Bubble Battles.

As we approach the second set of Organized Team Activities, or OTA’s, it makes sense to start looking at the real drama of this part of the offseason. While mainstream media will be interested to see how Tony Romo and Dez Bryant look together; or interested in speculating whether or not Demarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer are large enough to play defensive end, we know at the end of the day those will be players wearing the star come September. While it is important to see if Matt Johnson can play the back third, or how Gavin Escobar looks, those are guys that will be on this roster opening day.

The real drama of the offseason in my opinion is who will be this year’s Cole Beasley? Alex Albright? Barry Church? Ben Bass? The Cowboys have a recent illustrious history of finding bottom of the roster guys, bringing them through camp, and having them stick. While we cannot expect to uncover a Miles Austin or a Tony Romo every year, good teams take advantage of this part of the process to find players to cultivate and develop. Dallas is making a case under Jason Garret to be discussed amongst the most successful at this aspect of talent acquisition.

That being said, I believe there are a couple interesting reasons to follow this offseason in particular. First, where will we go long? Obviously if you go long at one position on the 53 man roster, you must go short at another. The way I see i,t there are two reasons to go long in any given position group. You either have a large enough talent base that it forces you to keep more than you otherwise would out of excitement; or you have a middling group of similar players and hope one will emerge forcing you to keep the group in fear of jettisoning the wrong man.

Take for example the “unset position groups”: Offensive Line, Defensive Line, Safety, and to a lesser extent, Wide receiver, Running back, & Linebacker. The inclusion and exclusion of specific players can reveal a lot about how the staff views these groups.

At offensive line we have a particularly muddled group. If you want to look at the long number, I’d estimate 12 would be the longest we could go. More conservatively, I would expect 10. (That’s even if we somehow cloned the 90’s line. Fingers crossed.) We currently have 14 guys here, which means battles galore. A closer look reveals this is an important offseason for Kevin Kowalski and David Arkin, and for different reasons, Ronald Leary, Nate Livings, and Jermey Parnell. Each one of these players’ success or failure will reveal different things about how the end roster will be composed. For example, a guy like Darrion Weems fate is closely linked to that of Parnell. Should Parnell make a leap, then you have three, at worst, capable tackles. In case of an injury to left tackle Tyron Smith, Doug Free (regardless of how you feel about him) would move to LT, and we’d have a capable replacement at right tackle in Jermey Parnell. This would all but eliminate the need for a developmental left tackle, especially as Weems doesn’t really have a shot at supplanting our own Tyrannosaurus Smith. With one small step forward, a seemingly large question mark becomes a fairly young strength, and give us some of Jason Garrett’s favorite, positional flexibility.

If we look at the interior we see a similar scenario. If neither Arkin or Kowalski have a sufficiently impressive camp, and say a player like Leary impresses/forces his way into the starting five, that should seal the fate of one or both of the aforementioned youngsters. Likewise, while Livings carries an almost 3 million dollar cap hit, his spot is also far from guaranteed. Should a younger guy put together an impressive camp, he could easily find himself relegated to the bench, or worse. More likely, however, we could be looking at Livings as a quality, and relatively in expensive backup; a position that has been needed as of late. Livings would certainly be more impressive in that role than a guy like Derek Dockery. Excuse me while I try to banish the memory of his play from my brain. Not to mention turning a potential weakness into a, dare I say, potentially deep unit, with two interior swing players in Livings and Ryan Cook. Not too shabby.

Also watch the status of Chicago Bear Gabe Carimi. The Cowboys had him as a first rounder on their board in 2011. Gabe wouldn’t be the first Bear with questionable knees, who was a former first rounder, that they saved and salvaged into a quality player. Could we see a sixth or seventh round pick sent to Chicago, to make sure he doesn’t get to waivers? We did so with Cook last season. Carimi would certainly have more upside then any sixth or seventh rounder in next year’s draft. Also consider this team’s ability/willingness to pay players in the undrafted free agent market that they had on their board. In effect granting them the ability to buy an extra 5th-7th round pick; will be something to watch.

Let’s change gears and go to the running backs. This is a group I will be paying a lot of attention to. Not so much to see if DeMarco Murray will actually be healthy. (Please God). The player I will be paying the most attention to is Lawrence Vickers.

Vickers is a curious case because while it has been reported that he is a phenomenal locker room guy, and a particularly great influence on Dez Bryant, the team is reportedly headed toward a fundamental philosophical shift. With the teams rumored desire to make 12 personnel the base set, two tight end sets, and the resources and talent spent in three wide receiver packages, Vickers seems to be a man without a lot of snaps in his immediate future. If he is getting tons of practice reps, and more importantly makes the final roster, that could be a really dangerous sign that our 12 personnel group is not as far along as the staff would’ve liked. That or we might have made more a bit more of this shift then the staff did. Regardless, it seems TE 3, WR3, and FB, are all competing for similar snaps, and fullback seems to be bringing up the rear with the Turk quick on his heels.

Wide receiver is also particularly interesting. Again, if we go long here we’re looking at six spots at most, more likely though we are looking at five. To muddle things further, it’s a pretty safe estimate that four of those spots already safely belong to Dez Bryant, Miles Austin, Terrance Williams, and Dwayne Harris (not necessarily in that order).

We currently have 12 receivers under contract. Wide receiver is also a position that tends to flash, and thus have guys stick around. Guys like Jared Green who has some family pedigree, and who we’ve already started to hear about; or Cole Beasley everyone’s consensus 2012 pet cat, (not to mention with the specter of Danny Amendola still residing around Valley Ranch) I suspect he’ll be a hard guy to cut loose. Speaking of Danny’s, throw in a guy like Danny Coale, a guy we recently spent draft currency on, and we have a real arms race on our hands. Each of the receivers brings something different to the table, and this group in particular has the potential to really force the hands of this coaching staff and front office. Of course that is a good problem to have from both a team and fan perspective.

Another similar group and one that expects to be closely watched is the safety group. Again this is a collection of guys where we could go either long or short, especially with some phenomenal jumps in performance. Right now we have eight players competing for between four and six spots. The player I will be watching will be Jakar Hamilton, and no I didn’t misspell Matt Johnson’s name. The UDFA from Georgia, by way of South Carolina State. It was reported that the Cowboys had a draft able grade on Hamilton not far off what they did on J.J. Wilcox, and passed due to character concerns. As you know they spent a third on J.J. so it goes to show you just what they thought of Hamilton. Now that’s also not to say our recent draft pick is in any danger, however, if Hamilton does appear to be the player the scouts saw, where does that leave Danny McCray? How do you quantify a player who has little to no value as a defensive player, but is by far the best special team’s player on our roster? Maybe in our division? How much value can you place on teams? Can you afford in effect a fourth specialist? Will Allen is making this roster, as a better defensive player and as a good team’s player. If you keep six here, you must go short in one of the above groups, and vice versa.

As we move closer to training camp, in years past the names we’ve started to hear now, are ones we end up seeing sticking on the 53 or into final cuts. Either way, the caliber of bubble player seems better this year, and this is a welcomed problem to have. Questions regarding quality depth, and not whether we have any depth at all; fear of losing a potentially good player, not one of whether or not we have any too loose…

That being said, is it football season yet?

Another user-created commentary provided by a BTB reader.

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