What happens over the next several weeks are going to play a key part in shaping the team that takes the field in 2015. The Cowboys have some questions entering training camp and it will be fascinating to see how things play out. But before things get underway, here are five things that I expect to see this upcoming season:
Prediction #1 - Jeremy Mincey takes one of the DE spot and never gives it up
Once Greg Hardy returns to game action, he will command a great majority of the snaps at one of the defensive end positions. It should be interesting to see how the rest of the playing time is distributed. The Cowboys didn't move up in the second round in last year's draft to select a player to play him sparingly, so expectations are big for DeMarcus Lawrence. He's beefed up and he continues to tighten up his game under the great coaching of Rod Marinelli. This could be a breakout year for number 90. But slow your roll because Jeremy Mincey is also getting better. Mincey was just supposed to be a cheap resource to help bridge players like Lawrence, but in the process he ended up leading the Cowboys in sacks last season with six. He might not be ready to just move aside just yet. DeMarcus Lawrence is the future, but Mincey is the now.
Should both Mincey and Lawrence both show improvement over last season (or even flashes of play making ability from Randy Gregory), the Cowboys could take advantage of their overabundance of defensive end talent and slide someone over into the DT spot. Hardy or Mincey are candidates to take on that challenge.
Prediction #2 - J.J. Wilcox becomes a force at free safety
It's good sometimes to step back and think outside your conventional line of thinking and look for something a little askew. Expecting Wilcox to be a strong performing safety would qualify as that for me. I haven't always had the most favorable things to say about Wilcox, but there are a few reasons that might help alter that perception:
- Wilcox's learning curve is still large. With only one year at safety in college at Georgia Southern, Wilcox joined the Cowboys still very raw at the position. He now has 21 pro starts at the position. He is a very athletic player, but he's still developing his fundamentals. As Wilcox improves his ability to take better angles and be more effective tackling in the open field, he's going to become more of a strength to the team.
- There is better talent around him. The entire secondary should show signs of improvement as a result of better pressure from the defensive line. This should make things a little easier on the defensive backs.
- Another free safety candidate is lurking over his shoulder. While the Cowboys didn't add any new safeties that pose a real threat to Wilcox's job, the acquisitions of both Byron Jones and Corey White could provide competition for him. Jones and White are cornerbacks, but they both have some position flexibility to move to the free safety position should the team go that direction. The Cowboys will get the best five DBs out there and it wouldn't be too shocking if that meant four of them were corners.
Prediction #3 - Say goodbye to the fullback position
Tyler Clutts played in only 15% of the offensive snaps last season. The tight end group of Jason Witten, James Hanna, and Gavin Escobar occupied an average of 1.5 players per play, it is clear how dependent the offense is on this group. All three of the tight ends have gotten better at blocking and the Cowboys have now added a rookie who specializes in just that. And several times last year, the TEs would go in motion and end up at the fullback position when the play started. The Cowboys will keep four tight ends on the rosters and shouldn't waste a roster spot for position they don't really have a need for.
Prediction #4 - Damien Wilson will earn a more prominent role in the linebacker rotation
The depth of this position group will be tested early as Dallas looks to find a capable replacement for Rolando McClain while he serves his four-game suspension. Jasper Brinkley is the most ideal fit at the MIKE position. But don't sleep on Wilson. The flexibility of Anthony Hitchens will allow the Cowboys to get the best three guys on the field. The team may be a little more cautious in making sure that Sean Lee isn't overused and that could mean some extra reps for Wilson. Once his name starts buzzing for his great play on special teams, don't be surprised if he seeing more defensive reps.
Prediction #5 - Terrell McClain will take over the other DT spot
There were two big road blocks that stood in McClain's way last season - health and consistency. McClain was hurt in the pre-season which delayed his progression into Rod Marinelli's system. When he got himself healthy, he showed signs of good play. He had three tackles behind the line of scrimmage and should have had a strip and a huge touchdown run had it not been for a whistle-happy ref who prematurely called forward progress stopped on Giants running back, Andre Williams. But he did have a nice strip on RG3 that gave Anthony Spencer a walk-in touchdown. Despite only playing in 31% of the defensive snaps, McClain still graded out as the best run stopping DT on the team. If the coaching staff can just level out his inconsistency, he could end up being more of a regular play maker on this defense.
Bonus Prediction - Darren McFadden starts out with the starting running back gig, but Joseph Randle finishes with it
What would a prediction list be without some mention of what is expected at the running back position? Joseph Randle will be the RB with the biggest impact in 2015, but it won't look that way at first. As long as the veteran, McFadden can stay healthy, he should garner the most touches early on. The Cowboys will continue to use Randle in the backup role, only it will be more expanded than it was behind DeMarco Murray. As a result, McFadden will do a lot of the dirty work and Randle will come in with fresh legs and take off with some big runs. Fans will be calling for more Randle and as the season progresses, and they will get their wish. Whether it be by virtue of McFadden being nicked up to where he is limited or because Randle's is just simply pulling off better runs, Little Joe will swipe most of the second half touches.
Those are my predictions for the upcoming season. What do you expect to see in 2015? Better get your guesses in now before training camp starts revealing them.