The Dallas Cowboys have shown an uncanny ability at finding hidden gems throughout the years in training camp. Miles Austin, Tony Romo, Dan Bailey and Cole Beasley come to mind in recent years, but what about Bill Bates?
Either the Cowboys have a knack for finding these types of talents or it's just pure coincidence, but this franchise needs to leave no stone unturned. The 2013 training camp that is just around the corner will be no different, and the Cowboys could use a few more low-cost, high-potential and productive players on their roster.
The question is whether any dark-horse candidates exist among this group of players bound for Oxnard. It's hard to judge solely based off of OTAs and minicamp, but there does appear to be some intriguing talent and potential at the bottom of this roster.
The Cowboys have question marks at certain positions, depth issues and open competitions throughout the roster that could very well lead to some unlikely players making this team. And for the Cowboys, that's a very good thing.
Let's look at some of those candidates who could indeed steal a roster spot.
The Cowboys will likely go with four running backs in 2013, and that could be the biggest reason why Kendial Lawrence is in perfect position to steal a job. DeMarco Murray and Joseph Randle seem cemented as the first two backs on the roster, but I see three players fighting for two more spots.
Lance Dunbar, Phillip Tanner and Lawrence will be those players, barring a veteran signing (Willis McGahee, anyone?). Lawrence will have his opportunity in camp and the preseason to show off a skill set that is based on explosiveness, burst and a change-of-pace style.
His size will be a question mark at 5'9" and 194 pounds, but he proved at Missouri that he could shoulder a load, and he had a very productive 2012 season in college. He runs with a shiftiness that could be a benefit to a team that will run more zone-blocking schemes in 2013.
One thing he will have to do is perform on special teams, and that could be the difference if he can master that part of his game. Keep an eye on Lawrence and the running back competition that will unfold.
Jeris Pendleton, a recent acquisition at the expense of Anthony Hargrove, is a 6'3", 328-pound defensive tackle who could find himself a role on this team. He had an interesting journey to the NFL prior to being a seventh-round pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2012, and that included a six-year absence from football during his college years.
This is not a player who has the production from another team to generate excitement, but if he performs well enough, then this could be a great find in the depth department. The Cowboys failed to address the defensive line during the draft or free agency, so this is definitely a position to watch.
With Jay Ratliff coming off an injury-riddled season, Jason Hatcher sliding inside and the situation surrounding Josh Brent, there is a legitimate need to be filled along the interior of this defensive line.
This might be a bit of a stretch, but with the recent waiver attempt for Mike Kafka, something is making this franchise look at the quarterback position. Nick Stephens has good size at 6'3" and 230 pounds, but he will obviously need to show quite a bit to make this team.
Stephens is a dark horse in the purest sense of the term, but he will get a ton of reps as the Cowboys try to preserve both Tony Romo and Kyle Orton. If he can run and grasp the offense, show good ball location and play well from the neck up, he just might have a chance.
The Cowboys will likely carry only two quarterbacks, but let's face it, Stephens is one injury away from being a backup quarterback. Again, the Cowboys failed to select any collegiate prospects or show any sort of an eye toward the future. A bigger problem could be next year and Orton's escalating salary.
Is Stephens a legitimate developmental quarterback? He could be, but one thing we do know is that he is truly a dark horse.
With the exception of Barry Church, the competition at safety is wide open. This is the perfect position to steal a job, steal a roster spot and emerge as a dark-horse candidate. Jakar Hamilton, a former Georgia Bulldog, has a solid skill set with a nice all-around game.
To make this roster, he will need to beat out Will Allen or Danny McCray, and he will have to excel on special teams. If Hamilton sticks, it would be beneficial for the salary cap as well by being a cheaper alternative to McCray. Again, the key is if he can really be a trusted source on special teams without being a liability.
As a safety, he does show good range and solid tackling ability. He competes against tight ends well, and he consistently sticks his nose in on plays. He could develop his game this season and next with an eye toward the future, where anything is possible.
Keep tabs on Hamilton and the overall battle at safety.
Brandon Magee is a player I expect to make this roster, but Taylor Reed is someone who just might surprise many. This will come down to how many linebackers the Cowboys want to carry, how well he plays on special teams, and just how versatile he can be to this team.
Reed is an outstanding tackler, which is evidenced by his statistics while at SMU. He was a 2012 All-Conference USA player that compiled 11.5 tackles for loss, 88 tackles overall, two interceptions and five sacks.
As an inside linebacker, he can use his instinctive ability to read plays, chase down ball-carriers and penetrate holes. But at 5'11" and 240 pounds, he can also play outside and be effective as well. It's that type of versatility that could be valuable to this team at a position that requires flexibility and depth.
When you watch his game footage, it's easy to see his fluidity, his ability to hold up well in coverage, his awareness and that tackling ability that really stands out. This will be a player to focus on in preseason for sure.
The opportunities will be there.