With the Dallas Cowboys set to open up training camp in just over a week, here is a look at several Dallas players who will have to step up their game in order to help the 'Boys end a three-year playoff drought. Oh, and in order to salvage and/or kick-start their respective careers.
1. DE Anthony Spencer
This is actually the second consecutive make-or-break year for Spencer, since he'll be playing with the franchise tag yet again. He delivered with a career-high 11 sacks in 2012, but he'll have to follow that up with another double-digit sack season in order to secure a long-term deal in Dallas or elsewhere next spring.
Spencer will have turned 30 at that point in time, and a lot of critics will continue to wonder if his reputation has been inflated all of these years by the presence of DeMarcus Ware. Already faced with questions such as those, there's little room for the six-year veteran to struggle.
2. LB Sean Lee
Nobody's questioning how talented Lee is, but the guy has yet to make it through a full season and is beginning to develop that "injury-prone" label. With his rookie contract set to expire next spring, he'll have to continue to produce the way he was during the first six games of 2012, but over the course of an entire season this time.
If both Spencer and Lee deliver in 2013, the 'Boys could be in fantastic shape on defense. The irony, though, is that such strong performances could price one or both of them out of Dallas' range heading into free agency in 2014.
3. CB Brandon Carr
We're giving fellow top corner Morris Claiborne another year to develop, even though he does have to make some serious improvements in 2013. The majority of the pressure in that Dallas secondary should instead be on Carr, who certainly fell short of living up to his $50.1 million contract.
As the third-highest-paid cornerback in the game, per Spotrac, Carr must become a shutdown defender this season. While he wasn't bad in 2012, he wasn't consistent enough. If that changes in 2013, he, Claiborne and the entire defense will benefit in a big way.
4. RB DeMarco Murray
Like Lee, Murray has to prove that he can stay healthy before we can declare him to be a long-term answer in the Dallas backfield. Sure, the guy is flat-out electric when he's on the field, but he's missed nine games during his first two seasons in the league.
The Cowboys spent a fifth-round draft pick on promising Oklahoma State product Joseph Randle in April, so there's extra heat on Murray to become a consistent contributor going forward. He'll be entering a contract year in 2014, and the shelf life for running backs isn't long. If Murray can't step it up and stay healthy this season, he might not even be a full-time starter in the final year of his rookie deal.
5. QB Tony Romo
This comes with an asterisk, because Romo's role as the starting quarterback in Dallas won't be jeopardized regardless of how much he struggles in 2013. He's being paid too handsomely for the 'Boys to give up on him based on one poor season at the start of his new contract.
That said, Romo is running out of rope with fans and the media. We've defended him in this spot time and again, but if he can't lead the Cowboys to playoff success this year, he'll be out of excuses. This team has the talent in place to make a run, and now it needs its most important player to step it up in those late-season games that make all the difference.