It is now less than a week until the first Dallas Cowboys 2021 training camp practice in Oxnard. The most interesting part of camp is usually trying to figure out the bottom of the roster. We all know most of the names that will be on the initial 53-man list, barring health issues. This year, there are also a lot of depth chart questions to watch, particularly on defense. This is a particularly fascinating year to see who is lining up with the ones and twos for Dan Quinn. There are not nearly as many questions on offense, where the biggest decisions will probably revolve around how many to carry at each position.
Here are some things that should be especially fun to watch.
Current thinking is that Garrett Gilbert has the inside track here, but it is also hard to imagine that is firm. Cooper Rush and Ben DiNucci will be making their own cases. This is where the preseason games will be crucial, given that Dak Prescott may not see a single snap in those meaningless contests. Will Gilbert be the starter in his stead, or could the staff rotate the contenders to give them a chance to work with better players around them? Of course, “better” is probably a very relative term. The offensive starters will also spend most of the preseason on the sidelines. With so many coming back from IR, the staff should be very risk averse.
Camp practices will also give us some indications, especially if Prescott is given some rest days. That seems a reasonable assumption. This should at least allow the backups to have some work with the top receivers, which could be very telling.
Offensive line depth
After last year, this is going to be a real focus for the team to make sure that doesn’t happen again. There are a lot of contenders, and it looks like position flexibility is going to be more than an empty slogan when this is being addressed. Right now Ty Nsekhe and Connor McGovern are the only ones who are close to locks, and that leaves a bunch of players vying for backup jobs. One to keep an eye on is Brandon Knight, who was being worked at guard in OTAs despite having started most of the season at tackle last year.
This is probably the most anticipated position to watch. The coaches have an idea how they want things to work out, no doubt, but we are all on the edge of our seats waiting to see who is with the ones. The key here is the base nickel defense. Most are expecting Micah Parsons and Leighton Vander Esch to be the starters there. But Jaylon Smith and Keanu Neal are also possibilities.
Adding some spice to things is the expected use of designated pass rushers, which could well involve the linebackers. However, that may not be evident during the Oxnard practices that are open to the public. This is just one thing that may be held back until after the team returns to Dallas and can work on it without anyone seeing.
Another element to watch here is if someone will make a case to be a sixth LB on the roster. That is an open question for now. This is one place where the way the special teams line up can drop some real hints. If one or two of the down roster backers are getting a ton of work on kicking plays, it could bode well for them.
Interior defensive line
Outside of Neville Gallimore, there is no real consensus on who will be starting. And the expected use of more 3-4 concepts will be another wrinkle.
In the interests of full disclosure, I will be paying close attention to how much use Quinton Bohanna gets on first downs. He should do a lot to help correct the dismal run defense, but Brent Urban is an option that could keep Bohanna’s usage down. Osa Odighizuwa will also be worth watching, because it is expected that the team will want to get him heavily involved.
There could be a real battle shaping up for the final spot or two in this group. The position first four will likely be DeMarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory, Tarell Basham, and Chauncey Golston, which sets up a real fight between Dorance Armstrong and Bradlee Anae for the expected fifth job in the room. This is another place where preseason games could loom very large.
There are nine corners currently on the roster, if you believe the word that Israel Mukuamu is a safety on this team. Obviously, something has to give. Not only will the staff have to decide which ones and how many to keep, the battle for the three starters in the nickel should be heated outside of Trevon Diggs. Anthony Brown is the experienced if unspectacular veteran, Jourdan Lewis is generally better than many appreciate, Kelvin Joseph should get every opportunity to validate his draft status, Nahshon Wright was the darling of OTAs, and Maurice Canady is an interesting joker in the pack after opting out of last season under the COVID provisions. Add in that C.J. Goodwin will likely eat up one spot as a special teams ace, and this should be a complicated bunch to sort out.
After Damontae Kazee showed no ill effects from his own injury, you can feel pretty good about him and Donovan Wilson as the starters. Depth is another question entirely, with Jayron Kearse probably having an edge due to his experience. But he is more a journeyman, and could well not make the final cut. This position has one of the most interesting UDFAs in the mix in Tyler Coyle, who did well in the OTAs and has some nice buzz about him.
Despite lots of idle speculation, it doesn’t appear that the Cowboys will be adding any new faces from the free agent market or through trades in the next few days. But don’t be surprised if there is a steady trickle or even stream of free agents brought in for workouts and interviews. If there is concern as camp progresses, the team will be gauging the market to be ready to make an informed move if the need arises. They might reach out to one familiar face, that is if no one else grabs Joe Looney first, which is certainly possible.
While history tells us that only seven or eight roster spots are really up for grabs, there are several ways those can go. Camp and preseason is where those decisions are made. The work is about to begin.