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Fantasy football 2014 draft prep: Dallas Cowboys team preview

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo call an audible as the offense runs a play at NFL training camp, Saturday, July 26, 2014, in Oxnard, Calif. Photo:

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo call an audible as the offense runs a play at NFL training camp, Saturday, July 26, 2014, in Oxnard, Calif.

In today's NFL, there is seemingly more debate than ever about when to take a quarterback. In the good old days when every team in the league had a workhorse running back, the sharps always waited on quarterbacks. With the way passing offenses have taken over the league, though, quarterbacks are putting up ridiculous numbers previously only seen on the rookie level in Madden. That’s driving up the price of most signal callers. In some cases, such as with Peyton Manning or Aaron Rodgers, the price spike is justified. In others, it is not. Let’s take the following two quarterbacks over the last three years as an example.

QB #1: 

  Total yards Yards per attempt (YPA) TDs INTs
2011 5,038 7.6 41 16
2012 4,967​ 6.83​ 20​ 17​
2013 4,650 7.33 29 19

QB #2:

  Total yards YPA TDs INTs
2011 4,184 8.02 31 10
2012 4,903 7.57 28​ 19​
2013 3,828 7.16 31 10

Not a huge difference between those two in the last three seasons, right? And yet, a major difference is showing up in their 2014 rankings. QB #1 is Matthew Stafford and QB #2 is Tony Romo. Stafford is widely considered the No. 4 overall quarterback and is typically ranked in the mid-40s overall, which would make him a fourth-round pick in 12-team leagues. Romo, meanwhile, is just barely ranked as a starter in 12-teamers, and is coming off the board 30-35 picks later in a typical draft. As such, Romo is one of the biggest bargains in fantasy leagues this year.

The narrative surrounding Romo’s real-life blunders always clouds just how valuable a fantasy player he is. Since 2007, Romo has ranked in the top 10 in fantasy points per game among quarterbacks every season. The only other quarterback who can say that is Drew Brees. Outside of his injury-shortened 2010 season, Romo has thrown for at least 26 touchdowns in each of those years, while getting at least 7.5 YPA in all but one season.

Romo is also one of the league’s best red zone quarterbacks. He threw 39 passes inside the 10-yard line last year, the fourth most in the NFL. That helped him convert one-third of his red zone pass attempts into touchdowns, the third-highest rate in the league among quarterbacks with at least 50 red zone passes, trailing only Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson. Dez Bryant’s emergence as an elite receiver over the last few years certainly helps, and the big receiver caught 13 of his 20 red zone targets last season, 10 of which went for scores. Jason Witten, too, remains a major weapon for Romo when the Cowboys get near the goal line.

New offensive coordinator Scott Linehan has always been an extremely pass-happy coach in his career, and there’s no reason to expect that to change in his first year in Dallas. Romo should once again find himself inside the top 10 at the position, though his ceiling is much higher. If you end up waiting on a quarterback, Romo is one of the few who could bring you top-five production.

Most overvalued player

DeMarco Murray, RB -- We talk a lot in these parts about the importance of locking in high floors early in drafts. Murray is the antithesis of that strategy. There’s no doubt as to what he can do when healthy. He played 14 games last year and racked up 1,471 yards from scrimmage with 10 touchdowns. That gave him the sixth-most fantasy points per game among running backs in standard-scoring leagues, tied with Knowshon Moreno. Unfortunately, he carries the greatest injury risk of any player that is a lock to be selected in the first 15 or so picks of every draft. Murray has missed 11 games in his three-year career. Last season was the first time he played at least 14 games. His injury history stretches back to college when he was a standout at Oklahoma. The Cowboys will likely work Lance Dunbar into the mix more this season to give Murray a bit of a rest, but that, of course, would cut into his touches. I do like Murray this season, but he’s a major risk at his average draft position.

Most undervalued player

Tony Romo, QB -- This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise after the intro to this column. You can get Romo at the price of the 11th or 12th quarterback, yet he has the talent, weapons and system to produce top-five numbers. Given his track record, you can also feel safe that he will not underperform this year. Romo allows you the flexibility to focus on backs and receivers early in the draft, as well. He’s one of my favorite quarterback targets.

Dallas needs an honorable mention in this category. Terrance Williams experienced a mini-breakout last season, catching 44 passes for 736 yards and five touchdowns. At 6-foot-2, 208 pounds, he gives Romo another big weapon in the red zone. The Dallas offense is expected to throw the ball more this season with Linehan in town, and Williams should be one of the primary beneficiaries. Playing with a top-tier running mate on the opposite side of the field has long been a catalyst of success for secondary wide receivers. With Dez Bryant occupying so much attention, Williams should thrive in his second year in the league.

Depth chart

QB: Tony Romo, Brandon Weeden, Caleb Hanie
RB: DeMarco Murray, Lance Dunbar, Joseph Randle, Ryan Williams
WR: Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley, Devin Street, Dwayne Harris
TE: Jason Witten, Gavin Escobar

Defensive analysis

  Total vs. Pass vs. Run Points allowed
NFL rank 32 30 27 26
  vs. QB vs. RB vs. WR vs. TE
Fantasy rank 31 32 27 29

The Cowboys were an atrocious real-life defense last year, allowing 415.3 yards and 27 points per game. Thanks to 28 takeaways and five defensive touchdowns, however, they were actually a decent fantasy option. One aspect of their fantasy production jumps out as a fluke right off the bat, though. The Cowboys forced 13 fumbles last year and amazingly recovered all of them. Fumble recoveries are totally random. There is literally—yes, literally—no correlation in fumble recoveries from one year to the next. Essentially, every team is expected to recover about 50 percent of fumbles. Somehow, the Cowboys scooped up every loose ball when they were on defense.

As if they needed more bad news, the Cowboys lost two of their best defensive players from last year. First, DeMarcus Ware signed with the Broncos during the offseason. Then, linebacker Sean Lee, the best player on the defense and one of the best linebackers in the league, suffered a torn ACL after taking a hit in what was supposed to be a non-contact drill on Dallas’ first day of OTAs. The Cowboys had a terrible secondary last year, and did nothing to rectify the problem in the offseason. Lee was their best pass defender. Now he’s expected to miss the entire season.

While this is not a team defense you’ll want to target in fantasy leagues, there is some IDP skill here. Safety Barry Church had 135 tackles, three forced fumbles and an interception last year. Linebacker Bruce Carter and defensive end George Selvie could each warrant consideration in the latter rounds. That’s likely where it ends for what again looks like one of the league’s worst defenses.

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