Spagnola: Unquestionable Difference This Year

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FRISCO, Texas – My, oh, my, what a difference a year makes.

This time last year with the Cowboys heading into training camp, there were so, so many questions swirling around a team that had gone 9-7 the previous season and actually had put together back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 2008-09.

Think about it.

Was Jihad Ward for real as the three-technique defensive tackle? He wasn’t.

How much could the just-reinstated Randy Gregory help the defense in 2018 after not playing at all for the previous season, with a continued suspension during the entire offseason? Tons, while just playing just 44 percent of the snaps.

Would this idea of “receiver-by-committee” actually work after releasing Dez Bryant in the off-season and really not having a clear-cut No. 1 guy? Absolutely not, the Cowboys wisely compensating for the miscalculation by trading for Amari Cooper after seven games, now the unquestioned No. 1 guy this year, his presence the final nine games in 2018 bolstering a struggling offense.

Who would replace Jason Witten? Nobody, but tight end by committee worked well enough with Geoff Swaim and the second-half development of Blake Jarwin and Dalton Schultz.

Could raw rookie Connor Williams, in need of strength, handle the left guard spot? He struggled early, then had his knee scoped and came back a much better player toward the end of the season, and now is projected the starting left guard.

Was Xavier Woods ready to become a fulltime starting free safety in just his second season? He was, and played well enough to convince the Cowboys signing a high-priced free-agent safety or drafting one high this year was totally unnecessary.

Could Byron Jones successfully make the transition from playing safety to starting right cornerback, a position he hadn’t played since his 2015 rookie season? Oh, how silly, he earned Pro Bowl honors.

Would David Irving, who missed the entire offseason dealing with personal problems, his absence then spilling into training camp, along with serving a four-game suspension to start the season, ever again help the Cowboys? Negative, Irving playing just two games after returning from suspension and then suffering a high ankle sprain he failed to rehab diligently enough to be in shape for the playoffs.

How much would first-round draft choice Leighton Vander Esch contribute his rookie season and what might his impact be? Huge, in both cases, LVE eventually starting 11 of 16 games at weakside linebacker and two in the playoffs while earning Pro Bowl honors and allowing the Cowboys to move veteran Sean Lee this year to the strong side.

Would Cooper Rush hold off fifth-round draft choice Mike White for backup quarterback duty? He did, but never had to take a single snap all season long.

Would the Cowboys need Tyrone Crawford to play defensive tackle or defensive end? Well, both, seven starts at DT and eight at DE.

Worn out yet?

And with all those questions swirling around, somehow a very young team grew up the second half of the season to turn a 3-5 start into a 10-6 record, wining the NFC East and one playoff game.

Comparatively, this year heading to Oxnard, Calif., on Thursday, pffft, this must feel like a piece of cake, health willing.

The questions are minimal, and most not as critical to furthering the success of last season.

Let’s see, as the answering will start unfolding once the pads come on that last week of July. So . . . .

Will Robert Quinn become the three-down starting right defensive end, a guy who has collected 15 sacks over the past two seasons for the Rams and Dolphins, along with 18 tackles for losses and 27 QB hits?

Is Travis Frederick ready to perform at least at 80 percent of his previous four-time Pro Bowl level after missing all last season with Guillain-Barre Syndrome that he appears to have recovered from – but as he says, we won’t know until the pads come on?

While DeMarcus Lawrence seems certain to be ready for the start of the season following offseason shoulder surgery, the lingering question hovers over Pro Bowl corner Byron Jones, if he’ll be ready following offseason hip surgery?

Once again, who is the backup quarterback, Cooper Rush or Mike White, and the competition might become a little tighter this year than was last year, and might the Cowboys need a Plan B if neither step up?

How big an impact is Witten capable of making upon his return from premature retirement last year, and will Jarwin and Schultz play well enough to limit his snaps?

Now, of course, there will be other issues, smaller ones such as how many round out the wide receiver position; same with the backups on the defensive line; can safety George Iloka carve out a role for himself; same for the Cowboys’ top three draft choices, DT Trysten Hill, Connor McGovern and Tony Pollard; can Taco Charlton make an impact in his third season; and we’ll probably be keeping an eye on kicker Brett Maher, too.

But that’s really it, since I refuse to believe Ezekiel Elliott’s willingness to report to training camp over a contract extension will be an issue.

And really, as for the perfunctory question about position battles, there really doesn’t seem to be many mounting for starting positions, if any, since there are so many returning starters. The competition will center on backups and who makes a significant enough impression to land on the 53-man roster.

A good thing?

Well, you watch, this coaching staff will manufacture some competition for sure.

But another difference from last year? While this team still will be considered a young team, it’s certainly a more experienced one after going through some growing pains with first-time starters/significant contributors last year or first-time at a certain position, guys such as Michael Gallup, Antwaun Woods, Joe Looney, Dorance Armstrong, Vander Esch, Williams, Jones, Schultz, Jarwin and Maher.

Yep, unquestionably a much better situation heading down the Ventura Highway.

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