2016 Dallas Cowboys Training Camp Preview

It'll be good to see the Dallas Cowboys back in action as they head into the 2016 season with high expectations. Photo Courtesy: Darryl Briggs
It’ll be good to see the Dallas Cowboys back in action as they head into the 2016 season with high expectations. Photo Courtesy: Darryl Briggs
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By Zach Walker

F*** last year! Complete anomaly, filled with all the things that could go wrong, that any team couldn’t afford to let go wrong. Everyone who was on this team from last year to now, all know the stakes. They know that the difference is a few players and a few breaks to make this team that same twelve win team from two seasons ago. Those difference making players are coming back healthy and are likely going to be damn THIRSTY for 2016 to get under way. The defense, though lacking the offseason splash player acquisition, is in a great position. The Cowboys had a top-five statistical defense in 2015, and that’s without Orlando Scandrick (who I assume spent his time last season watching game film in a dark room, tearing phone books in half for his absence from the field). The biggest point to make about last year’s team is this: the Cowboys lost four games when holding the opponents to under twenty points. That’s one quarterback away from completely flipping that script, and the team knows that. But, I did say ‘forget last year’ (in certain fashion) so let’s all stop festering about 2015, flush the toilet, and wash our hands because 2016 returns sanity and sobriety with the opening of training camp. The team has already taken quite a battering from various suspensions, and now has a new controversy but I will not read into that until it’s got real solid evidence-based footing. Let me roll through the position groups, highlighting the players to watch throughout the preseason and my picks of breakout players for this season.

Tony Romo, Kellen Moore, Dak Prescott, Jameill Showers

Of all of the missing pieces from last year, the hope returns to the field. Tony Romo is the hand that cranks the wheel, the heart that pumps the blood for the franchise. One of the nicknames for either Brandon Weeden or Matt Cassel are polite, I’ll just say it took shots for breakfast and bat spins for lunch to get adequately sauced to truly believe that we could win with those zombies. The tires have been kicked on a youth movement behind Romo. Kellen Moore is a guy that Scott Linehan trusts. Sure, he’s got a lot of football physique flaws, sub six foot and left handed, but no one should question his football IQ. The real shiny penny of the group is Dak Prescott. With his skill set, I know that he’s going to make preseason games damn-near must watch. It’s still a far galaxy away from finding out what Prescott is here to do, eventually succeed Romo or just be the talented bullpen quarterback. But, having a young gun rearing to saddle up beats what was puked on to the field last year. There is still Jameill Showers, who will get his reps in preseason, but with Dak on roster and him having been drafted, Showers might have to catch lightning to stick around.

Running Backs
Darren McFadden, Alfred Morris, Ezekiel Elliott, Lance Dunbar, Rod Smith, Darius Jackson,
Keith Smith (FB)

Last year, the Cowboys prepared to face the season with Joseph Randle, and since that’s not going to happen again, the Cowboys won’t have to hop that speedbump. The Cowboys really stocked the fridge, if I was so keen to point out. First, Darren McFadden was everything he could have always been, behind this offensive line. In terms of bang for buck, he was as effective as Adrian Peterson in Minnesota. The Cowboys then raiding the pantry of a division rival snagged their lead back, Alfred Morris, and looked to possibly put him in a change-of-pace role in the backfield, and short-yardage sledgehammer. Satisfied? Well, have some dessert. Drafting Ezekiel Elliott fourth overall was not my prediction, but I get the long con. Elliott is a 10,000 yard back, and running behind this line through the future, it’s a good pick. There’s still Lance Dunbar, who really showed his ability and his confidence in his hands out of the backfield prior to his season ending injury. Rod Smith, the pipeline through his own household that allotted the Cowboys to confidently draft his uber-talented brother, the currently injured Jaylon Smith. To round things out is another drafted back in Darius Jackson, who must have something to his game to warrant him being drafted in the same draft as Zeke. Keith Smith must feel very secure, as he is the only full back on roster. Zeke could break the doors off this baby, but even if he needs time to adjust, the Cowboys have the stable to be fresh on every drive.

Wide Receivers
Dez Bryant, Terrence Williams, Cole Beasley, Brice Butler, Lucky Whitehead, Devin Street,
Rodney Smith, Vince Mayle, Andy Jones, Ed Eagan, Chris Brown

Romo isn’t the only person coming in hot from last season. Dez is coming in 100 percent focused on the field, not contract negotiations. He’s got to re-establish himself as a top-five receiver after a poor, injury filled 2015. The best thing for Terrence Williams is that Romo is coming back, those two have a clutch connection. Trust me, the shade thrown his way because of his underwhelming performance will blow away with a return to the catch-and-burn form when Romo is looking his way. Cole Beasley is going to be fine, just catching the slants and outs and zagging his way to move the chains. Lucky Whitehead is going to be hot on his heels, being the same mold of shifty, compact slot receiver. Brice Butler and Devin Street are going to battle for the fourth and fifth receiver spots, as they are the incumbents. The rest of the receivers don’t have too much physique difference between them nor too much age difference with Rodney Smith being the outlier at six foot five and twenty six. The wide receiver group is always fun to watch over the preseason, but I’d say most spots are accounted for.

Tight Ends
Jason Witten, James Hanna, Gavin Escobar, Geoff Swaim, Rico Gathers, Austin Traylor

We all know who the top dog is, and that ain’t changing. The second tight end spot is also pretty secure with James Hanna being consistently solid. The third tight end spot, however, is up for grabs. Geoff Swaim is consistent along the same mold of Hanna, and they traded back in the 2015 draft to secure him, so they liked something. Gavin Escobar has, unfortunately, been consistent at being inconsistent. The intriguing new tool in the box is Rico Gathers aka “Rico the Freak-O”. He is a six foot eight, two hundred and eighty pounds of former Baylor basketball playing athleticism. He, in theory, has the ability to simply accept lobbed passes by out rebounding players that just can’t deal with the size and ability gap. Austin Traylor is likely to be amongst the first cuts, just to get the numbers down. Personally, I’m curious to find out what coach Pope can do with a vessel like Rico.

Offensive Line
Tyron Smith, La’el Collins, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, Doug Free, Ron Leary, Chaz Green, Jake Brendal, Joe Looney, Ryan Mack, Jared Smith, Boston Stiverson, Bryan Witzmann, Cameron Bradfield, Darryl Baldwin

Main Course time. The five men who make this team as good as it can be. There’s something to be said about how good this line is, that they have Ron Leary as a reserve. I wondered what the transition would be like for La’el, moving from tackle at LSU to guard in the NFL. But, like Zack Martin a year previous, it was a perfect fit. Then came the bonus features. When the 320 pound lineman can burn the 220 pound ball carrying Darren McFadden (known for his breakaway speed), you’ve got yourself a triple crown contender. That gives the Cowboys the ability to dangle Ron Leary, a starting guard on 31 teams, for emergency trade situations. However, the talent pool isn’t as shallow as six players. Chaz Green was a third round pick in 2015 and injury redshirted him in his rookie year, but I assume that he’ll be in a camp looking to nail down the swing tackle position with Charles Brown retiring. The remaining eight men are a young group with four rookies, one at each position with Jake Brendal of UCLA being the only center on the roster not named Travis Frederick. Only two of the fifteen linemen on roster are 28 years or older, Doug Free (32) and recently picked up Cameron Bradfield (28). The Cowboys’ offensive line has gone from strong opinion to fact when they are spoken about, and could be considered the single strongest group of talent and ability in the NFL, regardless of offense or defense.

Dan Bailey, L.P. LaDouceur, Chris Jones, Matt Wile

The Cowboys have only four specialists on the roster and only one unfamiliar name in the bunch. Matt Wile, rookie kicker from Michigan. Besides that, it’s the same solid L.P. LaDouceur as the trigger man of the operation, Chris Jones punting and THE Dan Bailey. And what makes Dan Bailey, THE Dan Bailey, instead of A Dan Bailey is a withdrawal from the memory bank. In the playoffs last season, two teams snatched defeat from the jaws of victory when their kickers missed easy ones. Blair Walsh hooked a field goal left and Stephen Gostkowski missed an extra point, which rattled Bill Belichick into making ballsy decisions for the rest of the game. I’m sure I’m not alone, but when Dan Bailey strides out to kick anything under 45 yards, it’s basically the “Blitz 2000” free point and allows for an earlier trip to the restroom or the long trip for a fresh cold one. Unwavering confidence is all a part of THE Dan Bailey.

When the ball is possessed by the Cowboys this season, regardless of down, it’s going to be a total renaissance. Points are going to be possible on every drive, not a deal with the devil affair like it was in 2015.

Defensive Line
Tyrone Crawford, Cedric Thornton, Jack Crawford, Benson Mayowa, DeMarcus Lawrence,
David Irving, Ryan Russell, Randy Gregory, Terrell McClain, Charles Tapper, Maliek Collins,
Lawrence Okoye, Zach Wood, Rodney Coe, Mike McAdoo

This group has every fan searching for a ray of sunshine. I can tell you that this group is going to be fine, and it’s all Cedric Thornton’s “fault”. What Thornton brings to the table is poise, presence, and a veteran’s edge. On top of those clichés, he takes pressure off of Tyrone Crawford, allowing him to get deeper into the backfield. Those two are going to be on the field a lot together. When they need a down, a player that I liked from last season who really shined was David Irving. I think Irving will be a diamond, especially in the hands of Rod Marinelli. He’s six foot seven and 273 pounds from the one-technique and twenty two years old. Irving has the opportunity within his grasp to really take the game by storm. Then there are the two suspended players, DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory. Gregory must decide if football is really his future, because he’s got one last chance before he’s gone for a whole season. The worst part is the Cowboys haven’t even seen anything from Gregory on the field so far and now that his suspension is ten games, it’s doubtful that they’ll see anything out him this year. I’m not worried about Lawrence, I believe he’s going to grab double digit sacks this season. I’m glad that the Cowboys brought London back, because I think Jack Crawford has got a knack for disruption. Now for the massive X-factor: What is Benson Mayowa going to bring? They say that you sign a guy for what he can do, not what he’s done. But, to shine to light on the scale of what Mayowa has done so far… Of the contract, $3.3 million is guaranteed. That’s $1.65 million guaranteed per career sack, so they’re paying for the windshield view, not the rearview. With the suspensions, the team will likely see a lot more of Ryan Russell and Charles Tapper. Unfortunately, Maliek Collins was injured in OTAs and will likely land on PUP. Not to say that I know Zach Wood, but I’ve watched every game he played in college. He plays a strong point-of-attack game, uses his bulk to create space for himself, and soaked up kick blocking technique from former teammate and current Bengal Margus Hunt. Lawrence Okoye is intriguing for multiple reasons. First, he’s another Brit. Second, he’s a track and field athlete. Third, he’s six foot six, 300 pounds playing defensive end, with a background in rugby. Sounds like a Haloti Ngata starter kit to me. Rodney Coe, Mike McAdoo, and Terrell McClain wrap up the linemen. I have confidence that this group will solidify from within and really be a strength.

Sean Lee, Anthony Hitchens, Justin Durant, Jaylon Smith, Kyle Wilber, Andrew Gachkar,
Rolando McClain, Damien Wilson, Mark Nzeocha, Derek Akunne, Brandon Hepburn, Deon King

This group headlines a cat that’s just about out of lives. Rolando McClain doesn’t have the reputation nor previous work habits to suggest that he’s going to snap into course correction and shape into anything good at this point. I understand why he’s still on roster, and that’s because he’s been paid, and getting him late in the season, whatever form that may be, is still getting something, though I realize that this is beyond the glass half full thinking. The Cowboys have already planned for post-Rolando and that was with Jaylon Smith. Now, I loved the pick when it was made, and every time I cycle through the roster, I picture him running plays down, just like he did back at Notre Dame. Patience isn’t an easy thing to come by in the NFL, but when he heals, he’s going to be a sight to see. In the sort of limbo stage in dealing with Rolando, the team brought back Justin Durant, and he’ll be much like he was before, very strong against the run. Anthony Hitchens will likely receive added onus, bringing a younger, more tenacious version of Durant’s skill set to the field. Sean Lee is still searching for that magical 16, and I hope he gets it this year, and then some. Kyle Wilber and Andrew Gachkar pretty much round out the linebackers that we’re likely to see on multiple occasions. Damien Wilson and Mark Nzeocha were both drafted last year and could see their roles expanded. Garland native and former UNT standout Derek Akunne is on roster, and would like to see him latch on. Deon King, of Norfolk State is a take on the world tackling machine. Led all D1 players in tackles with 163, and kind of looks to mold after London Fletcher with his size and attack of the ball.

Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Orlando Scandrick, Anthony Brown, Jeremiah McKinnon,
Deji Olatoye, Isaiah Frey, Aryen Colquhoun, Dax Swanson, Josh Thomas

If Orlando Scandrick wasn’t coming back, this group might be the scariest group on the team. There’s a few familiar faces, the top of the order, Carr, Mo, and Scandrick. Big time exhale that’s Scandrick back, and brings his game back to the field, because he’s the best corner the Cowboys have. But, the Cowboys are going to count on youth stepping up. Three of the remaining seven corners are rookies, two others have one year in the league, and Josh Thomas (5) and Isaiah Frey (3) have some years under their belts. I love the youth movement, but this position is really important and needs capable depth. I won’t even pretend to know these players, but it’s a long camp to shake this position out.

Barry Church, Byron Jones, Jeff Heath, JJ Wilcox, Kavon Frazier, Rolan Milligan

Moving the epic-athlete Byron Jones to safety is a stabilizing move. Byron was so solid last year and really kept the rookie moments to a minimum and him bringing his skill set to free safety that really bolts the position to the foundation. Barry Church had a much better back half of the season than the first. JJ Wilcox is the first up safety, having played Jones’ position for the past three seasons, but also having a more suitable playing style to Church’s strong safety. Jeff Heath is another viable strong safety substitute, and a solid special team player. Kavon Frazier is very much a strong safety, given how aggressive he plays. Rolan Milligan is Barry Church from seven years ago. A strong safety out of Toledo, who went undrafted and is looking to make a splash. With Byron Jones, the safety position finally appears to be stabilized.

Maybe the front office takes a look at adding a veteran cornerback, as not to just throw a rookie to the dogs, but I’m almost certain that the roster is mainly set, and set up to create positive camp battles for spots.