Early Predictions for Dallas Cowboys' 2014 Training Camp Battles
The Dallas Cowboys will head into their 2014 training camp with more wide-open position battles than perhaps ever before.
Outside of quarterback, tight end, strong safety and a couple spots on the offensive line, you could make an argument that there’s a legitimate battle at every other position.
This competition is good for the Cowboys. For so long they relied on veterans coming off big contract extensions who probably didn’t have all the motivation in the world to prepare as hard as possible. Now the Cowboys have young—albeit unproven—talent at nearly every position, with nearly everyone currently on a “prove it” deal.
With that said, let’s take a look at five position battles to monitor in training camp for Dallas.
Backup Running Back
The Cowboys’ backup running back situation looked pretty clear until the team signed Ryan Williams. Williams hasn’t had much success in the pros, but the Cowboys seem to like him quite a bit.
There’s a really wide range of potential outcomes for Williams in Dallas: He could immediately work his way into a No. 2 role, or he might not even make the team.
One of the reasons for such a wide range of potential outcomes is that we don’t really know what type of player Williams is. He was clocked between 4.49 and 4.68 in the 40-yard dash coming out of college, according to NFL Draft Scout, which is obviously a huge deviation. However, Williams’ other measurables—namely, a 10’3” broad jump and 40-inch vertical—suggest he’s an explosive player.
Like so many players in Dallas, this one will probably come down to health. If he can stay on the field, expect Williams to beat out Joseph Randle and compete with Lance Dunbar for backup duties.
Prediction: No. 2 RB on run downs, No. 3 RB on passing downs
A lot changed when linebacker Sean Lee tore his ACL on Tuesday, per a tweet from Ian Rapoport of NFL.com.
Despite the time he's missed, Lee's had the most interceptions (11) of any linebacker in the NFL over the past four seasons. In the past two years, only four linebackers have exceeded Lee’s 9.2 percent tackle rate (both stats courtesy of ESPN Stats & Info).
So who is going to replace Lee? We don’t really know right now, but the immediate candidates seem to be DeVonte Holloman, Justin Durant, Anthony Hitchens and Bruce Carter. Durant’s chances of making the roster soared with Lee’s injury, but I think both he and Holloman are best suited outside.
Hitchens is the player Dallas drafted to back up Lee, but it’s going to be tough to count on a rookie right out of the gate. In my view, the Cowboys are going to be in a position where playing Carter inside is the best option, so it’s just a matter of who wins the Will and Sam jobs on the outside. My guesses are Holloman and Kyle Wilber, respectively.
Prediction: Carter plays Mike, Holloman plays Will, Wilber plays Sam
No. 3 Wide Receiver
As much as the Cowboys like wide receiver Cole Beasley, what he does—catch short passes—is very replaceable.
The fact that he can help move the chains on a crucial down doesn’t change the fact that where he excels is also an area where all three rookie wide receivers—Devin Street, L’Damian Washington and Chris Boyd—can also perform well. Meanwhile, those players have the ability to score touchdowns, which Beasley will never do on a consistent basis.
In my opinion, there’s no better way for Dallas to improve their red-zone offense than to use Gavin Escobar and James Hanna way more often alongside Jason Witten, spreading defenses out with very heavy personnel. When they aren’t going to go heavy, though, it still makes sense to “go heavy” in three- and four-receiver sets with a player like Boyd next to Terrance Williams and Dez Bryant. He’s going to be far more efficient than Beasley near the goal line.
Nevertheless, I think you’re going to see Beasley on the field as the No. 3 for Dallas in most situations, with a heavier receiver filling in inside the red zone.
Prediction: Beasley outside of the red zone, Boyd inside the red zone
The Cowboys have done everything except flat out say that J.J. Wilcox will be the starting free safety this year. Vice president Stephen Jones told Jon Machota of The Dallas Morning News:
J.J. Wilcox had an outstanding training camp, and the day his mother passed, he was actually promoted to be the starter. But toward the end of the year, I think we were starting to see flashes of the J.J. that we saw in camp. 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].
One of the assumptions with Wilcox starting, I think, is that Matt Johnson just won’t be able to remain healthy. He’s at the point where, like Lee, we can probably say that he’s at least slightly more injury-prone than the typical player. But that doesn’t mean he can’t stay healthy at all, even for an entire year.
And the Cowboys like Johnson a lot, as they should; Johnson is the most athletic safety in Dallas and has huge upside. It will come down to health, but I’m betting on Johnson to stay healthy throughout camp and begin the season as the Cowboys’ starting free safety.
Prediction: Johnson steals the job away from Wilcox in training camp
One of my biggest pet peeves is when coaches implement rigid schemes and then search for very specific personnel to fit that scheme. It’s a very fragile strategy because pretty much everything needs to go right for the scheme to function properly.
What makes more sense: building an entire team around one man’s philosophy, or finding a flexible coach who can tailor his scheme to the personnel already on the roster? On the offensive side of the ball, there’s no better example of the two philosophies than Chip Kelly's (flexible) and Jason Garrett's (rigid) tactics.
This has implications at the defensive tackle position, where Terrell McClain is the “prototypical” 1-technique tackle who “should” be starting next to Henry Melton, but Tyrone Crawford—considered a 3-technique—is simply the better player.
The Cowboys should start Crawford alongside Melton, even though it isn’t a conventional look, and dare offenses to run on them. They’re likely going to use the look in passing situations, but having that explosive combination on the field as much as possible would be ideal.
Prediction: McClain on running downs, Crawford on passing downs