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Cowboys Training Camp 2011 Takes Shape

Less than two weeks into camp and three days before the Cowboys play their first preseason game, we have begun to see the key positions and players of interest emerge.

Every training camp has its own personality and a few key story lines that separate it from other camps. A featured (though expected) element in the bizarre opening to the NFL "year" has been a truncated training camp schedule that allowed for less time at camp, combined with a more restrictive schedule that requires an off day every week and just one padded practice each day. Despite that and despite the fact that we're less than two weeks into camp, we're beginning to see real story lines develop at Cowboys training camp in San Antonio.

Once the dust settled on the roster, we could see pretty clearly what some of the positions of concern would be:

  • The defensive secondary - just about everything about the defensive backfield was a concern.
  • Third receiver - Would Kevin Ogletree or anyone else step up here or would the Cowboys have to make a late veteran signing?
  • The right side of the offensive line - we can include center here, since Andre Gurode has to recover quickly from minor knee surgery. Tyron Smith is a rookie, albeit an impressive one so far, and right guard might be the most concerning starting spot on the team
  • Kicker - David Buehler or someone else has to be more reliable than he was last season on field goals.

As far as those spots, I frankly don't know that we've learned a whole lot yet, at least on the positive side of the ledger. Terence Newman's groin injury only makes matters worse in the secondary. The fact that two veteran safeties are in place makes this less of a panic situation, but Mike Jenkins might have underperformed more than anyone on the roster in 2010, and he's dealing with a shoulder stinger that's cost him time. This group will be watched closely in preseason games, and we'll see young guys take a lot of snaps. If you're looking to feel a little better, check out Jonathan Bales' opinion on Gerald Sensabaugh re-signing. He thinks (and demonstrates why) Sensabaugh had a much better 2010 than most realize, grading him at a B+ for both his pass and run defense. 

Not only are there ample concerns over whether Montrae Holland is good enough, he's hurt now. He hasn't been able to return to practice for the past three days due to his back issue. Jerry Jones said over the weekend that the Cowboys will not sign a right guard as free agency finishes up. This is a little fascinating to me because Holland seems to have been handed a starting job simply because he's cheap and in place. As a chronic Jerry doubter, I wonder whether he's made this call based on Jason Garrett's desire or based on some sort of "consensus" feel he has from Hudson Houck's opinion, some personnel folks' evaluation of what is in camp and what has been available, and his own feelings based on salaries. I fear the latter, and I fear that, as in many cases when Jerry is stubborn about something, it turns into a disaster that helps destroy a season. 

Fourth rounder David Arkin has turned into one of the guys we're all watching at camp, since he's filling in for Holland and since his development is basically the only hope we have for above average play. Reports have been positive, including Garrett praising his aggressiveness in a press conference.

We like Arkin's aggressiveness. That's what we saw on tape, and he's shown that in training camp. What we really like about him is he even makes aggressive mistakes. Oftentimes, he's not blocking the right guy, but he's getting after him. he's not hesitating.

Hitting on Arkin might be really good news, but playing rookies beside each other on the right side is not likely to return big results for 2011. The ideal would have been to let Arkin develop as a replacement for Kyle Kosier over the next year or two and locating a legitimate guy to replace Leonard Davis on the right. I suppose there may just not have been enough money to make that happen. 

On the field goal kicking front, Buehler has not distinguished himself. Dan Bailey had been impressive in camp (while struggling on kickoffs), but he (and Buehler) missed from 38 in the scrimmage. The Cowboys have also signed Kai Forbath, so they're pretty clearly getting serious about fixing the position. Bailey and Forbath won the past two Lou Groza Awards, and as Blogging The Boys noted when he signed, Forbath was highly ranked on some draft boards. The twist is that Forbath still hadn't recovered from a groin strain when the club signed him, so he hasn't been able to jump right in. Still, Garrett isn't going to want to go through another season where he has no idea whether his kicker will make a 35-yarder. This looks like one of those competitions that will play right to the final cuts, particularly with less evaluation time in camp.

There appeared to be some good news on the third receiver spot in the scrimmage, as Ogletree had four catches (three with the first unit) and generally impressed. Garrett also had good things to say about him:

He has a good feel for playing," coach Jason Garrett said "He has a good feel for route running. He has a good feel for beating defenders in one-on-one situations. I think he has a good feel as a player in general. I think those situations were good illustrations of that.

Much of his field of competition has battled injuries, and while sixth-rounder Dwayne Harris and free agent Raymond Radway have shown talent neither looks like he's going to be ready to step right into a key role. So, this does look like it's down to Ogletree at this point: Ogletree vs. the veteran FA field. 

One of the features of any training camp, particularly for a team currently built on undrafted players like Romo and Miles Austin, is the cinderella story of the undrafted rookie. Radway has caught the most attention, thanks to his size (6-3, 192) and 4.3 speed, and Bryan Broaddus noted Radway, RB Phillip Tanner, C Kevin Kowalski, CB Mario Butler and LB Alex Albright as five undrafted rookies who have caught observers' eyes. 

Ryan singled out Albright and fellow undrafted rookie linebacker Orie Lemon after Sunday's scrimmage for his physicality.

That Orie Lemon had a couple of really big hits in there [Sunday]. I'll tell you what, you guys aren't mentioning that Alex Albright, that #47, but he's doing some really nice things and he was laying some wood out there.

Albright has Victor Butler and Brandon Williams, both of whom have had solid camps, in front of him. Butler in particular has been one of the young veterans, along with Sean Lee, Martellus Bennett and (though it's a stretch to call him a veteran) Lonyae Miller, who have shown signs in camp of being ready to take on bigger roles. His continued development could push Anthony Spencer if Spencer doesn't rebound from his disappointing 2010 season. With Keith Brooking entering his 14th season, Lee looks prepared to take on a bigger role on the inside, assuming that he can stay healthy.

Bennett is now in his fourth season, and he's teased us before in the preseason. He thinks he's more mature, thanks to his transition to married life, and maturity on the mental side of the game has been his failing thus far. We should remember that many quality tight ends take some time to develop. The Cowboys needed him to take the step last season after losing key guy John Phillips early, but it may just be that Bennett has needed a fourth season. Rafael Vela was impressed with his work in the scrimmage:

The second teams squared off and Martellus Bennett stood out. He caught several passes, either by outjumping, out-running or overpowering the defenders covering him.

The second teams came on and Martellus Bennett again made big plays, setting up a one-yard Miller scoring dive. Bennett looks too good for the second unit. Were he not backing up the best tight end in the game, Bennett would be looking forward to a breakout year.

Miller provides an interesting conundrum. He's been around for a year now, first making the practice squad, then earning a promotion to the 53-man roster late in the season. He showed physical ability last year, but the Cowboys already had issues finding ways to get Tashard Choice and Felix Jones on the field enough, since neither excelled in passing situations or on special teams. Miller would have been more of the same, as he struggled with the mental side of the game. 

A year later the landscape has changed. Marion Barber is gone, Tashard Choice and third rounder DeMarco Murray are out with injuries, and Miller is showing more on the mental side, as Garrett noted in a recent press conference. 

He's been impressive. When we first got Lonaye, it was hard not to like his physical ability. He's a big kid, and can run. He's physically tough and saw all of that. As he's progressed in our system, he's really grown a lot. He's come back this year a much more mature player. He's very comfortable with his run-course as a runner and a blocker in the run game. I think he's impressive running routes as well. More than anything else, he's just matured. The physical ability was always there but he's becoming a more accomplished player at this point and he's really off to a good start in training camp.

Miller would be the biggest halfback on the roster at 6-0, 232, and as Choice enters the last year of his contract having never won over the coaching staff, Miller might have a shot at his roster spot. He would make the decision shift in his favor by showing ability on returns or in kick coverage/blocking. He could also separate himself from Choice by showing pass blocking and pass blocking ability. 

The elephant in the room for any training camp is the issue of avoiding injuries. The Cowboys have had their share, seeing Gurode, Murray, second rounder Bruce Carter and a few others enter camp already injured. Seeing Newman, Holland, Choice and Brooking miss time has further complicated an abbreviated camp. But the reality is that Dallas has not yet lost a player to a serious, long term injury, so while the practice field has been a little sparse, injuries haven't really become a negative ... yet.

Photographs by jamesbrandon, jdtornow, phlezk, flygraphix, mcdlttx, tomasland, and literalbarrage used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.