Harder Knocks: Previewing Five Dallas Cowboys Camp Battles

Richie ZawistowskiCorrespondent IMay 12, 2009

After a disappointing 2008 season, the knocks this year will indeed be harder than last, as the Dallas Cowboys have a lot to prove this summer in OTA’s, (Organized Team Activities) mini camps and training camp.

This past season, HBO filmed Dallas for their “Hard Knocks” series, which showcased the team during training camp, and gave the casual viewer a glimpse of what a camp is like for an NFL team.  While there will be no HBO this summer, Dallas is looking for several rookies and veterans to battle it out and earn their position on the Cowboys.

Dallas has made several changes this offseason, as they did not retain 15 players from the past season.  They have released or traded five players, and chose to let 10 others walk by not retaining them in free agency. 

With these losses, Dallas will look to add new faces after a monumental disaster in 2008.  Gone is Terrell Owens.  As are defensive starters Chris Canty, Anthony Henry, Zach Thomas, and safety Roy Williams. 

Bad boys Adam Jones and Tank Johnson are also not with the team anymore.  Nickel linebacker Kevin Burnett chose to sign with San Diego, and the team released backup quarterback Brad Johnson.

These roster changes open up opportunities for other players to capitalize on, and earn playing time through their hard work and preparation during the summer.

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Dallas will hold their OTA’s from May 19-21, 26-28, June 2-4, and again on June 8-10.  Minicamps are scheduled to start on June 16 and run through the 18th.  Although the team’s training camp dates have not yet been announced, the Cowboys are expected to start camp in San Antonio the last week of July.

There will be several players battling each other on the depth chart, but here are five positions to keep an eye on this summer.

Cornerback:  Mike Jenkins/Orlando Scandrick

Dallas shipped Anthony Henry to Detroit back on Feb. 28 in return for Jon Kitna, who will fill in at backup quarterback after Johnson’s release.  A main reason for doing so is because the team has the utmost confidence in second-year corners Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick to take over at right cornerback.

Jenkins, who the Cowboys selected 25th  overall in the 2008 draft, struggled at times in his rookie season, including a non-attempt to tackle Derrick Ward during a loss in the Meadowlands.  However, the Cowboys like his aggressiveness in man coverage, and he has fairly good closing speed.  Jenkins had an up and down rookie season, although Dallas likes what they see in him.

Scandrick however, may have been the steal of the 2008 rookie class. 

The Cowboys originally had a third-round grade on Scandrick who would eventually fall down to the fifth.  Even though Dallas had recently traded for Adam Jones and drafted Mike Jenkins, they traded up to pick No. 143, giving up fifth and seventh round picks to get Scandrick. 

Scandrick has great speed, and is versatile, playing on special teams and as the team’s nickel corner in 2008.  There has also been talk of the team moving him to safety in certain packages.

This is the battle to watch during camp.  Both of these players are hungry and full of promise.  It is too close to call right now, although Scandrick had the better rookie campaign.  This is type of competition that brings out the best in players and really helps a team.

Running Back:  Felix Jones/Tashard Choice

Rookie running back sensation Felix Jones was lost for the season this past year after week six, and Marion Barber missed time as well due to a lingering toe injury.  This allowed fourth round pick Tashard Choice a chance to shine, in which he took full advantage of.

Choice proved to be more than capable at running back, and will most likely see an increase in snaps this upcoming season.

Barber is not in jeopardy of losing his job, as they are not paying him a seven-year, $45 million contract to sit on the bench.  However, it will be interesting to look at who will be Barbers backup halfback, as Dallas has three running backs all able to get the job done.

Make no mistake about it, though, Jones will get his touches.  He is too explosive to not touch the ball several times a game, but he will be used in a variety of ways as a receiver and a runner and potentially again on kickoffs.

Due to Choice’s success, it will be worth noting who the coaches go with at backup running back.  While Jones is more explosive, Choice is viewed as a better all around back, as he is better in pass protection and running between the tackles. 

As previously stated, Jones with get his touches, but Choice has a chance to get an equal amount if he can build off of last season.  He showed great vision and good burst through the hole, and was able to pick up tough yards against extremely tough defenses.

It is doubtful that there will be a defined backup running back.  Barber is still the guy, but these two will still see plenty of time on the field.  With Jones likely to be moved around a lot, look for Choice to be more of the traditional running back taking handoffs.

Wide Receiver:  Patrick Crayton/Miles Austin

With Owens moving on to Buffalo, Roy Williams moves into the No. 1 role.  Through the domino effect, this opens up the number two position for grabs between Patrick Crayton and Miles Austin.

Dallas really likes Austin’s combination of size and speed, and are trying to sign him to a multi-year extension, after signing him to a one-year, $1.54 million deal.  He showed flashes of big play potential last year, averaging 21.4 yards per catch while hauling in three touchdowns, and would be a very nice compliment to Williams. 

Dallas is looking for him to be in the Alvin Harper mold from the 90’s—a guy capable of stretching the field and keeping defenses on their toes.  While it is doubtful he will ever be a go-to guy, he can play a nice role in the Dallas passing game.

Crayton has been Mr. Steady the past few seasons, as he has gone from being a slot receiver to a starter, then back to a slot receiver after the mid-season acquisition of Williams last year.

Crayton has good hands and has a comfort level with Tony Romo.  He is able to find space in zone coverage, and besides Jason Witten, has caught more passes from Romo than any other player on the roster.  Crayton is best suited to play in the slot, but experience and fairly good set hands could keep him starting opposite Williams.

If Austin can improve on his route running and catching the football, look for Austin to beat out Crayton as the No. 2 receiver.

Strong Safety:  Gerald Sensabaugh/Michael Hamlin

Two strong safeties from last season no longer remain on the roster. 

The team cut ties with Roy Williams and chose not to re-sign Keith Davis.  Dallas signed Gerald Sensabaugh from Jacksonville, and also drafted Michael Hamlin from Clemson in the fifth round, who was originally thought to be a third or fourth round pick by many.

Sensabaugh was brought in partially due to his experience with new special teams coach Joe DeCamillis this past season in Jacksonville.  Sensabaugh is a good special teams player, and will be given an opportunity at safety after starting 13 games in 2008 with Jacksonville, in which he recorded 70 tackles and four interceptions. 

Sensabaugh is hardly a ballhawk, yet is a major upgrade from Roy Williams at safety.  The team had an eye on him in the 2005 draft, but the Jaguars snatched him up instead.

Hamlin is a safety with good size and decent ball skills.  It will take an outstanding camp for him to supplant Sensabaugh as the starter, but it is not out of the question for Hamlin to win the job. 

With no relation to fellow safety Ken Hamlin, he is a similar player to Ken.  Michael has stiff hips at time and can get beat in coverage, but with hard work he has the ability to see the field a good amount as a rookie, probably more than any other rookie.

Sensabaugh is more experienced, and a better fit for what the Cowboys are trying to do in their secondary.  Sensabaugh will likely be starting opposite Ken Hamlin in the opener.

Nickel Linebacker:  Bobby Carpenter/Jason Williams

With Kevin Burnett leaving to San Diego, the Cowboys have a big role to fill at linebacker in their nickel defense.  Although the team signed Keith Brooking, they view him as more of a two-down player, as he does not have the athletic ability he had once in his career. 

The team drafted Jason Williams who has outstanding physical abilities, but is extremely raw coming from Western Illinois.  Bobby Carpenter who will be entering his fourth season, will be given one final shot to make an impact.

Carpenter has to be thrilled as he may finally have a role that is best suited for him. 

First slotted to play at outside linebacker in 2006, Phillips moved him inside in 2007.  He has been stuck behind Bradie James, Akin Ayodele, Zach Thomas, and Kevin Burnett. 

With the team signing veteran inside linebackers the past two off-seasons, it does not bode well for his role in a starting defense.  However, in the nickel, Carpenter can find a role playing a style similar to the 4-3 that he played at Ohio State.

Carpenter can run and cover, and also has moderate ability to get to the quarterback, although, he does have trouble at the point of attack at times. 

For whatever reason, head coach Wade Phillips has not seen enough out of him to warrant playing time.  Carpenter needs to prove that he can produce when given a chance, something that he hasn’t had much of in Dallas.

Williams is a player with tremendous physical ability, (he ran a 4.49 40 at the Cowboys Pro Day) and Dallas drafted him to eventually be Kevin Burnett’s replacement in the nickel. 

However being a rookie from a small school, he has a lot of ground to make up from a mental standpoint.  Williams will be brought in to play special teams immediately, but will be given a chance at linebacker. 

He needs to get the mental aspects down quickly so he is not thinking on the field, but rather letting his athletic abilities take over the task at hand.

Williams will be given every opportunity to win the nickel spot, but he is too raw and not ready for the job come the start of the season.  When he becomes more comfortable in the defense, look for him to supplant Carpenter, but expect Carpenter to be lining up alongside Bradie James in the nickel come opening day.

There will be several other position battles in camp, but the five mentioned above may have the most impact on the 2009 season.  It will be interesting to see how things shape up for Dallas come opening day.

They say that championships are won in the offseason.  This group of players for the Cowboys can help lay the foundation of tough competition for a deep playoff run.

Otherwise, the knocks will be even harder next year.


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