Spagnola: Competition At A Premium, Guarantees Few In This Land Of Opportunity

IRVING, Texas– So the somewhat surprising question asked the other day was this:

         Will the Cowboys have any competition on the roster this year?

         Seriously? You want competition? Here, let me give you some competition.

         Plus, don't you forget who raised Jason Garrett in the NFL, by the way. First, Jimmy Johnson. Crossed paths for a short time with Jon Gruden at Tampa Bay. Then Nick Saban with the Dolphins. This guy craves competition.

         In fact, in Tuesday's fund-raising Home Run Derby exhibition, the Cowboys head coach came up with a different format. Instead of this being an individual competition as in the past, he turned the event into a team thing, the offensive guys versus the defensive guys to create more intense competition. You know, more us against them, creating accountability – i.e. added pressure – to more than just yourself.

          In fact, as long as Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, Jason Witten and Sean Lee are on this team, there will be competition in everything, starting Tuesday with the commencement of this year's nine Organized Team Activity workouts.

         Heck, it's only May, and here was Witten saying between cuts in the batter's box, "The season can't get here fast enough," and this from a guy, along with Romo, entering his 14th season with the Cowboys. Only Ed Jones, Bill Bates and Mark Tuinei ever have played more years (15), but their 14 will be as many as Hall of Famers Bob Lilly, Mel Renfro and Randy White.

         OK, fine, there's no competition for the starting quarterback job. It's Romo's, and thank goodness after last year's injury washed-out season. And as it currently stands, Kellen Moore is the backup, although don't go to sleep on a seasoned veteran to be named later coming in to compete, or maybe even Dak Prescott turning into a quick learner to provide a push.

         Same on the offensive line. You know the five starters, but remember, the Cowboys need a backup swing tackle, and that should come down to 2015 third-round pick Chaz Green, out all last season following hip surgery, and incumbent backup Charles Brown, though signed to only a one-year deal with no financial guarantees to win that job. And oh, Ron Leary. Don't think he'll just roll over because not only will he be trying to impress his team, but any other team in need of a starting-quality guard at some point, either this season by the trade deadline or next as a free agent.

         But after that, there is not a group without either starting competition or intense competition just to make this roster.

         And we can start with running back. Sure, chances are recently signed first-round pick Ezekiel Elliott (four years, $24.9 M) will be the starter. Eventually. But don't expect the job to just be handed to him. Don't expect veterans Darren McFadden or Alfred Morris to just hand it to him. Plus, with the expected return of Lance Dunbar at some point and the addition of sixth-round pick Darius Jackson (also signed), these guys know someone or somebodies are not going to be here. Slackers need not apply.

         Even at fullback. At this point, it's either converted fullback Keith Smith or converted running back Rod Smith. And they aren't just competing against themselves, but the entire field or eventual field out there since Garrett is partial to having a fullback on the roster.

         How about wide receiver? Now if you are looking for competition … OK, fine, Dez has a starting spot, agreed. But after that, anything else set in stone? Terrance Williams is entering the final year of his initial three-year contract, and there is nothing guaranteed that he's absolutely the second guy, even though he's coming off a career year with 52 catches for 840 yards and three touchdowns. He'll be challenged, starting with Brice Butler. Remember him? Count on a physically improved Lucky Whitehead pushing for even more snaps, and a lot more than those last year when he mostly was just handed the ball. Then there is Cole Beasley, a third guy, but he's also coming off career highs with 52 catches, 536 receiving yards and five touchdowns. This will also be a make or break season for Devin Street, in his third year, and he'll likely be pushed by a couple of rookie free agents, the speedy Andy Jones out of Jacksonville and Chris Brown of Notre Dame.

         See what I mean? How many can they keep? May the best men win here.

         Tight end will be interesting, too. OK, Witten is a given, and so is James Hanna, signed to a new three-year deal that includes a $3.25 million guaranteed safety net. What happens after that, though? Gavin Escobar likely starts training camp on PUP. Will he be ready for the start of the season coming back from his Achilles tear? Did Geoff Swaim turn enough heads in limited snaps (23) last year? How much of a chance does sixth-round, basketball-playing Rico Gathers have of making the 53? And don't go to sleep on this Austin Traylor, the recently signed workout guy out of Wisconsin. A fractured arm limited the fifth-year senior to just eight games last season, but he is 6-3, 250 and a former two-time high school team captain in football and basketball. Guy even won the Columbus County (Ohio) Slam Dunk Contest.

         Then there is the defense, swimming in competition. Maybe the surest starters at this point are Sean Lee and Rolando McClain at two of the three linebacker spots, along with Byron Jones and Barry Church at safety. But other than that …

Is anyone assured of anything?

Start up front. Randy Gregory's four-game suspension and DeMarcus Lawrence's seemingly impending four-game suspension that's currently under appeal have opened wide a huge barn-sized door at defensive end. Start then with Ben Mayowa, the signed restricted free agent. He probably gets first dibs on the right side. Initially left, who knows? Could be Jack Crawford. Could be Tyrone Crawford, if he's needed to move outside from his 3-technique spot, and says he's a new man following his much-needed rotator cuff surgery. Then there are the all-comers at the end of this line, last year's rookies David Irving and Ryan Russell, along with fourth-round pick Charles Tapper, who has right side tattooed to his helmet. Just watch his highlight video.

Almost the same at defensive tackle. If Tyrone stays put, he's got one of the defensive tackle spots, and the likely starter replacing Nick Hayden at the 1-technique will be free-agent signee Cedric Thornton, built for that job. But if there is movement, look out for third-round pick Maliek Collins at the 3, and if he can stay healthy, Terrell McClain might have something to say at either defensive tackle spot. And don't forget young defensive tackles Casey Walker, activated off the practice squad last year for the final two games, and this year's rookie free agent Rodney Coe, whose name keeps coming up.

And I was asked if there is any competition on this team?

Now, linebacker is nearly set with Lee and McClain penned in. But on the strong side, well, you'd think Kyle Wilber has the inside track, but don't count out Anthony Hitchens or even last year's seventh-rounder Mark Nzeocha, who played in just two games after recovering from his pre-existing knee surgery. There also is last year's fourth-round pick Damien Wilson trying to break into the mix, with Andrew Gachkar the utility knife back there. Plus, we'll assume for right now this will be second-round pick Jaylon Smith's redshirt year until further notice.[embeddedad0]

Oh, and then there is the secondary. I've mentioned Jones and Church at safety, but with Church in the final year of his contract, might the Cowboys take a peek at J.J. Wilcox at strong safety, though he is in the final year of his deal, too. You'd think Jeff Heath is the versatile backup/special teamer, but might sixth-rounder Kavon Frazier upset the apple cart back there. Guys are fighting for jobs.

Now then, there better not be anyone standing around on the corner. Let's face it, there are extenuating circumstances here. You'd think Orlando Scandrick is a starter, but let's remember he missed all of last year recovering from reconstructive knee surgery. Do we just assume, or do we need to see it from the veteran? Brandon Carr hasn't missed a start in four years. But he's in the last of his five-year deal and was willing to cut his base salary from $9.1 million to $4.25 million. He did though receive a $1 million roster bonus the first of May, and also a chance to make another $500,000 in likely-to-be-earned bonuses, all reducing his cap hit roughly $3.5 million. Nothing would seem guaranteed with him, either, as with Morris Claiborne, who re-signed for a one-year deal and only $500,000 guaranteed. These guys will be battling.

Plus, that corner is littered with young'uns, last year's cornerback interception co-leaders Terrance Mitchell and Deji Olatoye (OK, with all of one each), being joined by sixth-round pick Anthony Brown. So we're not just talking starting jobs up for grabs, but cornerback/secondary roster jobs, period.

As for special teams, and this is a good thing with the kicker-punter-deep snapper-holder bundle of Dan Bailey, Chris Jones and L.P. Ladouceur returning. But how 'bout them returns? Not a thing cemented. More competition to return kickoffs and punts.

Yeah, competition, I'd say. So don't think the Cowboys are putting up any exclusionary walls this summer around the new place, The Star in Frisco. No sir-ee. Theirs will truly be a land of opportunity.

So in the words of Witten, the salty vet, "Let's go to work."

Indeed it's time, and by the looks of things, slackers need not apply.

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