With the entire franchise preparing to relocate itself to Oxnard, California this coming weekend, football is finally back.
The Dallas Cowboys will welcome all 90 of their players on Sunday in anticipation of the first training camp practice Monday afternoon. The first padded practice will not take place until Wednesday; the new CBA rules have definitely given a new feel to the regiment most are used to.
The Cowboys have many of their starting positions secured already, but there are still several battles that will take place where incumbents or hopefuls could be knocked from their perch. For instance, the defensive line could see a turnover as former seventh-round pick Sean Lissemore keeps trying to bully his way into the starting lineup.
For the most part, however, we know that Tony Romo, DeMarcus Ware, Sean Lee, Jason Witten, Miles Austin, Dez Bryant and Brandon Carr can all be inked into the top of the respective depth charts.
There are several battles to keep an eye on though:
5 - Inside Linebacker: Bruce Carter vs Dan Connor
2011 2nd round pick Bruce Carter and 2012 free agent signing Dan Connor will battle it out to see whom will start opposite Chuck Norris, aka Sean Lee. While Carter obviously has more upside as an athletic freak that can roam sideline to sideline and cover tight ends, he barely wet his toes in 2011. Connor, on the other hand, has four years of NFL experience. He is however, a thumper, suited more be a first and second down backer.
But here's the question, as the NFL transitions more and more into a passing league, isn't the best strategy to have the more talented player on the field for the majority of the snaps? If the offense isn't waiting until 3rd down to pass, why would you wait until 3rd down to cover it? For my money, I'm betting that Carter wins the starting nod coming out of camp.
4 - The Mike Jenkins Trade Demands
This bubbled back to the surface this past week as one of the rumored potential trade partners released one of their starting corners. Detroit let go of Aaron Berry after his second off-season arrest; the team has been bombarded by off-field problems this summer. Jenkins, if you've been living under a rock, demanded a trade after the Cowboys signed Brandon Carr and drafted Mo Claiborne in April.
He was the Cowboys best corner last year and is now fourth on the depth chart and on the cornerback payroll. When Jenks reported to OTAs after going MIA, fans went HAM over learning that Jenkins wasn't fully recovered from off-season shoulder surgery, especially since he separated himself from the club for his rehab. The question is whether Jenkins will be on the roster come September 5.
If he remains, can he beat out Morris Claiborne or Orlando Scandrick to claim the Number 2 or 3 corner spots? And if he does, has his agent informed him that playing to his potential is his best chance at reaching the magical payday he is looking for?
3 - Safety: Barry Church vs Brodney Pool
There's a pyramid of fandom for the NFL. There are the nutjobs that think about it 24/7 even during the months of May and June. Then there are those that pay close attention to a lot of things once the season gets close. At the bottom you have your folks that only follow for three hours every Sunday but want to dominate the talk around the water cooler on Monday morning.
For the top two tiers, you should know Barry Church really turned some heads during the off-season work. So much so that it's not out of the question for him to unseat free agent Brodney Pool before he ever takes a snap in a Cowboys uniform. Pool had a great success rate of 69% on limited snaps as a Jet in 2011, but Church allows Rob Ryan to continue his theme of multiplicity -- players that can stay on the field and perform multiple roles. Pay special attention to this battle, folks.
It should also be noted that fourth-round pick Matt Johnson has an outside chance of making this a three-way competition. Unfortunately, a slight hamstring pull will hinder him a bit as the team wants to make sure it doesn't linger.
2 - Interior Offensive Line
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones admitted that the team probably made a mistake going as young as it did with the offensive line in 2011. He didn't however say anything about the turnover and the club could have new starters at every position up and down the line.
Tackles Tyron Smith and Doug Free have flip flopped sides, but Dallas is still searching for solutions up the middle. Free agent signing Nate Livings appears to be the leader for the left guard position, but right guard and center are still up for debate.The incumbent at cener Phil Costa enters camp at number one on the depth chart. While he improved over the second half of last season, his first half was so scary it's tough to have confidence in his performance.
The right guard battle would have been free agent Mackenzy Bernadeau's to lose, until he lost OTA snaps due to hip surgery. That opened the door for Bill Nagy, David Arkin, Kevin Kowalski and Ron Leary to jump in the fray. Except for Leary, the rest of the group is just as likely to end up cut as they are to end up the starter.
Leary, an undrafted free agent, is probably the safest, as the Cowboys saw him as a 3rd round talent if not for a degenerative knee condition that could leave him with a short professional career. However, that shouldn't affect him this season.
Nagy, Arkin and Kowalski are all in the same physical build, around 6'3" and 300 lbs. Arkin redshirted 2011 as he wasn't strong enough to play NFL football. He earned first team reps when Berny went down. Nagy earned the starting nod last year, but his play was subpar to say the least. Kowalski was the "play everywhere" backup who never earned a start.
Regardless of who wins the battle, Tony Romo is worried about surviving the war. Especially with Bernadeau sounding less than confident about his level of strength entering camp, the interior of the offensive line remains the Cowboys biggest question mark entering 2012.
1 - Third Wide Receiver
The optimist says it doesn't matter, as the Cowboys have Witten and whomever it is will be the fourth option, plus DeMarco Murray and Felix Jones as weapons out the backfield. The realist says ... Austin, Bryant, Murray and Jones are all injury risks and Witten, like it or not, could be slowing down.
The current candidates leave plenty to be desired upon first glance. The only one with NFL snaps under his belt is Kevin Ogletree, who was last seen having Tony Romo yelling lineup and route instructions to him on the field. Then there are the no-snap newbies: Andre Holmes, a UDFA. Dwayne Harris, a 6th round pick in '11. Danny Coale, a 5th round pick with a broken foot. Raymond Radway, a UDFA 2011 hopeful that hasn't recovered from his broken leg.
While I've been a candidate of the diminuitive Cole Beasley making the 53 man roster, I don't see much of a chance of the UDFA moving all the way up to third in the depth chart. These are the choices to be starting receivers should Dez or Miles miss any time. Well, you can miss me with these options.
The Cowboys must go out and find themselves a viable 3rd receiver from the free agent market during training camp or they are leaving a huge hole of vulnerability heading into 2012.