The Dallas Cowboys kick off their training camp in less than four weeks. And once camp is underway, one of the most exciting things to watch is how the roster develops. But as much as we like to speculate about bubble players, late risers, and potential veteran cuts, we also know that in reality, most of the starters have a pretty firm grip on their roster spot.
Nobody is challenging Dak Prescott for his starting spot anytime soon. And guys like Sean Lee, Jason Witten, Ezekiel Elliot, Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, and quite a few others on the team will work hard in camp, but the reality is that they are not competing for a starting spot.
For the most part, teams have a pretty good idea of who their starters will be well before camp opens. Sure, there will be a couple of tweaks and perhaps a surprise or two, but unless a down-roster player shows sustained impressive performance through camp, the starters are pretty much set.
But there are starting jobs on the Cowboys' roster where a starter - while currently penciled in on the depth chart - may not be a lock for the starting spot. The most obvious of these are probably both edge rushing spots, but that doesn't mean there won't be any competition anywhere else. Listed below are five potentially contested starting spots:
RDE & LDE: Tyrone Crawford (10 starts at DE last year), Benson Mayowa (6), and DeMarcus Lawrence (3) are the main returning starters from last year, so they may have a slight leg up on a starting spot this year. But depending on who you ask, Taco Charlton, Charles Tapper, or Damontre Moore could easily be in the mix as well - and that's without factoring in the suspended David Irving.
CB2: Right now, Nolan Carroll is the No. 2 CB next to Orlando Scandrick in the base defense. When the Cowboys move to a nickel formation, Scandrick usually moves into the slot, and Anthony Brown takes his spot. But how long before Brown challenges Carroll for that No. 2 CB spot in the base defense? And if Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis turn out to be what the Cowboys expect them to be, they'll throw their hats into the ring as well.
Left Guard: Jonathan Cooper looks like he's penciled as the starter here, at least many Cowboys fans would like him to be, but the competition for the spot is far from over. Joe Looney started three games last year, and the O-line didn't miss a beat, and Chaz Green is also to be reckoned with - if he stays healthy.
1-technique: Most games start with a 1st-and-10 for the opposing offense. In response, the Cowboys usually line up in their base run defense with a 1-technique and a 3-technique. Which means that the 1-technique is likely to get 16 starts per year. But that doesn't mean the 1-technique plays as many snaps as the other players on defense, far from it. On passing downs, the Cowboys like to yank the 1-technique in favor of more pass rushing help.
Last year, this led to the statistical oddity that Terrell McClain got the most starts of any defensive lineman (15), despite only playing the 5th-most snaps (471) of all defensive lineman.
This year, Cedric Thornton is probably penciled in as the starter at the 1-technique, in part because he offers some pass rushing potential as a former defensive end. But Stephen Paea, familiar with Marinelli's scheme since their days together in Chicago, could prove a serious challenger for those starts. Paea could be a better option on early run downs, so he might follow the McClain model of getting a lot of starts while not playing a lot of snaps. Rookie Joey Ivie has a remote chance of making the 53-man roster, but is highly unlikely to challenge for a starting spot.
TE 2: As entire generations of tight ends found out the hard way, there aren't many starts to be had opposite Jason Witten in Dallas, so TE2 may not even be a real starter position, especially now that the Cowboys have arguably become even deeper at WR with the addition of Ryan Switzer.
Last year, Geoff Swaim had six starts, while Gavin Escobar added one for seven combined starts from the TE2 position. That's down from 2015, when James Hanna (7), Escobar (4), and Swaim (1) combined for 12 starts.
James Hanna and Geoff Swaim are expected to return from injuries by training camp, where they'll meet a Rico Gathers who'll be intent re-arranging the TE depth chart.
If some of these "battles" already feel like a bit of a stretch, that may be because there could be less competition for starting spots than we might have expected, or perhaps I simply missed some spots - where would you see serious competition for starting spots on this year's roster?