Training camp for the Dallas Cowboys is well underway with several positional battles heating up. On both sides of the ball, the Cowboys coaching staff will have to determine who’s the best player for each spot by summer’s end.
Some camp clashes will help establish who makes the final 2013 roster. A lot of players fall on the bubble of just making the team, being cut or earning a practice squad position. Although these matchups are exciting, they won’t have nearly the same impact as competitions for starting spots.
This summer, Dallas has a few positions where the starter isn’t settled.
Justin Durant currently leads the contest for the strong-side linebacker. However, players like Alex Albright, rookie DeVonte Holloman and veteran Ernie Sims are all potential candidates.
There’s a similar situation occurring on the offensive line. Both guard spots and even the right tackle won’t be solidified until the end of the preseason.
This leads me to this year’s biggest training camp clash that will produce a starting safety.
Barring injury or something crazy happening, Barry Church will be the starting free safety Week 1. This leaves three men vying to be the strong safety.
Will Allen, Matt Johnson and rookie J.J. Wilcox will take part in the most interesting battle this training camp.
Dallas hasn’t been confident about its safety combination in several seasons. The position has seemingly been a problem for the team and one of the reasons for its mediocrity the past few years. With Gerald Sensabaugh retiring in the offseason, the Cowboys were compelled to add some pieces.
They took Wilcox in the third round of the draft and added Allen with a one-year contract. Depth was necessary because of how many injures the unit faced in 2012. People like Johnson and Church weren’t around for the majority of the season.
What makes the battle for strong safety so fascinating is how different each player is.
Let’s start with Allen.
Coming into camp, Allen has to feel good about his status. A big reason for that is he’s the only candidate to have ever started an NFL game. Although he’s spent much of his career in a backup role, Allen has started 33 games thus far, including seven last year in Pittsburgh.
He’s been in the league for 10 years now, and that definitely brings an advantage when going against two unproven players.
Allen has been there before and is the safest choice for the Cowboys because they know what they’re getting when he’s on the field.
That’s just about the opposite of what Dallas knows about Johnson and Wilcox. Despite its high expectations for both drafted players, the coaching staff doesn’t know what to expect from its young guys. This is why their training camp performances will carry so much weight.
Johnson was supposed to contend for the job last year, but several injuries kept him from doing so. With 2012 as a wash, he now needs to prove that he can handle the duties that come with being a starter.
One thing Johnson showed in college that Dallas needs more than ever is his ability to create turnovers. In his four years at Eastern Washington, he reeled in 15 interceptions.
A ball hawk like Johnson could be what the defense needs to turn that statistic and its fortune around.
The last guy contending could also be the most exciting. J.J. Wilcox has been turning heads early at camp because of the effort he’s been showing.
In drills that weren’t particularly meant for tackling, Wilcox made them so. Even though the coaches aren’t particularly fond of teammates killing one another, it does show that he has a type of attitude that tough defenses should possess.
Coach Jason Garrett has gone as far as saying Wilcox has “Bill Bates syndrome” for beating up on his own guys.
In an article by Schuyler Dixon of the Associated Press, Wilcox responded to the criticisms of his hard tackling at practice, "I don't understand half-percent, 90 percent. All I know is 100 percent. That's the way I was taught. That's the way I play the game."
The Georgia Southern alum is extremely athletic and will most likely be the Cowboys safety in the future. He did change positions several times in college, however, so there is an expected learning curve.
No matter who wins the starting role, the Cowboys will be in better shape at the position than they have been in years. With a good mixture of experience and youth, the strong safety position will have plenty of depth to utilize.
All statistics via Pro Football Reference unless indicated otherwise.