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.
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!