IRVING, Texas – The rookies have made their initial marks, the Organized Team Activities and minicamp have concluded and the depth chart is a bit clearer as the Cowboys get set to head to training camp in a month.
That doesn't mean all the positions have been filled.
Some unexpected players will stand out and compete for a spot on the 53-man roster, while other backups will perform well enough to consider them as starting candidates.
While competitions will occur at various positions, these 10 are the ones to watch most closely when training camp begins:
1) Strong Safety: An early look would tell you the competition's primarily between Will Allen and Matt Johnson for the starting spot next to Barry Church, who's played primarily free safety in the new defense. Allen and Johnson both switched off taking first-team reps during Organized Team Activities. The majority of those reps went to Johnson when Allen had a hamstring problem, but both players could earn that spot. But J.J. Wilcox isn't out of consideration, either. Every day it seemed like the ball would find him.
2) Right Tackle: The likeliest candidate here is probably Doug Free, who was the starter for the majority of the year last season. The Cowboys sliced his contract in half rather than cutting him, which would signal a hope that he can return to his ways of old. But Parnell's career might just be on the upswing. He's three years younger than Free and is still new to the game and position, learning how to play both tackle spots better every year. The rotation from the end of last season should lead to one player winning the job.
3) Center : The Cowboys and owner/general manager Jerry Jones made it clear shortly after the draft that Travis Frederick's first opportunity in Dallas would come at center, where he's played throughout OTAs and minicamp. But Phil Costa and Ryan Cook aren't going anywhere. Injuries halted Costa's season last year, but he helped spark a phenomenal rushing performance when he played against the Ravens. If Frederick falters or if Costa plays too well to ride the bench in training camp, the Cowboys may have to switch their line around.
4) Strong Side Linebacker: Justin Durant missed some time already in his first year in Dallas, but he could be seen with his sweatshirt under his jersey roaming the field with the starters once he returned to health (he said he'll dodge that look once the pads come on). The player getting most of the reps when Durant was out was Alex Albright, who kept showing up last year wherever the Cowboys needed him to adjust for injuries. Albright showed some athleticism and versatility last season and could push Durant for time in his third year in the league.
5) Third Receiver: The Cowboys didn't snag Terrance Williams in the third round so he could sit, but the learning curve can be a difficult one for a first-year receiver. Williams has taken most of the reps on the outside, where Dwayne Harris roamed last season, but Harris has also gotten reps thus far. Injuries afflicted the receiving corps off and on last season, so it's possible both Williams and Harris find a decent amount of time this year. Still, one of those two players will get the majority of reps on the outside when Austin shifts in to the slot. Harris has the experience, while Williams has the expectations.
6) Backup Running Back – Along the lines of the WR battle, the Cowboys didn't pick up Joseph Randle if they didn't think he could contribute right away. His thumb injury has prevented us from seeing much this summer and Lance Dunbar has taken advantage. Tanner could compete as well, but considering Randle's draft status, he will get the shot first and foremost.
7) Second Tight End – The Cowboys drafted Gavin Escobar with the idea he would contribute more in the "12 Personnel" package. He certainly will do that but it's not a given than James Hanna will go away quietly. He came on strong last year and figures to be more involved in the passing game, too. There is a chance Hanna will look better or more advanced than Escobar once the pads come on. But don't forget, second-round picks are picked for a reason and he'll get plenty of chances to shine.
8) Nickel Back – Orlando Scandrick has been the Cowboys' slot cornerback for the last few years. It's not an easy job and not one he'll give up without a fight. That fight might come from rookie B.W. Webb, a fourth-round pick from William & Mary. That would be quite an accomplishment for Webb to wrestle that away from Scandrick. Don't expect it to happen, but it'd be good for Webb to prove he can handle it, in case an injury to one of the starters forces Scandrick to play more on the outside.
9) Starting Guards – Macknezy Bernadeau and Nate Livings are scheduled to start. That's the plan. But the more time they keep missing, forcing Ronald Leary to get more reps, is opening the door for him. Leary could very well compete for a starting job, but probably only because of injuries. The Cowboys need that offensive line to be a cohesive group, so rotating guards every other day doesn't allow for that continuity to set in. But if the veterans can't stay on the field, watch out for Leary this year.
10) Fullback/H-back – This is one rare battle between players at different positions. If Lawrence Vickers can get healthy from a back injury and legitimately compete for a spot, he'll likely compete with tight end Dante Rosairo, who has some H-back experience in his career. It'll come down to the Cowboys deciding to keep three tight ends and a fullback, or just four tight ends.