With only the first OTA session in the books, there are still myriad questions to answer about the 2016 edition of the Dallas Cowboys. While many of the starters are firmly in place, at least half the current 90 man roster are fighting for one of the remaining roster spots, with most of them being depth positions (with the one obvious exception of Ezekiel Elliott, who will be the starting running back, no matter what platitudes to competition the staff utters). For the rest, nothing is guaranteed at this time, although Dak Prescott is pretty much a lock to make the team as well.
Some will emerge, but obviously at least 37 of the current members of the team will not make it onto the initial 53 man squad. Although this is of course rather speculative, here are three names that should not only be wearing the Star this year, but who could well have a much bigger impact than some might think.
The Cowboys need pass rushers. With both DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory facing suspension to start the season, at least until Roger Goodell decides to get around to Lawrence's appeal, Russell has a great opportunity to get playing time and cement a position for the entire year. Physically, he fits the bill. He's 6-4, weighs about 270, and as was noted by OCC after he was drafted, he is one of the superior athletes the Cowboys like, sitting just outside the top third of all NFL defensive ends with his SPARQ score.
He did almost nothing in his rookie year, but he was hampered by a reported abdomen strain. More importantly, he was something of a special project for defensive coordinator and rushman whisperer (or shouter) Rod Marinelli. Russell has already had an eye-catching moment in the first three practices as noted by Michael Sisemore. If he can continue to build on that start, he can become a very big part of the pass rush, especially if the offense comes through with some leads to let the defense capitalize. If you haven't read Bob Sturm's excellent explanation of how playing with a lead benefits the defense in getting sacks, go do so now. It will make your mouth water.
I may have tipped my hand on him when I was invited to end my self-imposed exile from having a pet cat by choosing him, but hopefully the goatmouth is a thing of the past and he will reward all of us.
The sixth round rookie is the top SPARQ athlete of this year's class, with a phenomenal 98.8 percentile score. His chance to make the roster would not seem very good, because of the presence of Elliott, Darren McFadden, and Alfred Morris, but his path to the 53 should come through a different route. He is almost tailor-made to become the new kick/punt returner for Dallas. The team struggled to find a dependable return man last year, and was forced to put Cole Beasley back at times to field punts. That is not a good thing to do with a small player who is so very valuable as a possession receiver. But Jackson has blazing speed, good size at 6-0 and about 220, and lots of experience with the ball in his hands. While he doesn't appear to have been used as a returner in college, he does have a reputation as a good receiver, so the tools are there. The team should be working him on tracking and securing punts and kickoffs, and then let him rip some returns.
Yes, he's another SPARQ standout. But although that is something of a theme with these three players, there is also another reason to be very optimistic about his future contributions. For this, I have to acknowledge our podcast maven Landon McCool, who pointed out some very intriguing things on Twitter (if I get any of the details wrong here, it is on me).
There is a perception that Rod Marinelli does not blitz, but that may be a poor assumption on our part. As Landon stated, Marinelli worked in defensive schemes that did not blitz much, but he was only the defensive coordinator for one year in the past, working as an assistant the rest of the time. And last season, the team got fairly creative with blitzes at times. They got to Tom Brady multiple times using some packages that we don't normally associate with Marinelli. And Matt Eberflus, the linebackers coach, has added a new title as passing defense coordinator, which may make the staff even more open to bringing a linebacker. As Landon also illustrated with some gifs, the team had some success with a three man defensive line and bringing backers. Nzeocha has the speed and size to line up as the strongside backer, which would still leave the team with five defensive backs. He could come off the edge and create some real havoc in the backfield.
And like Russell, he was limited by injury his rookie year. Now healthy, and with a year in the system, he is another one of the players who has gotten off to a fast start in OTAs. He may not be challenging for a starting role, but as a spot player he could be a key part in manufacturing a pass rush this season.
It is still a long way to go until we see how things shake out in training camp, but these three players all bring some significant athleticism to much needed roles. Mark these names down and see if they can live up to these expectations.