As of July 26th, all 32 NFL teams have begun practicing as training camp is officially underway. For the Dallas Cowboys, these next few weeks will be especially important, as there are a number of components to the roster which still need to be straightened out. Here, we present three positional battles you’ll want to keep an eye on leading up to the season’s commencement.
Barry Church returns as arguably the best player on the Cowboys defense. Only two years removed from major injury, #42 has proven himself reliable, having started all 16 games last season on the way to becoming the team’s leading tackler by a long shot (107 compared to second-ranked Bruce Carter’s 73). What isn’t clear about Church, however, is what position he will play. Most agree that the 26-year old is a better fit for Strong Safety, however Church played Free Safety last year and did a fine job.
The biggest determinant of where Church starts is perhaps who starts alongside him. The candidates for the job – be it at Free or Strong safety – are, in no particular order, J.J. Wilcox, Matt Johnson, Jakar Hamilton, Jeff Heath, and Ahmad Dixon. Don’t be surprised either if undrafted rookie free agents Keith Smith (San Jose State) or Ryan Smith (Auburn) make a splash, as Church himself was an UFA. The battle is truly wide open and has a good chance of staying that way well into the preseason.
#5 Wide Receiver
You’re probably asking yourself why do you need to worry about the team’s fifth receiver? The answer is because this year’s WR5 has a legitimate chance to become the WR2. While the general philosophy is to always have the best players on the active roster, the wide receiver group is unique in that it requires a collection of diverse skills. This is precisely why Terrance Williams, who had an excellent rookie season last year, will not necessarily start alongside Dez Bryant. If there is someone on the roster with better hands and more precise route running, that player will likely get the nod over #83.
Right now, Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley, and fourth-round pick Devin Street are all but guaranteed roster spots. The last spot (though it is always possible Dallas carries 6 WRs), is between prized rookie free agents L’Damian Washington (Missouri) and Chris Boyd (Vanderbilt) and veteran signees Dezmon Briscoe and LaRon Byrd. One name missing from this list is Dwayne Harris. While Harris has a good chance of making the team once again, it would likely be as a return specialist only. Thus, even though he would really be the WR5 or 6, we don’t necessarily need to group him with the other players.
Interestingly, the four names mentioned for the WR5 job all stand at 6’4, except for Briscoe who is 6’2. This indicates that when the Cowboys went shopping for wide receivers to try out, they had size in mind. Thus, aside from wanting someone fast with good hands, the Coaches are probably also looking for a receiver with exceptional strength. It’s still too early to say who has the upper hand in this battle; likely, the preseason games will go a long way in determining who wins the job. Don’t be surprised, though, if there’s another Danny Amendola situation (the Cowboys cut a player only to have him start and succeed on another team).
The Defensive Line
This is by far the least predictable battle in training camp. Right now, it seems that only Henry Melton is guaranteed to start. The next logical guess for a starting job would be George Selvie, who is looking to renew an impressive 2013 campaign. However, with Anthony Spencer on his way back from injury and DeMarcus Lawrence, the 2nd-round stud who the ‘Boys traded up to get, pushing for reps, Selvie is far from guaranteed to start. In keeping with the defensive ends, it will also be interesting to see how if newly signed veteran Jeremy Mincey can beat out promising rookie UFAs Ben Gardner (Stanford) and Martez Wilson (Illinois) for a job. Plus, don’t forget about Tyrone Crawford who is making his way back from a torn ACL.
On the line’s interior, the battle to start alongside 3-technique Henry Melton is just as intense. Nick Hayden probably has an early lead, as the 6th-year player improved greatly down the stretch last season. It is important to remember, though, how good Ben Bass looked last year before succumbing to injury. Then, of course, there are veterans Terrell McClain and even Amobi Okoye, who played with Melton in Chicago (under Marinelli), pushing for time.
While the defensive line is the hardest to predict, there is not much urgency to do so, as Dallas will almost definitely look to rotate players frequently again this season. Thus, don’t be surprised if people with less defined positions like Caesar Radford or rookie Dartwan Bush (Texas) stick around and make an impact.