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Offseason | 2022

Spagnola: Going To Camp Looking For Answers


FRISCO, Texas – Here we go, the Cowboys beginning their quest to become the first NFC East team to repeat as division champs since 2004 when the Philadelphia Eagles won their fourth straight title.

Starts on Monday when the Cowboys arrive at their training camp site in weather-wonderful Oxnard, Calif., to begin serious preparation for the upcoming 17-game 2022 NFL season.

The resume` for defending 2021 NFC East champs highlights a 12-5 season, their second division title in the past four seasons and fourth in the past eight, but knowing they were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs, 23-17, by NFC title-game bound San Francisco.

They also arrive facing more questions in need of correct answers than a Jeopardy contestant under the category of football unknowns.

Such as:

For at least a 10-win season, this NFL team must cypher out the wide receiver position.

Response: Who are the Dallas Cowboys?

Like, for another division title season, this NFL team must compensate for the absence of defensive end Randy Gregory.

Response: Who are the Dallas Cowboys?

Like, for winning more than one playoff game in a single season, something they have not done since the 1995 Super Bowl-winning season, this team's offensive line must be put back together again.

Response: Who are the Dallas Cowboys?

Catch my drift.

Was basically asked last weekend at the East Dallas Exchange Club fundraiser dinner what would be your three top Cowboys concerns heading into training camp. Those were my answers.

Then, for all the money, the guy presses forward with: "Can they."

And my consistent response has been, "Dunno, that's what we're going to training camp to find out."

And you know what, truth be known, that's what they are going to training camp for, too, to find answers to these pressing questions.

Now this is not uncommon for teams this time of year heading into training camp in search of answers to the many questions hovering overhead. Everyone has them. It's just that we know more intimately the ones facing the Cowboys, the team owning the NFC East record for winning the most consecutive division titles since its 1970 inception, five from 1992-96, and having matched the Eagles' second longest streak of four, doing so from 1976-79.

So, let's discuss.

Here is what we know about wide receiver. There is no more Amari Cooper, the Cowboys deciding to trade their perceived No. 1 wideout to save some cap space, maybe even the cap space funds having been budgeted for the Gregory re-signing. There is no more jack-of-all-trades Cedrick Wilson, capable of No. 2 or 3 receiver status who left for Miami's guaranteed riches in free agency.

And most of all we know perceived No. 2 candidate, Michael Gallup, likely will miss the first month of the season returning from his early February ACL repair surgery.

In camp, they must find out if a couple of guys can step up into roles they have never played. First, James Washington, mostly a backup guy during his four years in Pittsburgh, having started 25 games with the Steelers, but just nine in the past two years (54 catches, 677 yards, 7 TDs). But if he can't . . . .

Then there is third-round draft choice Jalen Tolbert. Sure looks the part. Sure had an impressive offseason. My good money is on him becoming at least the third guy, but . . . he has yet to play a down of NFL football. After that, we're looking at perennial backup Noah Brown, second-year Simi Fehoko with all of seven rookie NFL snaps and the likes of T.J. Vasher (no NFL snaps) or 2021 practice squad rookie Brandon Smith.

See what I mean at wide receiver.

Then the defensive ends. After the free agent Gregory backdoored the Cowboys, signing a quite similar Cowboys deal he had agreed to with Denver, they were left in a lurch. Now, the good news here is nine-year veteran DeMarcus Lawrence is healthy, having played only seven games last year, suffering a fractured fifth metatarsal after the first game. Lawrence last recorded as many as 10½ sacks in 2018, since limited by health problems.

After that, the unknowns begin at defensive end. There is Dorance Armstrong, a five-game starter last year but with five sacks; free-agent Dante Fowler Jr., only twice during his six-year career having started more than the six games he did last year in Atlanta but only once in his six NFL seasons recording more than his 4½ sacks last year; and maybe Tarell Basham, a six-game starter last year in Lawrence's absence with a career-high 3½ sacks in his fifth NFL season.

Then the wildcard, with no NFL snaps, second-round draft choice Sam Williams, pass-rusher extraordinaire at Ole Miss, bagging an Ole Miss single-season record 12½ sacks in 2021. He needs to become "Sam The Man." He's 6-4, 261 and 4.46 combine 40. For real.

So, can he? Can they? That's another reason why we are going to training camp. To find out.

And then this offensive line. Can they put Humpty Dumpty back together again? Gone is 13-game starting left guard Connor Williams, signed away in free agency. Gone is 10-game starting right tackle La'el Collins, released of the Cowboys own volition. The two combined for 23 starts last year.

So, we go to camp to find out who starts at left guard, first-round pick Tyler Smith or fourth-year backup Connor McGovern, both involved in real competition. We go to get a feel if Tyron Smith can stay healthy. We go to find out if the Cowboys were right concluding third-year Terence Steele is a better and less expensive starting option at right tackle than Collins.

That right there is a lot, trying to restore a cohesive unit in time for that Sunday night, Sept. 11 national TV opener against Tampa Bay, not to mention scouring a list of young guys for backup swing tackle, currently sifting through the likes of Tyler Smith – if he's not the starting guard – Josh Ball and rookie Matt Waletzko.

There you have it, the Cowboys, with a lot of work to do starting Monday, just 48 days until the opener.

Oh wait, one more. Almost forgot.

Kicker. Got to have a kicker, right, and the only way they were bringing back veteran Greg Zuerlein after an inconsistent 2021 performance was at a cheaper rate. Zuerlein found better with the Jets.

That then leaves the Cowboys going to camp with a free-agent rookie kicker and one with just three games of NFL experience. They would be Jonathan Garibay, who basically kicked in just 15 games during his two years at Texas Tech and the recently-signed Lirim Hajrullahu, who after a six-year career in the CFL has kicked in just three NFL games – one with the Cowboys last year when making five of five extra points and two with Carolina after he was released by the Cowboys, making four of five field-goal attempts (miss from 47) and all three extra points.

Hajrullahu in the CFL was 239 for 287 on field goals (83.3 percent) and 92 percent on extra points, along with handling punting duty, too, averaging 44.1 yards a punt.

Guarantee you us media types will be charting every kick by each of them in special teams practice, marking down the distance and make or miss. Can't wait. And just know, depending on what time they do the kicking, the wind can come whipping in off the Pacific at the training camp site, just five miles from the ocean.

Yep, here we go, the Cowboys with a whole lot to accomplish before we can correctly answer that overall annual question:

How good are the Cowboys going to be?

We're about to find out.

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