Heading into a typical offseason, the focus and hype centers around which potential free agents the Dallas Cowboys will sign and which players will they draft. After the dust settles somewhat, the process of filling up a 90-man roster culminates with a collection of undrafted rookies, unknowns, long-shots and projects.
The singular goal when looking at some of these players is to discover valuable contributors who can provide need and depth in the short-term and starting ability in the long-term. The common thread that most of these virtual unknowns possess is that they are young players looking for an opportunity with something to prove.
The Cowboys have had some success in the past by discovering players such as Tony Romo, Miles Austin and Dan Bailey through the undrafted ranks, and perhaps the 2012 roster will unveil a few more. Realistically, a lot of starting positions are already solidified, and the chances of an unknown stealing a starting position come with unfavorable odds.
But what about areas of need and underperformance? What about the need for pushing some veterans who have become complacent and ineffective? Sometimes the bottom of the roster contains sleepers who lurk in the shadows of obscurity but become household names by Week 1.
The Cowboys have begun the initial stages of training camp and will continue as they trek to Oxnard in the coming days. While all eyes will be squarely focused on the star players and high-profile newcomers like Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr, there are some potential sleepers worth keeping a close eye on as well.
Let's take a look at these potential sleepers.
Ben Bass, DE, Texas A&M
Bass is a 6'4", 288-lb. defensive end with prototypical size for the Cowboys 3-4 alignment. Although at Texas A&M, he didn't exactly set the college football world on fire. In his final campaign with the team he compiled two sacks and four tackles for loss. Again, nothing to get to excited about, but remember his name.
I went back and looked at some Aggie game footage after he came back to the team and noticed he has a little quickness off the snap to his game. While other aspects of his game need coaching and polish, this can be an opportunity for the Cowboys to push Kenyon Coleman and Marcus Spears.
Both players are average at best and don't exactly come cheap. If the Cowboys decide to keep Spears and move on from Coleman, developing a player like Bass could mean getting younger and having a little salary-cap flexibility in the event another veteran becomes available who's better than Coleman.
Worse-case scenario is that Bass outperforms Coleman or Spears and you have an upgrade at the position. Defensive line was an area the Cowboys could've addressed further but elected not to. I still feel they could use another impact player, but that will have to wait.
Until then, players like Spears and Coleman need to have a fire lit under them or be shown the door.
Lionel Smith, CB, Texas A&M / Isaac Madison, CB, Arkansas
Both players have already been making some noise in camp, and their timing could not be more appropriate. Not only do both players have tremendous attitudes, but they know that making the most of their opportunity is paramount. They won't be starting for this team anytime soon, but there are legitimate reasons to believe they have a shot at making the roster.
With Mike Jenkins on the PUP list and still with limited range of motion in his shoulder, the Cowboys are faced with an alarming situation. Forget about trade value for a minute—Jenkins is no good to anybody if he can't perform. Carr and Claiborne are the starters and will flourish, but with Jenkins rehabbing and Scandrick coming off of a shaky year, there are still opportunities in the secondary.
Madison and Smith will have to be, at a minimum, better than Teddy Williams and Mario Butler, but I like their chances and skill sets. I also like the fact that if one or both can make this team and perform well in slot coverage, that can apply some pressure to Scandrick. Scandrick needs to start earning that contract and performing well in crucial matchups.
You can never have enough cornerbacks, but good ones are hard to find. That's why development is key.
Justin Taplin-Ross, S, Utah
With the injuries to Gerald Sensabaugh and Matt Johnson, safety has become a bit of a concern. It appears that Justin Taplin-Ross has been playing with some purpose in the first few days of camp, as reported by Bryan Broaddus from dallascowboys.com.
Ross was a highly productive safety and special-teamer while at Utah, and he could make the battle at safety even more interesting.
I expect Sensabaugh to soon be ready and assume his starting duties with Brodney Pool. However, while Matt Johnson sits, Ross is gaining valuable reps, learning the defense and adjusting to the speed and timing of Ryan's scheme.
While Barry Church seems to have a backup spot locked down, Ross would have to beat out players like Akwasi Owusu-Ansah, Eddie Whitley, Mana Silva and special teams ace Danny McCray.
Ross appears to have a tall order ahead of him, but he could make things interesting by continuing to perform well. Either way, keep an eye out for him as camp progresses.
Training camp is all about the promise of a new season, competition and battles. For the players who have earned their stripes, competition isn't part of the equation. But for others like Bass, Smith, Madison and Ross, it's all about proving they belong. I think these sleepers are worth watching.