Offensive guard Ronald Leary
The Dallas Cowboys have some very heated competition for several starting jobs on the roster. It's been some time since younger players were expected to play as large of a role in a given training camp.
For now, gone are the days when the incumbent veteran starters were simply expected to stay healthy and survive camp while youngsters were essentially used to determine depth. This year, there could be several rookies and second-year players who could very well unseat a previously proven commodity.
The NFL has always been a young man's game. In other words, there has never been much of a market for players nearing 35 years old. That hasn't been a rule but rather a commonly accepted fact.
Today, the NFL is relying more and more on players who are well shy of 25 years of age and probably more true rookies than ever before.
The Cowboys have not necessarily been among the model franchises in terms of utilizing youth. Not since the days of Jimmy Johnson in the early 1990s has such a philosophy been the rule.
But with a new defensive coordinator and a head coach who is on the hot seat, despite what owner and general manager Jerry Jones has stated recently, the Cowboys have to get younger, faster and cheaper.
Here's a look at five battles taking place in Oxnard, Calif. The winners predicted here may not actually come out on top—but they should. I'm also throwing in one competition that may only exist in theory, but it's something to consider.
Cornerback Orlando Scandrick.
Sixth-year veteran Orlando Scandrick was selected in the fifth round of the 2008 NFL draft. By 2011, he had been offered a five-year contract extension worth $27 million. Scandrick has picked off a single pass since signing that extension.
Last April, the Cowboys selected cornerback B.W. Webb out of William & Mary in the fourth round of the draft. This move wasn't really a surprise given the departure of veteran corner Mike Jenkins in free agency.
Like pass-rushers, you really can't arm yourself with too many guys who can cover in today's pass-happy NFL, right?
I don't see Scandrick as a bubble player where making the team is concerned. But I could certainly see a younger, hungrier player in Webb possibly bumping Scandrick down on the depth chart.
Given his experience and age (26), Scandrick definitely fits Dallas' plans in 2013—but this could change by next season if the productivity doesn't increase pretty quick.
If the Cowboys have made a great selection in Webb, the rookie will unseat Scandrick as the team's third cornerback. If this was a good pick, these two players could be battling once again a year from now.
Quarterback Kyle Orton.
No, this particular battle probably doesn't exist, although it probably should.
Nothing against backup quarterback Kyle Orton, but I'm a believer that unless your team is well built as a contender, you shouldn't waste a few million dollars each season on a guy who probably won't play. A better option is to have a young, talented quarterback with little experience waiting in the wings.
The Cowboys did exactly that with starter Tony Romo, and the results have been better than anybody could have ever expected. Romo was undrafted out of Eastern Illinois in 2003, and eventually he'll be the most decorated passer, statistically, in franchise history.
So what about the presence of second-year player Alex Tanney, another undrafted passer out of a small school? Monmouth is definitely small, but this hasn't kept wide receiver Miles Austin off the field.
No, I'm not getting carried away with Tanney's ''trick shot'' videos of YouTube fame. I'm simply suggesting that Tanney might be a part of the future one day, and since the Cowboys aren't likely to be in position to select the best quarterback in college in any future draft, how else do you get a future quarterback?
No, Tanney likely wouldn't play any sooner than Romo did, but considering that Dallas is a team that is partially rebuilding right now, I question both the financial and competitive wisdom of paying Orton to hold a clipboard.
It's one thing when you bring in Bernie Kosar in 1993 to back up Troy Aikman when Dallas is the defending Super Bowl champions and easily the best team in the NFL.
Can we say anything similar about the 2013 Cowboys?
Safety J.J. Wilcox.
For the first time on this list, a young player will come out on top.
With the release and retirement of Gerald Sensabaugh earlier this year, there is no incumbent starter at free safety in Dallas. This might be the only gig that is truly wide open.
Veteran Will Allen figures to remain at the top of the depth chart simply based on experience. Entering his 10th season in the NFL, he has played with new defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin.
But beneath Allen is youngsters like 2012 fourth-round selection Matt Johnson and 2013 third-round pick J.J. Wilcox.
Watch this battle closely.
Like many, I have serious doubts that Dallas' front four on defense will be as strong as Kiffin seems to think. Already down for the year is second-year defensive end Tyrone Crawford.
If I'm right about the line, then the Cowboys will allow some yards on the ground which will keep the secondary players involved in plenty of run support. In other words, Dallas is going to need a young, active player alongside strong safety Barry Church, who's coming off an Achilles injury last season.
The winner here may not be determined by Week 1 against the New York Giants on Sept. 8, but I do believe that by the end of 2013 either Johnson or Wilcox will have earned the job outright.
Wide receiver Terrance Williams.
This battle will be great to watch over the course of the preseason.
Prior to this year's NFL draft, it was assumed that 2011 sixth-round selection Dwayne Harris would be a lock for the third wide receiver spot. But then came the draft itself, and that idea was put on hold.
I have my ideas as to why Baylor wide receiver Terrance Williams was chosen last April in the third round. But Harris told Jon Machota of SportsDayDFW.com his thoughts about the selection this week in Oxnard:
Miles [Austin] is getting old and they want to bring in young guys. Dez [Bryant] is still young, T-Will is young, I’m young, and Miles, we don’t know how long he’s going to be here or how long he’s going to last. But we’re hoping for the best with him. That’s my guy. And you got to bring in young guys. That’s what this league is about.
Yes, Austin is getting older, but it's not like he's over the hill at 29, right? I would think Austin's contract is a bigger issue than his age, but that's just me.
The real deal here is that Austin is probably a short-timer with the Cowboys, meaning this could be his final season in Dallas. Further, the Cowboys also didn't seem to like the idea of Harris being a future No. 2 receiver along with Bryant.
Offensive guard Ronald Leary.
In one of a couple of examples of poor free-agent dollars spent on the offensive line in 2012, veteran left guard Nate Livings might be the veteran most likely to lose his starting job heading into 2013.
It's no secret that Ronald Leary was a big priority following the 2012 NFL draft. The offensive guard was the first and most expensive undrafted player to be added by Dallas, and the franchise did everything necessary to keep him with the team last year, despite the fact he wasn't much more than a practice squad player.
Well, it's a new year, and Livings is thought to be ready to compete for a starting job. The Cowboys certainly hope this is the case.
The combination of Livings and fellow free agent Mackenzy Bernadeau represented a double-downgrade at positions that greatly contributed to one of the worst offensive line performances in franchise history.
Leary received a good deal of work during last year's camp, and he'll see at least as much this time around.
The health of Romo and a much better ground attack have to become a reality for Dallas to be a better football team next season. Leary will be a part of these efforts as soon as his calf situation is cleared up.