Phillips: Top 3 Rookies Face Competition To Start, But Will Have Roles

OXNARD, Calif. – The weekend after the NFL Draft, Jerry Jones couldn't recall three rookies in a Cowboys class rated as highly on their board as Byron Jones, Randy Gregory and La'el Collins.

Todd McShay's own big board supported Jones' stance: The ESPN draft insider ranked all three in the top 40 (Gregory at 18, Collins at 22 and Jones at 37).

Yet, there's a chance none will start Week One against the Giants.

Huh? Three first-round talents coming off the bench?

Yep, it's possible. And it actually has nothing to do with their football potential.

It's a sign the Cowboys have depth. As much as any season since 2000.

Only four times this century have the Cowboys opened a season without a single draft pick in the starting lineup. (I'm counting Collins as a draft pick because he would've been a top-20 selection if not for unprecedented and unfortunate circumstances beyond his control.)

Here's the list:

2014: G Zack Martin

2013: C Travis Frederick, WR Terrance Williams

2012: CB Mo Claiborne

2011: T Tyron Smith

2010: None

2009: None

2008: None

2007: LB Anthony Spencer

2006: S Pat Watkins

2005: LB DeMarcus Ware

2004: None

2003: CB Terence Newman, TE Jason Witten

2002: C Andre Gurode, WR Antonio Bryant, S Roy Williams

2001: QB Quincy Carter

2000: CB Kareem Larrimore

Now, we all know head coach Jason Garrett isn't into comparisons. No way he'll declare the Cowboys deep, talented, wonderful in early August. He just wants competition at as many positions as possible.

"Hopefully we've raised the talent level on our team, but there is still competition really throughout," he said. "Guys to be starters, guys to be role players, guys to make the team."

I'll say it for Garrett: The Cowboys have raised their talent level over his four and a half seasons as head coach. In today's salary cap era, teams typically must replace one-third of their roster each offseason. And high draft picks are often made starters out of sheer necessity.

In 2008 and 2010, coming off a pair of NFC East titles, the Cowboys were deep enough to bring the likes of Felix Jones, Mike Jenkins, Dez Bryant and Sean Lee off the bench early. In 2009, the Cowboys didn't make their first selection until the third round, and in 2004 not until the second round. The odds of finding immediate contributors shrunk in those scenarios.

This year, the club acquired three players with top-shelf talent: Jones in the first round, Gregory in the second round due to off-the-field matters, and Collins, amazingly, in college free agency. It was a potentially franchise-altering coup for a 12-4 team.

All three just happen to play very competitive positions. And under Garrett, nothing will be handed to them.

At cornerback, Jones must beat out multi-year starters (Brandon Carr, Orlando Scandrick) and a former first-round pick (Mo Claiborne). He could slide over to free safety, but J.J. Wilcox has made strides the last two years as a converted college running back and receiver.

Ron Leary isn't exactly interested in giving Collins his seat at left guard.

And Gregory isn't guaranteed a starting job at defensive end even with Pro Bowler Greg Hardy facing a four-game suspension. Jeremy Mincey, the defense's sack leader last year, could play the left or right side, as well as rush from the interior.

Could one or more rookies crack the first team by Sept. 13? Absolutely. We're five weeks from the season opener. A lot can happen.

If they don't, though, you can bet all three will have roles.

At the very least, Jones would be a cover guy in sub-packages, which in some ways is an unofficial starting job the way the league has trended toward multi-receiver sets.

Collins would be a backup swing guard or tackle.

Gregory would be a rotational rusher and part of a formidable nickel line that eventually would include Hardy, DeMarcus Lawrence and Tyrone Crawford. Of the three rookies, he might have the best shot to start based on the pass rush skills he's shown in camp. The key will be whether he has enough bulk yet to hold up on run downs.

One thing is certain: Whether a rookie (or two, or three) starts against the Giants or not, they should be better players by Week One because they're getting pushed by their teammates.[embeddedad0]

The franchise's new Ring of Honor entry, Darren Woodson, described a similar atmosphere in the when he joined a Super Bowl contender as a second-round pick.

"My first year in '92, I had Thomas Everett, James Washington, Kenny Gant was in front of me, Ray Horton was in front of me," he said. "And then the next year I come in and I've got to battle all those guys to get a starting position. And James Washington was not willing to just give up his spot. And the next year Brock Marion comes in and he's gunning for a spot, too.

"For me, it never stopped. The competition never stopped. We were always sharpening each other."

Today's highly-touted rookies are sharpening their skills against some pretty good teammates.

They will be better for it.

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