In the preseason, I made a few predictions on players who I thought would break out in 2012. Although I cautioned against anointing DeMarco Murray, I explained why stats showed that both Dez Bryant (an easy choice) and Anthony Spencer (a more difficult one) would break out in 2012. Along with inside linebacker Bruce Carter, they’re my top breakout players for the Cowboys this season.
3. OLB Anthony Spencer
Let’s be clear that Spencer was a good player for years in Dallas, but he didn’t get much recognition because he didn’t record a ton of sacks. That was really just a result of getting unlucky, however, because Spencer was getting to the quarterback as often as many top 10 outside linebackers. In my article on why Spencer was primed to sack the quarterback in 2012, I wrote:
I spent some time at Pro Football Focus tracking the relationship between quarterback pressures (how often a defender reaches the quarterback) and sacks, and almost all pass rushers tend to post around 25 percent as many sacks as pressures. Even Ware, perhaps the league’s top pass-rushing threat, has been right around that 25 percent mark over his career.
Over the last three seasons, Spencer’s sacks have added up to just 20.7 percent of his total pressures. In other words, Spencer has been unlucky with sacks. Even if he gets to the quarterback at the same rate in 2012, chances are you’ll see his sacks increase.
If Spencer can hit even the league-average sack rate of 25 percent, that would give him 10 sacks on the season. For a player who drops into coverage often and isn’t the defense’s primary pass-rushing threat, I think that’s a pretty solid number.
Spencer finished with 11 sacks this year. The Cowboys now face a really difficult decision on Spencer because he actually didn’t rush the passer better this year than in any other season. All that happened was his luck changed and he got more sacks. I can almost guarantee that Spencer doesn’t reach the 11-sack mark again in 2013, so it’s probably in the Cowboys’ best interest to franchise him instead of giving him a long-term deal.
2. ILB Bruce Carter
Carter is a player we all knew had massive potential, but I really didn’t foresee the type of dominance he displayed in 2012. Carter registered a tackle on 11.2 percent of snaps—right in the same range as 49ers inside linebacker Patrick Willis. Outside of his final game of the season in which he surrendered a long touchdown, Carter allowed only 5.79 YPA and one touchdown all year in coverage. Paired with Sean Lee, the Cowboys have one of the premiere inside linebacker duos in the NFL.
1. WR Dez Bryant
Bryant’s place at the top of this list is really a no-brainer. In the preseason, I projected Bryant at 1,224 yards and 11 touchdowns. He surpassed even those lofty numbers, recording 1,382 yards and 12 touchdowns for Dallas. If the Cowboys continue to use Bryant downfield as they did in the second half of the season, he’s going to again post career-highs in yards and touchdowns in 2013.
DE Jason Hatcher
It’s tough to call a 30-year old player a “breakout,” but Hatcher really had an underrated season for the Cowboys. His four sacks weren’t representative of how much pressure he put on quarterbacks, which would typically land him around the seven-sack mark. Actually, he reached the quarterback more often than Spencer.
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.