This season the team will practice in the afternoon instead of the morning hours. Hopefully practicing in the heat of the afternoon will help Cowboys players with conditioning issues, and cut down on injuries that have plagued the team over the past few years. Injuries have been one of the major issues that Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett has had to deal with since he took over for Wade Phillips in 2010 leading to three 8-8 seasons in a row.
A lot of the injuries that have plagued the Cowboys over the past few years have started in training camp, and the preseason. This year the team suffered a major loss in OTA’s when linebacker Sean Lee was lost for the season with an ACL injury. This is not the first time Lee has been injured. He has yet to stay healthy, and play a full season since being drafted by the Cowboys in 2010.
While it’s not a guarantee that McClain will make the team, he will be a great addition as long as he can keep his mind right, and stay focused on playing football instead of everything else that has troubled him over the years that has led to two retirements already.
When camp opens McClain will be competing with rookie fourth round draft pick Anthony Hitchens, and veterans Justin Durant, and Orie Lemon for playing time at the middle linebacker position. Other players that will be competing for playing time at the linebacker position will be Bruce Carter, DeVonte Holloman, Cameron Lawrence, Kyle Wilber.
They will also be joined by rookies Joe Windsor, Will Smith, and Dontavis Sapp trying to make the team.
Another injury issue the Cowboys face heading into camp is how well quarterback Tony Romo is. Last season Romo suffered a back injury that forced the aging quarterback to have a second back surgery in as many seasons. Having a healthy Romo is key to how the Cowboys season will go. Without Romo, this team will suffer dearly this season since backup Kyle Orton is no longer with the team.
The Cowboys recently released Orton after he continued to express his displeasure being with the team, and hinted at retiring. When Orton failed to show up for any of the teams OTA’s it was pretty clear that he was done with the Cowboys.
To replace Orton, Brandon Weeden and Caleb Hanie will compete for the backup job while the other will either be released or placed on the practice squad. It is unlikely the Cowboys will carry three quarterbacks on their roster, but would be foolish not to have a solid third on the team even if it is on the practice squad so they do not have to sign a high school coach if Romo was to go down.
As of now, it appears that Weeden will be the top guy behind Romo. Over two seasons in the league with the Cleveland Browns after being selected in the first round of the 2012 draft, Weeden has completed 55.9% of his passes for 5,116 yards, 23 touchdowns, and 26 interceptions. Although Weeden struggled during his time with the Browns, his upside is that he has experience playing with wide receiver Dez Bryant and running back Joseph Randle from their days in college playing at Oklahoma State.
Romo is not the only offensive weapon the Cowboys lost in 2013 that eyes will be on. Running back Lance Dunbar will be making his return to the field after suffering a knee injury that shut him down after week nine.
Dunbar has proven to be a solid backup to DeMarco Murray, and the team suffered terribly trying to find a solid backup when he went down. Although Randle proved to be a terrific college back, he did not pan out so well last season when he was handed the rock and forced the team to bring in rookie Ben Malena, and Ryan Williams to compete for a spot on the team.
To go along dealing with the Lee injury on the defensive side of the ball, the Cowboys will be looking for a player to fill in for departed defensive end Demarcus Ware. Ware was released after he was unwilling to rework his contract to free up salary cap space for the team and signed with the Denver Broncos.
To replace Ware, the Cowboys drafted Demarcus Lawrence in the second round of this years draft. Lawrence will compete with Jeremy Mincey, Caesar Rayford, Ben Bass, Tyrone Crawford, Ben Gardner, George Selvie, Martez Wilson, and Anthony Spencer if he can stay healthy.
Finding replacements for Ware, Lee and Orton will not be the only position battles the Cowboys will be seeing this year at training camp. They will also be looking at what players will step up at corner back, wide receiver, and who will be the other tight end besides Jason Witten making plays.
The biggest defensive battle we will see this year during training camp will be between Morris Claiborne and Orlando Scandrick for the
starting position at corner back opposite Brandon Carr. Along with Scandrick and Claiborne, Sterling Moore could also step up and prove he has what it takes to carry the load as an every down starter.
Claiborne really needs to be the player that wins that position battle since he was the Cowboys first round pick in 2012, and will be expecting one of those big paychecks Jones likes to hand out. So far during OTA’s Claiborne has shown his upside primarily covering receiver Dez Bryant, but let’s be honest, Dez still makes him look like a rookie in coverage.
Last season Claiborne started out as the starter, but eventually lost his job to Scandrick after poor play, and injury issues. During 10 games, he made 26 total tackles, recovered one fumble, pulled down one interceptions, and defended five passes. Scandrick on the other hand played in all 16 games, made 64 total tackles, two sacks, forced one fumble, two tackles for loss, two interceptions, and defended 12 passes.
On offense the Cowboys will be looking for another dominate receiver to take some of the pressure of Bryant. Last season Terrance Williams showed at times that he has what it takes to be a threat in the league, and other times seemed lost on the field.
Cole Beasley also showed that he can be a threat despite being undersized while Dwayne Harris was limited to nine games with injury issues, but showed his explosiveness when he was healthy especially on special teams. If those two struggle this year, the Cowboys have Tim Benford, and Devin Street looking to break through. The team also recently signed Jamar Newsome to compete for a spot after playing six games last season with the Kansas City Chiefs.
As far as the tight end position goes, Gavin Escobar needs to step up show the skills that made him a second round draft pick in 2013. As a rookie, Escobar made nine receptions for 134 yards, and two touchdowns over the course of 16 games.
If Escobar is not going to be the guy that shoulders the load when Witten is not on the field, then it will be left up to James Hanna since Jordan Najvar is primarily a blocking tight end.
The key to the offense is to provide Romo with as many strong targets as possible since this is a pass first offense. They will eventually have to learn that running the ball also works, especially with the line this team has built.
As long as the Cowboys can keep their injuries to a minimum, learn how to extend drives to keep the defense off the field, and have players step up at key positions, they have a good chance at breaking their 8-8 streak. With the players this team has, they have the ability to post a 10-6 or 11-5 record, and make a playoff appearance if not a run for their sixth Super Bowl.