The first few days of training camp are never the time to make sweeping conclusions but if you look closely there are hints at what the coaching staff is thinking with the first of five preseason games still a full week away. After just a handful of practices let’s take a look at a couple of the roster battles taking place throughout the Cowboys depth chart.
This is perhaps the most intriguing position group of the offseason after the team allowed several veteran free agents to sign elsewhere while replacing them with high draft picks such as Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis, as well as a less-heralded veteran free agent in Nolan Carroll. So far in camp all indications are that the first-string cornerbacks are Carroll along with the other two veterans of the group in Orlando Scandrick and Anthony Brown. This is no surprise considering the coaching staff’s history of forcing rookies to earn their roles and not simply placing them with the starters due to their draft position.
What’s most interesting here is that early reports have the team playing Carroll exclusively at left cornerback while Scandrick and Brown rotate on the right side, as well as in the slot. This seems to indicate that the team sees something specific in Carroll that makes them feel he is a good fit on the left side, especially after they pursued him in free agency in 2016 before finally signing him in 2017. This will be something to watch as we move forward into the preseason.
As for the rookies, Jourdan Lewis has yet to rejoin practice following his exoneration on Tuesday, so there’s no update there although it’s a safe bet that the team will primarily start him off the in slot. Awuzie on the other hand has primarily lined up on the outside while also rotating in at the slot, which is to be expected considering the versatility he displayed in college. Many have speculated that Awuzie may actually be a candidate to start at safety opposite of Byron Jones but that doesn’t seem to be in the cards, at least not yet.
It does sound as if the team is experimenting with Awuzie as a linebacker in six defensive back/dime packages, presumably as a roving type of moveable piece who could drop into intermediate or deep coverage, cover out of the slot, or blitz. Considering that Awuzie racked up an astounding 18 TFL’s and eight sacks in his final two seasons at Colorado and displayed excellent feel and timing in zone coverage, as well as a blitzer, he could be a very intriguing option that the team looks to deploy in a variety of ways in 4-2-5 and 3-3-5 alignments.
Safety is much simpler, Byron Jones and Jeff Heath have ran exclusively with the starters and there are no indications that there will be any challengers to their roles.
This should really just be titled left guard since we all know who will be starting at left tackle, center, and right guard, and the team is moving forward with recently extended La’el Collins at right tackle. With those four spots basically set in stone the only true roster battle is at left guard where the team seems to be splitting reps evenly between former first-round pick Jonathan Cooper and third-year tackle Chaz Green who has barely played on the inside until now. Early reports have Cooper taking the first reps with the first team but this battle seems wide open and should be one of the more interesting storylines of camp and preseason.
Free agent addition Byron Bell does not seem to be in the mix to start at left guard and is primarily backing up Zack Martin at right guard, but it’s still early.
Demarcus Lawrence at right defensive end, Tyrone Crawford at left defensive end, and Maliek Collins at 3-technique running with the first-teamers is to be expected, but what is really encouraging is that Cedric Thornton is atop the depth chart at 1-technique after struggling to get consistent playing time and never cementing a starting spot in 2016. It’s also interesting to note that Crawford is being started off again at defensive end and not tackle, but that could change once Benson Mayowa returns to full strength and when Taco Charlton becomes fully acclimated.
Speaking of Charlton, much like with the young defensive backs it’s no surprise that he has not been immediately placed atop the depth chart. By most accounts he has backed up both right and left defensive end, although with Crawford resting on Wednesday it was Charlton who was with the starters on the left side with Lawrence on the right.
The fact that the Cowboys employ such a heavy rotation on the line makes this not quite as intriguing as some of the other roster battles but of course it bears monitoring.
One of the darlings of the offseason has been Rico Gathers but it was never realistic that a raw project who had barely any experience playing football would walk right in after only a year and supplant actual NFL tight ends like James Hanna and Geoff Swaim. After missing an entire year it sounds as if Hanna is operating as the second tight end, almost definitely because of his blocking ability, while Swaim is behind him with Gathers bringing up the rear.
Many forget that Hanna was arguably the best blocking tight end on the roster when healthy, while Swaim played a large chunk of snaps in that very same second/blocking tight end role until a pectoral injury cut his season short. After Swaim’s injury the team used reserve offensive lineman Joe Looney as a second/third tight end of sorts in heavy packages, although clearly he brought zero ability as a receiver. The return of Hanna and Swaim, if they can stay on the field, could be a big boost to the offense that hasn’t been discussed much as they are both very good blockers while also forcing defenses to account for them in the passing game.
Gathers will almost assuredly make the 53-man roster given how much the team likes his potential but I believe many are overestimating the role and impact that he will provide in 2017. Long story short, he will have to wait his turn while continuing to hone his craft unless he makes some sort of quantum leap.
First thing’s first, Sean Lee will never leave the field so long as he’s healthy and the games matter. Aside from that universal truth early camp indications have Anthony Hitchens as the first choice in nickel packages next to Lee, which is no surprise given his experience and the limited options behind him. Damien Wilson is running with the first team on the strong side alongside Lee and Hitchens, although that may change once Justin Durant is up to speed and ready to go, especially with the very distinct possibility that Wilson will be suspended in the near future.
The fact that the staff still has Wilson running as the first team strong side linebacker, despite the very high likelihood of a suspension, doesn’t bode well for guys like Mark Nzeocha or John Lotulelei as far as having a shot at a starting role because the coaches would surely want to get them as many reps as they could considering their lack of experience.