It’s almost time! Training camp is about to start. I’m excited. Are you excited? Of course you are. You wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t fancy the every single little nugget of information regarding our favorite team. Soon the goodness will be spilled out for all of us to splash around in. But before that happens, a few of us front page writers wanted to offer up some final guesses for key position battles going into camp. Michael Sisemore (@MrSisemore) and Tom Ryle (@TomRyleBTB) join me in hashing out these battles.
The starting left guard
When La’el Collins gave right tackle a go, it did two things. First, it squashed nearly every discussion involving who will be taking over for the departed Doug Free. Then, it opened up a whirlwind of debate over who will be the Cowboys new left guard. Former first-round pick Jonathan Cooper is a guy many fans love because there is this infatuation that he still might be able to rediscover some of that top-prospect talent. Chaz Green has gone from swing tackle hopeful to moving inside as a possible guard. Another tackle turned guard option is free agent Byron Bell who has been on a weight loss binge in order to help increase his mobility. And then there’s Joe Looney, who was signed in free agency last year and ended up being a reliable interior blocker for the team last season.
Michael Sisemore: Jonathan Cooper
This is a position battle that won't end quickly. The Cowboys are going to give Green a shot because of their draft investment. Count me as someone who just doesn't see Green being successful as a guard. Cooper's definitely more comfortable at guard and he's between two All-Pro's that can hide what deficiencies he may have.
Tom Ryle: Jonathan Cooper
I really think the team is pushing for Cooper to win the battle because of a lack of faith in Green's health. Green's probably more suited to swing tackle, anyway. With the talent around him, Cooper should be fine.
Phantom: Chaz Green
Since taking over the Cowboys, Jason Garrett has completely remodeled the Cowboys offensive line. With Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin, they have three All-Pro first-rounders. With La’el Collins, they have a “should’ve been” first-rounder that landed in their laps. Green will be that final piece. His smarts and footwork will help him win the gig, but it’s going to take a run of good health for him to keep it.
The starting right defensive end
The Cowboys have a lot of questions along the defensive end. There is not a single starting spot that is locked down right now. While some of the specific spots can be limited to a 50/50 guess, the right side is wide open. Taco Charlton was drafted to handle this spot, but will he be ready as a rookie? Then you have a couple free agent flyers in Benson Mayowa and Damontre Moore who have some upside appeal, but are they reliable enough? And let’s not forget the debut of Charles Tapper who is a complete mystery. As Dr. Grant said in the movie Jurassic Park after learning that humans and dinosaurs would suddenly be thrown in the mix together, “How can we possibly have the slightest idea what to expect?”
Sisemore: DeMarcus Lawrence
This one is tough but if Lawrence is healthy by September, he starts against New York. He's the most accomplished edge rusher and the team's not ready to quit on him. Tappers' speed is intriguing but he's very green. Charlton is who they want to win it but Rod Marinelli is going to love moving him around. That leaves Lawrence and Moore, and Lawrence will get the nod.
Ryle: Damontre Moore
Moore will edge out Lawrence for the starting job, but they will be close to co-starters at the beginning of the season - which will make David Irving's return from suspension really interesting. As a bonus, I see Mayowa starting at LDE with Charlton his rotational mate, and the team will have to go a bit light at DT to keep Tapper on the roster. And I may be foolishly optimistic, but I think the pass rush is going to surprise most by being much better this year.
Phantom: Benson Mayowa
Being the reigning team sack leader doesn’t impress very many people. Let’s face it, we’re only talking about six measly sacks. But the part that does impress is Mayowa’s strong finish. He had four sacks in the four December games. Did something click for him?
He had only three career starts in his previous three seasons in the league, but he doubled that last year. The Cowboys signed him because of his potential, knowing there was still development to be done. His lack of bulk can cause him to be washed out of plays when the left tackle overpowers him, but his explosiveness and bend gives him some nice playmaking appeal.
Mayowa had a solid debut season and will be looking to expand in year two of Marinelli’s system. Taco may be the future, but Mayowa is the now.
The starting strong safety
Over the last four years, Barry Church has been a starting safety for the Cowboys. He’s gone. And J.J. Wilcox, who many of us believed would be his eventual replacement, is also gone. That means the spot is wide open for someone new to step in and take over at strong safety. There are a few different choices. Fan favorite and veteran Cowboys player, Jeff Heath looks like the front runner. But some younger guys are in the mix also. Second-year player Kavon Frazier is looking to do more than just play special teams. Free agent Robert Blanton was signed this offseason. And the Cowboys drafted Xavier Woods in the sixth round. Which one grabs the spot?
Sisemore: Jeff Heath
Again, Heath is the veteran who has the attention of coaches and front office guys. Now, I believe that eventually Woods will not be denied but Heath will win the job coming out of training camp.
Ryle: Jeff Heath
I don't know if SS and FS are really that clearly delineated in Marinelli's scheme, so I'll just put it down as Heath and Byron Jones as the starters for the season, which would make Heath the SS on most depth charts.
Phantom: Jeff Heath
It’s the hat trick for Heath as he gets all three votes. The growth he has made from the mental aspect will pair nicely with his athleticism. It may have been a little surprising that the team didn’t at least re-sign one of their free agent safeties, but once Heath starts making plays, it will become clear as to why. I love the potential of the Woods, but I’m not expecting him to break onto the scene as a rookie.
The starting middle linebacker
This essentially is a two man race between high upside player Jaylon Smith and the high floor veteran Anthony Hitchens. The recent signing of Justin Durant could make him a long-shot candidate as he has been very productive for the Cowboys when he’s on the field. This question will almost certainly be determined by on how healthy Smith is once he’s moving around hitting people.
Sisemore: Justin Durant
I'll go out on a limb here and take Durant over Hitchens. I think that they have got tremendous value from Hitchens but Durant was very productive for them. I think he'll be in better shape this camp and he and Sean Lee will start your season. Smith has a chance to play but this team will be super cautious with him in 2017.
Ryle: Anthony Hitchens
Hitchens will be the starter for the season if he stays healthy. If the team doesn't put Smith in NFI status, he may be challenging for the starting job when the playoffs roll around, but until then, Hitch will be fine.
Phantom: Anthony Hitchens
While Sisemore is going out on a limb, I’m hanging out with Ryle and securely hugging the stump. And there is no better security blanket than Hitchens. While he seems to always be one of those “just okay” guys, his experience is slowly paying off. He’s always been a smart guy, but as he sharpens his reads, just that little bit of improvement can move his quality of play into the next level. There are going to be two or three defensive players that people talk about a lot this season and Hitchens will be one of them.
Jaylon is the future and there will come a point where he is ready and he’ll emerge as the team’s middle linebacker star, but until it happens - Hitch is the guy.
The final wide receiver spots
Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley, and Ryan Switzer are all locks. That leaves Brice Butler, Lucky Whitehead, Noah Brown, Andy Jones or some other wild card long-shot to fight for one, possibly two spots. Based on how the players are used, it’s tough to imagine a definitive role for Whitehead so many fans have him on the outs. It really comes down to whether you like Butler, Brown, or both should the Cowboys carry six receivers.
Sisemore: Brice Butler
Is there really another option? Dallas is only keeping five. Whitehead and Jones will face almost impossible odds to win this position. This team's brass loves Butler, they love his attributes. He's big, he's quick, he's really the only receiver that can do a poor man's impression of Bryant. It would take an absolute amazing performance by anyone to unseat Butler.
Ryle: Brice Butler
I don't see anyone edging Butler out, but I am not as convinced that there will not be a sixth carried, and that will be one of the most wide open competitions in camp.
Phantom: Brice Butler and Noah Brown
I’m in agreement with my colleagues that Butler is safe. Some aren’t so confident about that, but Butler can be a little underrated at times. It would be hard to expect someone new to come in and be able to fit into the offense as well as he can.
Even though I have Butler penciled in as making the roster, that doesn’t mean Brown can’t make it too. Receivers that can block well are valuable commodities in Dallas and that is one of Brown’s strong points. While the team will still get one more year of service from their Butler, they’ll eventually be asking - what can Brown do for you?
Who do you think wins these roster battles?