NFL football is a brutal sport. Injuries are an unfortunate but unavoidable part of the game, which is why we see players seeking bigger deals and more guaranteed money. For teams, it means that you have to be just as concerned about quality backup players as you do about your starters. The Dallas Cowboys had a great regular season in 2014 and a strong showing in the playoffs, but depth was part of what eventually did them in. The defense was especially thin.
It is early now, but with the first padded practices in the books, the team is starting to look to be in much better shape in most places. The options in the second and even third string players look at this stage to be much more capable than they were last year. This is a combination of new talent acquired since last season and some returning players who are looking more capable than they were just last year. It is not completely rosy at the moment, but so far it is another reason for our optimism as the Cowboys face what looks to be a tougher schedule this season.
First, the (limited) amount of bad news. Quarterback has not changed much, and keeping Tony Romo healthy is job one. He does come into the season in better shape than he has been in the past three years or so. The team has to hope he does not miss any significant time. There are good reviews for Brandon Weeden, but they don't sound all that different from last year's reports on him, and we all painfully remember how that turned out the one game they tried to rely on him. Dustin Vaughan may or may not be an answer, but right now he does not look to be an answer this year.
At running back, the team has been hamstrung by Darren McFadden's injury. (Please forgive me for that.) But the good news is that Joseph Randle has looked very good, and Lance Dunbar is showing that he may be ready to contribute more than just some occasional third down plays. If McFadden does prove able to get into the mix, the calculated risk Dallas has taken with the position could well play out.
The only other real loss whose replacement is rather uncertain is that of Dwayne Harris. The team is looking at a variety of solutions for returning kicks and punts, covering the same, and fifth wide receiver. The good thing is that there are a lot of candidates on the roster right now who are trying to earn their way onto the 53, and adequate solutions seem likely.
Now for the areas that look to be better in depth. Tight end has not gotten much discussion with the presence of iron man Jason Witten on the roster, but Gavin Escobar is showing some good skills. If he can improve his blocking, the team may be able to spell Witten (although it may take handcuffing him to the bench at times to get him to sit out offensive plays). Geoff Swaim is a bit of a wild card here and could push James Hanna off the team if they only keep three. One way or another, things look good.
The offensive line just got stronger with the addition of La'el Collins. Although he is still being projected by many to unseat Ronald Leary, his real role this year may be as the backup guard. The team lost swing tackle Jermey Parnell in free agency, but all reports from camp are that Darrion Weems has finally stepped up his game and may have that covered. Rookie Laurence Gibson has also shown some encouraging flashes. With Mackenzy Bernadeau as a backup at both center and guard, the offensive line seems ready to handle the vicissitudes of the season.
But the real riches seem to be on defense. Jeremy Mincey parlayed his three day holdout into a nice $500,000 pay bump. While Greg Hardy is sitting out his suspension, Mincey will likely be part of the end rotation, and then he is a strong possibility to spend a lot of time working from the tackle position. There are still a ton of defensive linemen in camp, and one surprising name that has been mentioned for having a strong showing in the early going is Terrell McClain. With Hardy essentially coming in as reinforcement later, the rushmen have a lot of options - almost all of whom are better than all but the top four or five players from last season.
Linebacker has already been hit with injury, as Cam Lawrence was waived/injured and Justin Jackson soon followed. But last season, the Cowboys went into the year with little depth there. Including Lawrence, they only had six real options, and by the end of the season they were struggling to keep three backers healthy for game day, after seeing Justin Durant go out for the season and Rolando McClain miss time as the games piled up. Now they look to have six strong players ready to start the season, with McClain another reinforcement that will be arriving after four games. If one or two of the other linebackers in camp can show something, then this group will be in better shape than it was at any time last year.
Outside the defensive line, the biggest improvement in depth is probably in the secondary. Morris Claiborne was not expected to be ready to go for the start of camp, but he not only made it onto the field, he has shown some of the talent that led to the team trading up for him. Rookie Byron Jones is not at all overwhelmed by the NFL level of play, and is progressing rapidly. A big surprise has been Tyler Patmon, who, when he is not getting into scuffles with Dez Bryant, is getting some praise for the standout in the secondary so far. And both Jones and Corey White have been used as dime linebackers and have done some safety drills. With Brandon Carr, Orlando Scandrick, Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox as the expected anchors of this group, the Cowboys are working more on man coverage to go with the expected improved pass rush. That is happening largely because the depth is so much better here.
Dallas still has a long grind to go just to get to the regular season, but the team under Jason Garrett is working hard to minimize the appearance of that dreaded "I" word. If they can do a good job there the Cowboys are much better set to endure the long, punishing regular season and hopefully three or four postseason games.It is a very different outlook than it was a year ago. It took five years under Garrett, but depth is finally part of the Dallas roster.