Ok, we all seem to have a consensus about who will be starting for this team now that Brodney Pool has been cut and Barry Church is the man at Strong Safety - hopefully with rookie Matt Johnson backing him up when he switches to dime linebacker on 3rd downs.
There isn't much suspense about Dan Connor beating out speedy ILB Bruce Carter for playing time especially on 2nd and 3rd downs if both guys come out of training camp healthy. About the only major question marks left are:
1) Whether Mike Jenkins gets put on the Physically Unable to Perform or even Injured Reserve list
2) The interior offensive line
3) Which of the two bubble veterans from the defensive line will be cut, (I say one and the other gets traded) and
4) How many linebackers this team will carry
5) How many receivers this team carries
Click here to skip ahead to Part II
In my mind it's a foregone conclusion that our emergency QB Rudy Carpenter gets stashed on the practice squad as he's eligible.
So without further ado here are my thoughts about the bubble guys and practice squad candidates...
PREPARING FOR THE 'WORST CASE SCENARIO' -- MIKE JENKINS STAYS ON PUP
1) CORNERBACKS 6 Let's start with the scariest situation, which in my opinion isn't even interior o-line but the thought of Orlando Scandrick having to line up against Victor Cruz in the slot at the New Meadowlands on September 5th. Clearly Tom Coughlin is not a dumb coach and he's not likely to match up Cruz against Carr on the outside where Brandon can give the Salsa dancer some nasty jams and bone-jarring hits if Eli tries to force the ball.
As much as we'd like to think Carr will be put on Cruz inside more than likely it will be Scandrick, who is this team's only legit slot man at this point. Mo Claiborne may have the potential but he's just not there yet and the MCL injury is a frustrating albiet temporary setback. Claiborne is going to see plenty of action early against the Giants with perhaps mixed results. I think the rookie will get burned a few times but I also have hopes that he'll stay on top of his man, whether he's Hakeem Nicks, rookie speedster Reuben Randle or Ramses Barden (the Giants' better version of Andre Holmes). Maybe Pick Six will even come up with an INT as Eli tests him early and realizes he's no longer throwing against Alan Ball or Terrence Newman.
Believe me, this team will keep at least 5 CBs if not have to carry six if Jenkins is inactive early (the team notably kept six safeties in 2010 to allow rookie UDFAs Church and Danny McRay to develop). Much depends on whether Jenkins gets PUP'd or not -- increasingly I think the Cowboys are preparing for the worst.
Since Jenkins started training camp on the PUP list according to Bryan Broaddus he is eligible to be put on the shelf for six weeks, opening up a roster spot for Akwasi Owusu-Ansah (aka AOA). My own gut feeling is that this team is talking up AOA's size/speed potential in hopes he can finally make a few plays in preseason and justify keeping AOA around rather than having to bring in another Frank Walker type-vet or keep young journeyman C.J. Wilson. If Mike Jenkins were healthy AOA would be gone and likely off to some team like the Minnesota Vikings desperate for cornerback help.
AOA's failure to reach his full potential gives Georgia Tech product Mario Butler the inside track for the 5th CB slot. We all had high hopes for the rookie UDFAs Isaac Madison and Lionel Smith but both are unlikely to even make a practice squad spot. Butler at 6"1 200 has the size if not speed to step into the Dime free safety role allowing Barry Church to roam the middle of the field and make plays against tight ends and slot receivers on 3rd and long. Whether the team tries to sign a veteran after cuts or keeps AOA as the sixth corner remains to be seen. But the Brandon Carr story should inspire Butler to think he might overcome a perceived lack of speed to use muscle and hustle to handle opposing receivers.
Keeping six corners forces this team to carry just Church, Sensabaugh, Matt Johnson and Danny McRay as safeties. Given both McRay and Church's durability that may not be too risky of a bet, but the real issue is the nightmare scenario of Carr or Claiborne going down for more than one game. Then we're right back to where we were in several games last season with Frank Walker and Alan Ball!
GO GET BRYAN MCCANN!
As a wild card, if Jenkins gets PUP'd upon final cuts don't rule out a 2013 6th or 7th round draft pick being sent to Oakland for 2010 rookie "phenom" Bryan McCann. We never should've cut him and kept Alan Ball! At least Eli will think twice before throwing an out on the goal line against him on September 5th.
My ideal CB rotation if we keep six while Jenkins is out is:
1s) Carr, Claiborne, Scandrick slot
2s) M. Butler, McCann (backup slot guy/Punt Returner), AOA or more likely a veteran CB
[UPDATE: Mike Jenkins tells ESPN he should be cleared to practice soon and expects to play on Sept. 5th]
KEEPING MORE BEEF INSIDE
2) INTERIOR O-LINE 10 Kevin Kowalski started training camp on the PUP list, but Tom Ryle has it that he could be IR'd with tendinitis hurting his recovery from a bad ankle. Bill Nagy having a high ankle sprain in the same ankle he fractured last season also could threaten his future with the team or also see him put on PUP or IR. That leaves the 'bubble' guys, as UDFA Ronald Leary makes this team and only a surprise cut of Phil Costa with Bernadeau as the starting center would whittle the O-line count down to 9 instead of 10.
David Arkin stays as he's showing signs of improvement despite not getting much of a push against our 300 plus pounders. I remain hopeful Bernie can demonstrate his experience snapping the ball after four preseasons playing some center for the Carolina Panthers, demoting Costa to a (hopefully season-long) backup role. That would also put Arkin alongside Free for the trap blocking/pulling right side of the line. Unfortunately in that case it will be no secret to teams which (left) side is our 'power' side for runs. But since draws/screens and traps are staples of our rushing attack and we've been running primarily to the left anyway for years (since Flozell Adams was here) that may not be as big of a problem as it seems. In any case Bernie at center would solve the problem of Costa getting pushed back into Romo's face.
Pat McQuistan as bad as he was as a rookie tackle in 2006 is showing some signs of being a decent insurance policy for game days at guard and getting better push under Bill Callahan's coaching tutelage. I seriously doubt this team would be able to roll with only seven o-linemen active on gamedays as Jason Garrett hinted at recently. Parnell is still better than McQuistan in the event one of our tackles goes down. We may have to roll with eight active linemen and only four wide receivers with Hanna as our 'emergency' receiver/special teams fast wedge blocker.
McQuistan stays, particularly since he's the Jumbo TE down on the goal line too. IMO the only guys left who are likely to get cut are perpetual 2011 on-off cut Daniel Loper and aging former Longhorn Derrick Dockery. DD is big and could back up big left guard Nate Livings in a pinch, but he lacks agility against A-gap blitzes like the kind the Arizona Cardinals unleashed last season. Dockery was primarily kept around last season to handle teams with massive 3-4 nose guards and linemen that simply overpowered the 'Yuglies' like Costa, Nagy and occasionally even Kowalski.
Regrettably, injuries are going to force this team to carry 10 o-line (including Costa who likely gets cut in favor of a 1st or 4th round draft pick in 2013). So your starting o-line hopefully is (against the bigger Ds):
1s) Livings, Costa, Bernadeau
2s) Big veteran like Dockery or Holland, Arkin (backup C), Leary (likely inactive first few weeks)
1s) Tyron, Free
2s) Parnell, McQuistan (game day active, backup Guard/Jumbo TE)
GOING THINNER AT DL TO KEEP MORE LINEBACKERS/RECEIVERS
3) DEFENSIVE LINE 6 Is an area where some people think this team could keep only six players in order to free up a roster spot for a sixth wide receiver, a fourth tight end currently not on the roster, the ninth linebacker (Albright or Lemon) and/or the 10th o-lineman. I personally think this team is trying NOT to talk up Robert Callaway in hopes of stashing him on the practice squad one more year. But the Detroit Lions may remember him after their two leading defensive tackles got arrested this offseason. There are also too many 3-4 teams in this league for Callaway not to be at least a 50/50 chance of getting claimed off waivers.
Marcus Spears may be nearing the end of his time with this team and rookie Tyrone Crawford is showing signs of being ready to enter the starting defensive end rotation as early as this year, with him stepping in as a pass rushing 4-3 DT on passing downs. Jason Hatcher will be ready to go by September 5th while Clifton Geathers gives us a weapon we haven't had in recent seasons -- a huge player who can get his arms up to clog passing lanes, or even prevent the likes of Eli Manning stepping up into a clean pocket to make the usual maddening, Demarcus Ware-escaping throw.
In my view, the surprise trade (rather than cut) is Kenyon Coleman. He still has trade value to a rebuilding team like the Indianapolis Colts who just switched to the 3-4 and could use some veteran big men to keep blockers off their 4-3 ends making the OLB conversion. Coleman's deal unlike Spears is fairly short term, as fitting a 32-year-old veteran. I reckon Coleman could fetch a 7th round pick, which is better than the nothing we are likely to get for Spears thanks to his longer term, larger contract. Spears gets cut to save 2013 cap room for Romo's extension, leaving your DL as:
1s) Hatcher, Lissemore, Ratliff playing less nose tackle/being used more on passing downs and
2s) Crawford, Brent, Geathers bringing up the "2nd team" (really the run stuffing team)
Big Clifton becomes the team's 3rd nose tackle and might even see more snaps against the Giants than Josh Brent.
Meanwhile, Sean Lissemore isn't getting all those snaps at NT for nothing as Jason Garrett prepares for Ratliff to possibly retire in 2013. Sadly, plantar fasciatiis could prematurely end the career of one of our favorite all-time RKGs and perhaps Bill Parcells' 2nd greatest draft pick behind Jason Witten. In this 2012 cuts scenario, the team attempts to stash Robert Callaway on the practice squad but has to settle for keeping rookie Ben Bass around as a bubble PS guy to cut in case a veteran WR gets signed and Cole Beasley or Raymond Radway get demoted (you can already tell I'm picking both of them to make this team in Part II, as each contributes something special, the former on offense, the other on special teams).
The only way I see Callaway getting kept with six is if Ratliff goes on IR. Not likely but a compounded 'worst case scenario' to Jenkins being on the list. I won't be surprised -- even if Claiborne has a great season -- if this team drafts a Jenkins replacement in the 2nd round after addressing the need at center or safety in the first. The FO could also go for another speedy running back to replace Felix Jones in the back-up/kick returner role in the 3rd.
In my mind Jenkins is already gone for 2013. [CORRECTED error here] The Cowboys are grooming Lissemore to take over Ratliff's pass rushing nose spot. Crawford and a 2013 pick "Crawford clone" as the replacements on the outside are also insurance against Hatcher declining past 30 years of age.
Expect another Crawford or Lissemore type DL to be the picked in the 4th round of the 2013 draft to give us the best 3-4 defensive linemen rotation in the league next season, when I expect this team to finally win a Super Bowl for Tony Romo aftera deep playoff run this year.
Read the second half of this post in Part II, coming up later this week.