Jason Garrett already has eight games of regular season under his belt, and a miraculous winning record to boot. It wasn't until the 2011 season, however, that Garrett has truly been able to put his stamp on the Cowboys. Releasing Roy Williams, Marion Barber and Leonard Davis began the message that this may well be Garrett's team. Garrett has tried to instill a physical, tough-to-play-against mentality on the team, and he even brought back the Blue-White Scrimmage that had been missing since Jimmy Johnson's days.
Garrett opens his first full season Thursday night in Dallas, with his franchise quarterback, Tony Romo, healthy again (and married), and not a huge amount of position battles to be fought. With most first team players for both the Cowboys and Broncos expected to play just a series or two, here are some of the players and battles worth keeping an eye on in preseason game 1:
Tyron Smith (#77), David Arkin (#62) and Phil Costa (#67) - Smith has a starting spot at right tackle in hand, but his transition to the NFL at age 20 will go a long way toward determining the effectiveness of the offensive line and the offense. Arkin was a fourth-rounder in April from a smallish school (Missouri St.), and while he's been an early favorite of Cowboys coaches, he figures to be a work in progress. If and when he can beat out Montrae Holland, he will add athleticism and aggressiveness to the line. Costa starts for Andre Gurode and hopes to stave off rookie Bill Nagy as a possible successor to Gurode in the middle.
Sean Lee (#50) - We've seen Lee on the field, and we've even seen him make game-changing plays. This year he needs to show that he's worthy of a starting role, as the Cowboys attempt to finally find possible successors for Keith Brooking and Bradie James. Lee will start and could get some extra time, and his ability to take a number of snaps each game will also improve Brooking's game.
Stephen McGee (#7) - Talk about possible Cowboys interest in Terrelle Pryor if Pryor can gain eligibility for this year's supplemental draft turned eyes back to McGee. Now in his third year, McGee needs to show soon that he can at least be a quality backup in the NFL. He wasn't terrible in two appearances to end the season - in fact, his late rally in Arizona would have been one of the season's highlights if David Buehler had made his PAT - and Garrett has said that he's improved again in camp. A strong preseason would help him solidify his position on this team.
Lonyae Miller (#35) - Miller has been one of the stories of camp, as he's seemingly added some polish to his impressive physical numbers. He's the biggest halfback on the roster, and he rivals Felix Jones and DeMarco Murray in straight-line speed. He and Phillip Tanner (#34), who has also shown well in camp, figure to get loads of carries behind young offensive linemen with Murray and Tashard Choice both out. A big key for him to find his way back onto the roster is finding a special teams niche. If he runs well and can handle punt/kick snaps, Choice may not be long for Dallas.
Alan Ball (#20), Bryan McCann (#37), Josh Thomas (#26) and Mario Butler (#31) - These four are battling for essentially the fourth and fifth corner spots. With Terence Newman potentially out for week one, as many as three could make the roster. Ball was a failed Wade Phillips experiment at the free safety position, so he's back at his more natural corner position. McCann is aggressive and could return punts, so he may have a step up on the others. Thomas was drafted with a reputation as a physical slot corner, a skill that would have value on this roster. Butler, one of the more impressive undrafted rookies in camp, offers size and speed. Special teams performances will be huge for all of these guys.
Barry Church (#42) - He's been the most impressive of the Cowboys' group of young safeties, which includes last year's fourth-rounder Akwasi Owuso-Ansah, Danny McCray and Rice's Andrew Sendejo. With Gerald Sensabaugh and Abram Elam both on one-year contracts, the club would love for at least one young safety to step forward and look like a future starter. Church may be their best bet.
David Buehler (#18), Dan Bailey (#5) - When you last saw Buehler he was putting the finishing touches on a season in which he was 4-7 from 30-39 yards and he missed two PATs, one in a one-point loss. So, he's in a battle for his job with Bailey, last season's Groza award winner. Buehler hasn't been much better on field goals in camp, while Bailey may not be the kickoff guy you'd like to have under the NFL's new rules. Garrett said that the coaches have a "formula" for how they'll use the two in the first game, and that he's hoping they receive an even number of chances.
Kevin Ogletree (#85), Dwayne Harris (#14), Raymond Radway (#86) - These guys are featured in the battle for 2-3 backup receiver spots. Ogletree is a heavy favorite to be the number three guy, and if he fails in that bid the club is more likely to pull a veteran off the street than to go with a young guy. Harris was drafted in the sixth round expressly to be a slot receiver, so he profiles well. Radway has been another of the eye catching undrafted rookies, thanks to his high end speed and (6-3, 200) size. Titus Ryan, Jesse Holley, Manny Johnson and Teddy Williams are also in the battle, but all four have dealt with injuries in camp.
Victor Butler (#57), Brandon Williams (#59), Alex Albright (#47), Orie Lemon (#58) - Butler and Williams enter their third season as the backup OLBs, so they should be ready to take on a bigger role in a defense that craves pass rushers. They're also fighting for a potential starting spot a year from now if Anthony Spencer has another disappointing year. Albright and Lemon have both garnered attention from Rob Ryan. Albright will try to be a fifth outside guy, after shifting from defensive end at Boston College, while Lemon will look to do likewise inside. Once again, special teams ability will be a big plus for any of these guys.
Sam Young (#76), Bill Nagy (#61) - Both of these guys appear likely to win roster spots, and Young in particular could be a key player since he's essentially the de facto third tackle. As late round picks in the past two drafts, the pair's development would be a welcome boost.
Key Cowboys out for the game: RB Tashard Choice, RB DeMarco Murray, C Andre Gurode, G Montrae Holland, LB Keith Brooking, CB Terence Newman