FRISCO, Texas – This seems to invariably occur this time of year. Yep, once all the OTA practices and minicamps are completed and we enter this five-week chasm of inactivity before the start of training camp.
Someone asks a question causing me to go, Hmmmm.
And right on schedule – and maybe it was this past Monday while playing my one round of golf for the year at Cliff Harris' JDRF annual charity golf tournament, where I had the pleasure of finally meeting Craig Morton – this question was posed:
Which Cowboys player has the most to prove this year?
Gave me pause, searching a rolodex of possibilities and have decided this will be one of those multiple-choice responses. There isn't just one. There are several. So let's explore a few who readily come to mind.
CB Orlando Scandrick: This will be Scandrick's 10th season, the only double-digit veteran on the defense. At age 30, he, along with 30-year-olds Sean Lee and Nolan Carroll, are the oldest guys on the unit. Scandrick needs to return to the form that earned him a five-year, $19 million contract back in 2015.
Now, he had the misfortune of suffering that torn ACL during camp that summer. Missed the entire year. And we all know the season after reconstructive knee surgery is tough. Usually takes two years out before returning to previous form. So now it's time.
Scandrick was OK last season, but while trying to play both outside corner and in the slot he was not the same guy he was prior to the surgery. Plus, he got off to a slow start, suffering hamstring problems after the first two games, missing the next four.
With the free-agent losses of veteran corners Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne and the infusion of youth in the secondary, the Cowboys desperately need Scandrick to be the lead dog back there. And not just from a performance standpoint, but also assuming a team-guy leadership role. He needs to prove he is what he was.
DL Tyrone Crawford: This will be the former third-round draft choice's sixth season. He has been beset with injuries and having to play through two rotator cuff tears requiring surgeries after each of the past two seasons. Only free-agent defensive tackle Stephen Paea (seventh season) has more seniority on the defensive line.
Even Crawford says, "I've got a lot of things to do in this league that I haven't … I definitely haven't reached a goal I want to reach in this league."
So now it's time. But the Cowboys aren't sure yet if he's a defensive end or a defensive tackle. He has played both, starting two games at defensive tackle last year and 12 at left defensive end out of necessity since the Cowboys were having trouble stopping the run on the strong side early in the season.
In fact, he's played both the 1-technique and 3-technique spots at defensive tackle, along with defensive end. Says in 2015 when he started 16 games inside he played at least half his snaps at nose tackle. And so far during the offseason he has lined up with the first team at defensive end and taken snaps at defensive tackle.
Boy, if the Cowboys can fill those two defensive ends spots, allowing Crawford to play mainly inside next to Maliek Collins, that would be strong, also knowing they would have Paea and Cedrick Thornton inside, along with the ability to rotate David Irving inside, too, that extent though depending on his status with the possible suspension.
And Crawford says he doesn't mind doing the dirty work at the two-gapping 1-technique, even if that means holding up at the point of attack to allow the linebackers to sweep in for the tackles.
QB Kellen Moore: Now there is this assumption, and mostly based on the construction of the current 90-man roster, that the sixth-year veteran is the backup quarterback to Dak Prescott. Just as he was supposed to be the backup last year to Tony Romo before fracturing his right fibula leading into his ankle that required surgery and caused him to miss the entire season.
Remember, he has played in just three NFL games over his five years, starting the final two in 2015 for the Cowboys. Not exactly a track record. The Cowboys know it. He knows it. And Moore knows he must perform well in camp and in whatever number of preseason game snaps he gets to retain that backup designation. He is not the walk-in backup.
He must prove himself against the available free-agent, backup-quarterback field, along with at this time Zac Dysert and Cooper Rush, the only other two quarterbacks on the current 90-man roster. And it sure seems as though the Cowboys want to challenge him in camp, one of the reasons for signing Dysert, who hasn't thrown an NFL pass in his only four seasons, the far majority of his professional stay spent on practice squads. Plus, the Cowboys brought in Ryan Nassib for a workout, another quarterback with limited NFL experience (five games in four seasons backing up Eli Manning with the Giants, throwing just 10 passes).
While Moore certainly is the favorite on the current 90-man roster for the backup job, remember, talent acquisition is a 365-day endeavor.
DE DeMarcus Lawrence: His three years with the Cowboys have been rough ones for the fourth-year defensive end. A broken fifth metatarsal in training camp landed the 2014 rookie on recall injured reserve, able to play in only seven games. But he showed promise during the playoffs that season against Detroit and Green Bay.
He came on in 2015 to start 13 of 16 games, leading the team with eight sacks, along with 31 QB pressures, while playing through a disk that would eventually need offseason surgery. Then he was suspended for the first four games of 2016 for violating the league's policy on banned substances. Then the same disk flared up again. Though he played through the pain, his numbers plummeted, recording just one sack and eight tackles while starting only three of the nine games he played. He would have another surgery this offseason, and did not participate in any of the OTA or minicamp practices but is expected to be ready for the start of training camp.
The defensive end jobs are wide open, especially on the left side where Lawrence excelled in 2015. But nothing will be handed to him. He'll have to prove himself on the final year of his contract against what looks like a field of all-comers, mainly the team's defensive ends who don't earn the starting job on the right side.
The Others:We can throw a few others into this show-me mix. Start with Lucky Whitehead, the Cowboys utility wide receiver and special teamer. He's been a decent return guy and gadget player during his two seasons with the Cowboys, serving as the team's main kickoff and punt returner while proving a threat on those jet sweeps. But the Cowboys only found the need for him to catch nine passes over two seasons, and as well all know, the Cowboys used a fourth-round pick on Ryan Switzer, a slot receiver/return guy with running ability. Be a good one to watch during camp.
The field is crowded on the defensive line, and while veteran Cedric Thornton worked with the first-team defense during the offseason practices at the 1-technique defensive tackle, remember Paea was rehabbing, Crawford spent time at end and Irving became limited the last half of those practices. Plus, Thornton finished with just 18 tackles, 1.5 sacks and never started a game in 2016, certainly not what the Cowboys were expecting when they signed the fifth-year veteran last season to a four-year, $19 million contract with $9 million guaranteed. They'd certainly love for him to prove he deserves his $3 million guaranteed base salary this year.
And how about one more: Chaz Green. The Cowboys have one open spot on the offensive line, either at right tackle or left guard. At this point, La'el Collins, the former starting left guard, has been working exclusively at right tackle following Doug Free's retirement and with Green being eased into practice following postseason surgery to repair a herniated disk. First, Green must prove he can stay healthy this third year, having missed his 2015 rookie season following hip surgery and then playing in only four games last year because of a foot issue and then the back injury. Then he must prove he's good enough to either start at right tackle or, if that ship has sailed, then at left guard where he spent some time with the first team this offseason.
So as you see, there are a lot of guys with a lot to prove. Not just one. Or even two. Say what you want about these offseason, no-pad performances, in the famous last words of defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, "Pads are everything," meaning the real football doesn't start until we get to training camp.
In the meantime, you guys, at ease over these next five weeks.