We’re still about a month away from the start of the Dallas Cowboys 2018 Training Camp. However, even now, we have a good sense of what starting jobs are open and which ones have already been decided for the upcoming season.
Before we get into the open positions, let’s look at the ones that appear to already set. Barring injuries or some other unpredictable occurrence, here are the guys who you can bet on starting this season:
- DE DeMarcus Lawrence
- LB Sean Lee, Jaylon Smith
- CB Chidobe Awuzie
Even with these probable and assured starters, there are a few considerations to be made.
Jaylon Smith will start if he’s healthy through training camp and preseason, but how big is that “if?” Until we see just how well his recovery has gone, there’s always room for concern.
At cornerback, Awuzie appears to have a starting job locked up but he’s still just a second-year player. The trio of Chido, Byron Jones, and Jourdan Lewis will all contend for those two starting spots. Even Anthony Brown could be in the mix.
There’s room for change at any position, but these four players appear firmly entrenched in their starting roles on defense.
What about the other seven spots?
While franchise-tagged DeMarcus Lawrence has one side of the line locked down, the other starting position is wide open. This year there are several guys competing for the job.
Taco Charlton enters his second year after being the first-round pick in 2017. He started to come on late last season and has reportedly been solid so far in practices. Every team wants their draft picks to excel, especially the Thursday night guys, so Dallas is probably rooting for Taco to earn the starting role.
If it’s not Taco, veteran Kony Ealy may be the next man up. Dallas has liked Ealy since the 2014 draft and even tried to claim him off waivers last year, but got blocked by the Jets. The Cowboys clearly think Kony will be more effective in their scheme than the 3-4 defense he played in New York last year. He’s still just 26, and hopefully with more upside to be unlocked.
The best story would be if Randy Gregory can become a defensive star after winning his personal battles and being reinstated to the NFL. Gregory was one of the most dynamic talents of the 2015 draft class but dropped due to the personal red flags, which were obviously proved true early on. But if Randy still has that talent, the duo he could form with Lawrence could be lethal for opposing quarterbacks.
There are other prospects like Dorance Armstrong and Charles Tapper, but the starting job is likely to go to one of the three we’ve mentioned. Even Gregory may be used more as a situational pass rusher than typical starter.
The truth is that any position in a Rod Marinelli defensive line is subject to heavy rotation, making starting positions less important. The guy with the most snaps may not have been a starter.
The same goes for our next position.
For at least the first four weeks, we know David Irving won’t be starting as he’s been suspended for using banned substances. While his freakish potential will be missed, there are plenty of other guys who the Cowboys can turn to.
Veteran Tyrone Crawford has moved between end and tackle a lot the last few years, but 2018 may see him more at his original position. The Cowboys once thought he would be a breakout star as a DT in the Cover 2 scheme, and payed him accordingly. We could see Tyrone used most in that role during Irving’s suspension, and hopefully it will suit him well.
Maliek Collins may get to move back to the 3-technique spot he played as a rookie, where he was far more effective than as the 1-tech DT last year. Still, Collins could start at either spot and that gives him tremendous value.
If Dallas wants to get Maliek back to 3-tech, it means finding a new 1-tech out of Richard Ash, Brian Price, or Jihad Ward. Ash and Price both played it at times last year and have flashed good things despite limited experience.
Ward, a former second-round pick, was acquired in a trade for WR Ryan Switzer and has been standing out in the recent OTAs and minicamp. At 6’5″, Ward has the frame to add weight and could wind up as the 1-tech by Week One. He also has the athleticism to play the spot, giving Dallas lots of options even without David Irving.
Clearly, nothing is certain at defensive tackle. Even with Irving, we were going to a lot of rotation and variation in the use of players. But right now there are no guarantees how any of these DTs will be deployed, and who will get the starts, in the regular season.
Dallas spent a first-round pick on LB Leighton Vander Esch, adding an important new element to the group. But will the rookie immediately earn a starting role?
The current projection for the base defense is that Vander Esch will start in the middle with Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith outside. That pushes fourth-year veteran Damien Wilson to the bench.
That works if Leighton is ready for all that comes with being the MIKE, but is that reasonable to expect from any rookie?
As we saw for years from Sean Lee, that middle linebacker’s ability to read what’s going on behind the line of scrimmage and make adjustments is critical. Will Vander Esch be able to provide that kind of leadership early on?
Dallas may elect to start Jaylon Smith in the middle, and keep Wilson as the starting SAM, while Vander Esch gets work in over time.
Sean Lee should have WILL locked down, but everything else in the LB group is open for discussion.
It would have been easy to assume second-year studs Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis would walk into starting jobs this year. But then Dallas decided to move Byron Jones back to corner, and make a change in the Defensive Backs Coach, that brings things more into question.
Kris Richard comes over from Seattle with his preference for big, physical corners. That, plus more overall NFL experience, gives Jones some advantages over Lewis for the starting role.
Even if Awuzie moves into the slot when three CBs are used, he is expected to start in the base defense. In truth, all three guys will get starts at times depending on what formations opposing offenses come out in.
Even Anthony Brown factors into things here. Now in his third year, Brown’s game is more suited to the outside and he has lots of experience already. If he makes a leap this offseason, Anthony could make his own push for a starting spot.
It’s a wonderful problem, and a rare one, to have so much talent at cornerback. This is one of the few times when not having clear starters in June is a good thing.
Should veteran Jeff Heath feel secure in his starting role? With youngsters Kavon Frazier and Xavier Woods around, Heath can’t assume anything.
Both Woods and Frazier were showing up last year, and all of these players are probably better suited to the strong safety role. Who gets the start at free safety, vacated by Byron Jones going to cornerback, will be decided after plenty of camp and preseason evaluation.
The idea that Dallas might trade for Seattle’s Earl Thomas is still out there, too, and the All-Pro’s recent holdout from Seahawks minicamp only threw some new gas on the fire. That move would obviously occupy one of the two starting positions.
But even without a Thomas trade, there are three guys competing for two jobs. Heath’s experience is valuable but doesn’t promise him anything with a new position coach arriving.