Young guns will trigger Cowboys

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Jason Garrett smirked when asked whether Felix Jones seemed more vocal this preseason. No, that's definitely not the word Garrett would use to describe the running back.

OK, how about more confident?

"I think that's a better description," Garrett said.

It's more like an understatement. The normally media shy Jones raised some eyebrows early in training camp by declaring that he expected to be the NFL's best running back in his first full season as a starter. That's a bold statement for a 2008 first-round pick coming off a career-best 800-yard rushing season, but Jones certainly isn't backing off.

"I definitely want to prove the point that I'm the best, I want to be the best and I'm going to be the best," said Jones, who is well aware the Cowboys picked him over backs that have been much more productive, such as Chris Johnson, Rashard Mendenhall, Ray Rice and Jamaal Charles. "The sky is the limit for me."

The Cowboys don't necessarily need Jones to back up that boast, but he better at least be in the neighborhood. The same goes for receiver Dez Bryant, another recent first-round pick who has been promoted into the starting lineup.

For the Cowboys to be good this season, this pair of unproven playmakers needs to be great.

The Cowboys can't afford to be patient. They need Jones and Bryant to translate their immense potential into Pro Bowl-caliber production, pronto.

Despite Rob Ryan's bravado, it's difficult to believe a Dallas defense that allowed the most points in the NFC last season will be anything but a work in progress this year. The Cowboys will have to score a lot of points to make the playoffs.

Jones and Bryant can't just be complementary pieces to Tony Romo, Miles Austin and Jason Witten. The two most talented players on the Cowboys' offense must be main cogs in a high-scoring machine, not just flash players, to borrow a Garrett term.

Jones and Bryant need to provide the electricity to light up Jerry Jones' jumbo-sized scoreboards, and they have to consistently make the boring plays that keep drives alive.

The challenge for Garrett will be figuring out how to maximize the production of Bryant and Felix Jones without asking too much of them.

"You're trying to put them in the best situation you can, you're trying to challenge them and give them a lot of stuff," Garrett said. "At the same time, you have to evaluate and make sure you don't overload them, that you're not doing the wrong stuff with them. But when you're the starting tailback or the starting X receiver, we're going to play football. We're relying on you guys to do your job.

"And we're fortunate we have those guys in those spots, because we feel confident they can get the job done."

If Bryant can stay healthy, his mental development will determine whether he's an elite receiver or an epic disappointment. There's not much middle ground with a lightning rod receiver with such rare talent. His rookie season -- 45 catches for 561 yards and six touchdowns, plus two punt returns for scores -- should be just a tease.

Good things will happen if Bryant consistently gets to the right place at the right time. That goes for in the meeting room and on the field.

A big part of this is simply learning to be a professional, which Bryant recognizes. He'll be elite if he gets the details down and proves to be dependable. He's determined to earn the trust of coaches and teammates, saying all the right things and following through on his words most of the time this summer.

"He's made progress," new receivers coach Jimmy Robinson said, "but it's not perfect."

Jones had a phenomenal preseason, averaging 6.6 yards per carry. He showed the burst that he seemed to lack at times last season. He showed elusiveness. He showed surprising power. And Garrett has been most impressed with Jones' improvement in the passing game, as a receiver and blocker.

But the preseason is an itty-bitty sample size. We know Jones can be spectacular in small doses, something he proved as a change-of-pace back his first two seasons. Can he be that kind of explosive threat for an entire game as a featured back? An entire season?

"We've got to see exactly the workload he can handle without wearing him down," running backs coach Skip Peete said. "We want him to be as effective as he can be throughout the entire game and throughout the entire season. That's the most important thing."

Jones averaged 14.6 touches last season, when he became the lead horse in the running back committee, if not the starter. He managed to stay healthy, but Peete said he thinks the increased workload wore down Jones in several games, which is part of the reason Jones had only one 20-plus-yard run all season.

That lack of explosiveness isn't acceptable for Jones, who should benefit from an athletically upgraded offensive line that better fits his ability to work in space. And two touchdowns, his total from 2010, aren't nearly enough.

If the Cowboys are going to have a successful season, Jones and Bryant need to fit the same description: superstars.

Tim MacMahon covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.