5 Dallas Cowboys Players Facing Make-or-Break Training Camps
There’s been an unfamiliar lull around Valley Ranch this year. There’s been no drama, no over-publicized player vacations and very little player news over this offseason.
As training camp approaches, the only headlines that seem to matter are those that are related to football.
Every player and coach is under the microscope for a team that is looking to climb out of a purgatory of mediocrity. However, a select few players must produce this offseason if they want to continue their careers in Dallas.
Let’s see which players are gearing up for the most important training camp of their career.
Safety J.J. WIlcox
The Cowboys have been looking for a legitimate safety since Darren Woodson retired. When they selected J.J. Wilcox in the third round of the 2013 NFL draft, there seemed to be a buzz that suggested he might be the one to exorcise the ghost of Woodson.
Unfortunately, the passing of Wilcox’s mother and injuries kept him off the field. Despite flashing playmaking ability, he wasn’t able to replace undrafted Jeff Heath as the starter opposite Barry Church.
The expectation is that Wilcox will be the starter when the season opens. However, if he enters training camp unprepared, the team will be forced to look elsewhere for a replacement.
Wilcox is the definition of an all-around safety. His unique ability to both hit and cover is intriguing, but his lack of experience against top talent leaves a lot of questions. Personally, I’m rooting for him to succeed but wouldn’t be surprised if his leash is short.
Offensive Guard Ronald Leary
There was excitement about Leary signing with the Cowboys after going undrafted in 2012. Many people thought he could go in the middle rounds if it wasn’t for a knee injury. With a need at guard, the Cowboys and Leary seemed like a perfect match.
Two years later, Leary is coming off a season where he started all 16 games for the Cowboys. Despite starting, he wasn’t exactly stellar in 2013, posting a minus-8.4 overall grade, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Yet, there was hope that he could develop into a mainstay on the interior of the offense line with some coaching and development.
Just when things were looking up for Leary, he pled guilty to driving while intoxicated. The Cowboys have done a good job recently of acquiring players who know how to stay out of trouble. Now Leary has loudly interrupted a relatively quiet offseason in Dallas—something I assume Jerry Jones isn’t exactly thrilled about.
In reaction to the news, the Cowboys signed recently released veteran Uche Nwaneri to help. They also have Mackenzy Bernadeau on the depth chart.
If Leary is serious about his football career, he’ll have to turn heads at training camp; otherwise, his time in Dallas could be in jeopardy.
Running Back Ryan Williams
If you gave an NFL fan a word association test, it wouldn’t be uncommon to see Ryan Williams and “injury prone” paired together. The talented running back has been unable to stay on the field during his career with the Arizona Cardinals and was released this past offseason as a result.
The signing of Williams was a curious one, as the Cowboys already have a pair of injury-prone running backs in DeMarco Murray and Lance Dunbar. However, when viewed in a risk/reward situation, the signing makes sense. Williams is a shifty game-breaker who could prove to be a smart investment for an already strong offense, if he reaches full potential.
Williams is far from a roster lock, though. He’ll have to prove at camp that he can perform at the level he did when he entered the league. If he can regain his explosiveness and improve his durability, he can be a big asset for this team.
That’s a big "if."
Outside Linebacker Bruce Carter
Linebacker Bruce Carter is probably the most frustrating case in Dallas. I can’t remember seeing a guy with so much talent struggle the way that Carter did in 2013.
He is an athletic, instinctive linebacker who projected as the perfect “Will” linebacker in the Tampa 2 scheme. Unfortunately, Carter’s 2013 left more questions than answers. According to Pro Football Focus, he ranked 32nd among 4-3 outside linebackers and only had a positive grade in the category of pass coverage.
With Sean Lee out for the season (again!), it’s up to Carter to provide leadership and playmaking ability to a defense that is sorely looking to improve.
This offseason will be crucial for Carter: If he can’t maximize his impact, the team will be forced to replace him once his contract expires at the end of the season.
Cornerback Morris Claiborne
The expectations for Morris Claiborne may have been a little unrealistic after the Cowboys traded up to select him in the first round of the 2012 draft. It was maybe even unfair for everyone to expect him to come in instantly and be the second coming of Prime Time.
Still, when compared to the most realistic of expectations, Claiborne has failed to reach the bar. In Dallas, when you don’t show up and play well, you fall from grace quickly.
Claiborne has struggled with injuries and consistency, but perhaps most troubling is his apparent struggle with confidence—something that probably wasn’t helped when Orlando Scandrick replaced him on the depth chart.
In 10 games in 2013, Claiborne allowed receptions on 61.5 percent of opponent targets and only registered one interception and four passes defensed, according to Pro Football Focus. As he enters this training camp, he needs to assert himself as a premier caliber defensive back in a defense that desperately needs him.
If Claiborne can stay healthy and look polished, he’ll have a chance to redeem himself. If not, he’ll find himself on a lengthy list of NFL first-round busts.