OTAs haven't officially started, and training camp is still over two months away. But that doesn't mean it's too early to engage in some informed speculation about some of the training camp battles that could be shaping up. And those battles may be more than just player versus player battles. Here are some of the training camp battles to look forward to on offense.
1. Wide Receivers versus the Depth Chart
Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams, and Dwayne Harris on the strength of his special teams play. That's about as far as it goes at wide receiver right now. Nobody has a spot after that, not even Devin Street, who could conceivably share the same fate as fellow fifth-round wide receiver Danny Coale in 2011, who was released during final cuts and signed to the practice squad.
Last year the Cowboys kept five wide receivers on their opening weekend 53-man roster. That's two open spots on the depth chart for any of the following six players: Cole Beasley, Devin Street, LaRon Byrd, Tim Benford, Chris Boyd, Jamar Newsome, L'Damian Washington.
Two open spots. Six competitors.
2. Zack Martin versus 1st Round Expectations
Take a look at the Pro Football Focus grades for the rookie seasons of the first (or second) interior lineman drafted in each of the last four drafts:
2013 - Jonathan Cooper (pick No. 7): injured, next pick: Chance Warmack (No. 9): -4.6
2012 - David DeCastro (No. 24): injured, Kevin Zeitler (No. 27): +13.0
2011 - Mike Pouncey (No. 15): -0.3
2010 - Maurkice Pouncey (No. 18): -3.0
Already there is much talk about a significant improvement in the ground game because of Martin. Expectations are sky-high for an offensive line that now features three first-round picks, and many fans are expecting nothing short of dominance from the Cowboys' O-line. Yet all the evidence suggests Zack Martin will face the same rookie learning curve most other rookies have gone through in their first season.
3. The battle of the clipboard
It's hard to imagine that Kyle Orton will be back with the Cowboys, even if he does show up at the mandatory minicamp in June. That leaves veterans Brandon Weeden and Caleb Hanie as well as rookie Dustin Vaughan to battle it out for the right to hold the clipboard. Remember the last time the Cowboys had a real competition for the backup QB spot? Neither do I.
4. Jermey Parnell versus Doug Free
This one has not garnered a lot of headlines yet, but Parnell will become a free agent after the season at the same time as Doug Free's contract voids. If Parnell wants a new contract, he'll have to beat out Doug Free in camp, or the Cowboys could very well look for a backup tackle elsewhere next season.
Parnell was acquired off of New Orleans’ practice squad almost four years ago on Oct. 14, 2010, after spending the entire 2009 season on the Saints practice squad. He entered the league as an undrafted free agent out of Ole Miss, playing only one season of football in college as a senior defensive lineman. In four years with the Cowboys, Parnell has played sparingly, getting 10 snaps in 2011, 267 snaps in 2012, and 21 snaps in 2013.
5. Running backs versus hands of stone.
Here's a look at how many running backs and fullbacks the Cowboys have opened the season with over the last eight seasons.
|Fullback||- -||1||- -||2||1||1||2||1|
Even though the Cowboys have had four running backs on their roster two times in the last three years, historically the average has been three, though the combination of fullbacks and running backs has almost always numbered four. Three factors might see the Cowboys go with just three backs this season:
- The defensive line may need nine, perhaps even ten spots, and those roster spots have to come from somewhere.
- In a trade-off between a fourth (blocking) tight end and a fourth running back, the fourth back is probably at a disadvantage.
- First impressions of RB Ben Malena look positive, and the Cowboys might feel secure enough about having Malena on their practice squad to go with only three backs on their 53-man roster.
At the end of the day, the final spot on the RB depth chart may well be decided not by a back's legs, but by his hands. Scott Linehan recently mentioned that he could use a third-down back with pass-catching ability in his system:
"Moe Williams was a big part of it, too," he said. "He had like 600 yards that year. He is my all-time favorite third-down guy."
The '600 yards' Linehan mentions aren't rushing yards, they're receiving yards. In 2003, Moe Williams rushed for 745 yards and also caught 65 passes for 644 yards. At present, Ryan Williams, Lance Dunbar, Joseph Randle and even Ben Malena are all in the mix for that third and (possibly) last RB roster spot. And their receiving skills may end up being the final decider of who stays and who goes.
What are the battles you'll be keeping an eye on in OTAs and training camp, and why?