In my previous FanPost taking a long look at this team's most urgent 2012 injury needs at (respectively) cornerback, interior offensive line, we looked at how this team is likely to respond to this training camp's injuries. The biggest injury of course being veteran cornerback Mike Jenkins' bad shoulder. In a bit of good news I didn't have yesterday, Jenkins tells ESPN this week that he will be cleared for contact practice soon. Jenkins says he expects to play in the NFL season opener at the New York Giants on September 5th. Jenkins' improving health and the general RKG attitude in camp, combined with Demarco Murray's return and fierce defensive line play has given me a fresh shot of Cowboys koolaid.
Now in Part II, we take a look at the position battles that have drawn the most fan attention by far, at (inside and outside) linebacker and wide receiver. While we don't quite know yet which guys will make the cut, given the clues we have about positional versatility being very important to Jason Garrett, we can make an educated guess about which guys survive to make the 53 and who gets stashed on the Practice Squad or Injured Reserve.
I also take a brief look at the rosters of two teams mentioned by ESPN's sports writers as possible sources for bringing in a late veteran cut in early September, the San Diego Chargers and the Green Bay Packers.
4) ROB RYAN KEEPS NINE LINEBACKERS -- BUT WISHES HE COULD KEEP TEN
In my mind it's going to be hard for Garrett to justify to Ryan keeping ten linebackers with so many needs at DB and OL while going so light on the defensive line. We keep hearing from camp that former practice squad player Orie Lemon has had a solid preseason, and we expect that to carry over into the preseason games. But Alex Albright is also someone the coaches love for his positional versatility (there's that theme again) and ability to block on special teams at 6"5 262. The coaches this week even had Albright playing some tight end Mike Vrabel-style.
In fact in third and long situations Albright is almost big enough and certainly tall enough to line up as a 4-3 DE in the way the Giants have used their own big linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka - and Albright did some of this as a rookie last year. That makes carrying only six big DL (with one on the PS) more acceptable as Albright becomes a small DL -- just as Barry Church would be this team's true 4th inside linebacker. The fact that Orie Lemon is also still practice squad eligible and well ahead of rookie draft pick Caleb McSurdy means that I think he gets stashed and clears waivers, while Albright stays.
Meanwhile, Victor Butler is looking bigger and more like an 'every down' OLB who could replace Anthony Spencer next season. There's also the development of rookie 4th rounder Kyle Wilber(force) and UDFA small school sack machine Adrian Hamilton, who's routinely been beating RT Doug Free in camp. Something tells me this team will not risk Hamilton on waivers contrary to the ESPN beat writers analysis and will have to find a way to carry 5 OLB with Albright 'sliding inside' for the fourth and final linebacker spot behind the starters. I guarantee if we let Hamilton go he'll go on to be a beast by 2014 for someone, probably one of the 3-4 teams in the AFC like the Indianapolis Colts and their aggressive new head coach Chuck Pagano. So I have it as:
1s) Ware, Spencer
2s) Hamilton, V. Butler (strong side), Wilber(force) rushing from the ILB/weak side spot
1s) Lee, Carter
2s) Connor, Albright (Mr. Versatility)
5) COWBOYS ROLL WITH SIX WIDE RECEIVERS -- GROWING THE TREE?
No training camp battle has drawn more coverage than the competition for the third wide receiver slot, despite the fact that the third wideout should only catch 30-35 passes this season if Dez Bryant and Miles Austin miss fewer than one or two games a piece. A depth chart recently released by the team ahead of Monday's first preseason tilt at Oakland puts 4th year veteran Kevin Ogletree in the third spot. Ogletree has also been lining up outside with Cole Beasley in the slot and Dez outside in training camp drills while Miles Austin has been out with his bum hamstring. The real concern is whether any of the young-ins on the roster can step up if Dez or Miles goes down for an extended period of time the way Laurent Robinson did last season. In my fanshot I chastised ESPN's beat writers (Calvin Watkins excepted) for assuming a veteran brought in to start September could perform as well as LR did for this team last year. Thanks to his experience in the offense and showing modest improvement this offseason, Ogletree becomes this team's infrequently used 3rd wide receiver. Showing some game in punt and kickoff returns would probably clinch it for the Tree, but if he can't do that his spot could be taken by Beasley or even (if one of the starters is out) Radway.
MEMO TO ESPN DALLAS: WR HELP IS PROBABLY NOT COMING FROM THE CHARGERS OR PACKERS
I looked at the rosters of the San Diego Chargers, whom the Cowboys will get a long look at in preseason, and the Green Bay Packers and didn't see a prospective Laurent among the lot. San Diego is actually fairly similar to Dallas this season in that they have two lead veterans, Vincent Brown and (former New Orleans Saints WR) Robert Meacham, with Eddie Royal working the slot and a bunch of 6"2-6"3 rookies (apparently Norv Turner likes size in his receivers just like Jason Garrett) to groom behind the starters. The Chargers also have some smaller veteran and rookie return men, but not veterans with the size and experience that Robinson brought to the table to play outside in our offense.
The situation with the Green Bay Packers is more interesting, in that they have four guys who're locks to make the team in Jennings, Nelson, Cobb, and James Jones...and a battle for their 5th spot covered by Acme Packing Company between Tori Gurley or Diondre Borel (think of our own training camp competition between Andre Holmes and Tim Benford, as Gurley and Borel respectively resemble). James Jones (who was a decent backup fantasy option with several TDs last season) could very well be traded for a third round pick to a WR desperate team like the Dolphins or Jaguars. It's very unlikely Green Bay would send Jones to a division rival in the Minnesota Vikings. Dancing With the Stars star and saavy veteran Donald Driver could also stick around for one more year if the Packers roll with six wideouts.
For our purposes, Acme Packing says this week that the 6"4 230 pound second year man Gurley could be the Packers' last cut particularly since Borel can play the Wildcat position like Randall Cobb. In my mind, Gurley (who played at South Carolina with another big target, Chicago Bears 2nd round pick Alshon Jeffrey) is probably already ahead of Andre Holmes already in terms of experience. But the former Minnesota Viking still has four preseason games to show something, while Gurley's battling a lingering groin injury that could leave him temporarily unemployed come September.
THE TOUGHEST CUT -- BEASLEY VERSUS BENFORD
My projection has Holmes meeting the Turk due to the numbers crunch and this team's desire to keep prospective special teams gunner and return man Raymond Radway. Mothership scout Brian Broaddus has already suggested that Radway is ahead of Holmes in terms of route running and is faster. He clearly gives this team more versatility and special teams potential now -- including the ability to replace Teddy Williams as a gunner opposite Danny McRay. Hence, Radway claims the 5th wide receiver slot with rookie Danny Coale sticking as the 4th option and emergency punter/holder.
That leaves the sixth receiver slot. For me this came down to a dogfight between rookies Cole Beasley, who's catching just about everything in camp except punts, and Tim Benford, who's reportedly looked good returning kicks. Second year man Dwayne Harris is ahead of both in this week's depth chart but I don't think he matches either one in speed and Benford has more long term size and potential.
I go with Beasley as this team's sixth wide receiver on the 53 as he brings something to the table the other, bigger receivers don't -- the ability to squeeze into zones and threaten nickel coverage in the '4-step drop' quick outs. Putting Beasley into the slot or even out of the back field in some looks is another way of punishing opponents for dropping all three or two nickel linebackers into zones (think the Detroit Lions last season) to clog up the middle routes to Jason Witten and Dez Bryant. Beasley is simply quicker than many slot corners and if he gets a little bit stronger to get off jams watch out.
[UPDATE] That leaves Tim Benford to be groomed on the practice squad and rookie burner Salim Hakim getting a medical redshirt on Injured Reserve. If this team decides it doesn't need so many reserve linemen (i.e. Gunn or Adcock gets cut) on the PS it could also conceivably carry two WRs on the squad with Holmes joining the developmental club. Perhaps the comments threads may have been too down on Holmes as he starts to show some signs of getting it in camp.
Nonetheless I remain convinced Holmes is handicapped by his rawness and inability to play the slot or return kicks. If Tree and Harris get cut Benford and Beasley move up, Coale spends nearly all of his snaps on special teams and Radway becomes the fast, prototypical Cowboys outside receiver if either Miles or Dez goes down.
YOUR SEPTEMBER 2012 COWBOYS PRACTICE SQUAD
1) QB Rudy Carpenter or former Tulsa Golden Hurricane/native Texan G.J. Kinne (after New York Jets cut down)
2) RB Jamize Olawale -- can play both fullback and running back, but not sure how well the former UNT WR can block
3) WR Tim Benford -- in my view the team thinks he has more long term potential than Dwayne Harris
4) OT/OG Levy Adcock - protected Brandon Weeden's right side at Oklahoma St. and a potential replacement for McQuistan in 13'. IMO, Adcock's main 2012 competition is a young PS-eligible center prospect from another team released after final cuts.
5) OG Harlan Gunn - a player Bill Callahan tried to recruit at Nebraska who went to the U in Miami, FL. Developing mauler.
6) ILB Orie Lemon -- played well enough to earn a roster spot but gets caught in the numbers crunch that keeps Albright.
7) DL Robert Callaway or Ben Bass - this will depend on whether the team keeps 7 DL after parting ways with Spears and Coleman or rolls with just six and Callaway clears waivers. If not, then the former Texas A&M Aggie Bass is the next man up.
8) FS Justin Taplin-Ross - this team can't carry five safeties on the 53 this season but according to Tom Ryle they like JTR's potential at 6"3 215 with plenty of speed.
OG/OC Kevin Kowalski -- could still come back after the bye week and take Costa's job if rumored tendinitis goes away.
Bill Nagy -- Jerry Jones says he won't be back by week 3 or 4 and that almost certainly puts him on the shelf for 2012.
Salim Hakim - medical redshirt after breaking his finger in training camp - not enough reps to impress coaches.