The Dallas Cowboys have completed over two weeks of training camp and scored a victory in their preseason debut against the Oakland Raiders. Granted, it was a sloppy and uneventful performance, but I saw a team that competed hard and will improve.
Heading into training camp, the Cowboys, like all teams, faced their fair share of concerns, questions and areas of worry. But, like all teams, it's time to confront those issues and find out what type of team the 2012 Cowboys will be.
The disappointment of last season still lingers among the fans and I'm certain among the players as well. But the season is inching closer and it's time to turn the page and get ready for Sept. 5th to face the Giants at MetLife Stadium. What better way for the Cowboys to start their season than by healing an old wound and inflicting one of their own.
So where does this team stand at this juncture of the preseason? Are they an improved team? A more mentally tough team? And are they ready to measure up to the NFC East and the entire NFL?
Let's take a positional unit by unit snapshot of where America's Team currently stands. The results will vary but self-assessment is the first step in knowing where you are.
Tony Romo is a leader on this football team, he's a top-flight quarterback and, to a certain extent, this team will go as far as he can take them. He's coming off a career year statistically, but their is still a stigma that follows him in the media of being a choke artist. Nobody can question his toughness or competitiveness but this is a big year for him—not a make-or-break one.
Confidence is extremely high with Romo at the helm and he should deliver another solid year. Romo will be backed up this season by Kyle Orton, who was a key free-agent acquisition this offseason. He's arguably the best backup in football but hopefully he doesn't see the field. If he does, he's more than capable of leading this team.
Overall, this unit is an outstanding one and a strength of this team. Romo had some rocky drives in the preseason debut but that coincided with the play of the offensive line. Orton directed the only scoring drive and had some nice throws as well.
The Cowboys weren't able to do much running in their preseason debut but it was just nice to see DeMarco Murray back on the field after last season's injury. Felix Jones will be the primary backup and it appears once Phillip Tanner can resume practicing that he will be the third back. He could face some competition from Lance Dunbar and Jamize Olawale, but Tanner appears ready for some situational roles this season.
Murray will probably see more snaps in the next few preseason games and it would be nice to see some long, balanced drives that begin with his running. Felix Jones has to start picking up the pace and prove he's recovered from his injured shoulder. He will have a key role on this team.
Overall, this unit features great talent, a home run threat, speed and the ability to create big plays. Murray, like the rest of the offense, will be ready come Sept. 5th.
The focus all offseason has been fixated on who will be the No. 3 receiver and replace Laurent Robinson. We still don't have the answer to that question and it will take some additional time. What we do know is that Miles Austin (and his propensity for injury) is currently injured, Dez Bryant appears on the verge of a breakout season and there are young receivers on this team that need to separate themselves from the pack.
Cole Beasley, Danny Coale, Andre Holmes, Kevin Ogletree and Dwayne Harris are fighting for critical roster spots and the Cowboys need to figure things out quickly with each passing day. Holmes turned in an encouraging performance against the Raiders so far, but I expect others to step up and challenge him over the next few games.
Will a veteran be added to the mix? It doesn't appear that way but with a player like Plaxico Burress out there and roster cuts coming, the next Laurent Robinson may not be on this roster. A lot of uncertainty still remains.
The Cowboys will, yet again, be leaning heavily on Jason Witten. He is Tony Romo's safety valve and a true leader on this team. His contributions are immeasurable and his ability to sacrifice for the team make him the player that he is. John Phillips is nursing an ankle injury but should return soon enough. It will be interesting to see him in his new role of primary backup and his ability to develop his game within the offense.
Getting solid contributions from Phillips can really payoff big for this team as you can never have enough weapons. James Hanna, the likely third tight-end, had two catches for fifteen yards in his debut with the Cowboys and he showed a glimpse of his athleticism. He has the potential to be a dark-horse in this offense.
With the Cowboys looking to replace Robinson's production, maybe it can come from the tight end position. Hanna's development could be an interesting subplot for the Cowboys in 2012.
Where do I start? This unit has been hit hard by the injury bug. Bill Nagy, Kevin Kowalski, Phil Costa and Nate Livings are all banged up. Kowalski will miss the beginning of the season and Nagy even longer, if they even make the team. Costa has a back issue but it does not appear to be serious and Livings is recovering from a hyper-extended knee.
Injuries are part of the game but the Cowboys have had to sign Derrick Dockery and Daniel Loper as insurance plans and healthy camp bodies. But injuries aside, the Cowboys have some concerns with this unit and the center position is at the eye of the storm. David Arkin has now been thrust into action at center and his play against the Raiders left much to be desired.
As the game progressed, so did his progress. It's not easy learning a new position and maybe the Cowboys have gained some flexibility and versatility by throwing him into the fire so to speak. This unit remains a work-in-progress along the interior portion of the line, but with Tyron Smith and Doug Free as stabilizing bookend tackles, this group will get better.
Whether they bring in a veteran center is up for debate, but patience will be a virtue for Bill Callahan.
This will be a much improved unit in 2012 and players like Tyrone Crawford, Josh Brent and Sean Lissemore are a big reason why. The defensive line needs an injection of youth and those players will step up, help collapse the pocket and cause duress. Jay Ratliff, currently dealing with plantar fascitis, will be the dependable rock once again for this unit, but he needs help. His body isn't getting any younger and at times last season, it seemed to catch up with him.
Crawford, a third-round draft pick, will be a key situational pass-rusher and Lissemore will use his relentless motor to wreak havoc up front. Jason Hatcher, Marcus Spears and Kenyon Coleman are returning veterans and all are solid contributors. But with the youth movement in full effect, they could be pushed by other young players such as Ben Bass and Clifton Geathers.
This is an interesting and nice mix of talent within the group and it's time to give some of these younger players a chance to shine. I like the potential of this unit, their chances for improvement and the type of impact they can have on this defense. Sure it would've been nice to add another dominant pass-rusher, but I like the direction this position is headed in.
DeMarcus Ware pretty much speaks for himself. Coming off a 19.5 sack campaign, expect the same type of production. But now is the time more than ever that he needs players like Victor Butler and Anthony Spencer to step up. This team needs to get to the quarterback and Ware can't do it himself.
Spencer is playing on a one-year deal and Butler is entering a stage in his development where he can set himself up to be Spencer's replacement. Kyle Wilber, a fourth-round draft pick, broke his thumb against the Raiders, but does stand to see the field in pass-rushing situations. Another player who could be ready to contribute is Alex Albright, who turned in a solid preseason debut with nine tackles.
Another potential youngster, Adrian Hamilton, displayed some of the skills that made him the NCAA leader in sacks last season against the Raiders, and he remains an intriguing prospect. The position did get some needed depth with Wilber, but Ware is clearly the leader here and they will rely on him heavily.
Ware will bring it on every snap but the question is who will bring it with him.
Sean Lee is the undisputed leader of this unit and the defense. He's on a track for All-Pro status as he continues his meteoric rise. This unit also contains free-agent pickup Dan Connor and 2011 second-round pick Bruce Carter. These two players really round out this unit well by adding speed, youth and toughness. They also provide a much needed upgrade over Bradie James and Keith Brooking.
The Cowboys will go to battle with this group and players such as Caleb McSurdy and Orie Lemon will battle it out for backup roles. The key for this unit will be their ability to diagnose plays, pursue runners and make necessary pre-snap adjustments. Overall, a solid unit with a nice blend of players.
The Cowboys have made sizable investments in this unit and Jerry Jones will be waiting for the payoff. After last season's colossal disaster, management went to work by signing prized free agent Brandon Carr and then selecting Morris Claiborne in the first-round of this year's draft. What a major improvement.
Incumbents Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick round out the foursome and suddenly this becomes the strength of the team. Much publicity centered around the potential trade of Jenkins but that quieted down and once he fully rehabs his shoulder, he'll be a valued contributor. Scandrick will be the slot corner and will be relied upon to win battles against some tough matchups.
Other players such as Teddy Williams, Mario Butler, Lionel Smith and C.J. Wilson will battle for one or possibly two spots, depending on roster constraints. This unit is locked and loaded to do battle against anyone. Carr is entering the prime of his career and the excitement surrounding Claiborne and his talents is very high.
This unit is ready to make a statement.
Heading into the 2012 draft, the consensus was that the Cowboys would select Alabama safety Mark Barron. Well, that didn't happen and they waited until the fourth-round to select Matt Johnson. Not exactly what fans expected but with the departure of Brodney Pool, Johnson stands to be a valuable backup. Pool's departure also paved the way for the arrival of new starter Barry Church, who has had an outstanding camp.
If his preseason debut is any indication of what lies ahead, 2012 looks like a breakout year for Church. Paired with Gerald Sensabaugh, this could make for a solid tandem. They both possess good range, great size, they're solid tacklers and they can cover. The Cowboys don't need flashy play, just proper and consistent play.
Depth is a little bit of a concern but Johnson, Danny McCray, Mana Silva and Eddie Whitley will battle it out for depth. I'm not sure if the Cowboys go heavy at this position but, like other positions, preseason will dictate that. This could turn out to be an underrated unit for this team.
So far, there doesn't appear to be many issues amongst this unit. Dan Bailey is an excellent kicker and 2012 shouldn't prove any different. He had many clutch kicks last season as a rookie and that was impressive.
Chris Jones will be the replacement for Matt McBriar in the punting department and he showed solid ability in his preseason debut by pinning the Raiders deep on one punt and he showed solid directional punting on another.
L.P. Ladouceur is the long-snapper and he's been a solid, consistent player for the Cowboys at a position that doesn't receive any accolades. Barring injury or some unforeseen circumstance, you're looking at this current group as the 2012 specialists.
Now, let's hope 2012 will be a special season for the Cowboys.