Head coach Jason Garrett of the Dallas Cowboys celebrates with Anthony Spencer #93 of the Dallas Cowboys after the Dallas Cowboys beat the Pittsburgh Steelers 27-24 at Cowboys Stadium on December 16, 2012 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
A major reason the Cowboys failed to make the playoffs in 2012 is that they received minimal contributions from players on whom they were counting. The biggest disappointments—Jay Ratliff, Miles Austin, and Doug Free, for example—really changed the course of the Cowboys’ season. It’s unrealistic to expect every player to live up to their potential each year, but Dallas certainly needs to do better in 2013. Here are three players who could possibly let them down.
3. Jason Hatcher
Hatcher had a breakout 2012 season, sacking the quarterback four times but pressuring him at a rate that would typically lead to seven sacks. Hatcher actually totaled more pressures than Anthony Spencer. The problem is that Hatcher will be 31 when the season begins, and interior defensive linemen tend to break down faster than any other position. Plus, Hatcher’s fit in Monte Kiffin’s 4-3 defense is a question.
2. Gerald Sensabaugh
Sensabaugh does a lot of things for Dallas that don’t show up in the box score; it’s no coincidence that the Cowboys haven’t allowed nearly as many big plays since Sensabaugh came to town as compared to prior to his arrival. The problem is that Sensabaugh, who will be 30 to begin the 2013 season, is starting to lose some burst. He’s not a particularly agile or explosive safety—the type that typically fit well in Kiffin’s Cover 2 scheme. The safety who actually didn’t allow a touchdown in all of 2012 is going to have some early struggles next season.
1. Anthony Spencer
Spencer has been one of the most underrated players in Dallas for years, and I even predicted him to break out in 2012. He did just that, but I wouldn’t expect the same sort of season in 2013. First of all, Spencer might not even be in Dallas; I’m assuming the Cowboys will give him the franchise tag, but that’s not a certainty. Even if Spencer does stay in Big D, it’s unclear how he’ll perform as a hand-in the-dirt 4-3 defensive end.
On top of that, Spencer wasn’t actually a superior pass-rusher in 2012 than in past seasons. One of the reasons I projected a breakout year for Spencer this season was that he always had a pressure rate that suggested he’d get more sacks, meaning he had been unlucky. In 2012, Spencer didn’t actually pressure the quarterback more than he did in past years; it was actually slightly less frequently. All that happened was Spencer got a bit luckier with sacks, but the truth is that Spencer’s 40.7 percent sack rate will regress next year. Even if he records the same number of pressures, Spencer is a better bet for six or seven sacks than 11.
Jonathan Bales is the founder of The DC Times. He writes for DallasCowboys.com and the New York Times. He's also the author of Fantasy Football for Smart People: How to Dominate Your Draft.