A few days ago we looked at "Five Training Camp Battles On Offense", so it shouldn't come as a complete shock to find us following up that post with one that looks at the defense. Of course, there's a good argument to be made that everybody is battling everybody on defense this year. Think about it: Which players are guaranteed starters?
In the entire front seven, Sean Lee is the only player about whom we can say with a confidence approaching certainty that he'll be the starter in the season opener. Barring injury, of course. The Will and Sam linebacker spots are wide open. The defensive line is anybody's guess; right now a good case could be made for why any one of between eight to ten players could be called on to start the season.
And if the Cowboys open the season with two corners on the field (as opposed to a nickel or dime defense), can we say for sure which two players out of Carr, Claiborne, or Scandrick will be on the field? I can't, Carr's contract notwithstanding. At safety, Barry Church looks like a lock for one of the safety spots.
That's two players (two!), that I would consider locks to be starters at their position. Which makes the battle for a starting spot easily the most important training camp battle this year on defense. But the title of this post says "five battles," so we'll look at five other battles next.
1. Leon Lett versus the legend of Rod Marinelli
Somewhere between training camp and the 20th player taking snaps for the Cowboys on the D-Line last year, people started talking about Marinelli as some kind of D-line-whisperer. And even now a significant part of the hope for the 2014 season rests on Marinelli doing his thing with the D-line. Except Marinelli is now the defensive coordinator and won't be doing a lot of D-line-whispering in his new position, now that he needs to spend time all over the defense.
That leaves Leon Lett (Official title: Defensive Assistant/Defensive Line) in charge of the D-line. Joey Ickes informed me that Marinelli plans to stay involved ("I have another guy working with me there, I oversee that thing strong"). I guess we'll just have to wait and see.
2. Cowboys defense vs. first downs
The Cowboys allowed an average of 24.3 first downs per game last year, the most of any team in the league. The number of first downs allowed is the end result of a bad third down defense (43.3%, ranked 29th in the league), the inability to stop the pass (7.8 yards per attempt, 26th), and the inability to stop the run (4.7 yards per attempt, 30th).
The defensive players may be battling for roster spots, but the defense as a whole is battling to bring those numbers down. At the end of the day, draft pedigrees, salary cap hits or years of NFL experience count for nothing as the Cowboys try to find the best 25 or 26 players to improve the defense..
3. Safeties vs. NFL experience
Even though Barry Church has been on the Cowboys' roster for four years now, he had accumulated just 399 snaps and four starts on defense prior to 2013. Last year, Church added 1,048 snaps and 16 starts, bringing his total career starts to 20 games - which is more than all the other safeties on the roster combined. The lack of NFL experience among the safety group is summarized in the table below:
|Church||Heath||Wilcox||Hamilton||Johnson||Dixon||K. Smith||R. Smith|
Church is a lock for one starting spot, and J.J. Wilcox is penciled in as the second starter. But that doesn't mean much at this stage, as all three spots after Church are up for grabs. For seventh-round pick Ahmad Dixon as well as the two Smiths, both of whom joined the team as UDFAs, this is an unusual opportunity: where other players from this rookie class are battling for a practice squad spot at best, these guys are battling for a spot on the 53-man roster from day one.
4. The battle for the 4th corner spot
Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne and Orlando Scandrick have locked down the top three spots at corner. But if one if those guys gets hurt, the fourth corner is one snap away from being a starter.
Last year, the Cowboys played 1,096 snaps on defense. On 704 of those snaps, or about two thirds of all snaps, the Cowboys played a nickel defense with three corners on the field. When "they" say you can never have enough corners, this is exactly what "they" mean. A fourth running back or a fourth tight end is a bit of a luxury for most NFL teams. A fourth corner is an absolute necessity.
The lead candidates for the fourth spot are probably B.W. Webb and Terrance Mitchell, but there are four more corners currently on the roster would would beg to differ.
5. The one-techniques
There's not a lot of mystery surrounding the three-techniques. Tyrone Crawford and Henry Melton are the top two guys, and both will likely be rotating in and out a lot, so the question at the three may be more about who will get the nod as the starter, and less about playing time.
The situation is a lot less clear at the one-technique. Nick Hayden had one thing going for him last year that no other player had: health and his air guitar play. But will that be enough to hold on to a roster spot this year? The Cowboys signed Terrell McClain to a three-year deal, and he's probably penciled in as the starter right now, but that could quickly change. Omobi Akoye, a free agent familiar with Marinelli's defense, will challenge for playing time, as will the two rookies Ken Bishop and Davon Coleman.
There are still a lot of moving pieces in the interior of the defensive line, and the only thing we know for sure is that the Cowboys currently have seven guys (including Ben Bass and Chris Whaley) who could play the one-technique, and they may only have two roster spots available for the one-technique.
The Giants, to name just one 4-3 team, rarely keep more than four DTs on their roster. After last year's debacle, the Cowboys may keep five defensive tackles this year, but the extra guy is more likely to be a three-technique. It's going to be tough making the roster as a one-technique this year.
6. DE depth
George Selvie, Jeremy Mincey, DeMarcus Lawrence, and a fourth guy, perhaps Ben Gardner, will likely be the starting rotation at DE. Spencer will start the season on PUP. The battle here will be for the fourth spot, with Martez Wilson, Caesar Rayford and Ben Gardner battling it out.
7. The outside linebackers
Sean Lee is The Man at the middle linebacker spot, and the Cowboys want Anthony Hitchens to back him up. But the other starting spots are up for grabs. Kyle Wilber and DeVonte Holloman will go head-to-head for the strongside linebacker spot, Bruce Carter, Will Smith, and Justin Durant may compete for the weakside spot, if the Cowboys decide to keep Durant. Orie Lemon, and two UDFAs, Dontavis Sapp and Joe Windsor, may also be in the mix.
Which roster battles on defense will you be watching closely this year?