Cowboys Defense: Breaking Down the Training Camp Battles

[Ed. Note by Grizz]: We'll still be covering the ongoing situation surrounding the collapse of the indoor practice facility, but we'll also resume coverage of straight football subjects on the blog. Carl breaks us away from the tragedy of the weekend for a while to discuss the roster battles on the defensive side of the ball for 2009 training camp. [End note]

Looking at the Cowboys’ draft class, two things are clearly evident. The Cowboys are putting an emphasis on improving special teams play and also improving depth by churning the bottom third of the roster. It is unlikely that all 12 of the Dallas Cowboys 2009 draft picks will make the team, but some will. For every rookie who makes the roster, there will be a veteran left out in the cold. We have spoken at length about how this year’s training camp will be a relentless scrap for roster spots. Let’s take a look at the cast of Survivor: Dallas, and how each particular battle shapes up. In this edition, we will examine the defense.

There was little player movement along the defensive line. Igor Olshansky will step in for the departed Chris Canty, but other than that the unit will look about the same as last year. There will be no real position battles along the defensive line, but there are spots up for grabs just about everywhere else.

Inside Linebacker

Starters: Bradie James, Keith Brooking

Survivor Contestants: Justin Rogers, Bobby Carpenter, Steve Octavien, Matt Stewart, Jason Williams, Stephen Hodge.

Cowboys will likely keep: 4

Breakdown: It is not inconceivable that the Cowboys would roll with two rookies backing up James and Brooking. Jason Williams was the team’s first selection, and would have to do something unthinkable not to make this roster. Hodge impressed at the rookie mini-camp with his coverage skills, and is expected to be a core special teams player. Keeping only Williams and Hodge would however present a challenge, as both are more suited to play Brooking’s weak inside position. If the Cowboys went with James, Brooking, Hodge and Williams, the team would have to look hard for a player who can fill in both inside and outside in a pinch. That scenario would all but eliminate Matt Stewart, who is not athletic enough to play outside in a 3-4. Rogers and Carpenter both have some experience outside. Rogers is the best special teamer of the group, so that may give him the edge over the disappointing Carpenter. This battle could be affected by the battle at outside linebacker.

Who will survive?

Outside Linebacker

Starters: DeMarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer

Survivor Contestants: Greg Ellis, Brandon Williams, Victor Butler

Cowboys will likely keep: 4

Breakdown: The Cowboys spent most of this off season ridding the locker room of bad attitudes and whiners. The perpetually unhappy Greg Ellis was however spared; possibly an indication of what the team thought of it’s depth at outside linebacker. The Cowboys drafted a pair of pass rushers in Williams and Butler, but both are defensive ends making the conversion to linebacker. It is unlikely that either will learn enough in training camp allow the team to move on from Ellis. Still, the team seems to be moving towards youth and locker room chemistry. If the aging Ellis again becomes a malcontent, he just might get his walking papers. Will the Cowboys play it safe with the known commodity in Ellis, or continue the youth movement? This battle could be affected by the battle at inside linebacker.

Who will survive?

Note: The Cowboys would prefer to dress 7 linebackers, so they will be looking for a player who can fill in both inside and outside. Look for 8 linebackers to make the final 53, and 7 to make the game day 45.

Safety

Starters: Ken Hamlin, Gerald Sensabaugh

Survivor Contestants: Tra Battle, Courtney Brown, Pat Watkins, Jerome Carter, Michael Hamlin, DeAngelo Smith.

Cowboys will likely keep: 4

Breakdown: Once again it looks like the rookies have the inside track here. Michael Hamlin is the only natural strong safety of this bunch, so he has an edge there. DeAngelo Smith is being looked at as a punt returner and his experience at corner could possibly save the Cowboys a game day roster spot. Battle actually played adequately when called upon last season, but Watkins and Brown have to be running out of chances. Jerome Carter is a long shot to make the squad.

Who will survive?

Cornerback

Starters: Terence Newman, Mike Jenkins/Orlando Scandrick

Survivor Contestants: Alan Ball, Michael Hawkins, Mike Mickens

Cowboys will likely keep: 4

Breakdown: This ought to be interesting, because if DeAngelo Smith can serve as an emergency corner, this will be a 3-man scramble for one spot. Michael Hawkins is not a factor, so this will come down to Ball vs. Mickens. Mike Mickens was a highly-rated corner who slid only after a knee injury. Mickens is being tabbed by many to be one of the steals of this year’s draft. We’ve counted Alan Ball out before, but every time you look up he’s still got a star on his helmet. This one will be fun.

Who will survive?

I'll be back later in the week to break down the position battles on the offensive side of the ball.

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