One of the most exciting things about training camp is watching how the roster develops. But as much as we love this time of year, we also know that in reality, most of the starters have a pretty firm grip on their roster spot.
Nobody is challenging Tony Romo for his starting spot anytime soon. And guys like DeMarcus Ware, Bruce Carter, Sean Lee, Dez Bryant, Anthony Spencer, Morris Claiborne and quite a few others on the team will work hard in camp, but the reality is that they are not competing for a starting spot.
For the most part, teams have a pretty good idea of who their starters will be well before camp opens. Sure, there will be a couple of tweaks and perhaps a surprise or two, but unless a down-roster player shows sustained impressive performance through camp, the starters are pretty much set.
But there are starting jobs on Cowboys' roster where a starter - while currently penciled in on the depth chart - may not have a very firm grip on his spot. Listed below are five of the potentially most tightly contested starting spots; for each position I've listed the current starter and added the players they probably have to beat out or hold off for a starting job.
Right tackle: Doug Free (over Jermey Parnell)
Left Guard: Nate Livings (over Ronald Leary, Phil Costa)
Right Guard: Mackenzy Bernadeau (over Ronald Leary, Phil Costa, David Arkin)
SAM Linebacker: Justin Durant (over Alex Albright, DeVonte Holloman)
Free Safety: Will Allen (over Matt Johnson, J.J. Wilcox)
For now though, let's look at the 22 players most likely earmarked as starters for the Cowboys. The table below lists those 22 starters and adds a column showing when those players joined the Cowboys and under which coaching regime:
|Pos||Coaching Era||Player||Year||Pos||Coaching Era||Player||Year|
The final tally: barring major injuries, and hoping for a speedy recovery by the likes of Anthony Spencer and Jay Ratliff, six players acquired during the Parcells era will be starters this year. Only five starters remain from the Wade Phillips coaching era. The remaining 11 starters were all brought in under Jason Garrett's tenure.
And the problem here is not just that Phillips is trailing his predecessor, the issue is that there's a huge talent hole smack in the middle of the Cowboys' talent acquisition record: If you look at when the above starters joined the Cowboys, there are no starters on the roster from 2008 or 2009:
|2013 Cowboys starters by acquisition year, 2005-2013|
|2||2||2||- -||- -||3||3||5||3|
As you look at the averages over the other years in this table, there are probably four or five starters missing that should still be on the team from 2008 & 2009. And it's not like the Phillips-era Cowboys had fewer first-round picks than during the Parcells years. In fact, every one of the three coaches we're looking at here averaged one first-rounder for every draft he presided over:
- Parcells ('03-'06): 4 - Marcus Spears, DeMarcus Ware,
- Phillips ('07-'10): 4 - Anthony Spencer, , , Dez Bryant
- Garrett ('11-'13): 3 - Tyron Smith, Morris Claiborne, Travis Frederick
It's quite ironic that the Cowboys team playing in the Hall of Fame game (at least partially in honor of Bill Parcells) in little over a week will likely have more starters from the Parcells era (5: Witten, Romo, Ware, Austin, Hatcher) than starters from the era of his successor in Dallas, Wade Phillips (4: Free, Bryant, Lee, Church).
That Phillips-era talent gap is one of the reasons why the Cowboys have struggled the last few years, especially with their depth: Consider that with Orlando Scandrick, the Cowboys have only one player left who joined the Cowboys in either 2008 or 2009. One player!
And sure, it's easy to blame Wade Phillips for all of this, but that would be an easy cop-out. The entire Cowboys organization, from the scouting department through the coaches and the owner failed here.
The good news, if there is such a thing, is that the Cowboys have restocked their talent shelf over the last three years, both via free agency and the draft. But the question is: have they restocked their team with enough talent to be competitive again?