Today, Wednesday, July 25th, 2012, rookies, quarterbacks, and a select few veterans report to Valley Ranch for the official start of the 2012 season! Training camp in Oxnard, CA starts on Sunday with the first full-team practice scheduled for Monday. So much excitement! So many questions – that all will be answered in a matter of weeks. Consider that the 2012 Cowboys will be on ESPN for their first preseason game against the Raiders in Oakland in less than 3 weeks! (Monday, 8/13, 8pm ET)
It’s been talked about a hundred times already in what has seemed like an off season that would never end, but here’s a refresher on the list of the major questions I think the Cowboys need to answer in the next month:
1. Quarterback – Romo is solidly in place as the starter and Kyle Orton was signed specifically to be his backup. But, do the Cowboys keep a third quarterback? If so, is it Stephen McGee or Rudy Carpenter?
2. Running Back – Can DeMarco Murray come back at full strength and shake off the injury as well as the “sophomore slump” that seems to plague a lot of players? Is Felix Jones completely recovered from shoulder surgery (medically released to practice on Monday) and will he and DeMarco find productive roles together in this offense? The Cowboys currently have 5 running backs and 2 full backs on the training camp roster – beyond Murray, Jones, and fullback Vickers, who sticks on the regular 53 as back ups? Garrett kept 4 running backs last year to start the season and claimed FB Tony Fiammetta off waivers signing him on 9/13/11, 2 days after the opening loss to the Jets.
3. Wide Receiver – Can Dez Bryant step up and become the dominant “playmaker” that our prior #88 was? How much of a distraction will his off the field issues have on him and on the team as they prepare for the season? Will Dez escape a suspension from the league? Will Miles Austin come to camp prepared for the physical grind this year and avoid his annual hamstring injury? Of the 13 (no, that is not a typo) receivers currently on the roster, who will step up to replace Laurent Robinson as a dependable #3 receiver? Only 6 will likely make the team, so who are the other 4 behind Austin and Bryant?
4. Offensive Line – Will the swap of tackle spots between Tyron Smith and Doug Free deliver the positive outcome everyone is pretty much assuming now? It will require that Doug Free get back to how he performed the last time he was at right tackle. Who will win the interior line positions – both guards and the all-important center? These are huge question marks right now for the Cowboys. They signed Bernadeau and Livings in free agency to play the guard spots but Bernadeau is still recovering from hip surgery and hasn’t been on the field yet. Center is another position that is up for grabs – last year, pretty much everyone thought Phil Costa underperformed badly. The Cowboys go into camp with 4 centers on the roster – one will have to emerge and help create a cohesive unit. Lots of people think Bill Nagy could come out on top but that remains to be seen.
5. Tight End – All Pro Jason Witten is the lock to start, of course, but the Cowboys like to run a lot of 2 TE sets. With the overdue departure of Martellus Bennett, the Cowboys need to evaluate what they have. A tight end needs to catch passes but is also an integral part of run blocking. That is where we may miss Bennett unless John Phillips or rookie James Hanna can develop into that role. The Cowboys kept 4 tight ends last season but I think that had more to do with being used frequently as a fullback. I think they only keep 3 this year.
6. Punter – Chris Jones is the guy unless the Cowboys decide to keep Mat McBriar from signing with the Eagles and let him compete with Jones in camp. McBriar worked out for the Eagles and the Cowboys this week and all reports are that he’s healthy. The Cowboys are high on Jones and probably see him as the future, but I would sure hate to see a healthy McBriar kicking for the Beagles.
7. Kick/Punt Returner – the Cowboys haven’t had a solid player at these positions since Deion Sanders. As much as some people want to see Dez Bryant return punts on a regular basis, he is just too fragile and too important in the offense to risk injury. Field position is critical in the NFL and there is nothing that helps an offense than starting with a short field. Not sure who will emerge here, but a lot of players will get a look. It will take more than just being able to field the ball – we need someone who puts fear in opposing teams.
8. Cornerback – no position got more upgrades this off season than the cornerback position. After being held out of all activities due to his recovery from wrist surgery, it will be exciting to finally see Mo Claiborne on the field. His contract is signed so its time for him to go to work starting tomorrow. I think we’ll have to be patient with him at first. He’ll handle the man-to-man coverages just fine I think but Rob Ryan’s defensive schemes can be complicated and the question remains how quickly he’ll be able to catch on and be in the right position when he’s not head up on a receiver. No doubt he’ll get there in my mind, but people’s expectations are so high I can’t see how he doesn’t initially disappoint. On the other side, Brandon Carr had a solid off season and impressed the coaches. He’s a veteran so I would expect him to catch on a lot quicker and I look for good things out of him. Will Mike Jenkins step up and stop pouting and find ways to contribute to the team? No one likes losing their position, but with the right attitude, he will have every chance to earn his spot. If Claiborne struggles too much, it might be #21 lining up at first across from Carr with Claiborne playing nickel. At any rate, we need his depth so let’s hope he gets his head on straight. Scandrick is another player that is going to have to compete for a role, but in addition to depth, he can contribute heavily on special teams. The Cowboys kept 5 cornerbacks to start last season and there are currently 10 players listed.
9. Safety – probably the most fluid position on the defensive roster. The Cowboys signed Brodney Pool as a free agent but his role as a starter is in no way guaranteed and some even question what he has left in the tank. The Cowboys are hoping that Barry Church or Danny McCray can step up and grab the opportunity while Sensabaugh can return to form with a better cast of players around him. Some fans are pretty excited about the potential of rookie safety Matt Johnson but expecting him to start is a little unrealistic at this point. Hope I’m wrong on that one, but we’ll see. The Cowboys will go into camp with 7 safeties on the roster looking to probably keep no more than four.
10. Linebacker – Sean Lee is a lock on the inside and poised to become a perennial Pro Bowl attendee. Who replaces Bradie James and Keith Brooking though remains to be determined. Dan Connor was signed in free agency but he will likely battle with Victor Butler and a healthy Bruce Carter for playing time. Regardless, the Cowboys have – on paper at least – good depth and have gotten younger. At outside linebacker of course, the only question is how will D-Ware’s neck hold up and will he break the sack record this year? (I say yes). His counterpart on the other side – Anthony Spencer – will be playing under the 1-year franchise tag. That should mean we get all he has to give and the Cowboys and their fans are hoping that he parlays that opportunity into results and a long-term contract. The Cowboys start camp with 13 linebackers on the roster and typically keep only keep 6 or 7 players.
11. Defensive Line – Although medically cleared to practice, will Jay Ratlaiff’s foot injury (torn plantar fascia) be okay or cause him problems? Will the Cowboys
leave him at nose tackle or move him outside as many experts have recommended? Will veterans Marcus Spears and Kenyon Coleman be able to hold off younger, up and coming players like Sean Lissemore and Clifton Geathers? Will highly regarded rookies Kyle Wilber and Tyrone Crawford find a way to contribute and make the team? Not the strength of this defense but a solid group of performers with decent depth so they can rotate in and out and stay fresh.
12. Placekicker – no questions here – it’s Dan Bailey job and he’s proven he’s up to the task.
I’m sure there’s more questions that other people have thought of. But, I could not be more excited about this season and can’t wait to see the story unfold as the Cowboys desperately try to return to glory! This team has talent but they’ve got to prove it on the field. That starts today! May the football gods keep us injury free. Amen. Go Cowboys!