Dallas Cowboys Training Camp: 5 Early Storylines to Watch

Jonathan Bales@thecowboystimesAnalyst IJuly 21, 2014

Dallas Cowboys Training Camp: 5 Early Storylines to Watch

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    Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    With the Dallas Cowboys’ 2014 training camp right around the corner, there are a number of important storylines to monitor in Big D. A perennial 8-8 team, the Cowboys are in a unique position as a squad with unusually high upside when you consider their very mediocre roster.

    A lot of that upside is due to the presence of quarterback Tony Romo, who could very well lead this team to a division championship if the Cowboys get even average play from their defense. That defense is where the majority of this year’s question marks lie, and the play of both Romo and the defense is going to determine how far the Cowboys can go.

    In addition to Romo’s evolution as a quarterback, here are five important questions surrounding Dallas as it heads into training camp.

5. Can the Cowboys Improve on Third Down?

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    LM Otero/Associated Press

    A lot of analysts talk about third-down efficiency. Todd Archer of ESPN Dallas recently wrote:

    To me this is the biggest area in which the Cowboys need to improve. They converted just 35 percent of their third-down opportunities. The Cowboys scored a lot of points (27.4 a game) but they couldn't stay on the field. That was surprising, although I realize the more you score, the less plays you run. But that was the lowest percentage by far since the Cowboys adopted Jason Garrett's offense. The lowest before last season was 39.4 percent in 2011. In 2012, they converted 43.9 percent of the time, which was the highest in Garrett's era. Last season's offseason focus was improving in the red zone, and the Cowboys did that. This season the improvement has to come on third down.

    There’s no doubt that third downs are extremely important, but I think there’s a general misconception that offenses should do everything in their power to improve their third-down conversion rate.

    I disagree completely. When you start to call plays in a manner that helps optimize third-down conversions, you necessarily limit overall offensive efficiency. The easiest way to improve on third down is to decrease the yardage needed to gain a first down, which could be accomplished by running the ball on first and second downs. In doing that, though, offenses would simply see more third downs.

    Converting 40 percent of 50 third downs is much superior to converting 42 percent of 100 third downs; it’s OK to get a first down on first and second downs, too.

    The best offense isn’t the one that has the highest third-down conversion rate, but rather the one that avoids third down altogether by calling plays optimally on first and second down. That might occasionally lead to 3rd-and-10, but it will also help accomplish the goal for any offense: scoring points.

4. Who Will Replace LB Sean Lee?

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    LM Otero/Associated Press

    Few preseason injuries could have hurt the Cowboys as much as the one that bit linebacker Sean Lee. The Cowboys now need to find his replacement, and there aren’t exactly a lot of quality replacements; Justin Durant, Anthony Hitchens, DeVonte Holloman and even Rolando McClain are in the mix.

    ESPN Dallas’ Todd Archer believes Durant is the front-runner:

    Well, it will start for real next week when the Cowboys get to Oxnard, California. Justin Durant enters as the frontrunner, for sure. Perhaps Rolando McClain gets in the mix if he shows up in shape and wanting to play football. Maybe DeVonte Holloman or Anthony Hitchens get in the mix, too. But Durant has the inside track for the job. The coaches like what he did last season and believe he can handle the spot. He is athletic enough. He is smart enough.

    The good news is that the Cowboys have some youth at the position, and I actually like Holloman’s long-term prospects, particularly in coverage, but this isn’t a situation that bodes well for this team in 2014.

3. Who Will Win the Free Safety Job?

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Rainer Sabin of The Dallas Morning News previewed the safety battle in Dallas:

    J.J. Wilcox and Jeff Heath: There is little doubt the Cowboys want Wilcox to start alongside Barry Church at the strong-side safety spot. Wilcox was a third-round pick with loads of potential. Heath, on the other hand, was an undrafted free agent who missed too many tackles and flopped in pass coverage at key moments. Last season, a sprained knee suffered by Wilcox gave Heath the opportunity to start the final nine games. But Wilcox appears ready to reclaim the job he lost as a rookie.

    Heath is interesting in that you could make a case that he’s the most athletic safety on the Cowboys’ roster—certainly more athletic than Wilcox. He also struggled badly in 2013, so the on-field edge goes to Wilcox.

    I was surprised to see that in a recent Blogging the Boys roundup of six Cowboys roster projections, only two experts thought that Matt Johnson will make the final roster. I understand the injury concerns, but I’d argue that Johnson is near 100 percent to make the team if he stays healthy.

    So what are the chances that he remains on the field? Even if he’s injury-prone, which is likely the case, you’d have to think better than a coin flip. So with over a 50 percent chance of staying healthy and, say, a 95 percent chance of making the team if healthy, you’d think Johnson has a better-than-not chance of sticking with Dallas this season.

2. Who Is Going to Get to the Passer?

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    LM Otero/Associated Press

    The writers at DallasCowboys.com recently broke down where the Cowboys’ pass rush is going to come from in 2014. I like Rowan Kavner’s answer: “The answer needs to be 'everywhere,' because no one’s going to approach the 14-sack mark that DeMarcus Ware hit four times during his career with the Cowboys.”

    As much as I’m bullish on George Selvie and the long-term future of DeMarcus Lawrence, you could make a case that even a single double-digit-sack player is unlikely for Dallas this year. That means that to generate a serious pass rush, the defense is going to need a modest number of sacks from a whole lot of players.

    Last year, the average number of defensive sacks was 40.5, and only three teams reached 50. Even to get to the league average, you need to start handing out some pretty liberal sack marks to certain players.

    • George Selvie: 8 sacks
    • DeMarcus Lawrence: 7 sacks
    • Henry Melton: 7 sacks
    • Tyrone Crawford: 6 sacks
    • Anthony Spencer: 4 sacks
    • Other: ?

    To reach 40.5 sacks with these numbers, we’d need to see the “other” group record 8.5 sacks. That’s certainly possible, but it would mean no slip-ups from anyone listed here. And what are the chances that Selvie, Lawrence and Melton all truly record at least seven sacks apiece? Fifteen percent? Twenty-five at the most?

    The problem is a lack of upside. Who on the Cowboys can make up for the other guys with an abundance of sacks? I’m not sure they have anyone like that. The closest they have to “wild cards” are Lawrence and Crawford, who I’d argue are going to be the two most pivotal pass-rushers for Dallas this year.

1. When Will DT Henry Melton, DE Anthony Spencer Be Back?

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    Uncredited/Associated Press

    A big part of that Cowboys pass rush will come down to the presence of defensive tackle Henry Melton and defensive end Anthony Spencer—two players at different stages in their recoveries from injury.

    According to Brandon George of The Dallas Morning News, it looks like Melton will be able to participate in team drills on Thursday. Meanwhile, it could be a while until we see Spencer.

    The Cowboys and Spencer hope he can practice at some point during training camp, but he’s not likely to be ready to participate before August. In fact, there’s a real possibility Spencer could start the season on the physically unable to perform list, which would keep him out of the Cowboys’ first six games.

    At this point, the Cowboys need to plan their defense as though they won’t even have Spencer available. His possible return, whenever that may be, should be viewed as a bonus.