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Offseason | 2021

Spagnola: Enough To Keep Our Eyes Wide Open


FRISCO, Texas – Many moons ago, Brad Sham, my training camp roomie over these many years in Oxnard, Calif., declared the reason we go to training camp is the find out who is getting hurt.

Cute, right. But, you know, there always seems to be a sliver of truth in humor.

So here we go, leaving Tuesday for Cowboys Training Camp 2021in Oxnard, Calif., and someone asked me, "What will you be looking for at camp this year?"

After a short pause, my succinct answer was, "A lot."

No humor intended. Because look, when you are watching a team coming off a highly disappointing 6-10 season in 2020, when you were a 16-game witness in 2020 to a Cowboys defense giving up the most points in the franchise's 61-season history – a robust 473 topping the previous high by 37 from 2010 – then you had better arrive at the River Ridge Sports Complex with eyes wide open.

Some things we know. Dak is back, and so are Tyron Smith, La'el Collins, Zack Martin and Blake Jarwin. Plus, over the first five games of last year, there was no problem with this offense, except for the fact averaging 32.6 points a game was not enough to overcome a defense giving up an average of 36 points a game over that same span, leaving the Cowboys at but 2-3.

Meaning the offense, health willing, should be explosive. Few question marks.

But as for the rest of Mike McCarthy's second edition of the Dallas Cowboys, mainly the defense and even some key backup spots, competition should be intense during this training camp. Not just for starting positions, but just to make this final 53-man roster for the first 17-game regular season in NFL history.

Take the defensive tackle position. Seven of those guys will go to camp, but bolstered by the possibility a few of the nine defensive ends could move inside at times. Only three of those tackles started games last year for the Cowboys, most by rookie Neville Gallimore (nine), then Trysten Hill five before tearing his ACL and Justin Hamilton one. Then add veteran free agents Carlos Watkins and Brett Urban, along with draft choices Osa Odighizuwa and Quinton Bohanna

May the best man win.

Same at linebacker. Sure the Cowboys return Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith. But after drafting Micah Parsons with a first-round pick and Jabril Cox with a fourth rounder, plus adding veteran Swiss Army knife Keanu Neal, nothing heading into camp is set in stone.

Better not have two bad days in a row.

Cornerback? Probably can count on Trevon Diggs starting. At this point, Anthony Brown on the other side and Jourdan Lewis in the slot. But neither better coast. Remember, Kelvin Joseph was drafted with a second-round pick. Nahshon Wright, who perked up some ears during OTAs and minicamp, was taken in the third. And last year's fourth-rounder Reggie Robinson is returning to corner after an aborted move to safety his rookie season. Plus veterans Rashard Robinson, Deonte Burton and the return of Maurice Canady from opting out last year might have something to say, too.

No loafing on those one-on-one drills against this receiving corps.

No safe zone at safety either. Donovan Wilson returns, having started 10 games last year. Darian Thompson started seven. But watch out. The Cowboys signed veteran free agents Demontae Kazee, Jayron Kearse and Neal, working at hybrid linebacker but is a safety by trade. And sixth-round pick Israel Mukuamu will be working at safety, a move from corner once drafted.

Heck, the Cowboys even created competition at punter, adding veteran Bryan Anger to challenge last year's eventual rookie starter Hunter Niswander.

See what we're talking about here?

Plus, there will be no brother-in-lawing here going on with the coaching staff. Dan Quinn is the new defensive coordinator, also overseeing the defensive line along with his former Atlanta assistant Adam Durde. Last year's senior defensive assistant George Edwards appears to be running the linebacker room. The Cowboys have added former McCarthy Green Bay assistant Joe Whitt Jr. to the secondary. Lackadaisical while having to prove yourself all over again to basically a new defensive staff won't get you to even the fourth preseason game on that side of the ball.

Be watching all of this with a keen eye.

But that's not it. There's actually more.

What about backup quarterback? And we were reminded last year how important that position is. Nothing settled there. Garrett Gilbert, Ben DiNucci or Cooper Rush? Or, a veteran-come-lately who might still be on another team's roster? Every throw will be monitored, and don't be coming around this group saying something about "meaningless" preseason games.

Not to these guys, nor the Cowboys. That additional one, the Pro Football Hall of Fame bonus game on Aug. 5 will be welcomed by this coaching staff.

Those four games also will be highly meaningful in deciding the backup offensive tackle spot. Sure the Cowboys signed eighth-year veteran tackle Ty Nsekhe. But he's on a one-year deal, with just $500,000 guaranteed. So he'll have to prove he's still worthy, and better than last year's two first-time starters Brandon Knight and Terence Steel. Oh, and better than fourth-round draft choice Josh Ball, who looks the part.

And all must prove a better backup tackle than, say, for now backup guard Connor McGovern, who would take over for Martin at right guard if the Cowboys feel the need to move the six-time Pro Bowler back out to tackle again in an emergency situation.

And here is the other unsolved backup spot: Center.

The presumptive starter Tyler Biadasz, to me, is an improvement over last year's 12-game starter Joe Looney, still unsigned. Biadasz started four games his rookie year and played the majority of two others, and had taken over the position until a pulled hamstring got Looney (IR-ed with a knee sprain) back into the starting lineup for the remainder of the season.

But behind Biadasz?

There is not another guy on the roster having played center in the NFL last year. After releasing three-year veteran Adam Redmond on May 5, that left the Cowboys with undrafted rookie Braylon Jones of Houston listed as a center and sixth-round pick Matt Farniok moving from guard to center. In fact, Farniok, was the next up center during the offseason workouts, but of his 32 starts at Nebraska, only one came at center, that in 2020.

Now then, in some of the pre-practice drills, McGovern and Connor Williams pitched in snapping to the quarterbacks. But Williams has only dabbled at center in practice and McGovern last played center at Penn State, a 2017 starting center but once moved back to guard started just one more game at center in 2018.

Will keep an eye on this one. If nothing works out, the Cowboys might better hope "Jumbo Joe" still is available and has continued to work out.

See what I mean?

While there is clarity with the starters on offense,

there will be much to decipher over the next five weeks on defense and with some key backup spots – even after the Cowboys return here for the remaining two weeks of training camp before beginning preparation in earnest for the Sept. 9 NFL season opener against Tampa Bay on Sept. 9.

Plus, you never know when training camp injuries will complicate matters. Remember 2016, first losing backup quarterback Kellen Moore and then starter Tony Romo, forcing the Cowboys to _settle_ for a raw rookie, some guy named Dak Prescott, as their starting QB.

Good gosh, that's like $160 million ago.

So yeah, there is a lot to be looking for during Training Camp 2021. A helluva lot.

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