By Zach Walker
The steps towards leaving Lambeau behind and the steps towards avenging it, are going to take place starting July 29th. Dallas Cowboys Training Camp begins in Oxnard, with full team attendance. It’s the time to light the fire, start the fight, and become the team. A spin around the NFL and the results from last season show that the Cowboys have one of the top eight most talented rosters in the league. But last season was a little less talent, and long on toughness and grit. This offseason has been about the rough edges, with some rough edges, and rounding out the roster with massive talent. The weak positions of last season looks to be spots of greatest depth. New players and faces will look to helm this squad deeper into the playoffs than they’ve been in two decades, to a conference championship game with a chance to represent the NFC in Super Bowl 50.
Major questions won’t get answered in Oxnard, but they will shed some major light on some insight on the heading. How effective will the revamped defensive line be? How much was DeMarco, and how much was the blocking in front of him? Who’s going to grab the starting running back gig? Even more precise questions about individuals. How much are the Cowboys going to get out of Morris Claiborne, in his contract season, and can his career be salvaged? CAN SEAN LEE STAY HEALTHY?!? How improved is JJ Wilcox? But it’s the battles that are what make training camp such a tool for building players into a team. The starting left guard position. Will the incumbent Ron Leary fend off the prized rookie free agent La’el Collins? The starting four on the defensive front, who’s going to take the spots for game one? The battle between Dez Bryant and first round pick Byron Jones. The backup quarterback position. Who is going to run the ball for this team? The talent pool who have to outshine each other at the fourth and fifth wide receivers’ position. Who’s going to be the third tight end? The swing tackle position. Its five weeks of battles to shake the roster to pieces, and five weeks of evaluation to build the pieces into a team.
The way that the Cowboys have flowed, has been through the veins of Tony Romo, that’s how it’s been since he took over for Drew Bledsoe back in 2006, and that’s how it’ll be until he’s so broken that he can’t go on. Tony Romo is coming off of his greatest season and this season he’s entering training camp under completely different circumstances. Last season, Romo was rolling around gingerly, almost Hannibal Lecter-like with what he could and couldn’t do, because of his back surgery. That’s last season. Romo will roll into Oxnard with the security of his offensive line protecting him, and actually trying to improve with a starting position battle for camp. But as far as Romo goes, his game has evolved into a precise, methodical attack, where he doesn’t have to wing it in trying moments in the game, he’s fully calibrated and in sync with his play-caller Scott Linehan. But where the starting job is as set in stone as AT&T Stadium, the back-up quarterback job isn’t. Brandon Weeden is a huge question mark. On one hand, he was absolutely dreadful against the Arizona Cardinals, in his lone start as a Cowboy. However, in his action versus Washington, on that terrible Monday night game, he played well and kept the Cowboys in the game, and against the Colts, in relief of Tony Romo, he threw a touchdown pass to Terrence Williams that was as beautiful a pass that has ever been thrown. Weeden better have worked on his consistency in this offseason because another performance like the one he rolled out against the Cardinals, a game that maybe two better throws could have won the game for the Cowboys, and Weeden could be starting his retirement, err, right on time. Dustin Vaughn, a rookie free agent from a season ago has been kept around for a reason. A reason that I’m not privy to, but a reason no matter. Last season, in preseason, I liked his aggressiveness towards pushing the ball downfield. But the thing that Dustin Vaughn needs to remember is that Tony Romo came from the exact career beginnings, rookie free agent to starter, so he should have that in the back of his head whenever working out. The Cowboys have a fourth quarterback in Jameill Showers, former UTEP Miner. I watched one UTEP game last year, the second half of the Texas Tech game in El Paso, and UTEP couldn’t bury Texas Tech when they had the chance and lost the game, but Jameill Showers didn’t really factor into that game, as he played pretty poor, but the Cowboys have him on the roster so he’ll have a great opportunity to work with some great receivers that on the roster.
The running back, however, is much more unsettled. The Cowboys let DeMarco Murray walk, I doubt they thought he’d land in Philly, but they let him walk so they’ll have to fill his 1800 yard sized shoes with what they have on roster. On roster they have familiar faces of Joseph Randle and Lance Dunbar and the freshly brought in Darren McFadden. McFadden isn’t anything that can be truly summed up. On one hand, he’s gotten injured every season that he’s been in the NFL. However, to understand his injuries is to better understand the team he’s coming from. The Raiders have had one good offensive lineman in the time that McFadden was in Oakland, Stefen Wisniewski, who now joins former Cowboy Jeremy Parnell in Jacksonville, but he’s never had anything like the offensive line that he’ll have opening day and beyond during the 2015 season. McFadden was the other part of the supreme backfield at Arkansas back in the day which Felix Jones was a part of that everyone sort of assumed that former Razorback in Jerry Jones really wanted back in the 2008 draft. But McFadden has stigma to his game, that he just can’t stay healthy. On one hand, I’d love to fully embrace McFadden, a former sixth overall pick, as the answer to Murray but I’ll believe that when I see it. Joseph Randle is a lightning rod for anything. Not maybe the national story, but definitely local. Last year, after the Seattle road win, Joseph Randle was caught shoplifting. I won’t be hypocritical, I’ve been there, but I’m no NFL running back. It was seriously, the worst moment for his indiscretion, after one of the biggest wins in recent Cowboys history. Randle has come out to say that DeMarco Murray left meat on the bone on rushes from last season, and left yards on the field. And when if anyone looks at it, he’s right. Murray is a very smart back, thinking of his moves, crafting his moves as the play develops, but Randle is different. I’ve put a different term to the type of runner that Joseph Randle, a soldier back. A soldier just do their job, not questioning, they just do. When anyone watches Randle run, they’ll know my point. Watch his touchdown run against Jacksonville, Randle was a calibrated bullet by the blend of his blocking and desired route with the ball. Randle has the straight forward running ability to be a lead back, and be a serious threat to break any ball at any time, and when mixed with the blocking in front of Randle, there is a dangerous potential to be a deadly saber through the heart of defenses. Lance Dunbar will again, enter the season as a wild card. Last season, teamed with Scott Linehan, Dunbar was to-be thought of as the bargain Reggie Bush, but Dunbar was seemingly, rarely utilized. Dunbar has mega burn-out speed, and has that brand of Reggie Bush-dual threat to his game, and if he isn’t fully realized this season, someone might just scoop him up and make a star out of him. Then there’s the curveball, Ryan Williams. The Cowboys kept him close during the season last year, and now have a serious reason to keep him around. It’s wrong to assume that McFadden is going to get injured during the season, but like I said, he’s prone to injury, having a hardnosed runner like Ryan Williams lurking around the roster is a good thing. The Cowboys brought in Ray Agnew to compete with Tyler Clutts for the fullback position. Clutts has time served in the offense, but they brought in the younger Agnew for another camp battle.
The receivers are LOADED. Talent just doesn’t do it justice, this group is just “skill”. Dez is back, and for the first couple of days of camp, all anyone is going to hear about is how different the energy is at practice with Dez Bryant around. Dez is Dez, but this is where my opening statement is most relevant. How is “The Catch that wasn’t” going to affect Dez, is it just behind him or is it his driving motivation? Either way, Dez is going to be Dez, and he’s absolutely going to be great this season. Terrence Williams is a great compliment to Dez, great speed, but with that he’s got a great ability, his keeping the play alive. Watch Houston, Detroit, or Seattle, in those games, he kept himself in the play and made himself available for big game-altering plays. Cole Beasley got his money this offseason, and should continue to be a big threat in the passing game and on intermediate range third plays. But this is where the receivers get really interesting. The fourth wide receiver and the fifth, are open for the taking. And the Cowboys are stacked with young talent, just chomping at the bit to snag a spot on the Cowboys. If there’s a name to learn, it’s Lucky Whitehead. He’s a rookie from Florida Atlantic and he has some game. During the post-draft period practices, OTA’s and mini-camps, Whitehead has become a serious player for one of the two final roster spots with, if only, his kick return ability. Personally, I can’t wait to see him during that first preseason game and throughout the entire pre-season. Devin Street was a fifth round pick last season, and made two catches during the first game, and that was it for Street. He’s got upside as a big target receiver. The wide receiver I’m looking forward to seeing again, is Deontay Greenberry. At six foot three, and hovering around 200 pounds, Greenberry has the frame to play the game, but beyond that, he’s got the edge. He is said to have some rough around the edges, but his game is awesome, serious game-altering stuff, look up the Armed Forces Bowl and watch Greenberry ruin Pittsburgh. Another game breaker is Antwan Goodley. Plays his game like Baylor brother Bear Terrence Williams, using the speed to trump all opponents. Former Trojan, George Farmer is a nicely sized, pretty polished product who will likely turn some heads. On top of that, the Cowboys gave him 55,000 dollar rookie free agent guaranteed money, so he’s got someone high-up invested in him. They also brought in former first round pick A.J. Jenkins, not that he’s a shot to make the team, but he’s got some pedigree about him. The battle for the final receivers is going to be a great one, Dustin Vaughn is going to be one happy camper with all the talent he’ll be throwing to.
The tight ends are pretty bolted down, with Jason Witten locking that down. What really needs to be said of Witten? He’s…. the man out there. If Dez is the fire, Witten is the force. The men behind the legend, aren’t as water-tight. Gavin Escobar isn’t bad, by any stretch, he’s just sort of a constant reminder that they could have had Le’Veon Bell. Escobar is a dangerous option as a second tight end, because of his catch radius and solid hands, but as an eventual successor to Jason Witten, I don’t think anyone thinks that Escobar is the leader that Witten is, or could possibly become. The third tight end spot was made very interesting at the end of the draft, with the drafting of Geoff Swaim, a prominent blocking tight end, who’s in a battle with very solid blocker, James Hanna. Just another battle.
On to the good stuff, the offensive line. The pride of the Dallas Cowboys. Led by pinnacle of evolution, Tyron Smith, the best left tackle in football. He’s on Jason Witten-level boss, with the added youth and strength. Across from him is Doug Free, coming off of an injury-hampered season, but still looking to get to form, with a young buck in the waiting, but more on him later. Inside left of Free, is Zack Martin, coming off his rookie All-Pro season, and looking to improve. Move left one and it’s Travis Frederick, the provider of the offense, and a man with, if can recall accurately, only one poor snap to Tony Romo last season. Now to, likely, the most talked about left guard battle in the NFL this season. Ron Leary doesn’t get the talk that he should, but he’s not just going to roll over and give up versus the rookie. Leary has got the strength to play guard for as long as his knee will hold up, he played JJ Watt pretty well mono-e-mono. All that being said, the rookie gem for the picking, who Jerry Jones personally got to come to the team, La’el Collins was a first round pick, then some very unfortunate circumstances led to him being taken off of draft boards and prevented from entering the supplemental draft. Collins, now a Cowboy, looks to add to one of the best offensive units in the league. Collins is likely going to be given opportunities at the left guard position and right tackle to see what he can do. But the position he’ll likely be delegated to will be the swing tackle position, which is the reserve tackle and sixth offensive lineman on jumbo formations. But the swing tackle has a battle of its own. To ignore Chaz Green, and him being drafted by the Cowboys, in the third round, would be a mistake. Chaz Green brings his own big bear to the dance floor, and of course, Green isn’t as polished as Collins, they’re going to be battling for the position of prime back-up tackle. Rounding out my projected second team offensive linemen are: Mackenzie Bernadeau, who has position flex of his own, with the ability to play pinch guard, as well as the second team center. Either, or both, La’el Collins and Chaz Green along the left side of the line. Darrion Weems, who takes the right tackle spot. Fighting in the trenches for spots are RJ Dill, Shane McDermott (who has center experience), and John Wetzel.
Emphasis be-damned, the Cowboys were locked on adding pieces to the defense that would give them the athletic edge, and they got it done. No group will be quite as night-and-day like the defensive line. Under the thumb of the most dangerous, motivating, and respected coaches in the league, Rod Marinelli, along with assistant Leon Lett, the defensive line will feel the improvements coming from all angles. Coming from the outside, Greg Hardy is easily the most controversial signing of the offseason and his heat came with a serious burn. A fat ten game suspension, which has since been reduced to a much more Cowboys-friendly four game suspension. The potential of “The Kraken” to come and be a force in the NFC East, where he will be going up against two of the top ten left tackles in the game, in Washington’s Trent Williams and Philadelphia’s Jason Peters, having Hardy’s sort of NFL-tested form is invaluable to the Cowboys youth. Youth is the key, because most of the Cowboys defensive line is potential, tucked within the youth of the group. DeMarcus Lawrence has the potential to be a tyrant. Lawrence finished the season with two sacks, both in the playoffs, in separate games. Sometime between picking up a Matthew Stafford fumbled ball, and after fumbling stated ball, something must have clicked for Lawrence. He’s big, he’s strong, and perhaps most importantly, he’s Charles Haley approved, and that’s a seal of approval, a player just can’t buy. To match Lawrence, the Cowboys selected in the second round, Randy Gregory, arguably the draft’s second best pass disruptor, behind the Jets’ Leonard Williams. Gregory got in some hot sauce by failing a drug test at the Combine, a stupid mistake on his part, which shows some immaturity, then after the Cowboys drafted him, there isn’t anything I’ve heard from him that shows that sort of miss-judgement, almost like he’s been coached, but I’ll give him the credit, that this is where he wanted to land and doesn’t want to spoil the picnic. On the field, Gregory has the quarterback itch, like he’s got a pathological hatred of them ad is out to destroy them on every play. He’s a slender framed player, and it’ll be curious to see how well he carries additional poundage to maintain his edge, but if he can carry 265 pounds, he might be a revolution and affirm the Cowboys as the having the steal of the draft. Tyrone Crawford started the year as an end, ended up a nose tackle, and no one is complaining. Crawford was a top ten interior defensive linemen last season. His quick twitch and speed is a real problem or most guards in the league, then his pursuit of the play shows his true passion. He’ll track a play coast-to-coast, just to make sure that it’s over and done with. Crawford has made a few pre-season watch lists and is looking to have a huge year. Jeremy Mincey is a grinder. Played for a few teams, but really stabilized the Cowboys pass rush. His veteran savvy and leadership makes him indispensable from the team. I’ve heard that in certain situations he’ll be used as a defensive tackle on must-rush situations, long with Hardy, Crawford, and Lawrence, and I can’t think of a better candidate. Mincey has the hunt and the strength to be a hell of a handful against a guard in gotta-have-it situations of the game. Beyond those five are about eight guys who can bring some serious game to the rush, and with Marinelli, it’ll be on top for the taking. Nick Hayden came along when Marinelli first rolled into town, and he’s stayed, and he gets solid work as a rotation tackle. Terrell McClain didn’t really get the chance to showcase to Dallas what he can bring to the table before getting hurt, so a bounce-back should add great motivation to his game. Jack Crawford got to showcase his Penn State-tuned skills in front of his home crowd at Wembley Arena, and adds a solid depth pass rusher to the mix. Ken Bishop got into the game in Lambeau, and was dwarfed by Josh Brent, but has great pursuit to his game. Ben Gardner was injured the entire year, last year, but I believe is going to have a large role as the second team nose tackle, and has even been training with Tyrone Crawford in the offseason. Ryan Russell was the Cowboys fifth round pick, and at Purdue, was incredibly consistent at pushing the tackle, and almost seemed kind of creepy about it, like he sort of started to push, then the tackle went backwards at this constant rate of average pace. But when I saw him practice at OTA’s, his power was matched with speed, and I thought, maybe the Cowboys sniped another draft steal. Ken Boatwright and Davon Coleman both stayed around the team from last season, when they were both rookies, and could look to edge out bigger roles for themselves. Finally, Efe Obada, a former London warehouse worker who caught the eye of a former coach, or something, but he’s in camp and got something that prompted a tryout.
The linebackers, however, aren’t as optimistic a bunch as the linemen. SO many ‘what ifs’. What if the Cowboys get Rolando McClain to play at his potential, like most of last season, before flaming out? What if the Cowboys get a full season out of Sean Lee? Even if those two questions are both in the Cowboys favor, they still have a vacant outside linebacker position to fill. My money would be on Anthony Hitchens. Hitch was a player, seemingly unknown to any draft expert outside of the state of Iowa, and when the Cowboys selected him, question marks flew up. During the season, Hitchens tore down bad draft analysis and became a mop-up tackler and in a lot of ways a favorite of fans. Hitchens just keeps his head right where it is, he can be the Cowboys main rotation linebacker, if not a starting linebacker. Kyle Wilber has a lot of value of the team. He can play stand-up linebacker in a pinch, or put the hand in the ground and rush the passer. Jasper Brinkley has been a rotation linebacker for a long time, and that is exactly what the Cowboys are looking for. Keith Rivers is a former ninth overall pick, and has never lived up to his draft position or his membership in USC’s “55 club”, but Rolando McClain didn’t quite fit in at places around the league before landing in Dallas, and it might just be what’s in the air around here. Cam Lawrence has been a reserve linebacker and special teamer for a couple of seasons, and I doubt I see that role change. Andrew Gachkar was brought in to fill gaps in the special teams’ coverage, and likely will snag a spot on the roster. Fourth round pick Damien Wilson, is a hard-nosed, Anthony Hitchens-type Big-Ten linebacker and I really love that brand of football but apparently his niche is going to be special teams. But I feel the same thing was said of Anthony Hitchens. Mark Nzeocha was a seventh round pick, and will likely be a special teamer/practice squad player.
The defensive backs are, seemingly, always going to be question mark. I’ll start with the safeties. To put the onus on one player of defense is pretty unfair, but one player’s development is going to be crucial to the Cowboys going forward. JJ Wilcox. This will be Wilcox’s fourth straight year as a safety, so there’s some stability in that. I love the way Wilcox plays safety. Aggressive, with strength, and at full speed. None of this would even be a problem, if he played Barry Church’s strong safety position. Wilcox’s instincts aren’t bad, but they seem like they aren’t as genuine as a true free safety. I truly believe that the Cowboys plan is to make Byron Jones the free safety and move Wilcox over to strong because he is willing missile. But as it stands, I don’t have anyone taking Wilcox’s free safety spot. The Cowboys special teams ace search ends on a familiar face, Danny McCray. Once he was gone, now he is found. McCray will be filling his former role that CJ Spillman occupied last season. McCray has never been the greatest coverage guy, but on kick coverage, he’s a boss. Barry Church isn’t really going to be looking over his shoulder, because his biggest competition will be lining up beside him. Jeff Heath has a bad reputation, but if anyone were to look back at the Packers playoff game, he played pretty damn good, and really couldn’t have played better, given who he was playing against. The corners got some much needed athleticism, with the drafting of Byron Jones, the workout warrior from Connecticut. Jones is an actual world record athlete, with his combine broad jump. However, for as talented and athletic as Jones is, his competition at UConn wasn’t on the same level. So the Cowboys are going to have to trust the process and hope they don’t have another Morris Claiborne. Oh Mo. I remember being inside Radio City Music Hall, and when we draft Claiborne, I thought Mo plus Brandon Carr, would be basically a dynamic duo. Holy $*&% have I been wrong. Drank the wrong Kool-Aid on that one. Claiborne is in the final year of his rookie contract, and to be honest, there isn’t anything he can do to get any sort big money contract deal with anybody. He could play well enough to get a deal with the Cowboys at the end of the season, but it won’t be some large some, it’ll be any sort of “show-me-again” deal. Mo just has to stay healthy and work harder than he has ever previously. Brandon Carr finished his final month of the regular season strong, then played well against the Lions, then got completely unraveled against a rookie in Green Bay. I don’t know where Brandon Carr’s confidence is, but if he rolls up feeling December and plays January, it’s back to square one. Orlando Scandrick has been the most solid piece of the defense since he was drafted by the team back in 2008. No worries with Scandrick. Tyler Patmon kept the Cowboys alive in the Cardinals when Romo was down, and the pick he had during last preseason, the read the play like he wrote it, so the instincts are there, they just need more play on the field. Corey White, formerly of the Saints, is going to fit wherever he can. He can play safety or corner, and has genuine NFL play time, and White is going to get his reps at both.
The special teams are pretty locked down. Dan Bailey, although, strangely un-calibrated in the postseason, there aren’t many kickers who are more effective than Bailey. Chris Jones shouldn’t be in any danger from Tom Hornsey, but competition is never bad. And to wrap up the roster, LP Ladouceur isn’t going anywhere.
This season is huge, and watch these battles from camp, they mean everything. Watch how they use the running backs in practice, in what formations are they being used, and on what downs. I can’t wait, and I know I’m not alone.