If we assume a good bill of health for the Cowboys' offensive starters and focus solely on training camp battles, there aren't many windows open for new names to crack the starting lineup. Other than maybe one or two spots, the coaches won't be using their erasers very much. Looks like a lot of ink on this side of the ball.
First, consider the 11 names on offense that finished the '09 season atop the depth chart.
- Offensive Line: LT Flozell Adams, LG Kyle Kosier, C Andre Gurode, RG Leonard Davis, RT Marc Colombo
- Backfield: QB Tony Romo, FB Deon Anderson, HB Marion Barber
- Receivers: RWR Miles Austin, LWR Roy Williams, TE Jason Witten
Now, flash forward to mid or late February 2011. Which positions will see a name change by the end of next season? Which will see a change as early as Opening Day?
The Offensive Line
With the release of Flozell Adams, the name of the guy protecting Tony Romo's blindside is the first, obvious change to the Dallas offense. That name should be Doug Free unless Alex Barron shows to be more than just an insurance policy. There's also the chance Free could regress. But with Barron now in Dallas, perhaps some healthy competition is just what Mr. Hudson Houck ordered for Free.
If Free is penciled in as the starter on the left side, then I bet that lead is dark! The Cowboys hope that after camp he will show they can write his name in ink. Free knows what he has to do.
"I don't care if they pencil you in as a starter," Free said after Monday's opening of organized team activities. "If you don't play well and you don't practice well, you ain't gonna start."
Now let's flip it to the right side of the line. Barron has made it quite known that he expects to be competing for a starting position somewhere. He obviously prefers the left side.
"In my opinion, it's totally different," Barron said. "Some people think it's easier than what it is. In my opinion, technique-wise and the different (placement of) hands, it's just different. But I prefer to play left tackle."
As O.C.C. pointed out, the offensive tackles allowed 10 of the squad's 34 sacks last year on Romo. Though Free and Colombo were part-timers, they were only attributed as to having caused just a sack a piece in the regular season. Supposing that Free and Barron will battle it out at LT and that the team will focus Robert Brewster's camp snaps at RT, then we can put Colombo's name in ink to start out the season.
C Andre Gurode and RG Leonard Davis will also start out the season with their names in ink on the Dallas depth chart. If any interior lineman's name is in pencil, it would most likely be LG Kyle Kosier.
But who is going to challenge for Kosier's spot? Montrae Holland could give it a go. He's big, but he's big (Yes, I meant to say that). Perhaps his 325+ pound frame can provide the line some more power if he hits camp in football shape. It's interesting that Kosier, Holland, and second-year man Travis Bright have and will take snaps at backup center. Seemingly, the team is preparing all three guys to be versatile backups. Does that mean the coaches will push Holland to unseat Kosier, or is that just a what-if-Gurode-gets-hurt scenario?
Ink. Dark ink. Bold. All CAPS at quarterback. Tony Romo is primed to continue leading this team. Number two guy Jon Kitna has a strong hold on his role as the savvy backup, while Stephen McGee gets another year to show he's a project worth grooming.
The running backs, though, have the coaches whipping out their Dixon Ticonderogas. Essentially, Jason Garrett and Skip Peete could be erasing a different name each week if they wanted to. But who will begin the season as starter?
At halfback, Marion Barber's ink from last year may have turned to lead. Now, that's all conjecture at this point; although Felix Jones' name looks to be moving up to starter status. We know that Jerry Jones wants his "wow" guy to get the touches. But there's little doubt that Barber, Felix and, Tashard Choice all want to start. Whenever approached about their respective roles on the team, we always get the humble, team-first approach as Felix shares here.
"There's great competition between us," Jones said. "We make each other better by going out there and competing during practice, during this off-season, a lot of competition as far as running and lifting and everything like that.
"Like I always say, 11 guys on one team make the play happen. You can't do it by yourself. We're a team and that's how we play. If I don't get as many touches as I think I should have and we win the game, that's how it's supposed to be."
Because of the talent that each RB possesses, there will certainly be some platooning by the coaches. The argument on whether it matters or not who is named the starter is a subjective one. Everybody wants to see what Felix can do with more touches, but the Cowboys do like to pass a lot on first downs. We know Barber can be a devastating blocker, and he has proved to be a playmaker as a pass-catcher as well. Felix is just so darned fast, though.
And there is no guarantee that Felix won't be active in the return game either.
He's been fielding kickoffs during the first week of OTAs. As usual, Jones is open to doing whatever the Cowboys coaches want him to do.
"I practice it," Jones said. "Like I always say, I don't make those decisions. I do what I can and control what I can control."
Tough, tough choice for the Cowboys here.
Speaking of Choice, some of you may feel he is the best option at starting running back if you see the other two guys as role players and Choice as "steady Eddie". It's hard to imagine the coaches starting him over Barber or Jones. Though Garrett could look to expand his role in the offense somehow, it's highly doubtful Choice's name will be inked in as a starter unless the injury bug bites.
Choice, though, does make the best locker room videos of the three.
And what about the fullback position? Is it becoming the dinosaur position in the NFL? The Cowboys only keep one, Deon "Cricket" Anderson, from year-to-year.
Anderson's a strong run blocker (watch him mic'd up here against the Eagles), but not very active in the passing game. That may be why the team has recently added hybrid TE/H-back types in John Phillips last year, and seeing if Scott Sicko, Chris Gronkowski, and Nick Tow-Arnett can make a good enough impression this year. Gronkowski is more in the mold of a FB than the others, but I would say that Anderson is penciled in rather securely at the spot; he may even be in ink.
Sharpies all-around for the names Jason Witten and Miles Austin. The question is at the other wide receiver spot. With Roy Williams' fat contract and his determination to prove naysayers wrong, it's probably safe to assume that his name will be written in ink on that Opening Day depth chart. It won't be a Sharpie like Witten's and Austin's though. It will be a Bic.
I wonder if at some point in the season whether Jason Garrett will be shaking his pen. A few dropped passes in tight games may cause some ink to dry. Shake it up with a little Dez Bryant maybe?
Let's not get carried away yet. Bryant is a rookie and the Dallas coaching staff hasn't shown a strong willingness to play rookies early. But who knows what will transpire by the end of the season? Initially, expect one heckuva battle in training camp. Williams does have a leg up on Bryant considering his experience, both in the pros and in Garrett's system. But Bryant has already dazzled folks with his large hands and aggressive route-running.
Of the 11 starting spots on offense, I've got these ones all inked in for the Cowboys' Opening Day roster:
LT, C, RG, RT, QB, FB, TE, WR1, and WR2
The only two written in pencil:
Will there be a Holland, maybe a Brewster, at LG? Right now, I doubt it. Somebody would have to do some thorough erasing.
And it isn't essential that the running back situation be switched up, seeing that Garrett will most likely rotate all three. But somebody has to start each game. This could be the year that we see a Jones there instead of a Barber.
Not much room on offense for new starters. It is possible we see the same 11 names from last season when Dallas travels to Washington on September 12. It may be more interesting, though, to project which 11 will end the season as the starting unit.
Ed. Note - Next in this series, "Names Penciled in and Names in Ink: The 2010 Dallas Cowboys Defensive Starters"