When you think about training camp battles, which ones are your favorites?
It's going to be a ton of fun to watch Sean Lee chase down Ezekiel Elliott all over the field in Oxnard next week. Lee's ability to navigate coverage combined with Zeke's innate feel for the play will set up a beautiful chess match between the pro bowl linebacker and rookie prodigy.
The usual offensive and defensive line match-ups will certainly have their share of moments, and may even help people reminisce about Tyron Smith's early days against DeMarcus Ware.
All of these battles are well and good, and will certainly make headlines throughout August, but I had another thought, and perhaps, one a little more fun.
A football team is a brotherhood
Just ask Denzel Washington (Remember The Titans, anyone?). When you walk out onto the field, if you have the same jersey on as another player, you protect each other, and do everything you can to beat the guy wearing a different color. But, in August, during training camp, long before those bonds are created, a few guys aren't quite in that mindset yet.
Just ask Tony Romo, Cole Beasley, Barry Church, Lance Dunbar, or Lucky Whitehead. Among other things, this small fraternity of players have something in common: all of their backs were up against a wall when they first walked out onto the field in California. But they scratched, and clawed, and made the team.
Having said that, them making the squad meant something else: another guy was sent home.
So I thought to myself, who could be those guys this year? More specifically, which battles on this team could result in only one of the two players making the squad? Which gauntlets will be so heated, that one guy can send another packing? Listed below are three match-ups that could end up being for the 53rd spot on the team.
J.J. Wilcox vs Geoff Swaim
It's no secret that several members of Cowboys Nation have been upset by the play of J.J. Wilcox since he was drafted in the third round of the 2013 NFL Draft. He was dethroned from his seat at free safety halfway through last season by a budding star in Byron Jones. Since then, many people feel that his better fit could be more of a box strong safety type player.
Having said that, there are some who feel that his spot on the team isn't so sure heading into camp this year. Because of his delegation to second team, we'll be seeing him have to guard Geoff Swaim, a second/third team tight end, a lot this August.
Swaim, if you'll recall, had an all-but-stellar preseason last year, making a name for himself as Jameill Showers' favorite target. However, this front office used their last pick in this year's draft on a talented project player in Rico Gathers, who will get snaps at tight end.
Swaim was initially brought in as a blocking tight end, but showed the ability to regularly haul in passes last preseason. He's going to need to show the ability to get open against man coverage and continue to be a reliable pass catcher. Wilcox hasn't shown the consistency that you look for out of a third round pick. He's going to need to carry Swaim on several different route combinations and work to make up for the four-inch height gap.
One of Wilcox's best attributes is his physicality and willingness to hit. While this might work against softer tight ends, it may have less impact against Swaim, who showed last season that he's not afraid to catch passes over the middle in the face of danger.
One of #87's better highlights was against San Francisco on a deep 25-yard seam pass. Right as he went for the catch, he got nailed in the back by the lurking safety. Still, the tight end out of Texas caught the ball, and gained the first down.
Swaim won't beat you with his athleticism, but neither will Jason Witten.
I honestly believe that both players will make this team, but I'm starting to think that Swaim may be more valuable, especially if Kavon Frazier, who the Cowboys had a fourth round grade on, can show cover abilities.
This team is one injury away from our 3rd string tight end getting starting time, because of the offensive formations we like to run. Therefore, if I had to choose one, I'm giving Swaim the edge here. It's not often you see a third round pick get cut before his rookie contract expires, but if he gets outplayed, it could happen.
Deji Olatoye vs Lucky Whitehead
Just a friendly reminder that Jeff Heath was the team leader in interceptions last season with a whopping two. He was followed closely by a few guys with one pick, but none of whom were an intended starting cornerback. I phrase it that way on purpose, because we did have one corner in particular to get his mitts on a pass: Deji Olatoye.
Remember Deji? The 25-year-old, 6'1" corner we signed in the middle of last season? Well, he's one of only two cornerbacks last season to tally an interception. The other, Terrance Mitchell, is no longer a Cowboy.
Well, going into his second season with the Cowboys, I wouldn't say Deji necessarily faces an uphill battle, and I'll tell you why. Our top 3 corners are set: Orlando Scandrick, Mo Claiborne, and Brandon Carr. After them, the depth chart is far from set. We generally go into the NFL season with 4-5 corners. That leaves two potential spots for Deji to make his mark.
In my opinion, his only real competition are Josh Thomas and 2016 sixth round pick Anthony Brown.
At this time last year, Lucky Whitehead had already started to become a fan favorite, due some in part to his dread-headed resemblance to the then-recently departed Dwayne Harris. Going into camp this year, the wide receiver depth chart, after the top three (arguably four), is far from set.
If the Cowboys opt to keep only five wide outs (and Brice Butler makes it), that only leaves one spot for Whitehead, Devin Street, and all other undrafted guys, including Andy Jones out of Jacksonville, who is making noise of his own.
So here we go.
Undrafted vs undrafted.
Wide receiver vs cornerback.
Good old fashion mano a mano.
Yes, Lucky lines up as a slot weapon, and Deji primarily sees action outside the numbers. But, to make the team, Lucky is going to have to prove himself as a full-time receiver, and not just a gadget player/kick returner. That begins on the practice field in the one-on-one match-ups against the defensive backs, including Olatoye.
Listed on the team's website at 5'9", 180 pounds, Lucky certainly has the disadvantage entering the battle, as Deji walks in at 6'1", 194 pounds. That's a 4 inch, 14 pound difference. The problem is, Deji represents the body type of what many team's currently employ in this league. Ever since Richard Sherman came onto the scene, teams love bigger corners. Because of this, Lucky's going to have to show early and often in camp that he's able to take on bigger defensive backs.
With the crowded queue ahead of Lucky, and his lacking physical stature (even with his added muscle), I'm just not sure he'll be able to consistently beat Olatoye on the field to prove he is a better option than other wide receivers on the team. Thus, I'm taking Deji in this bout.
Ryan Russell vs Charles Brown
When former second round pick Charles Brown was brought in by this front office last season, he was seen as nothing more than a simple plug-and-play offensive tackle in the event of an emergency. Now, heading into his first training camp in Oxnard, due to Chaz Green's stunted growth, Brown is considered to be right in the thick of things to make the squad as our swing tackle.
One has to wonder, though, if Chaz Green does step up his game, and we don't trade Ronald Leary, would this team really consider carrying nine offensive linemen (Tyron Smith, La'el Collins, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, Doug Free, Chaz Green, Charles Brown, Joe Looney, Ron Leary)?
Switching things over to the other side of ball, Ryan Russell certainly had a less than fantastic rookie year, as he didn't tally a single tackle or sack. However, if you'll recall, in Demarcus Lawrence's absence, he was receiving first team defensive end snaps in competition with David Irving during mini-camp.
Given the perceived lack of pass rush ability on this team, you have to think this front office would rather go deep at the defensive end position than offensive line. There's a reason why Charles Brown hasn't caught on to a team. His play is inconsistent, and he's never lived up to his second round status.
I've heard rumblings that Russell has made strides and I look for him to handle Charles Brown in their one-on-one match-ups. Thus, if the 53rd spot comes down to these two, I don't think the coaching staff would be too heartbroken to send Brown home.
That would still leave us with three solid backup offensive lineman, as long as we don't get rid of Ron Leary.
I'd love to hear your thoughts on these match-ups and who you think would take the final spot. Or, if you have another battle in mind, it would be great to hear that as well. Either way, I think we're all ready to finally see some hitting! Happy training camp season!
Cowboys, Redskins Week 7 Injury Report
Though it's still early in the 2018 season, the lead in the NFC East is up for grabs when the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins meet this Sunday. Both teams would like their full roster available for the game, but the Week 7 injury reports indicate that won't be the case.
Here are the players either confirmed to be out of action tomorrow or are otherwise listed by Dallas and Washington:
- WR Tavon Austin (groin) - OUT
- LB Joe Thomas (foot) - OUT
- CB Chidobe Awuzie (ankle) - Questionable
The Cowboys are getting healthier, with Sean Lee finally off the injury report and set to return to action. Not only will Dallas get their elite linebacker back, but it means a deeper rotation while the team remains without Joe Thomas.
Tavon Austin elected to skip season-ending surgery on his injured groin, but his should be out a few weeks. That will put Cole Beasley on punt returns and perhaps create more offensive opportunities for Deonte Thompson and Brice Butler.
Awuzie remains limited in practice but has played the last few weeks despite the ankle injury. There is no reason to think he won't suit up in Washington.
- WR Jamison Crowder (ankle) - OUT
- WR Paul Richardson (shoulder, knee) - Doubtful
- S Troy Apke (hamstring) - Doubtful
- RB Adrian Peterson (ankle, shoulder) - Questionable
- RB Chris Thompson (rib, knee) - Questionable
- G Shawn Lauvao (calf) - Questionable
- CB Quinton Dunbar (shin) - Questionable
- CB Danny Johnson (forearm) - Questionable
It's a rough time for Washington's offensive weapons. They will definitely be without slot receiver Jamison Crowder and likely starter Paul Richardson, who current lead all WRs in receptions. Josh Doctson will put into a major role, as will veteran Brian Quick off the bench.
Peterson and Thompson both practiced this week and should play, but have nagging injuries that could slow them down. Washington is already missing Rob Kelley and rookie Derrius Guice, who are both on injured reserve.
Starting left guard Shawn Lauvao is also nursing a lower leg injury, but practiced in a limited capacity all week. His backup is undrafted rookie Casey Dunn out of Auburn.
In the defensive backfield, starting CB Quinton Dunbar was a Friday addition to the injury report with a shin injury. He did practice with it, though, so will likely play. Backup safety Troy Apke is doubtful with a hamstring issue.
Cowboys Focused on Improved Communication to Solve Road Woes at Redskins
The Dallas Cowboys are 0-3 on the road this season. Not only do you already know this, but they do as well, needing to build off a 40-7 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars in week 6 at AT&T Stadium to claim first place in the NFC East at the Washington Redskins.
Although the Cowboys were given Monday and Tuesday off, they are focused on addressing one alarming reason why the team has struggled so much on the road -- particularly on offense.
Running Back Ezekiel Elliott pointed out the Cowboys lack of communication in early season losses at Carolina, Seattle, and Houston. "Seeing the same thing," was the issue Elliott addressed when discussing the Cowboys knowing their assignments in hostile territory.
Yesterday, Quarterback Dak Prescott told the media of a meeting between players and coaches that addressed this specifically.
Dak Prescott said players & coaches held a meeting before today's practice to "address the elephant in the room," which is poor communication among the offense on the road. "I know we'll take a lot from that conversation," The QB said.
Unlike Prescott's remarks about new "wrinkles" in the Cowboys offense prior to a 26-24 home win over the Lions, this has a tangible sign of progress for an offense that made scoring 40 on the Jaguars look impossibly easy. The Cowboys season high in total yards remains the 414 amassed against Detroit, after which Prescott confessed that he simply tells the media "things" that aren't necessarily true.
The Cowboys didn't necessarily do anything new against the Lions, but they most assuredly will this week against the Redskins, at least by way of signaling and remaining in sync on offense.
Prescott and Elliott's leadership is on full display here, and their on-field impact can be attributed as closely to the Cowboys successes or failures as any duo in the NFL.
Missing is a similar impact from Center Travis Frederick, who remains sidelined as he deals with GSB.
Joe Looney's play at center has been good enough to pave the way for Elliott's 586 rushing yards so far, second to Todd Gurley at 623 yards, but his ability to call checks for the offense is understandably much more limited.
Looney deserves all the credit in the world for his strong play in place of Frederick. The Cowboys have never asked for him to be anything he isn't, a reliable depth option that earned a second contract and with it the starting center job for the time being in Dallas.
He has the full support of his teammates, Frederick included. All of this is lovely to put down in writing until Looney and the Cowboys have been forced to step on the field with the crowd against them and attempt to sustain a drive, something Frederick will unfortunately not be a part of for a long while.
If the Cowboys offense isn't going to unveil new wrinkles in the scheme, there is one wrinkle worth mentioning that's new to the team's communication on offense this season. With Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan up in the box, his play calls are sent down to first-year Quarterback Coach Kellen Moore, who has been in the ear of Prescott ever since playing with him from 2016-17.
Sure, these are things that could've been addressed before the Cowboys managed only eight points in week one, turned the ball over three times in week three, or punted away their best chance at victory in week five. The best teams in the league likely already have these things down to routine, and few would consider the Cowboys anywhere near the upper echelon of the NFL.
Following sixty minutes of football at a division rival they've won four in a row against, with an even more impressive five game win streak at the Redskins, the Cowboys could control their own path atop the NFC East.
That feels truly incredible for such a young team faced with a steep learning curve early in the season, adjusting to it on the fly as they prepare to leave everything on the field before a bye week.
#WASvsDAL: Why This Game Holds Increased Importance
It feels incredibly cliche to call the week 7 match-up between the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins a "must win." Especially for someone like me who values statistics, logic, and analytics in sports.
But when the analytics agree with the narratives, those narratives do tend to get my attention. And this week that would appear to be the case.
According to Brian Burke of ESPN, the Cowboys's week 7 game has the highest playoff probability leverage in the entire NFC, and is second to only the Houston Texans' big game with Jacksonville around the entire league.
Playoff leverage for week 7. DAL, WAS, PHI, CAR, MIN, CHI with a lot on the line in the NFC. HOU, CIN, and JAX in the AFC.
What does this mean? Well playoff probability leverage is pretty intuitive. Basically it is the difference between a win this week and a loss this week in terms of probability to make the playoffs.
For the Cowboys that number is at 27%, with a win over Washington catapulting their playoff probability over 50%. On the other hand, a loss would take a big hit to their playoff hopes just 7 games into the NFL season.
As you might expect, this game means a lot to the Redskins' playoff probability as well. Their playoff leverage this week is at 14%, but a win would mean "more" to Dallas than Washington based on the probabilities.
Fellow NFC East foe, the Philadelphia Eagles, also have a lot to gain/lose this Sunday, with their leverage sitting at 22%. According to Burke's model, the Eagles and Cowboys have the best chances of making the playoffs at this point, but if each team wins Sunday the Eagles will still have a higher percentage.
Of course a lot can and will change week to week, despite what the metrics say. The Cowboys still have two games remaining with the NFC East favorite Eagles this year, and will get another crack at Washington at home later in the season. Plus the Cowboys have a few NFC wild card and playoff contenders remaining on their schedule, such as the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons. (Yes, the 2-4 Falcons are very much alive in this crazy conference).
Still, the difference between 4-3 (2-0 in the division) and 3-4 (1-1 in the division) is huge, as is shown by Brian Burke's playoff probability leverage metric.
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