Breaking Down Dallas Cowboys' Likely Opening-Game Starting Lineup
Now that the Cowboys have returned to Dallas and broken training camp, their opening-game starting roster appears much more clear. There are still two more preseason games left, but certain players have all but earned their starting jobs.
The Cowboys who take the field against the San Francisco 49ers Week 1 will look far different than the group that lost its 2013 regular-season finale to the Philadelphia Eagles. There are many new faces donning the star this season, particularly on defense.
With the regular season inching closer and closer, here is a sneak peek at the Cowboys' most likely opening-game starters.
Starter: Tony Romo
It's no surprise that Tony Romo will be under center for the Cowboys Week 1. The team has slowly eased him back into practices after the veteran completed his second back surgery in as many offseasons.
Romo isn't exactly known as an injury-prone quarterback, but he is 34 years old and has the aforementioned back issues. If he can stay healthy for a full 16 games, Dallas can compete for the NFC East title.
It's likely Romo could put up somewhere between 28-34 touchdowns and only 10-12 interceptions if he stays on the field. He has posted just 10 picks in two of the last three seasons. The Eastern Illinois alum hasn't thrown less than 28 touchdowns since coming back from his broken collarbone in 2010.
If he can stay near 100 percent, Romo is primed to have another solid season for his team.
Starter: DeMarco Murray
Despite missing two games due to injury, Murray posted 1,121 yards and nine touchdowns, good for a trip to the Pro Bowl. Talent has never stopped the 2011 third-round pick from joining the upper echelon of backs; it has been injuries.
Like his quarterback, Murray is poised for a fine season if he can stay on the field for a full regular season. After underutilizing him in 2013, the Dallas coaching staff has to realize No. 29 is a focal point for the offensive side.
Starters: Dez Bryant and Terrance Williams
Dez Bryant is one of the five-best wide receivers in the NFL. Terrance Williams put together a fine rookie campaign, posting 736 yards and five touchdowns. There's a lot to like about the Cowboys' starting duo at this position.
Bryant and Williams caught 18 of Romo's 31 touchdowns last season. It's clear the quarterback trusts these two not only in the red zone, but anywhere on the field.
Williams could easily tally 1,000 yards this year. Bryant could easily account for 1,600 yards and 15 touchdowns opposite the sophomore receiver.
Dallas isn't a Super Bowl favorite or anything, but this team's strength is in its offense, specifically the passing game. Expect both of these starting receivers to take steps forward in their career in 2014.
Starter: Jason Witten
Continuing with the few surprises on offense, Jason Witten is the clear starter at tight end for Dallas.
He is a future Hall of Famer and one of the best in the NFL at his position at blocking and receiving. In a league full of receiver-like tight ends, Witten is quickly becoming a gritty throwback.
With so many other options in this offense, Witten isn't likely to break 1,000 yards this year like he did in 2012. Something closer to 750-800 is a more likely output, but expect a hefty amount of catches. Romo always looks to No. 82 on third-down plays and underneath when nobody else is open.
This year probably won't be the flashiest of Witten's career, but he'll play his role well for this offense.
Left Tackle: Tyron Smith
Left Guard: Ron Leary
Center: Travis Frederick
Right Guard: Zack Martin
Right Tackle: Doug Free
Once one of the glaring holes on the Cowboys roster, the offensive line is arguably the team's strongest unit. Dallas has spent three first-round picks (Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin) in recent years on solidifying this position.
All of the starters on this unit are pretty much locked in with the exception of the left guard spot. Last year's starter, Mackenzy Bernadeau, and Ron Leary have been battling all camp for that starting role.
As camp concluded, Rainer Sabin of The Dallas Morning News wrote that it appears Leary has gained the edge in the competition. He makes note that this is the ideal scenario for Dallas, as Bernadeau is experienced playing different roles on the line.
Time will tell who wins that job, but if it stays as close as it is now, Leary should get it. Bernadeau's versatility would be key if any of the starters were to suffer an injury, which makes him an ideal backup.
Defensive Tackle: Henry Melton and Nick Hayden
Defensive End: George Selvie and Jeremy Mincey
George Selvie and Nick Hayden are the lone holdovers from last year's starting crew on the defensive line. Henry Melton was easily Dallas' biggest free-agent signing and will be looking to make up for a 2013 season lost due to injury.
Terrell McClain and Jeremy Mincey were also brought in through free agency and will surely hope to make the most of their roles in Dallas.
McClain has been a career-long backup and should add solid depth behind Hayden. Mincey hasn't started full-time since his 2012 season in Jacksonville.
Anthony Spencer could easily become a starter once cleared to play, but don't expect him game-ready come Week 1. DeMarcus Lawrence will surely get plenty of reps after he comes back from injury as well. Unfortunately for the Cowboys, their second-round pick is projected to miss half the season.
McClain could make a late push to dethrone Hayden as a starter. He was having a fine camp before suffering an ankle injury. Due to Hayden's familiarity with the defense and the fact he started 16 games last year, he still has the edge for the gig.
This line has a ton of new faces, and it's likely finding chemistry will take some time, regardless of who is starting and who is on the bench.
Weak-side Linebacker: Bruce Carter
Middle Linebacker: Justin Durant
Strong-side Linebacker: Kyle Wilber
Injuries have already begun to plague the Dallas linebacking corps. Sean Lee will miss the entire 2014 season. DeVonte Holloman and rookie Anthony Hitchens were injured in Dallas' 37-30 exhibition loss to the Baltimore Ravens.
The extent of Holloman and Hitchens' injuries are not yet known. That being said, the Cowboys have few options other than to start Justin Durant, Bruce Carter and Kyle Wilber.
Durant has been practicing mostly with the ones since Lee went down. He is a veteran talent who played some significant time with the 'Boys last year. Carter struggled at times last year in the new 4-3 scheme but should improve with a full season in the system under his belt.
Wilber is the wild card in this picture. He is the most unproved among these projected starters with just six career starts over two seasons.
The Wake Forest product came to Dallas as a defensive end, but necessity pushed him to learn linebacker last year. ESPNDallas.com's Todd Archer believes he will be put in that same role again this regular season.
It's possible that Holloman earns the strong-side starting job if his injury doesn't turn out to be serious. He is the most likely to overthrow Wilber for the job. Due to Holloman's questionable health following the Ravens game, though, pencil Wilber in as the starter.
Left Cornerback: Brandon Carr
Right Cornerback: Morris Claiborne
Strong Safety: Barry Church
Free Safety: J.J. Wilcox
Many safeties have been gunning for the job starting next to Barry Church at safety. With training camp now concluded and two preseason games in the books, it's hard to believe J.J. Wilcox won't be the one to get it.
Wilcox was the favorite heading into the competition due to the fact he's a 2013 third-round pick. He started next to Church for a bit last season but ultimately lost it to Jeff Heath.
After a solid camp, Wilcox will open the season in the role he once had last year. Morris Claiborne will also get his own attempt at redemption at cornerback.
Due to mediocre play on his part and stellar efforts by Orlando Scandrick, Claiborne was demoted to the nickel corner role last year. Scandrick has been suspended for the first four games of the upcoming season due to violating the NFL's performance-enhancing drug policy.
With Scandrick gone for the first month, Claiborne will have four opportunities to prove he is indeed the starter he was drafted to be. Both Claiborne and Wilcox will have to work to keep their roles but are safe bets to start Week 1.
Kicker: Dan Bailey
Punter: Chris Jones
Kick Returner: Joseph Randle
Punt Returner: Dwayne Harris
There won't be a ton of change on the special teams side of the football this year in Dallas. The one real change is at the kickoff returner position, which will go to Joseph Randle.
The second-year back has seen a fair amount of playing time at the position so far in the preseason. He hasn't had many eye-opening runs, but it's tough to imagine who else would do well in the role.
Randle won't be as big an impact as Dwayne Harris in the return game, but he'll do a serviceable job.
Harris averaged almost 13 yards per punt return last year and a touchdown. He proved to be an explosive special teams option last year for Dallas, and he'll get the chance to be one again this year.
Dan Bailey and Chris Jones will handle the kicking and punting duties, respectively. Both will be hoping to put together solid seasons as they did in 2013.