Projecting Dallas Cowboys' 5 Most Heated Position Battles This Offseason
As much as the Dallas Cowboys have seemed to do everything in their power to stay on the path to mediocrity, one thing head coach Jason Garrett has done well is promote competition at each position—competition that is going to lead to some heated position battles this offseason.
Competition is perhaps the most important trait of any successful team. If you don’t think that players are motivated by money, consider that there’s typically a huge drop-off in production after players sign big contracts. Meanwhile, every single player has pride in his craft and, when money is no longer a great motivator, can continue to be pushed to perform his best when his starting job is on the line.
Outside of quarterback Tony Romo, no one’s job should be safe this year in Dallas. That’s a great way for the team to approach the season and an effective way to get the most out of everyone. Let’s take a look at five of the best position battles in Dallas this year.
Running Back: Lance Dunbar vs. Ryan Williams
Right out of the gate, this one is going to surprise some people because the Cowboys just signed free agent Ryan Williams basically as a lottery ticket. He’s a former second-round pick who, due to a plethora of knee injuries, has just 58 career carries in three seasons.
So why do I like Williams? First, he cost next to nothing. There’s no risk here; you could argue the knee injuries make him a risky addition, but that’s not really the case since they’re already priced into his market value. That’s why he came at such a discount.
Second, he’s young. Despite being drafted three years ago, Williams is still only 24 years old. That's important.
You might have noticed that I didn’t list Joseph Randle here, and one of the reasons that I’m so low on Randle is because of his lack of straight-line speed. Remember, speed kills for running backs, and Randle ran just a 4.61 in the 40-yard dash.
“BUT RYAN WILLIAMS RAN JUST A 4.63!!!” I can hear the rebuttals right now. It’s true that Williams ran a 4.63, and it’s true that the time is not indicative of success for running backs. So if Williams is to overcome his injuries, we’re going to basically need to believe he’s the exception to the rule.
Is there enough evidence to do that? Perhaps. First of all, as mentioned, he’s going to cost basically nothing. Randle cost just a fifth-round pick, but that’s still an expense.
Second, Williams was timed as fast as 4.49 at his pro day, according to NFL Draft Scout. Pro day numbers are often better than at the combine, but there’s good reason to think that the 4.63 doesn’t represent Williams’ true explosiveness: namely, his 10’3” broad jump and 40-inch vertical.
Finally, and most important, Williams is heavier than Randle—between eight and 14 pounds heavier, depending which listed weights you use. That matters, because the more bulk a running back has, the more you can put up with mediocre speed.
Do I think that Williams is going to set the league on fire? No, but I think he’s a better option than Randle. As for Dunbar…we’ll just have to wait and see.
Prediction: Dunbar in a close one
Right Tackle: Doug Free vs. Zack Martin
The Cowboys drafted Zack Martin in the first round presumably because they believe he can start outside. That doesn’t mean it’s going to happen from day one, but I think they’re going to at least give him some snaps out there during the preseason to compete with Doug Free.
Given that the Cowboys also have a weakness inside, it seems most likely that they’ll start Martin at right guard ahead of Mackenzy Bernadeau. Nonetheless, there’s still a chance that the rookie wins the right tackle job with an impressive preseason showing. Doug Free being Doug Free won’t hurt, either.
Prediction: Free starts at RT, Martin at RG
Five-Way Battle for the No. 3 WR Job
Realistically, we could see any one of Cole Beasley, Dwayne Harris, Devin Street, Chris Boyd or L’Damian Washington win the No. 3 wide receiver job. Street will have plenty of chances since he was the team’s fifth-round pick this year, but Boyd and Washington both figure to be better in the red zone.
The Cowboys seem to love Beasley in the slot. That’s probably due to Beasley having a lot of “successes” over the middle. Since his targets are so short, he has a high catch rate. The problem is that 1) first downs are easily replaceable while touchdowns are not and 2) Beasley doesn’t get up the field. Every other receiver on the roster can do what Beasley has done—it’s not that difficult for a professional receiver to average 6.7 yards per target—but Beasley can’t do much of what the others can do.
Prediction: Boyd in red zone, Beasley elsewhere
Defensive Tackle: Tyrone Crawford vs. Terrell McClain
This will be one of the most telling position battles to watch. First of all, it’s very possible that the Cowboys don’t even use Tyrone Crawford as a defensive tackle, instead moving him outside as a big 4-3 defensive end.
However, the team is being built around speed, and Crawford offers that inside. Yes, the Cowboys already signed Henry Melton as a three-technique, but who says you can’t have two such players? If the Cowboys are truly committed to stopping the pass, they’ll move Crawford to defensive tackle and start him over the true one-technique in Terrell McClain.
Free Safety: J.J. Wilcox vs. Matt Johnson
J.J. Wilcox is the favorite to win the free safety job. Vice President Stephen Jones has basically said as much to Dallas Morning News:
My thoughts are that he’s really got a chance, if he goes back to playing like he had been in training camp and how he was playing toward the end of the year, to really be the guy opposite [Barry Church].
Nonetheless, I think part of the Cowboys’ willingness to not address the position this offseason is because they believe they have multiple potential options, one of which is Matt Johnson. There’s a good chance that Johnson is actually injury-prone, which isn’t a term I throw around loosely. But if he remains healthy, he’s my upset pick to start for Dallas on opening day of the 2014 season.