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5 Defensive Players To Watch In Training Camp

Brian Martin

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Cowboys Headlines - 5 Defensive Players To Watch In Training Camp

The Dallas Cowboys are just now 19 days away from the start of training camp and I know that there are a lot of individual players that you will want to be keeping an eye on.

Yesterday, I decided to share with you the five offensive players to watch in training camp and now I thought I would share with you the players on the defensive side of the ball that I will be paying close attention to in training camp.

It's no secret that the Dallas Cowboys defense could use all the help that they could get with the suspensions to Rolando McClain, DeMarcus Lawrence, and Randy Gregory. That means that some of the players are going to need to step up and prove that they are ready for larger roles in 2016.

Here are the five players I will be following closely in training camp when it finally gets underway later this month on July 28 in Oxnard, California.

Byron Jones, Free Safety

Cowboys Headlines - 5 Defensive Players To Watch In Training Camp 1

Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

I can't tell you how much I'm looking forward to seeing Byron Jones solely focused on the free safety position and what he should be able to do for the Cowboys defense.

I am anxiously anticipating a few training camp battles between Byron Jones and Jason Witten. They already kind of scuffled with one another in mini-camp practices, but with the intensity of practices picking up now that they will be in full pads it should only add a little more fuel to the fire for both players.

I'm personally expecting big things from Jones in 2016 and the experience he should gain from guarding a crafty veteran tight end like Jason Witten in training camp should help him progress as a player.

If Jones performs the way I'm hoping, he could be on the verge of making his first Pro Bowl.

Cedric Thornton, Defensive Tackle

Cowboys Headlines - 5 Defensive Players To Watch In Training Camp 2

(Photo by Andrew Dieb/Icon Sportswire)

I can honestly say that I don't know much about Cedric Thornton except that he was previously a member of the division rival Philadelphia Eagles. I do however think he will be an upgrade over Nick Hayden at the 1-technique in the middle the Cowboys defense.

I'm hoping that Thornton's presence in the middle will not only provide a little more pass rush from the 1-tech, but also help free up Tyrone Crawford to put pressure on the QB as well.

Thorton's defensive play could also help keep defensive lineman off the middle linebackers and we know that's a question mark now that Rolando McClain has been suspended for the first 10 games.

Whoever starts at MLB for the Cowboys might become Thorton's best friend if he is able to just run and make plays instead of having to fight through traffic.

I'm really interested to see what Cedric Thornton can do for the Cowboys defense in 2016 and the training camp will be the first glimpse we will have of him in full pads going up against the Cowboys talented offensive line.

Ryan Russell, Defensive End

Cowboys Headlines - 5 Defensive Players To Watch In Training Camp 3

(James D. Smith via AP)

Ryan Russell has the opportunity in front of him to seize one of the starting defensive end positions to start the season with DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory suspended the first four games.

The second year DE has wisely taken advantage of the Cowboys' off-season weight training and conditioning programs and has transformed his body to better prepare himself for the physical nature of the NFL. Russell's hard work may pay off and earn him a starting role along the defensive line.

Russell's name popped up several times in OTA's and mini-camp practices, but now he will need to be able to prove to the coaching staff that he is ready for a larger role once the pads come on.

I will be paying close attention to #99 in training camp and see how he performs against both Tyron Smith and Doug Free.

Charles Tapper, Defensive End

Cowboys Headlines - 5 Defensive Players To Watch In Training Camp 4I don't know about you, but I for one am really excited to see what Charles Tapper can do in training camp for the Dallas Cowboys. The defense is desperate for pass rush help and Tapper might just be the player to help in this area.

I really haven't heard his name mentioned much since being drafted by the Cowboys in the fourth-round, but I'm expecting to see him get his chance to prove to everyone including the coaching staff that he can at the very least be a good rotational defensive end in 2016.

Tapper has rare athleticism for a player his size and I'm really hoping that he can learn to use his athleticism properly in hopes that he can be an impact player sooner rather than later.

Tapper should receive plenty of practice repetitions in training camp. I'm just hoping that he is a quick learner and can develop into a quality defensive end for the Cowboys.

Mark Nzeocha, Linebacker

Cowboys Headlines - 5 Defensive Players To Watch In Training Camp 6

(James D. Smith via AP)

Mark Nzeocha isn't a name that a whole lot of people are familiar with, but I personally think that he could be an option for the Cowboys as a middle linebacker. He has the  size and athletic ability to play the position, but he simply lacks the experience.

Nzeocha didn't receive much playing time as a rookie because he was still recovering from an injury he suffered while he was still in college at the University of Wyoming. He did however get a little bit of game experience towards the end of the season last year, but that was mostly on special teams.

Anthony Hitchens is probably the favored linebacker to take over for the suspended Rolando McClain, but I really think Mark Nzeocha has the physical tools to play the position as well.

I'm really interested in seeing how he is used in training camp practices and how he has developed from his rookie year to his second year in the NFL.

What defensive players will you be keeping a close eye on in training camp?

Please feel free to use the comment section below to share your thoughts and opinions. I look forward to hearing back from you so that we can discuss this topic further.



Level C2/C3 quadriplegic. College graduate with a bachelors degree in sports and health sciences-concentration sports management. Sports enthusiast. Dallas Cowboys fanatic. Lover of life with a glass half-full point of view.

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Dallas Cowboys

Dallas Cowboys 2019 Job Security Rankings: Defense

Jess Haynie

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Leighton Vander Esch Lands on List of NFL's Top 10 Rookies
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

When the Dallas Cowboys start training camp in July, there will be various feelings of job security throughout the 90-man roster. Throughout the NFL, players know when they're already locked in to a role on the team or when they're fighting for survival.

Yesterday we broke down the current, pre-training camp job security of the offensive players. Today we turn our attention to the defense.

Remember, these tiers aren't just about making the 53-man roster. It also has to do with the players' roles within the roster. Are you a sure starter, fighting for playing time, or just hoping to avoid the practice squad?

Tier 1 - The Untouchables

DE DeMarcus Lawrence, LB Leighton Vander Esch, LB Jaylon Smith, CB Byron Jones

There is no debating these four players. Three of them are coming off Pro Bowl seasons and Jaylon Smith could've easily been right there with them. They are the new leaders of the defense and will be back in their featured roles in 2019.

None of these players will be challenged for their jobs. Even if Byron Jones doesn't get a long-term extension beyond this season, he will be back as the primary corner and playing for his free agency leverage next year.

These guys are easy. Let's move on.

Cowboys Have Their Version of Tryann Mathieu in Xavier Woods?

Dallas Cowboys S Xavier Woods

Tier 2 - Slightly Touchable

DE Robert Quinn, DT Antwaun Woods, S Xavier Woods

The Cowboys hope that adding veteran Robert Quinn to Lawrence at defensive end will give them their most dangerous pair of pass rusher since DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer. The job is Quinn's to lose; only the decline of age can stop Robert from being a key player in the defense this year.

Maybe putting the Woods boys up here is a little optimistic, but it just seems like the arrow is very much pointed upwards on both Antwaun and Xavier at their positions. If they continue to build on last year, there's little reason to think they won't be starters this season.

Dallas has good reason to be invested in both of them. With Tyrone Crawford and Maliek Collins both likely playing their final seasons here, Antwaun Woods gives them a secured talent going forward. Ideally, Woods and Trysten Hill will be your starters in 2020.

The same goes for Xavier Woods at safety.  Jeff Heath has an expiring contract and George Iloka has just a one-year deal. The Cowboys want Xavier to become a fixture that they can add to going forward.

Assuming all of these players play up to current expectation, they aren't budging.

Leighton Vander Esch Can Prove Value for Good Against High Scoring Saints

Dallas Cowboys LB Sean Lee

Tier 3 - On the Team, But Where?

DE Taco Charlton, DE Dorance Armstrong, DL Tyrone Crawford, DT Maliek Collins, DT Trysten Hill, LB Sean Lee, LB Joe Thomas, CB Chidobe Awuzie, CB Anthony Brown, CB Jourdan Lewis, S Jeff Heath, S George Iloka

Most of the Cowboys defensive roster will be filled out from among this group. They should all make the team, but in what capacity? And how much will it matter, particularly on the defensive line, with the rotations that Rod Marinelli uses?

It probably seems odd to have former stalwarts like Tyrone Crawford and Sean Lee listed here, but that's the new reality. I'm actually surprised both are still on the roster at this point, expecting at least one to be released for cap space this offseason. Both veterans will not be as featured as in the past, and I could even still see Crawford being released at final cuts.

Guys like Taco Charlton and Maliek Collins are also fighting for playing time against younger options on the defensive line. Will Dorance Armstrong and Trysten Hill push for snaps, and consequently push the older players into lesser roles?

How will things shake out in the secondary? Will Jourdan Lewis be able to find a larger role after being buried behind the top three corners last year? Will Anthony Brown or Chidobe Awuzie be the number-two CB?  And at safety, who emerges as the second starter between veterans Jeff Heath and George Iloka?

Cowboys Training Camp: 5 Fringe Players Fans Should Follow

Dallas Cowboys S Kavon Frazier (Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports)

Tier 4 - Bubble Players

DE Kerry Hyder, DE Joe Jackson, DT Christian Covington, DT Daniel Ross, LB Justin March-Lillard, LB Chris Covington, CB Michael Jackson, CB Donovan Olumba, S Kavon Frazier, S Darian Thompson, S Donovan Wilson

We've used up 19 of our 25-26 roster spots already. That means only 6-7 of these 11 players will make the team.

Dallas took a flier on Kerry Hyder as a rehab project, and the veteran DE is already impressing in the offseason practices. That could make it impossible for rookie Joe Jackson to make the team, getting crunched by the numbers.

Veteran Christian Covington feels like a solid pickup at DT, but what if he struggles to convert to the 4-3 scheme? A guy like Daniel Ross could be ready to steal the spot out from under him.

At cornerback, are rookie Michael Jackson and second-year prospect Donovan Olumba fighting for the same roster spot? What if Dallas doesn't even keep five corner, like they did last year, and leave both guys out in the cold?

The competition is really heating up at safety. Kavon Frazier's in the last year of his rookie deal and may not be able to fight off Darian Thompson, a former third-round pick, or rookie Donovan Wilson. Any one of these three could emerge.

None of these players listed here are guaranteed a roster spot. Even the newly drafted players will have to fight their way on, thanks to the strong talent acquisition the Cowboys have had in recent years.

Jalen Jelks

Dallas Cowboys DE Jalen Jelks

Tier 5 - Longshots

Considering the potential casualties from the Bubble Players, any of this last group making the roster is going to defy expectations. Even 7th-round pick Jalen Jelks will have a hard time making it, and may have to convert to linebacker to have a chance at competing.

Despite his intriguing 6'4" frame, CB Chris Westry will need to be truly exceptional to push past Michael Jackson or Donovan Olumba. Even if Dallas keeps six corners, he may be stuck as the seventh guy and headed for the practice squad.

It will inevitably happen that reports come from training camp of one of these guys, or some other longshot, making plays and creating a sudden surge of attention. You'll see them start popping up on 53-man roster projections while we anxiously await watching them in the preseason games.

Then maybe nothing will happen, and we'll forget about them all over again. Or maybe they do have some big games, but ultimately are among the final cuts despite all of the hype.

In the nearly two decades now that I've been really analyzing the Cowboys' offseasons, I can't remember a year where there seemed to be less opportunity for a dark horse to make the team. That's unfortunate them, but a great problem for Dallas' perceived roster strength.

We'll find out soon enough how it all unfolds.



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Michael Jackson Could Make Things Interesting at Nickel Corner

Matthew Lenix

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Michael Jackson Could Make Things Interesting at Nickel Corner

In a passing league, you can never have too many bodies in your secondary. By the fifth round of the NFL Draft in April, the Dallas Cowboys had addressed both their offensive and defensive lines, as well as the backup running back position. It was time to add more depth at cornerback and with the 158th pick Michael Jackson was selected.

Currently Anthony Brown has the inside track to be the lead dog at that Nickel Cornerback, but his play has dropped off before in the past. Jourdan Lewis is right behind him still trying to find his place in the team's defensive system. Jackson is in the perfect position to make his move up the depth chart, and here are a few reasons why.

First, he has all the measurables needed to succeed in the Cowboys defensive scheme. At 6'1 210 pounds, with a 40.5-inch vertical, 32.5-inch arms and 4.4 speed he's definitely an early Christmas present for Defensive Coordinator Rod Marinelli, and more specifically Defensive Backs Coach and Passing Game Coordinator Kris Richard. Long and physical corners are what built the infamous "Legion of Boom" in Seattle under his watch.

His ability to be effective in press coverage is a huge tool in his bag. He does an excellent job jamming receivers at the line of scrimmage. So much so, that quarterbacks only completed 5 out of 18 passes on go routes against Jackson last season at Miami. Good for a passer rating of 54.4 and a completion percentage of 27.7, with no touchdowns allowed.

Lastly, his versatility brings his skill set full circle. In addition to playing in the slot, he can also line up on the outside. This gives the Cowboys insurance if something catastrophic happens to the team's starters Byron Jones and Chido Awuzie. It doesn't stop there, however, as his stature gives him the added bonus of transferring to safety if need be. So many possibilities to work with.

The rookie hasn't wasted time impressing Kris Richard as the preparations for the upcoming season have kicked off.

"Very pleased with him. Intelligent. Picks up a lot of things quick. I think he's got corner and nickel combo ability for us. Obviously, the more you can do, the more value you present for yourself," Richard said.

As training camp approaches, Michael Jackson has his opportunity to compete. Every snap must be played like it's his last if he wants to be a big contributor in 2019. There's no lack of skill, only experience, and reps, which he'll get plenty of in late July until the season starts. The stage is set for him to possibly add his name next to starting Free Safety Xavier Woods as another late round steal for the Cowboys secondary.



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Dallas Cowboys

Dallas Cowboys 2019 Job Security Rankings: Offense

Jess Haynie

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Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

When the Dallas Cowboys start training camp in July, there will be various feelings of job security throughout the 90-man roster. Throughout the NFL, players know when they're already locked in to a role on the team or when they're fighting for survival.

Today, we're going to look at how secure the Cowboys' players should feel in 2019. This not only applies to if they make the final roster, but also their position as a starter, roleplayer, or developmental prospect.

We'll start with the offense.

Tier 1 - The Untouchables

QB Dak Prescott, RB Ezekiel Elliott, FB Jamize Olawale, WR Amari Cooper, OT Tyron Smith, G Connor Williams, C Travis Frederick, G Zack Martin, OT La'el Collins, OT Cam Fleming

There are no foreseeable issues that could change where these 10 players fit into the 2019 offense. Barring injury or some surprise trade, such as Dallas moving La'el Collins, we know exactly where these guys will fall if they're here and healthy.

Prescott, Elliott, and Cooper are no-brainers, as are your five starting offensive linemen. I also included Fleming as he was clearly brought back to be the swing tackle this season. That could all change in 2020, but for this year at least his role is certain.

You may be surprised to see any fullback in this top tier, but the Cowboys gave Olawale a three-year contract to return this offseason. They made $2.8 million of it guaranteed; you just don't do that if you have any doubts about keeping him on the 53. There's no question that Jamize will be part of the team in 2019.

Some might argue that Connor Williams' starting spot isn't guaranteed, but I just don't see it. They lived the rookie growing pains last year and are hoping for much more going forward. A mid-season switch could occur if he struggles, but Williams will be the Week One starter at left guard.

Michael Gallup

Dallas Cowboys WR Michael Gallup

Tier 2 - Slightly Touchable

WR Michael Gallup, WR Randall Cobb, G/C Joe Looney

I almost put Gallup in the first tier but "sophomore slumps" are a real thing. Until we see him building on last year as hoped, there is room for something to go awry.

That also brings Cobb's role into question. Any slippage in Gallup's game could lead to increased opportunities for the veteran. Really, even if both guys are bringing it in 2019, how exactly the targets and usage get split between them isn't entirely certain. If Cobb is back to his peak form in Green Bay, he will be hard to take off the field.

I also put Joe Looney in this second tier because I think he could be trade bait. If a team is hurting at center before Week One, is there a more attractive trade target in the NFL?

Dallas could afford to trade Looney if they feel good enough about Connor McGovern as a backup center. Adam Redmond could also be in the mix, serving as the backup last year when Looney was starting.

It's very unlikely that Dallas would give up one of the best backup offensive lineman in football. But if a team is desperate enough to dangle a third-round pick in front of them, the Cowboys might have an offer they can't refuse.

Blake Jarwin

Dallas Cowboys TE Blake Jarwin (Kevin Terrell via AP)

Tier 3 - On the Team, But Where?

RB Tony Pollard, TE Jason Witten, TE Blake Jarwin, TE Dalton Schultz, OL Connor McGovern

This tier is dominated by the mysterious tight end position.  How much playing time will Jason Witten really get? How have Jarwin and Schultz developed and how will it all shake out?

Witten should be the ceremonial starter, but what really matters are total snaps and targets. Even if Jason is the first man out on game days, Jarwin could still wind up being the most-used TE of the group. It all remains to be seen.

We are also expecting a lot from rookie RB Tony Pollard this year, but we don't know yet how much responsibility he'll be given. Will he be the true backup RB or more of a gadget player? Will he take the KR and PR jobs aways from Jourdan Lewis and Tavon Austin? Lots to still be determined here.

Another rookie with question marks is third-round pick Connor McGovern. Will he be given a significant job right away or be carried, perhaps with several game day inactives, for development towards 2020? It's doubtful that he could push Joe Looney out of a job, but will he show enough that Dallas is willing to part with Xavier Su'a-Filo?

Mike White

Dallas Cowboys QB Mike White

Tier 4 - Bubble Players

QB Cooper Rush, QB Mike White, RB Mike Weber, RB Darius Jackson, WR Tavon Austin, WR Allen Hurns, WR Noah Brown, WR Cedrick Wilson, TE Rico Gathers, G Xavier Su'a-Filo, OT Mitch Hyatt

In the top three tiers we've named 18 players who are locks to make the 53-man roster. You generally have 24-25 player on each side of the ball, so that means only 6-7 roster spots left on offense. That means some of the guys named here won't make the team.

Will Cooper Rush and Mike White both have jobs? If Rush remains the backup QB, Dallas will probably hang on to White for another year. But if White beats Rush, the Cowboys could easily let Cooper go to save a roster spot for another position.

Assuming Dallas doesn't add any veteran RBs between now and camp, it seems Darius Jackson and Mike Weber are competing for the same job. There's also a chance that neither makes it; the Cowboys could use Jamize Olawale as the emergency third back. They may be happy to stash with Jackson or Weber on the practice squad.

Things get really interesting at receiver once you get past the top three. Do veterans Allen Hurns and Tavon Austin's experience edge lift them above guys like Noah Brown and Cedrick Wilson? Or will Dallas choose the upside of youth and their cheaper contracts? The bottom half of the WR depth chart appears entirely open right now.

The Rico Gathers Experiment seems close to ending, but he's still here and has a chance to change perceptions. The one-game suspension won't matter if the Cowboys like what he has to offer the rest of the season. But keeping a fourth TE could be tough with the numbers at other spots, and Gathers is unlikely to leap above Jarwin or Schultz.

Numbers are also an issue for the offensive linemen. We know the top eight; five starters, Fleming, Looney, and McGovern. If the Cowboys keep nine guys, they may go with Mitch Hyatt as an additional tackle rather than bring Xavier Su'a-Filo back. They already have the interior line covered.

Codey McElroy

Dallas Cowboys TE Codey McElroy

Tier 5 - Longshots

We'll all have our "pet cats" and favorite underdogs over the next two months, but they will all be hard-pressed to make the roster given the current depth.

Maybe a guy like RB Jordan Chunn shocks us by beating out Weber and Jackson, or perhaps a dark horse WR like Jalen Guyton or Jon'Vea Johnson forces his way into the conversation. Crazier things have happened.

But this 2019 Cowboys roster is about as stacked and predictable as it's been in a long time. Strong drafting has give us a lot of young talent with years left on their rookie deals, and those guys are hard to budge.

The key for these players is to be too good to risk losing on the practice squad. Convince Dallas to make room for them, perhaps by keeping just two quarterbacks or going short somewhere else.

Because only 46 guys are active on game days, roster spots 47-53 can be dedicated to securing players and development. These young prospects want to force their way into those spots, and likely cost a veteran like Cooper Rush or Allen Hurns a job in the process.

~ ~ ~

Where players fall in these tiers could change once we start getting some reports form training camp. How expendable you are can shift depending on performance, or if the circumstances change at your position.

We'll hit the defense tomorrow.



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