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Looking Ahead: The Best Defensive Camp Battles For The Cowboys

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After a defense-heavy draft, there is a lot of competition looming for Rod Marinelli’s group.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys-Training Camp Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

When it comes to shiny new toys, most of the ones the Dallas Cowboys are looking forward to playing with are on defense this year. They took seven defenders in the draft, out of nine overall picks by the time things were done, plus there are the two “red-shirt” players from 2016, Jaylon Smith and Charles Tapper. And there were some intriguing free agent acquisitions to throw into the mix as well. While we will start to get some idea what the team has on hand for this year’s campaign during the rookie minicamp and OTAs, the real test will of course be in training camp. And although that is still a few months away, we already can see some of the biggest camp competitions shaping up. We looked at the offense earlier, so here are the big battles shaping up for the defense.

Jaylon Smith versus his nerve.

There are times it is hard to remember when we did not obsess over the regeneration of Jaylon Smith’s damaged nerve. And it is still going to be a while before we stop. Until we see him play and have an idea of how much he can still bring to the field, the arguments and speculation will continue about how valuable he is. While Smith and members of the Dallas staff continue to voice nothing but optimism, others continue to take a much more pessimistic outlook, such as in this article by Dr. David Chao, who has consistently been very negative about Smith’s recovery.

Recovery from nerve injury is usually early or not at all.

At this point medically, it appears there is no way for the nerve to ever be 100 percent.

How well Smith does eventually recover will drive all the decisions at linebacker for the Cowboys, including how many they will carry. If Smith is at or near 100% and the starting Mike linebacker that we dream of, Dallas could easily drop the linebacker corps to six players, which would probably mean that there would be no real room for any new faces to make the roster. But if Smith is appreciably less that what the team is hoping for, there may be room for a Lucas Wacha to make the team as a special teams ace and depth player.

More importantly, the question of Smith’s health will largely determine the very heart of the Cowboys’ defense. If he is able to line up next to Sean Lee and perform at or nearly at the level he was in college, then the middle of the field will turn into a true no man’s land for opposing offenses. It will significantly affect how well the D can perform. But if Smith is not that healthy, then the defense may look much more like it did last year, especially in that area the linebackers have most of the responsibility.

Smith was always a gamble as a draft pick. We will see if he pays off or busts out.

Who’s got the edge?

Danny Phantom has taken his own look at who will likely make the roster, coming up with a value-weighted formula. His posts (on both offense and defense) actually go hand-in-hand with mine to give a much more comprehensive view of things. One aspect in particular that his posts have are the tables with the players currently on the Dallas roster (plus those expected to be announced as UDFA signings, which the Cowboys seem to be sitting on until rookie minicamp). One thing that becomes very, very clear from his post on the defense is that there are a lot of defensive linemen. A. Lot. Like sixteen, or twice as many as the team carried last year.

This is one unit where the staff may be looking to add more numbers to the mix for the regular season 53-man roster, which may have driven acquiring so many linemen (including drafting two defensive tackles in the seventh round). But the burning question is who is going to play right defensive end? At this point, the Cowboys have said they plan to give draft pick Taco Charlton a shot at that position. The RDE, or weakside DE, is the player the defense depends the most on getting to the quarterback. This position requires elite quickness, agility, and strength, and is one of the most difficult to fill in the NFL. It is often seen as the defensive equivalent of quarterback as far as the relative scarcity of players who can do this well. Many critics of what the Cowboys have done to address this problem posit that Dallas has a bunch of LDE, or strongside DEs, and no real RDEs. This can be attributed to bad talent evaluation, but it does also reflect the reality that LDEs are a lot more easy to find.

However, Rod Marinelli puts a big premium on position flexibility (a preference he shares with Jason Garrett). And his approach on the line is to come at the offense in waves, bringing fresh or rested bodies in to wear down the pass protection. Expect to see a lot of the defensive linemen getting reps at RDE during camp. And this will be a chance to try out multiple line combinations as well. This is likely to carry over into the regular season. We might see three or four different players take snaps from the RDE spot during a game, flipping them back and forth with the LDE, or even moving them inside at times (David Irving and Tyrone Crawford both seem to be real candidates to switch between end and 3-tech DT during a game, and Taco Charlton brings a similar ability to play up and down the line).

The real question for the Cowboys is not, therefore, who will play. You can easily identify seven locks and just a couple of names who would be the eighth member of the group, if they don’t add a spot or two. It is finding combinations of players and positions on the line that are most effective. And if Dallas can generate effective pass rush using a rotation of ends, then they hardly have to worry about the whole idea of a “war daddy”.

Thinning out the secondary.

The day before this year’s NFL Draft, everyone and their pet hamster was discussing the need to restock the secondary as the Cowboys’ biggest problem. With the much-discussed departure of four defensive backs who either started or played a key backup role, the question was just how in the world Dallas would come up with the talent replace them.

Now, the question is rather different: Just who are they going to be forced to get rid of from this young but very promising group of defensive backs?

Cornerback and safety are the positions where we will see the most classic battling for roster position on the defensive side of the ball, which will go very well with the expected battles at wide receiver this year. Like with the defensive line, the Cowboys may want to go a bit heavy in the secondary. In addition to the need for depth, defensive backs provide a lot of the special teams bodies, so if the team goes short at linebacker, another key ST resource, it is logical to boost the DB numbers.

Just based on what the team spent to acquire the players (again, Danny Phantom’s article illustrates this very clearly), the biggest fights to keep a job may be facing CB Nolan Carroll and S Robert Blanton. They were brought in to plug the holes at those positions, but the massive influx of rookies may have rendered them redundant. Carroll may be having to fend off Marquez White, unless Dallas manages to carry six corners (and then he would still have to stave off players like Leon McFadden and Sammy Seamster, although that may be a bit less challenging). Blanton is likely going to be locked in a three-way battle with Kavon Frazier and Jameill Showers (yes, he is a safety now) for the last position or two for a safety.

But the good news is that Dallas is definitely looking at who to cut from this group, not how to add DBs. It should make for some fierce fights getting down to the 53-man roster.