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Sullivan: Three Things To Watch Early In Camp
The author of “America’s Team: The Official History of the Dallas Cowboys,” Sullivan also writes a new column in each issue of Dallas Cowboys Star Magazine. For subscription information, please click here.
Seems like forever ago we were talking about DeMarcus Ware and Johnny Manziel. It's been pretty boring since the NFL Draft, outside of the devastating Sean Lee injury and for those stretching for a headline on the recent release of Kyle Orton.
We're now less than a week from the start of training camp. Finally. The majority don't realize how long the offseason really is, especially for non-playoff teams, because the league, and the Cowboys in particular, still appear in more or less every news cycle. Think about this, though: It's been exactly 200 days since the Cowboys played a game. That's kind of a long time. And we're still seven-plus weeks away from the season opener and San Francisco.
So what are we watching for in Oxnard? Not worried about Tony Romo's back. He's going to be fine, just as healthy as any other quarterback entering the year. Even more so than, say, Peyton Manning, who no one is worried about. Not worried about long-term deals for Dez Bryant and Tyron Smith in the least. Can absolutely guarantee both are going to be inked. This is one of those guarantees up there with death, taxes and Nicholas Cage making crappy movies.
There are some pressing issues, though. Here are three to watch during the first few weeks of camp:
Defensive leadership: The leaders of this group the last three years have been Jason Hatcher, Ware and Lee. No one can dispute that. The word leadership is thrown around when talking about professional sports like those airport dudes tossing luggage – without much thought. Leadership is not saying you’re a leader. It's not yelling and screaming or leading pregame pep talks. It's about ownership, accountability, leading by example. The best players are doing extra reps at practice or in the weight room, that means the majority will follow. Watching film, talking with coaches, living and breathing football, picking up teammates, asking questions, practicing with intensity and purpose. And even that's just a small portion of what goes into being a leader.
There are candidates, some quite promising. This is going to be Bruce Carter's defense. The scheme is being revolved around him making plays, so he's the first option. Barry Church possesses some of those Darren Woodson qualities and seemed to be the quarterback of the secondary last season, so he makes sense, too. Still, though, we need to see it. Saying someone is ready to be a leader and becoming one are two different animals entirely.
Also going to need someone up front, each of the positions (line, linebackers, secondary) needs its own leader. Not much experience with the ends and tackles outside of Anthony Spencer. Am hearing more and more that he's healthier and progressing quicker than anyone imagined, so he's the obvious answer. After that, not sure. George Selvie is well-respected and quite articulate. Don't know much about Henry Melton at this point. Could see Tyrone Crawford evolving in time.
For me, this is issue No. 1 at camp.
Gavin Escobar: This isn't the first time I've discussed my lofty expectations for the second-year tight end. It would be among the two or three biggest surprises of my six years covering the team if Escobar isn't the most improved player on the offense. Going to line up all over the place – in the slot, out of the back, H-back style, second tight end, split out. Tight ends take time to develop, and while not a finished product in the least, it was obvious during OTAs just how far he has progressed.
This isn't to say Jason Witten is going to see fewer targets. It's going to be a different kind of offense with Scott Linehan calling the plays, and one of the goals is creating more targets for Escobar, taking advantage of his strengths, especially in the end zone. And if the blocking isn't where it needs to be, he'll simply come off the field in those situations. Not like every tight end in the NFL blocks, this is hardly a secret.
It's going to be a fun offense to watch with options in every direction and a strong line. And Escobar is going to play a huge role.
Rookies: This is not one of those rookie classes that can contribute here and there on special teams and develop. At least not if Jason Garrett and the coaching staff are hoping for long-term job security. This group has to make an impact, likely two starters in Zack Martin and DeMarcus Lawrence and a few more rotation guys. And we all know a couple of undrafted free agents will emerge from nowhere to make the team. Who will those players be? Jeff Heath played 613 snaps last season, more than Morris Claiborne.
Lots of questions with this group: Is Martin ready from day one at guard? Can Lawrence be this team's top pass rusher, which he almost has to be? Does Anthony Hitchens factor in at middle linebacker? Any impact from wideout Devin Street? Or maybe L'Damian Washington if he's healthy? Does Cody Mandell win the punting gig? And does fullback J.C. Copeland injure half the defense during the Blue-White scrimmage?
There are 31 rookies currently on the roster. Am guessing about 10 are still around the first week of September, maybe a few more including the practice squad. Always fun to see who stands out the first few weeks of camp.