OXNARD (105.3 THE FAN) — Coming into Day 1 of training camp practice, Cowboys coaches — and Cowboys observers –- had six expectations for positional and group battles. Here, we review the battles coming in, and who came out on top after the initial Thursday session.
Battle 6 – The #3 Wide Receiver: Wide receiver seems to be one of the strongest units on this team. Dez and Williams are locks for the #1 and #2 spots, and could turn out to be one of the better duos in the league. After that, the depth chart isn’t as clear.
Many people expect Cole Beasley to have a much larger role in 2014, which makes sense considering that he has earned Romo’s trust and has a unique skill set. However, guys like Dwayne Harris, Devin Street, LaRon Byrd and even newly signed Dezmon Briscoe, won’t just give the job away without a fight.
The Day 1 Toppers: Dez, of course, set the tone — and the tune, the Dallas News noting that he moved to the field while singing, “Every time I go out, you know I gotta show out!” (a song by someone named “Juicy J”).
The other guys? Williams had a drop as he continues to work out of being a “body catcher.” And maybe the standout was Harris, the special-teams ace who got some work with the first team and demonstrated not only quality hands but a certain level of mastery of the route tree.
Chris Boyd deserves a mention here, too, as he drew “oohhs” from the audience of 1,800 by stretching high for an over-the-middle reception. Beasley did the same with a fingertips catch.
Battle 5 – Left guard: The Cowboys offensive line might become one of the more impressive units in the entire NFL. With three recent first-round picks (Smith, Frederick and Martin), this group should be a force in 2014. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t question marks.
Smith is one of the best LT’s in the NFL and will remain in that spot for a long time. Frederick is turning into one of the better centers in the NFL as well. Free seems to be a lock at RT (at least for 2014), and Martin has been playing at RG (which was the line’s weakest link in 2013). That leaves LG.
Leary did a solid job last year, working with Smith and Frederick to create big holes for Murray. However, no one knows how long Leary’s knee will hold up. Bernadeau, and maybe even Uche Nwaneri, will be Leary’s biggest competition for that spot in 2014.
The Day 1 Toppers: It’s not Leary’s knee. At least temporarily it’s his hammy, the victim of the players-choice conditioning drills back at Valley Ranch.
He’s expected back early next week. Nevertheless, Bernadeau did everything right in trying to secure the job, taking some first- and second-team reps at left guard and working as a backup center (along with Ronald Patrick). Bernadeau’s versatility might end up working against him here, as Dallas likes the idea of having him be able to back up three spots.
Battle 4 – Free Safety: Barry Church was one of the lone bright spots of the Cowboys’ 32nd-ranked defense in 2013. Church, in the opinion of coaches, played at a Pro Bowl level and led the team in tackles. However, the safety spot next to him is up for grabs.
JJ Wilcox is the favorite to win the job. Wilcox is still somewhat new to the position, but has a ton of potential and is a very fast learner. Then there is Jeff Heath (who started the most games at the position last season), Matt Johnson (who, if he can stay healthy, could be the most talented safety on the team), and Jakar Hamilton (who has grown a lot since last year and continues to make big strides).
The Day 1 Toppers: Let’s give it to Matt Johnson by virtue of the fact that he got through the morning walkthrough and the afternoon practice without incident.
We’re not being sarcastic here; Johnson told us going into camp that his hamstring problems are so troubling to him that at OTAs he considered hiding his latest injury from the coaches. His good health makes him a viable candidate in competition with Wilcox, even though he was but a third-teamer on Thursday.
Battle 3 – The #1, #2 and #3 Cornerback spots: Last season, Orlando Scandrick was the team’s most consistent cornerback. Carr showed flashes of his big-play potential, but his performance against players like Calvin Johnson and Brandon Marshall stick in the minds of fans. Claiborne also showed flashes of his ability, but once again, failed to remain healthy. These guys are pretty much locks for the top 3 CB spots, but the order remains a mystery. Any combination of the 3 CB’s is a possibility.
The Day 1 Toppers: No competition for jobs here on Thursday because Carr hasn’t yet traveled to Oxnard due to a family matter. Claiborne didn’t do everything at the start of the morning walkthrough, causing some concern among observers. But he was a full-go in the afternoon and Carr’s absence probably helps him as he takes first-team reps … trying to develop into the player he really should be.
Battle 2 – All 3 Linebacker spots: With Sean Lee’s injury, the LB position is completely jumbled, and not just in the middle. Bruce Carter is expected to carry the load from Lee’s injury and will likely remain at weak-side LB, but not even that is certain. At the middle spot, DeVonte Holloman showed flashes of big play-making ability in the preseason of 2013, as well as the final two games of the season when he started. Rookie Anthony Hitchens and veteran Justin Durant will also get plenty of opportunities to earn the spot.
At the strong side spot, Kyle Wilber, Justin Durant and DeVonte Holloman are all options. Then there is Rolando McClain, who the Cowboys traded for a couple of weeks ago. It’s unclear whether he’ll actually play or not, but it would only add more competition to this unit.
The Day 1 Toppers: McClain wasn’t available Thursday and won’t be back with the team until this weekend, as he’s telling it to the judge back in Alabama. So this is Durant’s unit to run right now, but there is an incredible amount of buzz from the Cowboys staff about McClain.
It is not too early to suggest that the real competition for the job doesn’t begin until McClain gets a chance to stake his claim.
Battle 1 – The entire defensive line: The Cowboys lost Demarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher this offseason. Now, all four spots are basically up in the air.
The team signed Henry Melton to ease the pain of losing Hatcher and Ware, but it’s unclear whether or not he’ll be able to remain healthy. They also drafted rookie Demarcus Lawrence, but you never know what you’re getting from a rookie. Anthony Spencer remains on the team, but could start the season on the PUP list. Then there are guys like Crawford, Selvie, Mincey, Bass, McClain and Gardner, who’s roles remain to be determined.
Marinelli plans on utilizing an eight-man rotation to keep guys fresh, but he definitely has his work cut out for him in trying to put together a depth chart for this unit.
The Day 1 Toppers – Henry Melton probably didn’t have a great practice. But he had a healthy one, and that’s a great start.
The Cowboys’ first-team defensive line Thursday featured left end George Selvie, 1-tech Nick Hayden, 3-tech Henry Melton and right end Jeremy Mincey. Hayden drew all sorts of praise from coordinator Rod Marinelli in that group.
The second-team unit: left end Tyrone Crawford, 1-tech Terrell McClain, tackle Ben Bass and right end DeMarcus Lawrence.
We asked Crawford what position he’ll be playing and he chuckled as if it’s a state secret.
“I’m an end, a tackle, a tackle and an end,” said the versatile Crawford.
Meanwhile, the rookie Lawrence was asked about his role and talked of his expectation being to get 10 sacks.
“Whatever coach needs me to do,” he said.
Well, young man, the coach needs you to get 10 sacks. That would be a battle win right there.
Follow Mike Fisher at @fishsports.
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