The Dallas Cowboys 2017 Training Camp opens two weeks from tomorrow, meaning you're about to get bombarded with various “season preview” articles from this site and many others. Various players will be spotlighted as key figures in this year's camp, be it for their star status or for being part of an intriguing position battle.
Today, I thought we'd look at a few guys who seem to be flying under the radar as camp approaches. Despite this, I think any of these five guys could wind up with spots on the 53-man roster and perhaps even significant roles on this year's team.
Emmett Cleary, OT
Signed last September to replace an injured Chaz Green, Cleary was the swing tackle for 13 games and then started in the Week 17 finale. He had to come in for Tyron Smith during the Week 16 game against the Detroit Lions, playing very well in an important game against a playoff team.
Cleary is a massive 6'7″ and has been floating around the NFL for four seasons. He went undrafted in 2013 and was with five different teams before finally landing in Dallas. Now, with real game experience and plenty of moving parts on the Cowboys offensive line, Cleary shouldn't be ignored as a contender for a roster spot.
As it stands, Cleary should be very competitive for the swing tackle role. Many are focusing on Chaz Green or veteran Byron Bell, but Cleary didn't look at all like a liability in the snaps he played last season. That alone should keep him in the conversation through final cuts, if not beyond.
Brice Butler, WR
Some are projecting that Butler won't even make the team, losing his roster spot to seventh-round rookie Noah Brown or some other younger player. However, Butler's experience, 6'3″ frame, and exceptional top seed will make him hard to beat if he has a strong camp and preseason.
The one-year, $1.1 million contract that Butler got from the Cowboys last March speaks to his tenuous status with the team and why people think he could be expendable. At age 27, Brice is certainly in danger if younger players make noise. But with Dez Bryant missing 10 games over the last two seasons, Dallas won't be quick to cast aside veteran depth.
What's more, Butler's role in the offense could be enhanced by the development of Dak Prescott. If the playbook gets opened up and Prescott is willing to take more shots down the field, Butler's speed could be put to better use. He could provide a vertical threat that compliments the work of Bryant, Jason Witten, and Cole Beasley in the short and mid-range passing game.
Cedric Thornton, DT
Last year, Dallas gave Thornton a four-year, $17 million contract to join the defensive line. His playing time was cut short because of the unexpected rise of Maliek Collins and the sudden health of Terrell McClain. With McClain now in Washington, Thornton could finally have the larger role that the Cowboys anticipated when they signed him.
As always with Rod Marinelli's defense, Thornton will be rotating with other players. One will be free-agent signing Stephen Paea, a former Marinelli pupil in Chicago. Money talks, though, and Paea only got a one-year deal for $2 million to become a Cowboy. That may not mean much depending on how camp unfolds, but it at least shows what Dallas was willing to pay to acquire both players.
Terrell McClain played 500 total snaps last year, leaving plenty of work for new guys to take on. Thornton has the size to play the one-tech role and the athleticism to stay on in the nickel, meaning he could form a nice partnership with Maliek Collins. The Cowboys thought enough of Thornton last year to pay him well, and he should be a major factor in the 2017 plans.
Mark Nzeocha, LB
Held back the last two years with injuries, Nzeocha is a big and athletic player who could be called on for significant duties in 2017. The recent news about Damien Wilson's legal troubles only increases the potential need.
Last preseason, Nzeocha was looking a dominant player against the Rams' second-team offense. He followed the ball everywhere and even had an interception. He reminded you of Sean Lee, and there's no greater praise for a linebacker.
If Nzeocha can finally stay healthy, he could compete for the starting job SAM linebacker. If nothing else, he should be a primary reserve at other positions and appears to have the ability to play any LB spot. With the departures of Justin Durant and Andrew Gachkar, there is less veteran depth to contend with. Now in his third year, Nzeocha will hopefully be ready to become a contributor.
Kavon Frazier, S
It feel like Frazier has become an afterthought at safety, with many enamored over sixth-round rookie Xavier Woods. While Woods may be the shiny new toy, we're only a year removed from Frazier being a similarly-hyped rookie and inspiring hope of a late-round steal.
Along with cornerback Anthony Brown, Frazier was praised by Stephen Jones as being a player that the team had a fourth-round grade on in 2016. We saw what happened with Brown; injuries thrust him into significant playing time right away and Brown performed about as well as the veterans he was replacing. Frazier didn't those same opportunities with a loaded depth chart at safety.
If Frazier has the same talent and upside as Brown, and now a year of experience, he should be a real factor at the safety position. Dallas signed veteran Robert Blanton for insurance, but he could be the odd man out if Frazier and Woods both live up to their early expectations.