IRVING, Texas – While the Cowboys already have technically started training camp with three days of workouts at Valley Ranch, the real thing actually begins this weekend.
That's when the Cowboys as a team depart for Oxnard, Calif. – arriving on Saturday before Monday's first official practice.
And that's when we will get our first real look at the 2012 Cowboys and see if all of these changes will actually produce better results on the field. There are questions to answer, position battles to settle and much more to be done before the Cowboys play the defending champion New York Giants in the regular-season opener on Sept. 5.
But that's what training camp is for. To get you even more prepared, here is what DallasCowboys.com writers Bryan Broaddus, Josh Ellis and Nick Eatman will be watching closely as training camp gets underway.
Nick: Before Dez Bryant's arrest on July 16, I would've said the wide receiver position. Now with this incident, which could lead to a possible suspension for Bryant . . . of course it's still the receiver position. There are just too many question marks. Can Bryant be focused? Will he be suspended? Can Miles Austin stay healthy? Can Kevin Ogletree finally turn the corner? Can any of the other guys play at all? You've got 11 on the roster but only two who will for sure be on the roster.
Bryan: The offensive line. I think this wide receiver and inside linebacker situation will take care of itself. There are a lot of moving parts here. You are switching tackles and have new guards and a center that, at times, gives you no confidence. Bill Callahan is one of the best offensive line coaches in the league and he is outstanding at making adjustments, but it will test every bit of skill that he has to bring this group together against some of the best fronts in the NFL that this group will face.
Josh: I think this team has a lot of things to sort out between now and September, but so does the rest of the league. Usually, a good training camp is one when the team escapes without too many players being banged up. That's why I'm taking team health as the biggest story of these next three and a half weeks. The more bumps and bruises and long-term injuries the Cowboys can avoid in Oxnard, the better they'll be when the season starts.
Most Intriguing Battle:
Nick: Since I'm already saying the receiver position is the biggest issue, I'll focus on the safety spot. I've said all along that Barry Church should be given the chance to start, and I'll stick with it. I believe if he gets a fair amount of reps, Church will beat out Brodney Pool for the starting job. But it's interesting to see where Matt Johnson can fit in, assuming he can get healthy.
Bryan: Inside linebacker. Its Bruce Carter's job now, but Dan Connor will not go quietly. I will say that whoever wins this job will be the best man. Connor has the experience and the understanding of the position, while Carter has the physical traits but lacks the experience. Both players will have to be at their best each day and in these preseason games.
Josh:The right guard spot still seems very much in flux to me, with Mackenzy Bernadeau starting camp on the Physically Unable to Perform list. It's still hard to say how long he'll be out, and what kind of shape he'll be in when he returns. In the meantime, does Ron Leary prove he's one of the best five linemen? Or, does he prove he's better than Phil Costa, which means Bernadeau slides to center?
Nick: Not sure this would be a huge surprise to everyone else considering it has been brought up, but I'd still be surprised if Marcus Spears gets released. He's a savvy veteran who is a good locker room player and plays an underappreciated position. But if the Cowboys really like Sean Lissemore, Clifton Geathers and rookie Tyrone Crawford, there doesn't seem to be room for both Spears and Kenyon Coleman. Since Coleman is the starter and has ties with Rob Ryan and his staff, I'd say Coleman gets the nod there and Spears might not make it after camp.
Bryan: I think it's going to be one of the veteran defensive ends, Coleman or Spears. There are three good young defensive ends on this roster with Lissemore, Crawford and Geathers. The front office might decide to go long at this spot if they only keep two quarterbacks. It's hard to find defensive linemen on the street but depending on other positions, a cut might have to come from this group.
Josh:One thing we know about the Cowboys under Jason Garrett – he's not afraid of axing a draft pick or three. I think fourth-rounder Matt Johnson is probably safe despite falling behind this summer when he wasn't able to practice, but fifth-round receiver Danny Coale may get lost in the shuffle at wide receiver if his foot doesn't hurry up and get better. Sixth-round tight end James Hanna faces competition from undrafted Andrew Szczerba and seventh-round inside linebacker Caleb McSurdy has to win a battle against practice squad vet Orie Lemon. And speaking of draft picks being in serious danger, I think last year's fourth-round guard David Arkin has a lot to prove, too.
Nick: The late addition of running back Ed Wesley is interesting, but I still think the Cowboys really like another rookie, Lance Dunbar. Wesley could be just a free look at a local player. But Dunbar has a legitimate shot to unseat Phillip Tanner for the No. 3 spot. Not only that, but Dunbar could be a valuable return specialist. He's small, but lightning quick and I think he finds his way onto this roster.
Bryan: The surprise keep for me is Cole Beasley. I really do like the young guys on the defensive side of the ball, Adrian Hamilton, Isaac Madison and Lionel Smith, but I think that the coaches are going to give Beasley every chance to make this team. If he can show something from the outside and special team's value, he will be hard to cut but if not, watch those defensive kids.
Josh:As much as folks have written him off since he signed, I really do think the Cowboys will keep safety Brodney Pool whether or not he beats out Barry Church for a starting job. Church will still be an unproven commodity, and there's nobody ready to start, in my opinion, behind Gerald Sensabaugh. Plus Rob Ryan and Jerome Henderson wanted him here. Pool stays.
Nick:Maybe this isn't a major surprise, but I have high expectations for Sean Lissemore this year. He'll definitely be in the rotation and will play a lot in 2012, but I wouldn't be surprised if he ends up starting. So far, his career is very reminiscent to Jay Ratliff, who by his third season was a starter and never looked back. I think Lissemore could have that kind of impact at defensive end.
Bryan: Has to be Lissemore for me. Maybe it's the scout in me but I always cheer for guys like this - Hard-nosed, tough, relentless guys who play with desire and technique. I love the fact that he can play inside or out. There are a lot of positive traits in his game. He will push very hard for a starting job here.
Josh:I'll go with Leary.The Cowboys have guaranteed half his base salary for this year, sign enough that he's making the team, and they had such a high grade on him (aside from the knee concerns) that it leads me to believe they feel he's as talented as anyone they have on the interior of the line. If the long-term stability of that knee is a worry, the Cowboys might feel obliged to try to get their money's worth while they can.