With almost three weeks of training camp (as well as one underwhelming preseason tilt) under our belts, we have accumulated sufficient information on our fave team to render some informed assessments. For the purposes of analysis, the training camp/ preseason phase of the Dallas Cowboys 2012 campaign should be broken up into two phases: the first three weeks, including the first two preseason games, and the final two week lead-in to the Giants game, when pre-game preparation becomes the priority. The early phase places a premium on evaluation: how will the roster shape up, both as a whole and position by position?
Today, I want to take a look at this second question. As I noted in a recent post, several of the positions on the Cowboys roster are very settled. At quarterback, tight end, linebacker, and defensive back, its fairly obvious who is in and who is out. In addition, the numbers at running back and with the kicking specialists appear to be set and, even if they haven't yet played a single snap together, the starting offensive line is fairly clear. Other positions are much less determined, however. At wide receiver, seven players are fighting for thee or four spots; on the defensive line, six guys contend for two or three positions.
So, how did those positions work themselves out on Monday night? Let's take a look at who did what at receiver and along the defensive line.
Who helped and who hurt themselves against the Raiders? Make the jump to read what Ol' Rabble has to say...
Wide Receivers: Clearly, a major aspect of the coaches' plan going in to the game was to rotate as many receivers onto the field as possible. Once Kyle Orton led the second team offense onto the field, the Cowboys lined up almost exclusively in three receiver sets, allowing them to get as many of the young guys on the field as possible. Because the offense (and the quarterbacks) struggled so mightily, however, they received pitifully few opportunities to make plays. Three young'uns (Kevin Ogletree, Dwayne Harris and Tim Benford) caught a single pass; Andre Holmes finished with three grabs. Beyond raw statistics, these and the other candidates offered clues about their play. I'd like to focus on one play for each receiver, using as an example of his larger body of work this entire preseason.
Dwayne Harris: Since OTAs, we have heard that Harris has a "new body." Supposedly, he's leaner and quicker than the 2011 model, although, in training camp practices, I can't say I saw a preponderance of evidence supporting this claim. That changed on Monday night. With about six minutes remaining in the third quarter, and the Cowboys facing a third and fifteen, Harris caught a seven-yard curl from Stephen McGee, pivoting quickly upfield along the sideline past the corner and safety and driving at the sticks, missing a first down by two yards. In this play, I saw Harris demonstrate a heretofore unseen explosiveness. For the first time, I thought to myself, "here's an NFL receiver."
Kevin Ogletree: I thought 'Tree showed why he's been holding steady as the leader in the WR3 race; he's smooth and fluid and made a nice catch on a comeback from Orton. In addition, he's versatile, with the ability to play both inside and outside. This doesn't mean that I want him as the third receiver (and, in fact, if he's not the WR3, then he won't be on the team).
Tim Benford: Although he caught a 9-yarder from McGee to close out the third period, I thought that Benford's most telling play against Oakland came on an incompletion five plays later, as McGee heaved a deep ball to the left corner of the end zone. He has position on the Oakland cornerback (none other than former Cowboys Brian McCann), but didn't have the deep speed to run underneath the pass. To be a weapon, a wide receiver needs either elite speed or elite quickness. I think Benford's a nice little receiver, but I'm not sure he possesses either of these qualities.
Andre Holmes and Cole Beasley: Why have I lumped these two together? Because I want to offer a comparison between the two. Take two plays: 1) on the Cowboys first possession, Romo threw a pass for Beasley down the seam, but he couldn't get both over the Raiders' defensive back and into Beasley's hands and 2) a sixteen yard Orton-to-Holmes completion on 3rd and nine. Holmes made his reception and Beasley didn't make his, but hat's not the key point here. What was evident was that Beasley needs to be open to make a catch, and Holmes does not. Holmes can use his body and length to make contested catches with a DB draped all over him; Beasley appears to need space.
And, in a league where "open" means a receiver is six inches from Darrelle Revis, Holmes' ability to use his body to his advantage can make all the difference. That's exactly how Keyshawn Johnson (who was open only a handful of times in his career) made a living, and he finished his career 23rd all-time in receptions, with 814. With this in mind, after the first preseason game, I'm inclined to handicap the wide receiver race as follows:
Since the Cowboys will keep no more than four of these players, it looks like Benford and Radway, both of whom have been hot and cold in camp, will have to play very well in the next couple of weeks if they want to secure a roster spot. Other than that, making sense of the receiver situation is, frankly, a crapshoot.
Defensive Line: In my camp reports, I have repeatedly mentioned the surprising depth and talent along the defensive line. A position that I regarded as a serious concern has, I think, become a real strength. That's the good news; the bad news is that the Cowboys suddenly have more good players along the line than they do roster spots, so they are almost certainly going to have to release somebody who can play. This question is complicated by the D-line's generational makeup; a clear dividing line exists within the group, which is comprised of greybeards (Jay Ratliff, Marcus Spears, Jason Hatcher, and Kenyon Coleman) and babyfaces (Josh Brent, Sean Lissemore, Rob Callaway, Clifton Geathers, Tyrone Crawford, and Ben Bass).
When the Dallas brass has to make cuts along the D-line, age is certain to become a factor. They will have to ask questions like: should we keep a guy who might be better in 2012 over another who might be better in subsequent years? Before we move on to similar considerations, let's review how some of these guys played in Oakland.
Marcus Spears: Many a commenter noted that Spears played "like a guy fighting for a roster spot." Indeed, against the Raiders, he was as disruptive as I can recall seeing him, playing off blocks, getting penetration, and corralling ballcarriers (he finished with four tackles). Admittedly, part of this can be attributed to the fact that, as a second-teamer, he was going up against a lower level of competition. Still, that doesn't explain the impressive level of effort and hustle Spears showed on the evening.
Tyrone Crawford: Crawford has been training camp's biggest revelation. When he was drafted, I liked the pick, and felt that he might be expected to work into the pass rush rotation around week ten. Instead, with his play in camp, he's making a legitimate push to become an integral part of the D-line rotation from the get go. A glance at his playsheet from Monday night suggests that the coaches feel this way too; Crawford played almost the entire game, and saw work at every defensive line position. Although he wasn't spectacular (I think he got too excited and lost control of technique), he did manage to translate some of his practice success to the field, in the form of his non-stop motor.
Josh Brent and Rob Callaway: In Ratliff's absence, Brent has been getting a lot of first-team work...and hasn't really been up to the task. After showing improvement in his first seasons with the team, Brent appears to have leveled off, which has opened up a window for Callaway, who has threatened Brent's roster spot with solid play in camp. On Monday night, however, Brent played well; in particular, he lowered his pad level and used his hands well to anchor against the run. Callaway, on the other hand, looked inconsistent and out of control; like a novice boxer, he lost hold of his technique once the bullets started flying.
Clifton Geathers: Like Callaway, Geathers failed to continue his good play in camp. Although he's a mountain of a man, Geathers's height (he's 6'7", 325) works against him during interior line play, as it makes him easier to get under and once under, to move. Several times against Oakland, I noticed him getting pushed around by a lesser player who had superior leverage, often aided by a 3-4 inch height differential. Geathers has been tutored by ex-Cowboy Leon Lett, another tall, high-cut player. If his game is ever going to resemble Lett's, however, he'll have to get low more consistently.
Ben Bass: A guy who seems to have no problem with leverage is the comparably diminutive (6'4", 288) Ben Bass, who seemed to be able to play low at full speed - no mean feat. To my mind, he was the night's big winner. Playing largely against halfback-turned-quarterback Tyrelle Pryor, Bass showed quickness, surprising strength, and a relentless motor. Most surprising was his speed; while Pryor left many of the Cowboys front seven players grasping at air, Bass was excellent in pursuit, seemingly running stride for stride with the former Buckeye phenom. With Bass' electric performance, I'd arrange the defensive linemen thusly:
1. Jay Ratliff
2. Jason Hatcher
3. Sean Lissemore
4. Tyrone Crawford
5. Kenyon Coleman
6. Marcus Spears
7. Ben Bass
8. Josh Brent
9. Rob Calloway
10. Clifton Geathers
Given the depth at the position, I can envision a scenario in which Dallas keeps eight D-linemen. But I think they'll do something this drastic only if they decide to keep either Spears or Coleman. In other words, they might be willing to sacrifice at another position to keep a youngster; I doubt they'd do that to keep a long-in-the-tooth veteran.
So there you have it, folks: Ol' Rabble's current rankings at the team's two most contested positions. These are almost certainly not the same ranking the coaches have, nor do they likely correlate to what the majority of our readers think. Disagree? Then hit the comments section and let your opinion be known!