NFL training camp battles are one of the most enjoyable parts of the preseason. Watching late round draftees, UDFA rookies and free agents try to fight their way onto rosters is to a large degree the main reason for training camp. The coaching staff is trying to figure out who they want to keep and who has to go. For most returning veterans, camp is just about getting fully into "football shape" and polishing their game.
For most - but not all. While established stars and dependable role players can have a measure of confidence that they just need to stay healthy and not do anything massively stupid to retain their locker, some players have to face the fact that just having tenure and a contract is no guarantee that they will be on the 53-man roster to start the season. For these players, camp is about fighting off those new faces to hang onto their job. It happens every year. While sometimes these camp battles develop in unexpected places, most of these "bubble veterans" can be identified before camp even opens. Here are the leading candidates for the Dallas Cowboys to find themselves in a fight to keep wearing the Star they bore last year.
Morris Claiborne. He has been a disappointment since the beginning, failing to come close to the expectations that came after the Cowboys traded up to take him sixth overall in the draft. He has been injured or recovering nearly every game sine he joined the team. He is a poster child for unfulfilled potential. Now with Byron Jones part of the team, Claiborne may find himself in a battle for the fourth cornerback spot - and he is still coming back from his latest, possibly most serious injury. Torn patellar tendons are much harder to recover from than ACLs. If he does not recover enough to be able to compete on the field, there are a group of hungry corners ready to push him off the roster. Even if he should, his past performance is not a strong argument for him being able to stave off those challengers.
The one thing arguing for the team to keep him around even if they have to put him on PUP to start the season is the $5.175 million in dead money he would represent for the team. And he is not going to be destitute whatever happens, since his $2.6 million salary is fully guaranteed. The team could elect to put him on injured reserve this year since it doesn't change the impact on the team. That way they could monitor his progress and see if he might be worth a shot, possibly on a much lower cost deal, for 2016. But however the cap hit is managed, there is an obvious threat to Claiborne seeing the field for the Cowboys this year. Jason Garrett showed his first year as head coach that he has no problem cutting a player with a big cap hit.
Kyle Wilber. The four game suspension of Rolando McClain helps Wilber's case, since that means Anthony Hitchens will probably be tabbed to be the first or second option at the MIKE spot, rather than the SAM position that is Wilber's best fit. As injuries accumulated in the linebacking corps last year, he got the call to start three games late in the regular season. But his issue is that he is largely just a strongside linebacker, and that is the least valuable position in this era of passing games and nickel defenses. The coaching staff may be looking for a player with some position flexibility to take the job away from him. Wilber is strong on special teams, but again there are a lot of guys who are more than ready to put in the work on teams to take his spot. He would cost the team almost nothing in dead money, and free up cap space to pay a rookie or veteran on a minimum deal. The decision on him is going to be based solely on value to the team.
Nick Hayden. In Rod Marinelli's scheme, being able to bring pressure and get to the passer is the key attribute he seeks in all his defensive linemen, with flexibility to be effective both from inside and outside on the line a close second. Given that, the clear favor Hayden is shown as a one-tech lane clogger is an anomaly. He doesn't get deep and needs to be off the field in obvious passing downs. Despite Marinelli's praise for the man he calls the Golden Cock, Hayden has to be vulnerable. Dallas has a bunch of defensive linemen coming into camp. He also has no real dead money impact. If someone else like Ken Bishop can provide the same value on running downs and some additional penetration when the quarterback is throwing the ball, he may just push Hayden out of a job.
Lance Dunbar. The coaching staff is making a lot of noise about trying to get Dunbar more involved in the offense, but the issue for him is that there is just a lot of overlap between what he does and what the team can get elsewhere. Cole Beasley is able to work superbly in the middle of the field, and while a healthy Darren McFadden may not provide the exact same things, he can be very dangerous in space. The key here may well be pass protection ability. McFadden is bigger, and if he is better able to pick up a blitzing linebacker than Dunbar, the value of protecting Tony Romo may tip the scales. Dunbar also has his cap impact working against him. He would entail zero dead money, and releasing him frees up $1.5 million. How well Ryan Williams and Lache Seastrunk do in preseason will also enter into the equation. Williams could be a backup for the lead runner, most likely Joseph Randle, which Dunbar can't. And while Seastrunk is a long shot at best, he would be a cheaper change of pace back than Dunbar, which seems to be his primary skill set. Dunbar will have to show convincingly he can be the weapon the coaches think he can be to make it to the regular season.
Gavin Escobar and James Hanna. They face the same problems and are competing with one another as well as a rookie. Dallas seems to have some specific ideas about what to do with Geoff Swaim. Neither Escobar nor Hanna have been large contributors in most games due to the fact that Jason Witten is Jason freaking Witten and shows no signs of the fade in productivity that his age would lead us to fear. His incredible connection with Romo is going to make him the lead dog at tight end barring unforeseen issues. Although the 12 personnel package is getting talked about again this year, there may only be room for thee tight ends when the final cuts are made. Neither of the two represents a significant dead money issue. Unless the team decides to eschew a fullback and keep four TEs on the roster, it looks like Escobar, Hanna and Swaim are fighting for two spots. This could be a very close race to watch.
Those are the veteran Cowboys who look to be on something of a bubble now. Who do you see as threatened, and do you think there are other names to watch?