Point 5: The Dallas Cowboys need to get bigger contributions from five players

By Matthew Postins

Alex Albright Dallas CowboysEarlier this year, RattleandHumSports.com pointed out five things that had to change for the Dallas Cowboys to jump from average team to playoff team. As the Cowboys prepare for training camp, we are revisiting those five things to see what’s changed and to determine if there’s optimism that these points will change for the better in 2013.

Back in January I chose five players that had to make big strides this offseason for the Cowboys to be successful. I chose them in early January, before all of the offseason changes were made. So let’s revisit each and see where they fit in now.

Linebacker Alex Albright. In January I looked at Albright as DeMarcus Ware’s primary backup in the 3-4. But that was before the change at defensive coordinator and the move to the 4-3 Cover 2. Now Albright remains at linebacker and is working to find a backup role, most likely at strong side linebacker. It’s a crowded field. Plus, at Albright’s current size – 6-foot-5, 260 pounds – he isn’t an ideal fit for the Cover 2. The last linebacker that size that Monte Kiffin coached in Tampa Bay, Jeremiah Trotter, was barely used. Albright had a solid offseason and should be in competition for the spot, but the defensive change – and the decision to keep him at linebacker – doesn’t play into his hands.

Wide receiver Dwayne Harris. Back in January, I felt the Cowboys wouldn’t re-sign Kevin Ogletree. They didn’t. That, from here, made Harris the natural candidate to ascend to the No. 3 role. Perhaps the Cowboys weren’t sure about that, which may be why they drafted Baylor’s Terrance Williams in the third round. Williams has already seen starter reps during offseason workouts, lined up on the outside opposite Dez Bryant. That might be the biggest hindrance to playing time for Harris. His talent translates better to the slot.

That’s not to say there’s no place for Harris in the Cowboys’ offense. He’ll probably end up as the primary backup to Miles Austin, who, if things go well, should move into the slot full-time this season. That makes the development that Harris made this offseason valuable. He made great strides as a receiver, and combined with his return skills, that makes him a solid No. 4 receiver. Harris had to get better this offseason and he did. But circumstances are keeping him from a larger role, at least for now.

Cornerback Morris Claiborne. The move to the Cover 2 really doesn’t impact the secondary that much. But Kiffin wanted his corners to get stronger and Claiborne did, adding 10 pounds of muscle during offseason workouts and earning rave reviews during OTAs and mini-camp from both Kiffin and head coach Jason Garrett. Claiborne’s numbers didn’t look great last year for a first-round pick. But Kiffin’s scheme should allow Claiborne to be more aggressive and make more plays on the ball, which is where he excels. Of the Cowboys’ young corners, he may benefit the most from the scheme change. The fact that he listened to Kiffin and his other coaches and got stronger this offseason shows how much he has bought into the new philosophy.

Right tackle Doug Free. First, Free, surprisingly, took a pay cut to stay in Dallas. But perhaps Free knew that after last year’s lousy performance there might not be much interest in him. The Cowboys want Free in competition with Jermey Parnell at right tackle. That’s something Free seems to have accepted. The Cowboys want Free to improve when it comes to penalties and protecting the quarterback. It’s difficult to gauge his progress because, curiously, he and the Cowboys spoke little about what was going on during workouts. Of the five players on this list, Free’s situation is the most enigmatic entering training camp.

Defensive tackle Sean Lissemore. The Cowboys love this guy and the reviews on Lissemore’s progress transitioning from being a 3-4 end to a 4-3 tackle were positive. In truth, Lissemore may the position group’s most versatile lineman. He has the size to play the one technique and the speed to play the three technique. His progress in the Cover 2 was key for depth purposes. The Cowboys don’t have an official depth chart yet, but it’s likely Lissemore will work behind one-technique Jason Hatcher in training camp. But get used to seeing Lissemore at both positions. When Kiffin was in Tampa Bay, he didn’t have tackles with Lissemore’s versatility. Kiffin will like the idea that he can use Lissemore at both positions and keep his older tackles stronger. It sounds like Lissemore is right where he needs to be for 2013.