QB Tony Romo
After finishing as a top-five fantasy quarterback in 2009, Romo gave his owners high expectations entering 2010 that were dashed with a broken clavicle that ended his season in Week 6 and also put the team’s playoffs hopes to bed. That’s the bad news. The good news is that Romo was having a solid campaign before he was injured, averaging 21.3 points per game, a very slight decline from the 22.3 points per game he averaged from 2007 through 2009. Although there are questions along the offensive line, the Cowboys figure to return all of their key passing weapons from a year ago and are expecting major improvement from 2009 first-round pick Dez Bryant. Add it all up and Romo is a solid bet to finish with 4,200 yards and close to 30 touchdowns. That should be enough to finish just outside of the big six at quarterback.
RB Felix Jones
The Cowboys’ depth chart at running back has been in flux for much of the offseason, with Jones’ fantasy prospects along for the ride. On the plus side, the Cowboys are very likely to release Marion Barber, who was Jones’ main competition for the starting position. On the down side, the team chose DeMarco Murray in the third round of the draft with the expectation that he will assume Barber’s role in the backfield. While competing with a rookie for touches is preferable to competing with an established veteran, the bottom line is that Murray’s selection is a clear signal that the team does not consider Jones a candidate to assume a big workload, despite the fact that he finished with career highs in rushing yards (800), receiving yards (450), and receptions (48). Murray’s presence will once again make the Cowboys backfield a running-back-by-committee approach, with Tashard Choice also in the mix. Jones is clearly a talented runner who possesses blazing speed, but that hasn’t translated into consistent production. Entering his fourth season, this is likely Jones’ last chance to prove his worth as a starter in Dallas. With Murray on board to steal goal line touches, Jones’ touchdown production (eight through his three years in the league) isn’t likely to rise, and neither is his 26th ranking from last season. There’s basically no reason to expect a breakout campaign from Jones in 2011, and that makes him a RB3 with little upside.
RB DeMarco Murray
The Cowboys like to employ at least one bruising back, and with Marion Barber suffering a major decline in production last season, the team used a third-round draft pick on Murray. He is a similar player to Barber, but with more speed and less size, making him a better option than veteran Tashard Choice to win the backup role behind Felix Jones. Murray unfortunately had injury issues at Oklahoma, so we’ll have to wait to see how well he handles the pounding at the pro level. But given Jones’ injury history and the Cowboys’ reluctance to give a meaningful opportunity to Choice, Murray has intriguing fantasy potential. At worst, he wins the short-yardage and closer role. At best, he ends up getting significant touches as Jones’ misses time. He is a must-have as a handcuff to Jones and worth grabbing as one of the first backups off the board at running back.
RB Tashard Choice
Personally, I like Choice. I’m just not too sure the Cowboys feel the same way. With Felix Jones and Marion Barber in the fold, Choice was clearly the team’s third option at running back. Barber is expected to leave, but the team drafted a replica of him in the third round in DeMarco Murray. Expect Choice to be the fallback option once again in 2011. He has been productive when given an opportunity, as evidenced by his double-digit fantasy points in four of the five games in which he has received 15 or more touches. However, his likely status as the third-string running back in Dallas makes him waiver wire material in all but the deepest leagues.
WR Miles Austin
After having a breakout season with 1,320 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2009, Austin was a bit of a disappointment last season even though he remained productive. Despite losing Tony Romo at quarterback, Austin still managed to haul in 69 passes for 1,041 yards and seven touchdowns—good enough to finish as the 17th-ranked fantasy wide receiver. However, more was expected from him since he was ranked in the top ten by nearly every fantasy prognosticator. With Romo back in the saddle, Roy Williams clearly an afterthought, and Dez Bryant displaying some offseason difficulties, Austin is in line for another big season in 2011. In the five full games Romo played, Austin had three games of double-digit targets and fantasy points (averaging 12.1) with more than 100 receiving yards in each of those games. For 2011, he shapes up as a high-end WR2 with upside and the possibility of replicating his top-five fantasy ranking from 2009.
WR Dez Bryant
The talent is there. The opportunity is there. But is Bryant’s production going to get there, too? Tough question. The Cowboys gambled on Bryant, using the 24th pick in the 2010 draft on a player who likely had top-five talent. As a rookie last season, he displayed his big-play ability both in the passing game and as a returner, finishing the year with 45 receptions for 561 yards and six touchdowns plus a pair of punt return touchdowns, all despite missing four games with a broken leg. However, many of his targets were on screens and short passes, which created the lingering suspicion that he failed to grasp the playbook. That potential issue, made worse by a shortened offseason (as well as his offseason problems and the petulance he displayed at times as a rookie) increase his risk and make the odds of his having a breakout season in 2011 somewhat remote. That being said, he is a gifted player capable of being one of the top five wide receivers in the league. Just don’t bank on that happening this season. Look for Bryant to be a WR3 in 2011, but a player with significant upside.
WR Roy Williams
Has a wide receiver with more talent ever accomplished less than Roy Williams? It is hard to think of one. The light has never fully gone on for the big, fast and reasonably shifty Williams, who has topped 1,000 receiving yards just once in his seven seasons in the league. And he hasn’t gone over 600 yards in any of the past three seasons, although his fantasy production has been padded by the 14 touchdowns he has scored over that span. Williams will turn 30 during the 2011 season, and while that isn’t a huge issue for many receivers, it’s just another reason to avoid this major disappointment.
TE Jason Witten
Entering 2010, Witten’s fantasy reputation was as a player who gained significant yardage year in and year out but who failed to find the end zone on a regular basis, with just six touchdowns combined over the 2008 and 2009 seasons. He put that to rest last season, scoring a career-high nine touchdowns to go along with 94 receptions (for the second year in a row) and 1,002 yards, good enough to make him the top-ranked fantasy tight end. For 2011, the only red flag on Witten is that he caught just two of his nine touchdowns during the six games that Tony Romo started. Ignore that, however, since Witten has topped 90 receptions and 1,000 yards in three of the last four seasons, chalking up 81 receptions for 952 yards in a “down” year in 2008. He’s money and ranks behind only Antonio Gates for 2011.