IRVING, Texas – With minicamp concluding last Thursday, we're one week into a six-week waiting game for Cowboys training camp.
Before the players actually take the practice fields, though, there's plenty to discuss about the rapidly-approaching season. Most importantly, there are still several big issues for the Cowboys to settle before kickoff on Sept. 13.
With that in mind, the staff of DallasCowboys.com decided to rank the 10 most important position battles for Dallas when it gets to training camp. This accounts for a variety of spots – from starting jobs to special teams duties. But they're all important issues to settle before the season.
10. Backup QB –At the end of the day, this team is only going as far as Tony Romo can lead it. A serious injury to the Pro Bowl quarterback would change everything about this team's fortunes. But no one should know better than the Cowboys the value of a quality backup – they had to call on their No. 2 signal-caller in crucial games in 2013 and 2014. Brandon Weeden seems like the odds-on favorite to keep the backup job, but the Cowboys coaching staff will no doubt be hoping to see Dustin Vaughan push him. Vaughan showed enough promise to earn a roster spot as a rookie, so what can he do in his second year? Will the Cowboys once again carry all three quarterbacks, or return to their recent trend of only employing two?
9. Free Safety –Again, it'd be a bit of a surprise to see J.J. Wilcox lose his job as the Cowboys' free safety, but that probably depends on what the coaches decide to do with Byron Jones. The first-round pick played all over the field during offseason practices, and he looked impressive. We know he's got the flexibility to play both corner and safety, and he could push Wilcox if the coaches opt to try him there. The same can be said for free agent Corey White, who like Jones played multiple spots in the spring.[embeddedad0]
8. No. 3 CB –Speaking of Jones' versatility, here's another position battle that will involve him. The top two corner spots look cemented by Brandon Carr and Orlando Scandrick, with Scandrick likely to spend a lot of time in the slot. With the amount of nickel played in the NFL these days, that still leaves plenty of snaps for a third corner. Jones and White should both be a factor here, but the Cowboys are also hoping Morris Claiborne – freshly recovered from his torn patellar tendon – can play a role in the competition, as well. Throw in Tyler Patmon for good measure, and you've got a stiff competition to settle.
7. Defensive Tackle– Defensive line is tricky, because Rod Marinelli intends to rotate eight or nine guys at the four positions. But the starting roles and the snap counts are up for debate – specifically at the one-technique defensive tackle spot. The Cowboys re-signed Nick Hayden, the starter for the past two years, during the spring. They have also raved about Terrell McClain's offseason after he was hampered by injuries in 2014. There should be some competition there, and second-year tackle Ken Bishop could be a factor, as well.
6. SAM Linebacker –Heading toward camp, it's safe to say Sean Lee is the starter at weak side linebacker, and Rolando McClain – when healthy – is the starter in the middle. What we don't know is who will play on the strong side when the Cowboys are in their base defense. Anthony Hitchens is a logical choice, given his versatility, but Kyle Wilber also has experience at the position. On top of that, Dallas signed free agent Keith Rivers in March, and he's got a wealth of experience on the outside. That trio should create quite a competition for the job.
5. Swing Tackle –If the season started today, Darrion Weems would have this job locked up. He performed admirably in Doug Free's absence during OTAs – not to mention, third-round draft pick Chaz Green just underwent hip surgery. The Cowboys are hopeful Green will be ready to participate in some portion of training camp, though. And there's also the possibility that La'el Collins could spend some time at tackle in training camp.
4. Fullback –It didn't even look like Tyler Clutts was going to be part of this roster, and now he's the favorite to win the fullback job. The Cowboys released free agent Jed Collins early on during the offseason program, but fellow free agent signee Ray Agnew is still on board. Maybe the biggest question here is: will the team even opt to keep a fullback? Last year the Cowboys employed three running backs and Clutts, but at the end of training camp in 2013 they opted
3. Returner –Dwayne Harris was not a starter, but you can't underestimate his importance to this team in the past few seasons. The Cowboys have several special teams standouts who can help replace him in coverage, but they still need to find a useful return man – both for kickoffs and punts. The intriguing options here are rookies like Lucky Whitehead and Nick Harwell, both of whom took reps during OTAs. Veterans like Cole Beasley and J.J. Wilcox also figure to get a look, though.
2. Left Guard –This one has been in the spotlight since La'el Collins signed on as an undrafted free agent. The thought of starting four first-round talents on the offensive line is certainly enticing, but Ron Leary is a two-year starter and has proven himself plenty capable. Leary held down the first-team job for the vast majority of OTAs, with Collins getting first-team reps only on the last day of minicamp. It'll be fun to see if he can hold off the talented rookie when the pads go on.
1. Running Back –The big one. We all already know how Joseph Randle feels about DeMarco Murray leaving meat on the bone, but the fact remains that there are 2,261 yards and 449 touches to account for from last season. In their combined careers – a total of nine total seasons – Randle, Lance Dunbar and Ryan Williams have tallied 243 total carries for 995 yards. The one experienced back in the competition, Darren McFadden, has missed 19 games in seven seasons as a result of injury issues. That's probably good for his overall mileage, as he's only averaged 150 carries per season during his career, but it's not great for his dependability. Randle has shown promising flashes, but he has never accounted for more than 54 carries in a season. He and McFadden look like the early favorites to start, but it's anybody's guess how it plays out in training camp. Either way, it's the most pressing issue the Cowboys need to solve if they're going to make a run this year.