Following a disappointing 9-7 season that saw them miss the playoffs and part ways with long-time receiver Dez Bryant, the Cowboys enter training camp with a lot of questions that they hope to get answered. Here are a few battles and storylines to look out for in training camp and preseason.
1. Who is the number one receiver?
The writing was on the wall for Bryant after a second straight lackluster season. It came as no surprise that he and the Cowboys parted ways. However, Bryant’s physical play and big-play ability won’t be easy to replace. The receivers on the roster read like this;
Cole Beasley, K.D. Cannon, Noah Brown, Michael Gallup, Allen Hurns, Terrance Williams, Lance Lenoir, Mekale McKay, Marchie Murdock, Deonte Thompson, and Cedrick Wilson.
None of them scare you but a solid unit none of the less. The best case scenario is for Williams to finally take the next step and become “the guy”, but his past few seasons don’t help his cause. Then there are the rookies. Both Gallup (Colorado State) and Wilson (Boise State) are both strong receivers who can come down with the ball in traffic, especially Williams who had numerous tough red zone catches in his two years at Boise.
Free agent acquisitions Hurns (Jacksonville) and Thompson (Buffalo) brings a veteran presence and steady play. The wildcard to me is Brown, a seventh-round pick out of Ohio State a season ago. At 6’2 225-pounds he has a similar size to Bryant and the same physical play.
2. Who replaces Jason Witten?
For the past 15 years, Cowboys fans could depend on Wittens for not only his hands but his blocking as well. You could see the decline in the last couple of seasons and knew this was coming sooner rather than later. Compounding matters, backup James Hanna retired as well due to the numerous injuries he’s suffered over his career. That leaves Rico Gathers, a former power forward at Baylor, Blake Jarwin, Geoff Swaim and rookie Dalton Schultz.
Swaim has the inside track on the job playing as Witten’s backup the last few seasons. He is a good receiving threat but is not as good of a blocker as Witten. Jarwin has spent his career on the practice squad but there is a reason they kept him around. While not a speedster, he is a solid receiving option and a solid blocker as well. Schultz didn’t get many opportunities to catch passes while at Stanford but was a key part of both Christian McCaffrey and Brice Love’s success. Gathers has had two solid preseasons but has yet to do anything in a meaningful game.
3. The secondary
There was bound to be some growing pains last season after starting as many as three rookies at a time. Add injuries to that and it was rough at times. The question this year is how much improvement is made? Corner Chidobe Awuzie when healthy was arguably the best corner. Safty Xavier Woods lived up to his hard-hitting billing punishing receivers who dared to cross him. Jourdan Lewis, who also battled injury issues, was solid as well. The breakdowns and growing pains of those three should be behind them and if Byron Jones can ever take the next step, the Cowboys might quietly have one of the better secondaries in the league.
4. Offensive line depth
Six. That’s the number of sacks backup tackle Chaz Green allowed to former Atlanta Falcons defensive end Adrian Clayborn. A couple of seasons ago Green looked like the successor to franchise left tackle Tyron Smith. That is no longer the case. The Cowboys spent their second-round pick on University of Texas tackle Connor Williams who they plan to move to guard replacing the highly average Jonathan Cooper. Tackles Cameron Fleming (formerly of the Browns) and Jake Campos were signed in part to challenge Green and provide depth. The emergence of La’el Collins in his second year at tackle and the overall depth is key for the offensive success this season.
5. The running game
We all saw what happened when Ezekiel Elliott was forced to miss six games and the impact it had on the offense. It also showed the woeful depth behind him. Gone are running backs Alfred Morris (free agent) and Darren McFadden (retirement) and in are seventh-round pick Bo Scarbrough, Rod Smith (who moves to running back full time), and converted receiver Tavon Austin.
Scarbrough could be the steal of the Cowboys draft and has a chance to see the field as a short yardage back. At 6’2 229-pounds he has the size and power to do so. Austin, formerly of the Los Angeles Rams, will be used in a variety of ways. It will be interesting to see how many carries he will actually get and what his role will be. One thing is for sure, depth here is no longer a problem.