Every training camp, for me, begins with a rush of excitement as I hang on every delicious bit of news coming out of San Antonio, Oxnard or Valley Ranch. As an endless series of questions run through my head, I search for answers: How are this year's rookies playing? The new free agent acquisition? Who's stepping up? What are our biggest areas of concern? Who's beating whom in one-on-one drills? After about a week, however, all the camp reports begin to blend together and the fact that Tyron Smith is holding his own against Anthony Spencer loses its luster and sense of import.
This is the period I'll call the blur--that week or so between the moment the freshness of camp wears off and the first preseason game, when we can finally see our brave boys hit people wearing different colored shirts. When we're mired in the blur, perspective vanishes and it becomes difficult to evaluate the team. Is Tyron Smith holding his own because he's going to be a player or because he's going up against scrubs? Is Rob Ryan's defense wonderfully creative and confusing or did it merely confuse a slow, thick-headed group of Cowboys offensive linemen.
Tomorrow, we bid the 2011 edition of the blur adieu. Although the first teamers are likely to play about eight minutes of game time before yielding to guys likely never to populate an NFL roster, the Broncos contest will nonetheless offer us the first real opportunity to evaluate Jason Garrett's troops, circa 2011. Given that the starters aren't likely to do much more than break a sweat, I'm planning on using this game to determine what kind of depth we might expect on this year's Cowboys team. Without further ado, I'll share five things I'll be looking for from Thursday's game.
More Cowboys talk after the jump...
1. The kids are allright
For some time now, Dallas' first team has generally acquitted itself fairly well in the first game of the preseason. In the last couple of years, they have played the Raiders in the game that corresponds to Thursdays contest (excluding last year's Hall of Fame game), and have left with the lead and a substantial advantage in yardage, only to see the second and third units outplayed en route to lopsided final tallies (31-10 and 17-9). On one hand, these were the first preseason games, which means very little; on the other, we witnessed what would prove to be the makeup of the "53": strong starting units with a significant dropoff in talent to the reserves. This was particularly apparent in position groups such as the offensive line and defensive back seven, which seemed overwhelmed by their Oakland counterparts.
In storming to the championship last year, the Packers showed the importance of quality depth. An organization cannot go into a season with "avoid injuries to starters" as a goal--the game is just too violent. With this in mind, Jason Garrett has stressed that he wants competition throughout the roster, a claim that has been substantiated by Dallas' offseason moves as well as the reports coming out of camp. Against the Broncos, I'll be looking to see whether this holds: how will the second and third teams fare against Denver's equivalent units? I'll be shining my observational spotlight on the likes of Alex Albright, Orie Lemon and Sean Lissemore to see how they stack up, because one or more of them may be thrust into a starting role in the regular season.
2. Whatever happened to the class of 2009?
As a key subset of the above: the thought process behind the Cowboys' 2009 draft strategy, you'll recall, was to improve the team's depth at thin positions: linebacker, offensive line, and defensive back. Up to this point, this strategy has been oft maligned, with good reason. But I think the strategy was essentially sound; what has drawn fans' ire has been the way the plan was executed--i.e., who they ended up drafting. What was been particularly galling is the fact that Dallas has gotten solid returns (3 or more starters or frequent contributors) from the 2007 and '08 classes. But to build a winner, teams must put together three or more consecutive good drafts. If the '09 draft ends up being a washout, it mitigates any gains from, say, the emergence of Doug Free and Anthony Spencer from the '07 crop.
That's why I have been encouraged to hear that several members of the Cowboys' 2009 group class have been showing up in the reports from San Antonio. At various times, Victor Butler and Brandon Williams have flashed in pass rush drills and have lined up all over the formation in Rob Ryan's defense; Stephen McGee appears to be more seasoned and poised, although his decision making still needs improvement; if not for Martellus Bennett's seeming turnaround, I suspect we would be hearing more about John Phillips picking up where he left off last year, when he was the best player on the field in the Hall of Fame game. I'll be watching to see how these guys, as well as kicker David Buehler, fare against Denver, with the idea that a return on '09s investment is better late than never--and much needed if this team is going to be competitive in the NFC East..
3. Special olympians
A quick look at the bottom of the roster suggests that there will some epic battles on the preseason horizon which will be largely decided by performance on special teams. Think about it: four players (Raymond Radway, Dwayne Harris, Jesse Holley, and Lyle Leong) are competing for the fourth and fifth receiver roles and four others (Alan Ball, Bryan McCann, Josh Thomas and Mario Butler) will vie for the final two CB slots; at safety, it appears AOA, and Andrew Sendejo will battle for one or two safety positions (I'm assuming, perhaps falsely, that Barry Church is safe). All of these roster spots in question, as well as the backups at linebacker and the third running back, comprise the Cowboys' core special teamers. I'll be watching the kicking game very closely (and rewinding all the coverage plays) to see how each of these players fares. Those who perform like Greek gods will find a locker at Valley Ranch with their name on it.
4. Will someone give the "end of Choice" rumors credence?
Since the first day of training camp, positive reports of Lonyae Miller and Phillip Tanner have circulated throughout the Interwebs. Given the fact that TC's skillset doesn't neatly cohere to that of a third back, who needs to be a good blocker and excel on special teams, fans and media types alike have postulated that one or the other--likely Miller--will bump Choice off the roster. While we can't know whether this is more than idle speculation until Choice returns from injury and reminds us what he's got, both backs have a unique opportunity to implant their games instead of his in people's imaginations. Here's the rub: you can't really tell what a running back brings to the table until there is tackling to the ground, which there hasn't been in camp. I'll be eager to see what Miller and Tanner show when the gloves come off.
5. Undersecretaries of the interior
One of this offseason's most important projects has been to improve both the athleticism and the depth along the offensive line--a tall order for a single year. They have jettisoned many of the offensive linemen who didn't fit the profile they were looking for, and added a passel of young, nasty foot athlete types. Dallas appears to be set at tackle, where the starters are known, Sam Young is entrenched as the swing, and Jermey Parnell is the fourth tackle, should they decide to keep one. Things are less clear in the interior of the line, however. The first question is: has Montrae Holland eaten himself out of a roster spot? If the Cowboys decide to keep him, that will put added pressure on a group of three interior lineman, Phil Costa, Bill Nagy and Kevin Kowalski, vying for two backup spots.
Given that the Cowboys' number one bugaboo in recent years has been their stunning lack of depth along the offensive line, and the clear evidence that Garrett wants this treehouse of horrors to end, I'll be closely watching the offensive line play, with special focus on the three interior positions.
Of course, there are numerous other storylines to follow Thursday and into the rest of the preseason, the play of Rob Ryan's defense chief among them. We may not be able to answer these more global questions definitively until the season starts, however, so I'll be looking more locally.
What will you be looking at/ for, BTBers? Weigh in in the comments section--and enjoy the return of tackle football!