As previously noted, I will be going on my first ever trip to Dallas Cowboys training camp in Oxnard. While things like meeting people in person, soaking in the atmosphere, and experiencing the tantalizing smell of football in the air are important, watching three practices firsthand and gaining insight into things like the shape of the roster, how the injured players look, and Dan Quinn’s defense are also key points of the trip.
You can’t see everything, of course, so here are some specific questions which will hopefully be answered. Getting these answers will better inform what the last fifteen or so spots on the 53-man roster will look like, and how the schemes may have new wrinkles or outright remodels this year.
Who is the backup center?
This may seem relatively unimportant. The Cowboys know who they
desperately hope plan to start at all five offensive line positions. Last year, however, was a life lesson in how important depth is for NFL teams. At tackle, there are multiple candidates. Ty Nsekhe looks like an underrated free agent move. Brandon Knight and Terrance Steele each have nearly a full season’s experience starting. Adding Josh Ball in the draft was more insurance. At guard, Connor McGovern seems all but certain to be back and is solid depth.
But the only true center on the roster besides presumptive starter Tyler Biadasz is UDFA Braylon Jones. He shouldn’t be dismissed, but he really looks like a camp body to work with the second- and third-string players.
Besides, Dallas really likes to have a player that is more than just a backup center occupying a roster spot. Joe Looney was the exemplar for them, able to play all three interior line positions at a high level. That is one reason to see if Matt Farniok gets a lot of work with the second team, and if they are using him at multiple spots. It is always a long shot for any seventh-rounder, but his history of having started at all five offensive line positions could be very seductive for the staff.
Are they really putting their QB2 chips on Garrett Gilbert?
It’s a bit clichéd to say that we never hope to see the backup quarterback take meaningful snaps. Football doesn’t care about our hopes. While in the end it would have just hurt their draft position, more competent backup QB play could easily have gotten the Cowboys into the playoffs as the representative of the dumpster fire that was the NFC East last year, and greatly changed the conversation about Mike McCarthy’s performance in his first year as head coach. There actually was one game that offered some real hope at the position last year, Garrett Gilbert’s lone start against the Pittsburgh Steelers. It was another loss, but not because of his play. The staff elected to go with Andy Dalton the rest of the way after he came back from his concussion. You can understand the logic as Dallas was still in contention for the NFC East at that point despite a 2-7 record and Dalton is certainly a much more accomplished QB. Still, it might have been worth it to accept that it was almost impossible for them to make the playoffs with all the injuries and let Gilbert continue to start in order to find out what he really brought to the field.
That’s all water under the bridge. Now the Cowboys are headed to Oxnard with Gilbert, Ben DiNucci, and Cooper Rush vying for the QB2 job. By early in camp, it should be pretty clear who is working mostly with the second string. It will also be important to see if the team brings in any street free agents to work out. There could even be a signing along the way to replace one of the current contenders. Preseason games will probably be a huge factor as well, but after the early weeks of camp we should have a pretty good idea of how the team wants things to go.
More Tony Pollard?
The comparative lack of usage for Pollard was a small disappointment among all the huge ones last year. It may have been forced by the absence of an offseason and no preseason games due to COVID, plus the injuries that played havoc with Kellen Moore’s offense.
With OTAs back, there were hints that Moore does want to find ways to get Pollard more involved. It can be by using him more in relief of Ezekiel Elliott, or using more two-back sets. The latter is particularly intriguing, since there are hints that Pollard can be very effective moving out to a slot position or even motioning out wide from the backfield. The Cowboys’ staff is not fond of showing too much of their hand in open practices, so if we see a good bit of Pollard with the ones, it would be a strong indication that it will carry through to the regular season.
Who are the nickel linebackers?
This is one that almost everyone will be watching closely. The nickel is, of course, the real base offense now. After the confused and often incompetent performances of Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch last year, plus the heavy investment in the position by signing Keanu Neal and drafting Micah Parsons and Jabril Cox, this is going to be a fascinating camp competition. Going in, the smart money seems to be on Parsons and Vander Esch as the “starters.” There is no way to write off any of the others, however. By the middle of camp, that should be shaping up. In this case, the preseason games will be a strong indicator, but not in the same way as for the backups. The key there would be who stays mostly on the sidelines to protect them for the regular season.
Who earns a roster spot on special teams?
When we get to the last 53- man projections before the team makes things official, this is one of the most important things to consider. C.J. Goodwin has basically built his career so far being a special teams ace. Several other players, such as Deante Burton, Reggie Robinson II, Francis Bernard, Luke Gifford, Anthony Hines III, Brenden Knox, Stephen Parker, Darian Thompson, and Jeremy Sprinkle may have ST as the best path to the roster. Obviously not all of them can make it, so watching who lines up with the first-string punt and kickoff teams can be very telling.
Man, I am going to have to find a way to keep track of those jersey numbers.
Is Quinton Bohanna a prospect or a project?
It just wouldn’t be training camp without a pet cat, and the big nose tackle is mine. As a sixth-round selection, his roster spot is not assured the way it is for most of those taken ahead of him. Making it more difficult for him is that his position will be very specialized as primarily a first-down-only player. With the others that are vying to be part of the interior of the defensive line, that may be a luxury that the team cannot afford.
The much-discussed 3-4 alignments that Quinn is expected to incorporate would work in his favor, but free agent acquisition Brent Urban could make Bohanna redundant. He may be a real target to get to the practice squad. That would not be a terrible outcome.
Those are six things to track at training camp. Feel free to share yours.