It's right around the corner, Cowboys fans. The training camp schedule is out and we're less than two weeks away from hearing the pads crack again for the first time in a long time. And get this, in less than one month, you'll be watching the 'Boys suit up for their first preseason action against the Oakland Raiders. One month!
Fans love training camp for a variety of reasons: The renewed sense of hope – and yes, the Cowboys are legitimate contenders in 2012 – the opportunity to watch the big guns back in action, and seeing how well the first-year players mesh with the veterans. For me, though, the training camp position battles are Numero Uno on my list of reasons to love the preseason.
We all know guys like Tony Romo and DeMarcus Ware are going to start, and frankly, we also know they'll play at a very high level. But what do we really know about Bruce Carter? His battle with Dan Connor for playing time inside will be a heated one, even if the temperatures in Oxnard are mild. For every sure-thing starter there is a grueling camp battle to be had, even if it is at a backup position. With training camp so close that each day between now and then feels like a week, here are my top five position battles to watch.
OLB: Victor Butler versus Kyle Wilber
In my list of the Cowboys' most underrated players, Butler checked in at the top. Butler has pressured the passer on 7.0 percent of pass-rush snaps over his career – a rate higher than that of Anthony Spencer and not too far behind Ware.
There are obviously concerns about Butler's overall game because he has never received more than 233 snaps in a season. On top of that, the 'Boys went out and drafted outside linebacker Kyle Wilber a few months ago.
Wilber is perhaps a more well-rounded player than Butler, but with 13.5 career sacks at Wake Forest, does he have the pass rush ability to challenge for a starting spot one day? In comparison, Butler racked up 12 sacks in his senior season alone at Oregon State. I have a feeling Butler is going to turn some heads in a few weeks, but this will be a fun one to watch.
ILB: Bruce Carter versus Dan Connor
The Brandon Carr signing was obviously the biggest of the offseason for Dallas, but bringing Connor into Big D was a huge move as well. The 'Boys finally possess some depth at inside linebacker.
A few weeks before the Cowboys signed Connor, I did some research on available inside linebacker prospects and made a plea for the team to bring him in. Of the 50 linebackers who played at least one-quarter of their teams snaps in 2011, Connor was second in tackle rate.
Only 14 linebackers made a tackle on more than 10 percent of the snaps they played. Connor checked in at 11.7 percent. In comparison, Sean Lee made a tackle on 9.3 percent of his snaps, Bradie James brought down the ball-carrier on 8.5 percent of snaps, and Keith Brooking came in at 8.3 percent.
With Connor likely patrolling the field on early downs, Carter may have a shot at winning nickel snaps. The Cowboys seem to like his prowess in coverage. Still, Carter is a huge unknown at this point. The team did the right thing by bringing in a proven commodity in Connor, but Carter has the potential to really "wow" during camp and perhaps even cut into some of those early-down snaps.
Advantage: Connor on first and second down, Carter on third down.
G: Mackenzy Bernadeau versus Ronald Leary
The organization brought in free agent guards Mackenzy Bernadeau and Nate Livings to be starters, but those plans may have changed once Bernadeau underwent hip surgery. The most likely candidate to swoop in for playing time is undrafted guard Ronald Leary.
For an undrafted rookie, Leary offers unprecedented upside. He would have been drafted, likely in the middle rounds, if he didn't have what many believe to be a degenerative knee condition. His health shouldn't be an issue this year, however, and the 6-3, 324-pound rookie could offer the push the offense needs in short-yardage situations.
Of course, Bernadeau may still be the frontrunner inside, assuming he's healthy. During his time in Carolina, running backs averaged over 4.3 yards-per-carry when running behind Bernadeau – a strong mark for an interior lineman. Nonetheless, I'm picking the underdog Leary to impress in camp and steal the job.
S: Barry Church versus Brodney Pool
The up-and-coming safety versus the old vet. There are whispers that Pool could actually be released during camp. At this point, he'll probably start or get cut. Pool offers experience in the back end of the defense, but Church is more athletic and could be a real player in his third season.
Church was a bit of a mess in his 2010 rookie campaign, missing 28.6 percent of the tackles he attempted. That changed last season, as Church looked a whole lot more comfortable. He notched six special teams tackles, 28 tackles overall, and didn't miss a single one. In coverage, Church was light years ahead of his 2010 form. Targeted on 9.9 percent of the snaps he was in coverage, he allowed 8.45 yards-per-attempt, a decent number for a strong safety.
Plus, Church offers some pass-rush ability. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan loves to move his defensive backs around, and Church actually blitzed the quarterback on 11.2 percent of his pass snaps in 2011.
No. 3 WR: Kevin Ogletree versus Andre Holmes versus Dwayne Harris versus Jonathan Bales
It seems as though half of the roster is competing to be the Cowboys' third receiver this season, so I figured I'm in the running as well. I don't like my chances, to be honest, but hopefully Garrett is looking for a third receiver who understands stats.
In all seriousness, this should shape up to be the most intense position battle of training camp. In addition to Ogletree, Holmes, and Harris, you can also throw Danny Coale, Cole Beasley and Raymond Radway into the mix. I can't remember ever witnessing a position battle with so many legitimate contenders.
Other than Ogletree, none of the receivers have much pro experience. Since the Cowboys already have their slot receiver and will really be looking for a third option who can play outside, I'm going to say Ogletree isn't the favorite to win the job. Either way, the 'Boys will need to let go of at least a couple of receivers with a whole lot of potential.
Advantage: Holmes Which training camp position battle are you most looking forward to watching?