If people were asked to pick the most drama- and turmoil-filled NFL team, the Dallas Cowboys would probably finish near the top of every poll. Which makes it all the more interesting that, from a skill-player perspective, there might not be a more consistent, steady team in the NFL.
I have a measure of proof. It's far from scientific, but it veers decidedly into the "interesting." I noted every team's leading quarterback, running back, wide receiver and tight end (by yards) over the last three years. Each team got a point for each name on the list, so the best possible score would be four (same leader at each position every year), and the worst would be 12 (lotta changes).
And these were the results:
|Team||Score||Quarterback(s)||Running back(s)||Wide receiver(s)||Tight end(s)|
|Dallas Cowboys||4||Tony Romo||DeMarco Murray||Dez Bryant||Jason Witten|
|Carolina Panthers||5||Cam Newton||DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart||Steve Smith||Greg Olsen|
|New Orleans Saints||5||Drew Brees||Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles||Marques Colston||Jimmy Graham|
|Atlanta Falcons||6||Matt Ryan||Steven Jackson, Michael Turner||Harry Douglas, Roddy White||Tony Gonzalez|
|Buffalo Bills||6||EJ Manuel, Ryan Fitzpatrick||C.J. Spiller, Fred Jackson||Steve Johnson||Scott Chandler|
|Cincinnati Bengals||6||Andy Dalton||Giovani Bernard, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Cedric Benson||A.J. Green||Jermaine Gresham|
|Detroit Lions||6||Matt Stafford||Reggie Bush, Mikel Leshoure, Jahvid Best||Calvin Johnson||Brandon Pettigrew|
|Jacksonville Jaguars||6||Chad Henne, Blaine Gabbert||Maurice Jones-Drew||Cecil Shorts, Mike Thomas||Marcedes Lewis|
|New England Patriots||6||Tom Brady||Stevan Ridley, BenJarvus Green-Ellis||Julian Edelman, Wes Welker||Rob Gronkowski|
|Philadelphia Eagles||6||Nick Foles, Michael Vick||LeSean McCoy||DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin||Brent Celek|
|San Diego Chargers||6||Philip Rivers||Ryan Mathews||Keenan Allen, Malcom Floyd, Vincent Jackson||Antonio Gates|
|San Francisco 49ers||6||Colin Kaepernick, Alex Smith||Frank Gore||Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree||Vernon Davis|
|Baltimore Ravens||7||Joe Flacco||Ray Rice||Torrey Smith, Anquan Boldin||Dallas Clark, Dennis Pitta, Ed Dickson|
|Chicago Bears||7||Jay Cutler||Matt Forte||Alshon Jeffery, Brandon Marshall, Johnny Knox||Martellus Bennett, Kellen Davis|
|Houston Texans||7||Matt Schaub||Ben Tate, Arian Foster||Andre Johnson, Jacoby Jones||Garrett Graham, Owen Daniels|
|New York Giants||7||Eli Manning||Andre Brown, Ahmad Bradshaw||Victor Cruz||Brandon Myers, Martellus Bennett, Jake Ballard|
|Pittsburgh Steelers||7||Ben Roethlisberger||Le'Veon Bell, Jonathan Dwyer, Rashard Mendenhall||Antonio Brown, Mike Wallace||Heath Miller|
|Seattle Seahawks||7||Russell Wilson, Tarvaris Jackson||Marshawn Lynch||Golden Tate, Sidney Rice, Doug Baldwin||Zach Miller|
|St. Louis Rams||7||Sam Bradford||Zac Stacy, Steven Jackson||Chris Givens, Brandon Lloyd||Jared Cook, Lance Kendricks|
|Green Bay Packers||8||Aaron Rodgers||Eddie Lacy, Alex Green, James Starks||Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb||Andrew Quarless, Jermichael Finley|
|Kansas City Chiefs||8||Alex Smith, Matt Cassel||Jamaal Charles, Dexter McCluster||Dwayne Bowe||Sean McGrath, Tony Moeaki, Leonard Pope|
|Miami Dolphins||8||Ryan Tannehill, Matt Moore||Lamar Miller, Reggie Bush||Brian Hartline, Brandon Marshall||Charles Clay, Anthony Fasano|
|Minnesota Vikings||8||Matt Cassel, Christian Ponder||Adrian Peterson||Greg Jennings, Percy Harvin||John Carlson, Kyle Rudolph, Visanthe Shiancoe|
|New York Jets||8||Geno Smith, Mark Sanchez||Chris Ivory, Shonn Greene||Jeremy Kerley, Santonio Holmes||Jeff Cumberland, Dustin Keller|
|Tennessee Titans||8||Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jake Locker, Matt Hasselbeck||Chris Johnson||Kendall Wright, Nate Washington||Delanie Walker, Jared Cook|
|Washington||8||Robert Griffin III, Rex Grossman||Alfred Morris, Roy Helu||Pierre Garcon, Jabar Gaffney||Jordan Reed, Fred Davis|
|Arizona Cardinals||9||Carson Palmer, Kevin Kolb||Andre Ellington, LaRod Stephens-Howling, Beanie Wells||Michael Floyd, Larry Fitzgerald||Rob Housler, Todd Heap|
|Denver Broncos||9||Peyton Manning, Tim Tebow||Knowshon Moreno, Willis McGahee||Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker||Julius Thomas, Jacob Tamme, Daniel Fells|
|Indianapolis Colts||9||Andrew Luck, Curtis Painter||Donald Brown, Vick Ballard||T.Y. Hilton, Reggie Wayne||Coby Fleener, Dwayne Allen, Dallas Clark|
|Cleveland Browns||10||Jason Campbell, Brandon Weeden, Colt McCoy||Willis McGahee, Trent Richardson, Peyton Hillis||Josh Gordon, Greg Little||Jordan Cameron, Ben Watson|
|Tampa Bay Buccaneers||10||Mike Glennon, Josh Freeman||Bobby Rainey, Doug Martin, LeGarrette Blount||Vincent Jackson, Mike Williams||Tim Wright, Dallas Clark, Kellen Winslow|
|Oakland Raiders||11||Terrelle Pryor, Carson Palmer||Rashad Jennings, Darren McFadden, Michael Bush||Rod Streater, Denarius Moore, Darrius Heyward-Bey||Mychal Rivera, Brandon Myers, Kevin Boss|
First takeaway: Man, the Raiders are the "throw it all against the wall" team; only Carson Palmer repeating as the team's leading passer in 2011 and '12 kept them from scoring an imperfect 12.
Second takeaway: The Cowboys are the most consistent in all the land. Despite all their drama, they just do what they do.
For three years running, the Cowboys' leading passer has been Tony Romo. Their leading rusher has been DeMarco Murray. Their leading receiver and tight end have been Dez Bryant and Jason Witten.
On top of that, the two teams scoring five -- Carolina and New Orleans -- are missing one of those core names in 2014 (Steve Smith for Carolina; Darren Sproles for New Orleans). Barring injuries, though, the Cowboys are likely to have the exact same four leaders in 2014 as well.
I made the case in Week 8 last season that the Cowboys' defense was underrated, and at the time, I think it was right -- Sean Lee was still around then, and things really fell apart after he got hurt. Heading into this year, there's really no way to sugarcoat it -- the Dallas defense is going to be abysmal. Dallas' games promise to be high-scoring affairs, and that means points and yards for that oh-so-consistent offense.
So let's see what that means for the guys:
Tony Romo has been in the NFL for 11 seasons. Since he attempted his first pass in 2006, he's played at least 13 games in seven of eight seasons, and he's been a top-10 fantasy quarterback in six of those seven.
The numbers might have gotten confusing there. Here: 11 seasons. Eight as the Cowboys' primary quarterback. Seven healthy seasons. Top 10 six times.
Not many quarterbacks can match the run of fantasy success Romo has had in Dallas. He peaked as the No. 2 quarterback in 2007, but if your team added a quarterback and you could be assured of top-10 status for six out of seven or eight seasons, you would take that in a hot minute.
As I noted above, Romo should have all of his favorite toys back next year. Murray, Bryant and Witten are all still around, and Terrance Williams now has a full year under his belt.
Barring a complete surprise, Romo isn't ever going to be a top-five or so fantasy quarterback again. He just doesn't have that ceiling. But it's really hard, absent injury, to envision a scenario where he drops significantly down the list. Matt Ryan sunk a year ago. Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick have huge variance in their projections. Nick Foles isn't a sure thing. Philip Rivers is just a year removed from being an also-ran.
Romo, though, just can't legitimately fall far. ESPN ranks him as the No. 13 quarterback, and that's got to be the basement. Personally, I'd have him eighth or ninth. I still think Tony Romo is a top-10 fantasy quarterback.
The team also has Brandon Weeden, Kyle Orton and Caleb Hanie under contract. Let's just say the Cowboys are really hoping Romo stays healthy. (But hi, Kyle! You're my fave, even if you aren't great.)
DeMarco Murray has averaged 5.3 touchdowns and 1,154 yards from scrimmage per year in his three seasons. And saying it that way is just about the most misleading thing I could have done.
Murray went from almost 900 rushing yards as a rookie in 2011 to 663 in 2012 to more than 1,100 last year. He also went from 13 games played to 10 to 14. He's been injury-prone over his career, missing games due to ankle, foot and knee issues, and has had wrist issues as well. Yes, every football player is an injury risk -- running backs perhaps more so -- but even then, Murray has been frustratingly brittle.
Still, the talent is tantalizing, and peak Murray might be the most likely of the non-big-three running backs to crash the party. He went 11th overall (first round) in our SB Nation Analysts' Mock.
Behind Murray, the Cowboys have Joseph Randle and Lance Dunbar. The two haven't done much in their careers so far -- a combined 389 rushing yards in 34 games -- and neither comes in with top-flight pedigree (Randle was a fifth-round pick in 2013; Dunbar went undrafted in 2012). Picking which one is more likely to get heavy play in the event of a Murray injury is largely guesswork, but Randle is the more recent addition, and that sways me.
I'd take Randle over Dunbar if opting for a Murray handcuff. That said, I probably wouldn't bother with either until really late in drafts -- deeper than 200 picks.
As for Murray, the variance on his possible 2014 is huge. As mentioned above, he could, in a best possible outcome world, become a top-three running back. But if he slides a little, if the Cowboys have to be pass-heavy because they're always behind, if his annual injury is worse than normal, Murray could fall way down the list.
I mentioned earlier that he went in the first round of our 12-team mock. I prefer surer things that high, and for multiple rounds. I likely wouldn't dive on Murray until mid-to-late third round at the earliest. As a practical matter, what that means is I won't have DeMarco Murray on my fantasy teams in 2014.
In 2012, Dez Bryant caught 92 balls for 1,382 yards and 12 touchdowns. In 2013, he caught 93 for 1,233 and 13.
By and large, the elite receivers offer incredible consistency. A.J. Green had one more reception and 76 more yards in 2013 with the same number of touchdowns. Brandon Marshall's numbers didn't change much. Demaryius Thomas had only four fewer yards in 2013 than 2012.
We don't know much of anything when it comes to predicting production in fantasy, but the super-elite wide receivers are some of the surest things in all of the sport, and Bryant is at that level.
Behind Bryant, with Miles Austin gone, Terrance Williams is the team's clear No. 2 now. Williams had 96 fantasy points in 2013, good for 40th at the position, though the vast majority of his production came in a window in the middle of the season. Williams put up 10 combined fantasy points in Weeks 1-4, before he was really a part of the offense. Then Austin got hurt, and Williams started scoring. In the six games from Weeks 5 to 10, Williams had 367 yards, five touchdowns and 67 fantasy points. Things were good. And then, over the season's last six games, he had 238 yards, no scores and only 19 fantasy points.
So which Williams is closer to reality? The easy answer is that he's somewhere in the middle of the two, that 96 fantasy points and the No. 40 receiver is who he is, and the rest is just sequencing. But as the No. 2 wide receiver in, again, a team that is going to have no choice but to put up points, Williams could easily end up more the Good Him than the Bad Him.
The one offensive skill player the Cowboys drafted in June was wide receiver Devin Street, the team's fifth-round pick out of Pittsburgh. Street isn't a top-flight talent, but immediately becomes Dallas' No. 3 wide receiver, right around the same range of Cole Beasley, and ahead of a cast of also-rans.
Calvin Johnson is still fantasy's No. 1 receiver. The tier right behind him includes Thomas, Green, Bryant and Marshall, and you could scramble them in a lot of different orders. The order I listed there is the order I would take them at the position, meaning I have Bryant as my No. 4 wide receiver for 2014. He will (and should) be a second-round pick in the majority of leagues.
Because of the offense he's playing in, Williams should be higher on the wide receiver list than he was in 2013. He should be in the early-to-mid 30s at the position, in the late 70s overall. Street, Beasley and the rest are unlikely to be big factors in fantasy in 2014, but if I were drafting one, it would be Street -- always take the wild card, the highest upside.
Jason Witten is 32, and entering his 12th season. He'll reach 10,000 career receiving yards in the first three or four weeks of 2014. And, perhaps most interestingly, since becoming a regular part of the Dallas offense in 2003, Witten has missed zero games.
Seriously. As a rookie, Witten played only 15 games (with just 35 catches, so he wasn't really who he would be yet), but he's played all 16 games every year since. He's had his occasional injuries, to be sure, but dude gets on the field every single week.
At a position with huge injury question marks like Rob Gronkowski and Julius Thomas, and with even Jimmy Graham often banged up, Witten's reliability is an enormous benefit, even at his increasing age. And he's consistent -- he's had between 850 and 1,150 yards for seven years running, and 2012 was the only year since 2003 that he's had fewer than 10 yards per reception (in part because he set a career high with 110 catches that year, and the more catches you make, the harder it is to maintain a high average).
Someday, Witten is going to get old and wear down. It's inevitable. But man, it's hard to see a reason to expect that to happen in 2014. Graham is the No. 1 tight end, and Thomas, Gronkowski and Vernon Davis should all probably go ahead of him as well. After that, though, it's hard to make a compelling argument for anyone else over Witten. Jordan Cameron had a great 2013, but there are definite question marks. Then the group becomes Greg Olsen, Dennis Pitta, Jordan Reed -- talented, productive guys, but ones who have neither the ceiling nor the baseline of Witten.
He's the No. 5 tight end. I'd take him in the early-to-mid 60s overall. It's not a flashy pick, and no one in your league will go "Ooooh," but he'll get his numbers without a doubt.
Miss out on any of the team pieces so far? Catch up here:
|AFC EAST||NFC EAST|
Dallas Cowboys (Aloha)
|Miami Dolphins||New York Giants|
|New England Patriots||Philadelphia Eagles|
|New York Jets||Washington|
|AFC NORTH||NFC NORTH|
|Baltimore Ravens||Chicago Bears|
|Cincinnati Bengals||Detroit Lions|
|Cleveland Browns||Green Bay Packers|
|Pittsburgh Steelers||Minnesota Vikings|
|AFC SOUTH||NFC SOUTH|
|Houston Texans||Atlanta Falcons|
|Indianapolis Colts||Carolina Panthers|
|Jacksonville Jaguars||New Orleans Saints|
|Tennessee Titans||Tampa Bay Buccaneers|
|AFC WEST||NFC WEST|
|Denver Broncos||Arizona Cardinals|
|Kansas City Chiefs||San Francisco 49ers|
|Oakland Raiders||Seattle Seahawks|
|San Diego Chargers||St. Louis Rams|