The pressure in on coach Garrett to improve from 8-8.
The Dallas Cowboys are firmly entrenched in their 2013 training camp and the first preseason game is just days away. The rash of injuries has seemed to level off to reasonable levels, but, as camp accelerates, this team needs to seek answers to the many questions that exist across the board.
Questions concerning the offensive line, defensive line, overall depth and positional battles need to be sorted out in order to field the best possible team. Day by day, this team needs to continue to seek those answers and take those steps necessary if they want to be playing in January.
It won't be easy by any means, but the progression needs to have an arrow pointing upward and momentum needs to build up to opening day. The veterans on this team like Jason Witten and DeMarcus Ware provide a stabilizing force on many levels and the standard by which younger players should emulate.
But what about other players? Are there any emerging campers or surprises thus far? Conversely, are there any players who have played subpar and are falling below expectations?
Training camp is a process, and, at the same time, it's a window of opportunity for players to get noticed and firmly grab hold of a role on this team whether big or small. Every player matters and every opportunity matters, but time marches on.
The players on NFL rosters resemble the stock market in a lot of ways. Players come into this league as unknowns or unproven commodities and peak, or not, at certain periods of time. When players don't perform, franchises move on, and when players excel, they become valuable and cash in.
Let's take a look at the latest stock report.
The leaders of the linebacker corps in Dallas belong to Sean Lee and Bruce Carter without any dispute. Justin Durant has been a nice addition and he is the anticipated starter in the base defense. But what about after that?
Enter Ernie Sims and his virtual perfect fit for this 4-3 defense. He also is familiar with defensive line coach Rod Marinelli from his days in Detroit, and the chance to play for him again is what landed him back in Dallas.
Sims has been playing outstanding thus far in camp and his speed, knack for being around the ball and familiarity with the 4-3 will serve this team well on defense. Initially, Sims may have been viewed as a bubble-player so to speak, but he is a veteran and played well last year upon his arrival in Dallas.
He is a bit undersized, but that may work to his advantage in a scheme that requires his position to cover a lot of ground and the ability to get to a spot very quickly. With Lee and Carter's health a concern, Sims' play is a confidence booster that there is solid depth at the position.
Joseph Randle was considered a steal when he was selected in the fifth round of the 2013 draft. With the departure of Felix Jones, his selection made a lot of sense, and he was more than a proven collegiate running back. But Randle was dealing with a thumb injury during OTAs and mini camp, and it has shown.
He is unable to pass Phillip Tanner or Lance Dunbar on the depth chart, and he has struggled at times. But truth be told, he is a rookie and he's experiencing the normal growing pains that come with a transition to the NFL. He will improve day by day, which is already happening by getting more reps and showing the coaching staff more.
What will his role be this year? How much can he contribute? And will he emerge as the backup to DeMarco Murray?
It's all up to him.
Lance Dunbar is arguably the best example of how working hard in the offseason can give you a chance at immediate success. Not only did Dunbar transform his body, but he has transformed his play, and suddenly he is on the radar as a potential playmaker for this team in 2013.
He is also on Tony Romo's radar, and the quarterback had nothing but praise for the second-year player out of North Texas. Romo cites his explosiveness and the ability to use Dunbar out of the backfield. Dunbar received limited opportunities on 2012, but 2013 should prove very differently.
He has done an excellent job thus far at taking advantage of his reps and Joseph Randle has lots of work to do in passing him on the depth chart. There could be protection issues due to his size, but the dimension he could add to this team could resemble one of Darren Sproles.
That would be exciting.
Is it really fair to be down on a player due to injury? That may be up for debate, but in the case of Jay Ratliff, it may be warranted. His injury within the first days of camp was very disappointing, and it has automatically given rise to the question of his durability.
Ratliff missed 10 games in 2012, and for an under-sized nose tackle, maybe the wear and tear is starting to show even more. Combine that with losing Tyrone Crawford for the year, the Cowboys passing on Sharrif Floyd and other defensive linemen and the lack of depth at the position, and it all equates to a headache.
Injuries are part of football—all sports for that matter—but this team is relying on Ratliff to provide results in the new scheme and Rod Marinelli's attacking style up front. Management's belief that he can return to his old form was probably a factor in their decision making during the draft and free agency period.
So far, 2013 is not off to a good start for Ratliff.
DeMarcus Ware has been a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks for a long time. Sometimes it's easy to take for granted what he means to this team and the type of warrior he really is. After a subpar showing in 2012 due to a plethora of injuries, Ware seems to not only be at full strength, but he is as explosive as ever.
The big question going into the offseason centered around his recovery from shoulder surgery in relation to his new role of defensive end and the physical demands that accompany the position. But with Ware back in full swing this early in camp, all indications are that he is healthy.
The Cowboys will need his sack total to reach typical Ware-like levels in 2013 for this defense to thrive under Monte Kiffin. Rod Marinelli wants an attacking defensive line and Ware needs to be in the eye of that storm.
Was there even going to be a doubt regarding this position after Jerry Jones—yes, Jerry Jones—only partially addressed the offensive line this offseason? Adding Travis Frederick was never going to be enough, and now many questions abound for this team, especially along the interior portion.
Nate Livings has lingering injury issues and may not even play in the first preseason game. Mackenzy Bernadeau, Kevin Kowalski, Ryan Cook, Ray Dominguez and Jeremy Parnell are all injured. The fact that Demetress Bell is on this roster, despite being way out of shape, doesn't say much for the swing tackle position.
Frederick is the starting center with the ability to play guard, and Phil Costa could play either position as well, so all hope is not lost. But let's not forget that Frederick is a rookie and the Cowboys could potentially rely on Costa for a major role.
So what is the ray of light, if any? Enter Ronald Leary, last year's prized undrafted rookie, who has been earning some praise from former Cowboys Nate Newton. Leary could provide a lot of answers for this team, but patience will be the key as he improves everyday since returning from injury.
The offensive line, the interior in particular, will keep the coaches, management and fans up at night. Buckle up while this position sorts itself out.
Cowboys fans all over the world can breathe a sigh of relief and put an end to Google searches for sore hips. Yes folks, Dez Bryant is back on the practice field and toying with whoever is guarding him. Everyday since the beginning of camp has been a Bryant highlight reel.
But don't look at this as a negative for Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne. It should be viewed as an opportunity to make both players better, as well as Bryant. Yes he missed four practices, but playing on the side of caution is a must for the best player on this team.
Bryant has a chance to assert himself into the upper echelon of wide receivers in the NFL in 2013, and he is on his way to achieving this both physically and mentally. That can only mean positive things for this team as Bryant presents matchup concerns for opponents while creating opportunities for his teammates.
It's a win-win situation for the Cowboys as they try and integrate all of their weapons into this offense. The running game will be the key on the ground, but Bryant is the key in the aerial department. In 2012, we saw the maturation of a player, and in 2013 we will witness the birth of a superstar.
The 2012 draft class, sans Morris Claiborne and James Hanna, is really starting to irritate me. Tyrone Crawford's injury was unfortunate, but passing Kyle Wilber off as a defensive end is really questionable as this team feels the lack of depth due to injury.
Wilber's greatest asset is probably his speed, but the Cowboys don't have the luxury at this point to perform experiments while Anthony Spencer and Jay Ratliff recover from injuries.
Ben Bass appears to have more upside and the size, at 6'5" and 294 pounds, to be more effective in Kiffin's scheme. What is confusing about Wilber is he was drafted as a 3-4 linebacker for Rob Ryan's scheme and, in a little over a year, is being counted on for depth behind Ware and Anthony Spencer.
The Cowboys have had to sign three defensive linemen due to injury, and when George Selvie is making plays and garnering attention, it makes you wonder about players like Wilber.