Dallas Cowboys Training Camp Preview: Depth Chart, Sleepers and Predictions
It's that time of year again—the Dallas Cowboys will begin training camp in Oxnard, California, on July 24.
During training camp, the front office and coaching staff will have to shrink the roster from 90 players to 53, in addition to eight practice-squad members.
The main theme of any NFL training camp is competition. Players will be competing against their teammates and themselves throughout the rigors of camp.
These men will be tested mentally and physically throughout their stay in Oxnard. Players will have to take what they learn in meetings and seamlessly transfer that to the practice field. Hesitation from a player could be the deciding factor between making the team and getting cut.
Coaches will put these players through multiple individual and team drills, hoping to achieve various goals. Some individual drills will be focused on improving technique, while others will test how well players utilize the technique.
Even though training camp may get monotonous at times, the Cowboys will have some notable practices that should break up the doldrums of camp. On August 3, the Blue and White scrimmage will take place, which will pit the Cowboys against one another in a full-contact scrimmage. On August 12-13, the Cowboys will practice alongside the Oakland Raiders.
Now that we know what training camp is from a broad perspective, let's take a look at some of the specifics, including training camp sleepers, position battles, the biggest questions surrounding the Cowboys and a very premature 53-man roster projection.
Every year during training camp, a player who was under the radar turns into a big contributor for the team. Last year George Selvie proved to be the biggest sleeper for the Cowboys. He wasn't on the team at the beginning of training camp last year, but once he was acquired (during camp), he worked his way up the depth chart and into a starting role.
This year will be no different. The Cowboys have a few players who can break out to make an impact.
The first training camp sleeper for the Cowboys is Jakar Hamilton. During mandatory minicamp, he was one of the impressive players, per ESPN Dallas' Todd Archer.
Last year Hamilton had a minimal impact on the team and was relegated to the practice squad for much of the season. He remains in the middle of the strong safety position battle throughout training camp.
Hamilton's biggest strength is his coverage ability. He could be the best coverage safety on the roster. DallasCowboys.com's Bryan Broaddus reported on Hamilton's game:
There is just a smoothness to his game when it comes to coverage, whether he is in the deep middle of the field or working in the slot handling a flexed tight end. His recognitions and reactions have been on point. He’s one of those players that finds his way to the ball with good angles. In his coverage, he’s in position to intercept the ball or make a play on it.
If there’s a defensive player that appears to have made a big jump from one season to another, Hamilton is that guy.
Hamilton will have to prove he can still play with fluidity while overcoming the mental obstacles that will be thrown at him.
If he can continue to play at the high level he showed throughout minicamp and OTAs, then he could find himself playing an impactful role on the Cowboys defense.
This is another year that Ben Bass is being slept on at the beginning of training camp. The past two years he has shown to be very impressive during training camp before being derailed by a season-ending injury.
This has caused him to fly under the radar once again. The biggest thing he has going for him is his versatility. He can play the 1- and 3-technique defensive tackle positions along with the strong-side defensive end spot.
Bass excels because of the effort he puts in. He always gives his all and never gives up on a play. This relentlessness leads to him beating people who have more talent but less resolve.
The key this year will be staying away from the injury bug and actually proving his worth in the regular season.
If Bass can remain healthy, he will become a vital cog in the interior defensive line rotation.
Ryan Williams was signed to compete with Joseph Randle for the third running back spot.
Williams has impressive short-area explosiveness with adequate vision. He is great when he uses one cut and decisively hits the hole. He plays with power while displaying a surprising amount of quickness.
He is a decent receiver out of the backfield with good hands. However, he needs to distinguish himself as a blocker if he hopes to beat Randle for a roster spot, according to Broaddus.
With the injury history of DeMarco Murray and Lance Dunbar, it is vital that Williams distinguishes himself as a reliable option in the backfield.
Every year, certain positions are up for grabs throughout the offseason and training camp.
There will be fierce competition between multiple players at the following positions. How each player does in each drill, meeting and preseason game will weigh heavily on whom the coaches choose to win that spot.
These are not the only spots that are up for grabs, but they certainly are the most important.
The Sean Lee injury has left the "Mike" or middle linebacker position in flux.
The Cowboys drafted Anthony Hitchens to be the backup, but it is not clear if he is ready to start yet. The Cowboys moved over Justin Durant from the "Sam" to Mike linebacker position to give it a veteran's presence. Then they traded for troubled linebacker Rolando McClain, shortly after mandatory minicamp ended.
McClain is the most talented of the group, but will his head get in the way or stay on football? Durant has the most football experience, but is he talented enough to warrant a starting position? Hitchens is the youngest, but will he be able to handle the mental stress that comes from the position?
All these questions must be answered before someone wins the starting job.
Strong-Side Defensive End
The questionable health of Anthony Spencer has left this position up in the air. He would likely be the starter if healthy; however, he is still working his way back to prime after a microfracture knee surgery and may start the season on the PUP list.
Without Spencer, George Selvie and Tyrone Crawford will compete for the starting job of strong-side defensive end. For my in-depth article on this position battle, click here.
At this point, Selvie is the better pass-rusher, while Crawford is better against the run. This competition will likely come down to which player shows more improvement throughout camp.
Crawford is younger and has the most potential of the two, but can he put it all together? Selvie was the biggest surprise on the Cowboys defense last year; can he do it again?
Training camp will provide the answers to both of these questions.
Strong safety has been a position of porous play for the Cowboys recently. It is very important for the defense that someone proves to be an effective strong safety during training camp.
J.J. Wilcox is likely the leader heading into training camp, with Matt Johnson, Jakar Hamilton and Jeff Heath competing to take that distinction away from him.
The Cowboys were burned on deep passing plays in vital moments last year partly because of poor coverage from the strong safety.
This is what makes Hamilton such an enticing possibility. His strength is his ability to excel in coverage.
While he may be the best in coverage, Wilcox is the most athletic and has the most potential out of the bunch. Jeff Heath is likely the smartest player of the safety group, while Matt Johnson may be the best all-around player.
Nevertheless, each player has big question marks entering training camp. Can Johnson stay healthy? Does Heath have enough talent to make a difference for the Cowboys? Can Hamilton become a better all-around safety? Will Wilcox realize his immense potential?
The answers to those questions will have a huge bearing on who will win the starting job.
One of the most important position battles will take place at left guard. Mackenzy Bernadeau and Ronald Leary were starters for the majority of last season at each guard spot. However, this year they will battle for the starting spot at left guard.
Leary is younger and has more upside, but Bernadeau played better for the most part last year. It will be interesting to see how the Cowboys split the snaps between them throughout training camp.
For Leary to win, he will have to improve his pass-blocking ability by becoming more consistent with his technique. Bernadeau needs to remain consistent to maximize his chances of winning the job.
Leary may be the leader at this point because of his age and upside; however, if he doesn't become more consistent, Bernadeau will win the job.
How will the Cowboys manage Tony Romo throughout training camp?
Tony Romo is arguably the most important player on the roster. How well he does will directly correlate with the success the Cowboys have this season. It is of the utmost importance that he remains healthy if the Cowboys hope to make the playoffs.
It will be interesting to see if the Cowboys put Romo on a snap count to try and save his body (mainly his back) from the wear and tear of training camp. The team must walk the fine line of allowing him to get enough reps in order to get ready for the season without putting too much stress on his 34-year-old body.
Dallas will have to be diligent to protect Romo, so he is healthy enough to get through an entire season and hopefully the playoffs.
How will offensive coordinator Scott Linehan utilize all the weapons on offense?
The Cowboys offense is loaded with weapons like Jason Witten, Dez Bryant, DeMarco Murray, Gavin Escobar, Lance Dunbar and Terrance Williams. However, it raises the conundrum of how to spread the ball around to best utilize every weapon.
Obviously, the Cowboys will make it a priority to get Bryant, Witten and Murray involved, but what about the rest of the weapons?
The intriguing aspect will be to see where Linehan lines up every player. During OTAs, he experimented with Bryant in the slot and Cole Beasley outside to get better matchups for the star receiver.
Escobar has also gotten some time in the slot in another attempt of a better matchup.
Also, it will be fascinating to see how much the Cowboys decide to run the ball. They were 31st in rush attempts last year, per NFL.com. Will Linehan focus more on running the ball, or will he try and air it out as the Cowboys did last year?
Overall, it will be riveting to see the creative formations and plays Linehan will use to get all the weapons involved on offense.
Who will be included in the defensive line rotation?
One of the most interesting storylines this offseason was the idea that the Cowboys are moving away from having starters get a large majority of the snaps on the defensive line to using a much bigger rotation of players.
On 105.3 the Fan, Cowboys' assistant director of player personnel Will McClay (h/t Blogging the Boys) said, "It's all in how you put the pieces together to build that depth of the seven-, eight-man line that you'll need in a rotation during the season if you're going to play fast and do the things that we do."
The idea is to keep the players on the defensive line fresh, so they can make a bigger impact late in games throughout the season. Since offensive linemen usually play every snap on offense, it will allow the Cowboys' defensive linemen to have the edge late in the game. Fatigue will not affect them as much as it will the opposing offensive line.
However, who will be the eight linemen in the rotation? The top six are likely locked in with Demarcus Lawrence, Henry Melton, Terrell McClain, Tyrone Crawford, George Selvie and Jeremy Mincey. There will be a competition for the last two spots in the rotation on the game-day roster.
Depth Chart and 53-Man Roster Prediction
- Tony Romo
- Brandon Weeden
- DeMarco Murray
- Lance Dunbar
- Ryan Williams
- J.C. Copeland
- Dez Bryant
- Terrance Williams
- Cole Beasley
- Devin Street
- Dwayne Harris
- LaRon Byrd
- Jason Witten
- Gavin Escobar
- James Hanna
- Dallas Walker
- Tyron Smith (LT)
- Ronald Leary (LG)
- Travis Frederick (C)
- Zack Martin (LG)
- Doug Free (LT)
- Darrion Weems (OT)
- Mackenzy Bernadeau (OG and C)
- Uche Nwaneri (OG)
- Demarcus Lawrence (WDE)
- Henry Melton (3-technique DT)
- Terrell McClain (1-technique DT)
- Tyrone Crawford (SDE)
- George Selvie (SDE)
- Jeremy Mincey (WDE)
- Ken Bishop (1-technique DT)
- Ben Bass (1- and 3-technique DT)
- Ben Gardner (SDE)
- Davon Coleman (3-technique DT)
- Bruce Carter (WLB)
- Rolando McClain (MLB)
- DeVonte Holloman (SLB)
- Kyle Wilber (SLB)
- Justin Durant (MLB)
- Anthony Hitchens (MLB and WLB)
- Brandon Carr
- Orlando Scandrick
- Morris Claiborne
- Terrance Mitchell
- Sterling Moore
- Barry Church (FS)
- Jakar Hamilton (SS)
- J.J. Wilcox (SS)
- Matt Johnson (SS)
- Ahmad Dixon (FS)
- Dan Bailey (K)
- Cody Mandell (P)
- L.P. Ladouceur (LS)
Practice Squad: Dustin Vaughan
Practice Squad: Ben Malena
Practice squad: L'Damian Washington and Chris Boyd
Practice squad: Brian Clarke (OG)
PUP: Anthony Spencer (SDE) and Amobi Okoye (1-technique DT)
Practice squad: Will Smith (WLB)
Practice squad: Tyler Patmon
Practice squad: Ryan Smith (FS)
In this projection, the Cowboys decide to go heavy on the defensive line to try and protect themselves from a rash of injuries like last year. The top eight will be on the active roster and get significant snaps as a part of the rotation.
At running back, Ryan Williams beats Joseph Randle for the last slot on the roster. Williams improves as a blocker, and his explosiveness and power prove to be better assets over Randle's shiftiness.
The Cowboys decide to keep LaRon Byrd over L'Damian Washington and Chris Boyd mainly because of his ability on special teams. Byrd shows the ability to be an impactful player on special teams while being competent enough as a receiver to warrant a spot on the roster.
Ronald Leary improves, warranting the Cowboys to give him the starting left guard position. He becomes more consistent with his technique, and his upside proves to be too much for Bernadeau.
Darrion Weems beats Jermey Parnell for the swing tackle position on the offensive line. Weems' age (25), upside and contract prove to be too much for Parnell to overcome.
Rolando McClain shows that his head is in the game and his talent shines throughout training camp, which causes the Cowboys to name him the starter at the Mike linebacker spot.
Terrance Mitchell and Sterling Moore beat out Tyler Patmon and B.W. Webb for the fourth and fifth cornerback positions. However, Patmon shows enough promise to land on the practice squad.
Cody Mandell shows that he is better than Chris Jones and wins the punting job.
The last spot on the roster comes down to Jeff Heath and Dallas Walker. Ultimately, Walker's in-line blocking is deemed to be more valuable than Heath's special teams ability.
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