Every year there are players who enter camp with heightened intrigue for a variety of factors. Some were missing the previous season due to injury, or are finally getting their first chance at major playing time. Here are the five returning Dallas Cowboys players who I'm most interested in heading into the 2020 training camp.
Yesterday I talked about new players; CeeDee Lamb, Gerald McCoy, and others. While Dallas' success this year will depend heavily on some of these fresh faces, we're also going to need existing talent to elevate their game for the Cowboys to get back to the playoffs.
So, who are my top five? Let's begin.
TE Blake Jarwin
We've been waiting on this one for over a year now. Ever since he scored three touchdowns in the 2018 regular-season finale against the Giants, Jarwin has tantalized us with his potential. But his opportunity to step into the starting role was delayed a year by Jason Witten's return from retirement.
Now Jarwin is the clear starter. Dallas didn't sign or draft anyone to challenge him; they've given Blake the benefit of the doubt. And with the Cowboys' passing offense taking a big step forward last year under Kellen Moore, there's a lot of excitement around what Jarwin can do.
While he will probably never go down in NFL history the way Witten will, Jarwin has great potential for the modern game. He's a big-bodied athlete who can turn upfield and produce yards once the ball is in his hands.
That trait will be deadly in this offense. With defenders worried about stopping Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, CeeDee Lamb, and Ezekiel Elliott, plus Dak Prescott's threat level as a runner, Jarwin should have a lot of mismatches and open opportunities to exploit.
Still, Jarwin's ascension isn't guaranteed. We've seen plenty of players who can shine occasionally but wilt when asked to do more. Jarwin may wind up being nothing more than the TE version of Terrance Williams.
But if the hype is validated, the Cowboys offense is about to get a lot more dangerous from the TE position. Jason Witten was an all-time great, but Blake Jarwin may provide some juice to the passing game that Witten was no longer able to.
LB Leighton Vander Esch
In 2018, the Cowboys got Vander Esch with a 1st-round pick and enjoyed a fantastic rookie season. Leighton was better than expected, making the Pro Bowl and looking like an out-of-the-box superstar.
But then neck issues, which bothered him in college also, crept up last season. Vander Esch missed seven games in 2019 and didn't look like the same guy even when playing. He appeared to be less explosive and more tentative.
Now after offseason surgery to hopefully curtail further issues, Leighton returns looking to retake his spot as one of the NFL's best young linebackers. If both he and Jaylon Smith can put it together in the same year, Dallas could have the best LB duo in football.
With both the defensive line and secondary undergoing big transitions the Cowboys need stability and standout play from the linebackers. With their range and coverage skills Vander Esch, Smith, and Sean Lee can all be big helps in the middle of the field.
But with Leighton it's more than just 2020. After his rookie year he looked like the second coming of Brian Urlacher. If we can get that guy back this season, Vander Esch just might be the best player on the entire defense.
S Xavier Woods
We were all hoping for a third-year breakout from Woods in 2019 but it didn't quite happen. While he did start 15 games and grabbed two interceptions, Xavier was quiet in other games and not really a standout performer.
Perhaps that rise to stardom will happen now. However, Woods will be up against some new challenges in 2020 and he has to adjust to Ha Ha Clinton-Dix as a new partner at safety. He will also have a new defensive coordinator and position coach to work with, plus major instability at the cornerback position.
It's also possible that Xavier could be asked to play a bit out of his natural position. With Clinton-Dix being a veteran a pure free safety, Woods is probably going to have to play close to the line of scrimmage. While he's a big hitter in the middle of the field, he's on the small side to consistently play down in the box.
Woods was only a 6th-round pick in 2017 and may have already maxed out his potential. But he's a guy who has flashed big play potential and could be a major swing factor for the Cowboys defense if 2020 is his breakout season. It could go a long way to making up for those big-name safeties that Dallas hasn't signed or traded for in recent years.
CBs Chidobe Awuzie & Jourdan Lewis
We might as well discuss them together given their shared position and status. Both entering the fourth and final year of their rookie contracts, Awuzie and Lewis are trying to stay on top of the CB depth chart despite some big addition by the Cowboys this offseason.
Sure, Byron Jones has departed for Miami. But Dallas spent 2nd and 4th-round picks on Trevon Diggs and Reggie Robinson, plus signed veterans Maurice Canady and Daryl Worley in free agency. They also re-signed Anthony Brown on a three-year deal.
Canady has since opted out under the COVID-19 policy, but all of these moves indicate that Dallas isn't entirely sold on Chido and Jourdan as starters this year. They have brought in plenty of competition and options for now and the future.
Given the new coaching staff on defense Awuzie and Lewis really have no claim on starting jobs. The CB position should be a free-for-all between all of these players, and their expiring contracts actually work against Chido and Jourdan. Unless they're clearly better than the competition, especially the two rookies, they could be traded or even released.
Both guys have been dealing with big expectations as 2nd and 3rd-round picks in 2017. But with Taco Charlton already an official bust from that class, Awuzie and Lewis are dangerously close to making it one of Dallas' worst drafts in the modern era.
Will 2020 finally be their year? Will new coaches and new opportunity push Chido and Jourdan to excel?