Jul 22, 2013; Oxnard, CA, USA; Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Cole Beasley (11) catches a pass as strong safety Matt Johnson (37) defends during drills at training camp at the River Ridge Fields. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Who To Watch: Dallas Cowboys Training Camp

The start of training camp offers an opportunity to forget last season, and focus on the upcoming season. Every team is 0-0 and with the parity of the NFL, every team has a legit shot to make the playoffs. After back-to-back 8-8 seasons and three straight seasons of missing the playoffs, Dallas is desperately hungry to reach the postseason once again. In this article we will look at four different groups (veterans, sophomores, rookies, and undrafted free agents) and two players from each group to keep an extra close eye on in training camp. Some of these players may be essential to propel the ‘Boys back into the playoffs, while others may be key backups or special team players.

Veterans criteria: Players who need to have big years in order for this team to reach the playoffs

Anthony Spencer, DE

Oct 16, 2011; Foxborough, MA, USA; Dallas Cowboys outside linebacker Anthony Spencer (93) during the second quarter against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots defeated the Cowboys 20-16. Mandatory Credit: Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

Playing in his third consecutive contract year, and coming off his best season yet, this will most likely be Spencer’s last year with Dallas. He was the best and most consistent player on defense last year. I want to see his adjustment to the new 4–man front that Monte Kiffin brings. As an OLB last year, he had 11 sacks. This year, he is putting his hand in the ground and rushing the QB every down. Another double digit sack season could lead to a big pay day for Spencer, and a playoff berth for Dallas

Miles Austin, WR

Ever since his breakout (half)season in 2009, Austin has struggles with injuries and consistency. Dallas is taking caution with Austin in the early goings to ensure he will remain healthy by limiting him in OTAs. With Dez getting all the headlines (thankfully the good kind), Austin has a chance to sneak up on teams the way he did in ’09 and re–emerge as the player who signed the 7–yr/$54 million deal. Now with youngsters who can seemingly replace him on the outside (Terrance Williams and Dwayne Harris) and inside (Harris and Cole Beasley), he needs to remain healthy and produce if he wants to keep his job.

Sophomores criteria: Players who are starting or will be key subs

Morris Claiborne, CB

Last year’s first and second pick was spent on Mo. He had his struggles last year (remember the Week 10 atrocity against Philly). The Cowboys picked the former LSU Tiger to create turnovers and he needs to show that ball–hawking ability

May 4, 2012; Irving, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys draft picks James Hanna (84) Kyle Wilber (51) and Morris Claiborne (24) walk off the field after rookie mini-camp practice at Dallas Cowboys headquarters. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Dallas believed they were receiving when they traded up 8 spots for him. He will not face much better talent on Sundays then he will at training camp lining up against Dez so how those battles go will help tell if he can become the elite shutdown corner you expect out of a 6th overall pick.

Kyle Wilber, DE

Rumors have it that Wilber and Crawford are part of the reason Dallas is hesitant about overspending for Spencer. When the Cowboys got Monte Kiffin, the plan was to keep Wilber at Linebacker but decided to put him at end so they could maximize what they wanted when they drafted him. Put pressure on the QB. An injury last year kept him out of training camp so it will be interesting to see how his less–than–ideal– size for a DE holds up from the constant pounding from OTs.

Rookies criteria: Guys who can be valuable rotational players and special teamers and potentially push veterans for a starting job

Matt Johnson, S

STOP!!! Before you close the article or scroll down to the comments and curse my name about how I know nothing about the Cowboys or football in general, I do realize Matt Johnson was a 2012 draft pick and is technically not a rookie but were are considering Mr. Johnson a redshirt rookie because of all the time he spent on the trainer’s table in his actual rookie campaign. The reason Matt Johnson is SO intriguing is because how much the Cowboys’ brass seem to absolutely love him. This time last year, he missed time finishing his final semester at Eastern Washington and nursing his hamstring. I’m convinced there has to be some reason for this endearing love, and since someone needs to step up and snatch the other safety spot across from Barry Church, Matt Johnson is very high on my watchlist.

JJ Wilcox, S

I really didn’t want to write about safeties with both the rookie watch list players, but if asked which rookie I want to see play the most, my answer would be Wilcox. Next week, I will write about how he holds the key to how Cowboy fans should view the Travis Frederick pick, but for now we will talk about why he peaks my interest. The “safety” from Georgia Southern only spent one year at the position (hence the quotations) while in college. Seeing how quickly he can pick up coverages, communication and adjusting to the speed of the NFL will determine how much time he sees on defense. The other safety spot is wide open and if he can show the play–making ability that convinced the Cowboys to take him in the 3rd round, the job could be his.

2013 UDFAs criteria: Players who can make the roster

Oct. 18, 2012; Tempe, AZ, USA; Arizona State Sun Devils linebacker Brandon Magee (8) looks on during the second half against the Oregon Ducks at Sun Devil Stadium. The Ducks beat the Sun Devils 43-21. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Brandon McGee, LB

The Cowboys had a 4th round grade on McGee, had him as a priority UDFA, and gave him a  $70k signing bonus. Those reasons, in and of themselves, are enough to peak any football fans interest, but when you look at the success of Dallas in finding UDFA gems, you come to expect more than most from the undrafted players. He will be a special team contributor, but with the injury concerns of Lee and Carter, his impact on defense may come sooner than expected.

Jakar Hamilton, S

Yes, this is safety number three, but Hamilton possibly has a  better chance to make the team than McGee. If anyone can start in their first year in the SEC, you know they have talent. That’s exactly what Jakar Hamilton did in his first year at Georgia. An injury and uncertainty about playing time (Georgia had 3 safeties drafted in this draft alone Baccari Rambo, Shawn Williams and Sanders Cummings) lead him to leave UGA. He has talent, but after playing at South Carolina State, he may need time to catch up to the speed of the NFL. But if he can come in and impress on special teams, and prove to not be a liability on defense, he could one or both of the veteran special team aces (Will Allen/Danny McCray) out of a job.

Just missed the cut

–Doug Free, OL (Will he hold down the RT spot? Or will they bring in another vet?)

–Barry Church, S (Will he return to form from his Achilles injury?)

–Ronald Leary, OG (Will he steal a starting job at Guard?)

–Danny Coale, WR (Will he make the team?)

–Travis Frederick, OC/G (Will he live up to the first round pick? Spoiler: no)

–Joseph Randle, RB (Will he keep the boat afloat if Murray goes down?)

–Kendial Lawrence, RB (Will he push former UDFAs Dunbar and/or Tanner out of a job?)

–Eric Rogers, WR  (Will he be the next UDFA WR to make a splash like Cole Beasley last year or Raymond Radway of two years ago?)

Dallas has been on the cusp of the playoffs each of the last two seasons. If the players listed can stay healthy can meet or exceed expectations, a playoff berth should be on the horizon.

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Tags: Anthony Spencer Dallas Cowboys Matt Johnson Miles Austin Morris Claiborne

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