Dallas Cowboys: 10 Players Feeling the Most Pressure Ahead of Training Camp
Yes, pressure is a good thing.
It's true that pressure has to exist or be applied in the right way to remain a positive, but in the case of professional football, it's a necessity.
The uncomfortable offseason promised by Dallas Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones has probably been applied mostly to the fans. Sure, fourth-year head coach Jason Garrett is feeling some heat, but I don't expect his dismissal even if the Cowboys fail to make the playoffs for a fourth consecutive year.
What about the players, however,?
There are plenty of prospects and veterans who feel more than warmth to reach expectations this year. The bar isn't set the same way for each player to be listed, but the common denominator is the same for all—win in 2013, or else.
How much truth there is that last statement, I have no idea, but it sounds nice, right?
Oh, and Doug Free doesn't appear on this list because the only kind of pressure he's under is to take a pay cut. The franchise, I believe, has already passed judgement on this situation so Free doesn't have a whole lot to worry about. If he did, the Cowboys wouldn't already be asking him to take less money.
The time for pressure was a year ago where Free is concerned.
Here are 10 NFL players whose time has come to either do what they are believed to be capable of doing in training camp or else bow out.
10. Ronald Leary: OG (Undrafted 2012)
It's time for first-year veteran Ronald Leary of Memphis to earn his money from a year ago.
If you're familiar with rookie linebacker Brandon Magee of Arizona State, you know that he was a top undrafted priority for the Cowboys immediately following the 2013 NFL draft. Magee received a $70,000 bonus from Jones, the highest amount offered to any of the undrafted rookies this offseason.
Last year, Leary was the same priority for the Cowboys with respect as to how he exactly came into being in Dallas. Leary also went undrafted, but took a much bigger chunk of cash than Magee.
Leary, the top undrafted free agent priority of 2012 for Dallas was guaranteed a total of $214,000 by Jones.
Leary won't spend most of this season on the practice squad like he did a year ago. He was also among the most worked offensive linemen during last year's camp and probably should have been invited to play more football games, but I realize that if hindsight were foresight, we'd all be rich.
After last year's double-flop at guard with veteran free agents Mackenzy Bernadeau and Nate Livings, the franchise seems ready for Leary to challenge for a starting job.
Leary needs to be ready as well.
9. Barry Church: SS (Undrafted 2010)
You won't find many undrafted free agents still on their original NFL roster unless they earn a starting job within their first couple of years.
You'll find even fewer who get a large contract extension following an Achille's injury suffered early in their third year—their first as a starter.
Fourth-year veteran Barry Church of Toledo has accomplished both.
I was personally calling for the Cowboys to go to this guy back in 2010, especially once the season was completely shot due to a defense that was accused of quitting on former head coach and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.
Finally, the Cowboys did call on Church entering last season, but after just two-plus games, Church went down with a season-ending Achille's injury.
Then came the real shocker—Church was given a four-year, $12.4 million contract extension about a month later.
Look, I like the gesture on the part of Dallas and that financial commitment is a class act, but there is some risk here and even I can't say that the judgement is very sound. Then again, it's not my money so what do I care?
Either way, Church has to be ready to shine right away, training camp or not.
8. Orlando Scandrick: CB (2008 NFL Draft, Round 5)
In August of 2011, Jones ponied up a somewhat surprising five-year, $27 million contract extension for then three-year veteran Orlando Scandrick, a player who was primarily seen as a third cornerback and not much else.
Scandrick had a total of two interceptions when he signed his inflated contract. Since then, he has one interception.
Scandrick has also missed eight games over the past two seasons due to injury to partially explains his lack of production, but if I'm Scandrick right now, I'm aware of one name and one name only—B.W. Webb.
Webb was a fourth-round selection in the 2013 NFL draft last month and he's going to be hungry—and cheaper.
Webb even might actually be better.
Expect the battle for the No. 3 corner position to be among the hottest in Cowboys' training camp later this summer. Scandrick has to not only stay healthy, but also has to be productive. Otherwise, the former Boise State defensive back could be playing elsewhere well before his contract is up.
7. Anthony Spencer: DE (2007 NFL Draft, Round 1)
As much as I'd like to say that seventh-year veteran Anthony Spencer of Purdue is under the most pressure of any other Dallas defensive player, that is really not the case.
Franchised for the second straight year this offseason, Spencer is making a hefty sum, albeit as an outside linebacker as opposed to defensive end, his new position in 2013.
Spencer's salary as a franchised linebacker is $10.5 million, compared to just over $11 million as a pass-rushing defensive end.
Odd that Spencer and his agent have been so cooperative about Dallas' decision when so often you hear of other players scoffing at the idea of being franchised even once.
Expect a long-term extension for Spencer, despite the fact that Dallas knows little about how he'll actually fit as a rather undersized defensive end.
Is there any real pressure for Spencer? Some.
If Spencer doesn't pan out, then Dallas has real issues with the cap next year—especially if he's extended long-term—and that could mean the certain selection of a true 4-3 right defensive end in next year's draft.
Spencer has a single season of double-digit sacks over his six-year career.
The former Boilermaker would be advised to make it two such seasons in 2013. He's capable of that if the rest of the defensive line falls into place.
6. DeMarco Murray: RB (2011 NFL Draft, Round 3)
Believe it or not, Murray is more comparable to Peterson than you might think, but primarily on a physical level.
The biggest thing separating Peterson and Murray, in addition to experience and Pro Bowl trips to Hawaii, is durability.
Murray has the ability to do it all. He can score from anywhere on the field, rushing or receiving. With a better offensive line during his two season as a pro, he's quite possibly a Pro Bowl performer.
The injury bug has to go because the clock is ticking on Murray whose salary and performance aren't exactly the issue.
It's his contract.
After this season, Murray will enter his first ''contract year'' and the recent history of Dallas running backs suggest that he might not be around for 2015.
Murray has missed nine games over his first two seasons—and I don't expect serious competition from 2013 fifth-round pick Joseph Randle out of Oklahoma State. Randle is lighter and slower than Murray.
The legacy of ''short-timer'' running backs began with the departure of Emmitt Smith a decade ago and doesn't appear to have changed yet—shocking as that may seem.
Murray remains the best candidate so far to change that trend—if he can just stay healthy.
5. Tyron Smith: OT (2011 NFL Draft, Round 1)
Former first-round pick Tyron Smith out of USC hasn't gotten a real fair shake in his first two years in the NFL. In that short time, he has already played two positions.
After a strong performance as a rookie at right tackle, Doug Free was so ineffective at left tackle guarding quarterback Tony Romo's blindside that Smith was moved to left tackle for his sophomore campaign last season.
It has been pointed out numerous times that Free led the NFL in penalties last season with 13, a number that has the Cowboys actively looking to cut his pay and possibly him before too long.
Smith wasn't far behind in tallying 11 penalties in 2012, although he played far better during the second half of the season as he apparently became comfortable with the transition to a position he had never played before.
Smith is taking karate lessons this offseason and adding a little weight for reasons that are rather obvious. He wasn't exactly the biggest starting tackle in the league and he has the frame to get a little bigger without losing quickness.
NBCSports.com contributor Josh Alper offered the following from Smith regarding his new offseason regimen:
I just want to be a better run-blocker and be stronger and more physical, There were times last year where I felt like I was too fast and I was a little off-balanced. I just basically want to add a little weight and stay there, be fast and strong at the same time.
I fully expect Smith to contend for a Pro Bowl selection in 2013. The fact that he was drafted as high as he was, along with the news that he's making a strong effort to improve his skill set, proves that he definitely feels the pressure mounting for the upcoming season.
4. Morris Claiborne: CB (2012 NFL Draft, Round 1)
Former LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne's honeymoon is over.
It's time to perform in 2013.
Dallas traded far too much for any secondary player in the 2012 NFL draft, although that is not something you can pin on Claiborne. Still, the rookie learning curve for the second-year defender is over.
Claiborne had a horrible game against the Eagles in Philadelphia last season when he totalled five penalties—yes, five—in that contest alone. He did manage a single interception for the season and if the Dallas pass rush is something closer to dominant, then the second-year veteran will cash in more.
Remember, however, that Claiborne is supposed to be as good as a first- or second-round pick. Obviously, that idea is pretty ridiculous when you think about it, but that is the bar that has been set for Claiborne and veteran cornerback Brandon Carr. They will only shine if new defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin creates a lot of havoc up front.
It's also possible that Claiborne will spend more time closer to his man at the line of scrimmage this season. That could also make a big difference as far as big plays go.
If not, we'll likely be talking about former Dallas cornerback Terence Newman, a former first-round pick himself, once again reaching the playoffs with more interceptions than Claiborne.
If Claiborne is going to look like the all-world cornerback that Dallas needs, 2013 will be the grand opening.
3. Jay Ratliff: DT (2006 NFL Draft, Round 7)
How cool is it when you draft a player as talented as former Auburn defensive tackle Jay Ratliff in the final round of the NFL draft?
It's so cool that, a year later, you make him the smallest nose guard I have ever heard of in the modern era of 3-4 defensive fronts. The Cowboys did so despite the fact that Ratliff apparently was Dallas' second-best pass-rusher very early on.
For a nose guard, Ratliff had good sack totals, but as Bill Parcells, the coach that drafted him, used to ask, ''What's the cost?''
In this case, the bill was very few sacks, given Ratliff's ability, and a ton of opposing rushing yards racked up against a franchise that has traditionally had dominant defenses.
With the completely inappropriate 3-4 nose tackle experiment finally gone, Ratliff returns to his natural position of defensive tackle in Kiffin's 4-3 alignment.
This move should do wonders for the eighth-year veteran, but one has to also consider that Ratliff is probably still the second-best pass-rusher moving forward.
Sorry, but I have to see Spencer do it one more time, and from a new position. If this is true, his health next season will be more than critical for Dallas' success.
Ratliff played in only six games last season due to injuries and failed to register a single sack for the first time in his career. He had one during his rookie year in 2006.
When you throw in Ratliff's DWI arrest last January, it really turns the heat up in the kitchen that is Valley Ranch.
Ratliff has to become a greater force than he's ever been to stick around following next season. He turns 31 before the season starts.
2. Dez Bryant: WR (2010 NFL Draft, Round 1)
The third of three first-round picks for Dallas on this list, fourth-year veteran Dez Bryant faces almost as much pressure as anybody on the roster.
By the midway point of last season, whispers of ''bust'' were beginning to be heard surrounding the volatile receiver out of Oklahoma State. Having just missed 1,000 yards receiving and double-digit touchdowns in 2011, Bryant seemed nowhere close to crossing those boundaries just over a half year ago.
However, playing a 16 game schedule for the first time in his career, Bryant looked every bit the Pro Bowl-caliber player he was billed as coming out of college.
He tallied 1,382 yards on 92 receptions to go with a fractured finger and an injured back that he suffered in the regular season finale against Washington. His 12 touchdowns came much closer to meeting expectations for Bryant.
Most of these stats came during the final eight games.
I don't think that anybody has ever doubted Bryant's talent. He truly is among the top four or five wide receivers in the game who nobody can cover man-to-man.
With his maturity issues possibly a thing of the past, there's talk of Bryant reaching the 2,000-yard mark in head coach Jason Garrett's passing circus of an offense—and if he stays healthy, he could do that.
Just don't bet the farm on that ambitious goal. No wide receiver in NFL history, wearing No. 88 or not, has ever done that.
Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson set a new record for receiving yardage last season with 1,964.
If Bryant can hit 1,500 yards with 15 touchdowns, the Cowboys will likely make the playoffs.
So where is the pressure for Bryant?
After 2013, Bryant will enter the final year of his rookie contract. By having another performance worthy of a Pro Bowl appearance next season, we'll be talking about a contract extension for Tony Romo's primary weapon within a year.
1. Tony Romo: QB (Undrafted 2003)
In March, Tony Romo signed a six-year, $120 million extension.
In April, Dallas' first three selections in the draft were either pass-catchers or a blocker.
In May, Jones has gone on record a few times in comparing Romo to some lofty names at quarterback. Jones wants Romo working Peyton Manning-type hours in running a Tom Brady offense while offering input like Roger Staubach.
Those quarterbacks have a combined six Super Bowl victories by the way.
Romo is, in fact, under much more of a microscope now than he was while dating Jessica Simpson years ago—and that fact isn't so cool.
It's fine that Jones wants those dynamics out of his quarterback but, it was completely inappropriate to share those ideas with the world—or even the Dallas locker room. It's not like Romo isn't already a Pro Bowl quarterback who will eventually become the franchise's all-time leading passer.
Who said life was fair, especially when you have a $108 million contract with the ink just barely dry.
I have said it before and I'll say it again—Romo is a championship-caliber quarterback. Once he has the kind of supporting cast that other championship quarterbacks generally do, then we'll see exactly what the undrafted guy from Eastern Illinois can really do.
Until his offensive line becomes a contending force though—something it certainly hasn't been in more than a few seasons now, Romo will face more pressure than any quarterback really should. It isn't as if playing the position for the Cowboys isn't tough enough already for Romo, who has been running for his life with no running game and injuries only making his situation that much more dire.
Now add the money and the comparisons to other players for Romo. If Dallas had truly shown a commitment to finally running the ball with authority the way previous franchise champions had, I would say that some pressure may have finally come off of Romo, but it looks right now like the opposite is true.
Good luck, Tony.