Kyle Kosier, Andre Gurode, Marc Colombo, Jason Witten, Terence Newman, Montrae Holland, Bradie James, Tony Romo, Igor Olshansky, Roy Williams, Mat McBriar, DeMarcus Ware, Marcus Spears, Jeremiah Ratliff, Marion Barber, Brandon Williams, Jason Hatcher, Miles Austin, Stephen Bowen, Alan Ball, Doug Free, Anthony Spencer, Felix Jones, Mike Jenkins, Martellus Bennett, Tashard Choice, John Phillips, Jason Williams, Stephen McGee, Victor Butler, Kevin Ogletree, Dez Bryant, Akwasi Owusu-Ansah, Sean Lee, Sam Young, Danny McCray, Bryan McCann, Barry Church

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