The Dallas Cowboys open their 2017 training camp tomorrow afternoon. Going into any camp, one of the key areas of focus is any position that doesn’t have an established starter. To help you get ready for following camp, we’re going to quickly outline what starting jobs are up for grabs right now.
Before we get into the open positions, let’s look at the ones that are likely already set. Barring injuries or some other unpredictable occurrence, here are the guys who you can bet on starting this season:
- QB – Dak Prescott
- RB – Ezekiel Elliott
- WR – Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley
- TE – Jason Witten
- LT – Tyron Smith
- C – Travis Frederick
- RG – Zack Martin
- DT – Maliek Collins
- LB – Sean Lee
- CB – Orlando Scandrick, Anthony Brown
- S – Byron Jones, Jeff Heath
On offense, the third receiver plays many more snaps than the fullback, so that’s really the true 11th man on the roster. Similar logic applies on defense when it comes to the third cornerback, who plays more than twice as much as the SAM linebacker.
So, of the 22 primary positions on both sides of the ball, we have 15 players who are almost guaranteed to start. As for those seven other spots, we’ll now go through and see who the top candidates are for each.
Left Guard & Right Tackle
As of right now, La’el Collins appears to be moving to right tackle to replace the retired Doug Free. The Cowboys have two openings on the offensive line after Ronald Leary left in free agency. Jonathan Cooper, who signed with Dallas late last season, is currently projected to replace him at left guard.
There’s little reason to think Collins won’t at least be competent at tackle, given he played it in college and was a first-round draft talent. How he’ll play compared to Free, who was better than given credit for, is yet to be seen. Dallas also has previous swing tackles Chaz Green and Emmett Cleary, and free agent Byron Bell, who could be considered for the job.
This tentative plan is hardly set in stone yet. Cooper has to prove he can finally stick after washing out in Arizona, New England, and Cleveland. Health has been his enemy, but Cooper has yet to show he play like the seventh-overall pick in the 2013 draft. He’s never had the kind of offensive line talent around him that Dallas has, though, so hopefully this soft landing will allow him to bounce back.
If Cooper falters, La’el Collins could end up back at guard where he as experience and open things up at tackle. You also have Joe Looney, the backup guard and center last year, who might be a factor. Byron Bell has also played guard before. The jobs are Cooper’s and Collins’ to lose, but they’re hardly a done deal.
Other than Maliek Collins starting at one of the tackle spots, everything else is wide open. It may not matter much with Rod Marinelli’s rotation, but players still want the cache of being named along with the starters. How that will work out in 2017 is hard to see right now.
DeMarcus Lawrence is in a contract year and needs a big season, but has he already lot ground to other players? Dallas drafted Taco Charlton and have a potential stud in David Irving. Benson Mayowa was last year’s sack leader and then there’s also Charles Tapper, who will make his delayed debut.
At tackle, Collins will get one spot but the other is hard to say. If Maliek can play the one-technique position and occupy blockers, it allows Tyrone Crawford to get back to his best position as the three-tech. However, Collins’ pass-rushing skills may make him better for that spot. That means Cedric Thornton and Stephen Paea are the candidates for the one-tech.
Marinelli is going to use these guys in various ways all season. We’ll see different lineups depending on the opponent, the down and distance, and just who is fatigued or banged up. In the end, who gets the starts really won’t be as important as who gets the sacks.
The middle linebacker spot is Jaylon Smith’s so long as his body is up to it. If not, Dallas just re-signed veteran Justin Durant and will also have Anthony Hitchens returning in a contract year. Third-year prospect Mark Nzeocha could also be a factor.
If Jaylon claims the job as we all want, the occasional starting role at SAM gets interesting. It appeared that Damien Wilson had it covered, but now he’s facing some severe issues related to assault charges a few weeks ago. Wilson could be suspended by the NFL for several weeks, if not more.
If Wilson is gone, that spot could go to Hitchens, Nzeocha, Durant, or veteran Kyle Wilber. If Dallas fears that Wilson might start the year but get taken out later, they may go ahead and run with another options just for the sake of continuity. We will likely hear of several different players getting looks with the first-team throughout camp.
The Cowboys use their nickel scheme far more than any other, making the third cornerback very important. Assuming that Anthony Brown and Orlando Scandrick are your top two, veteran Nolan Carroll will be competing with rookies Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis for the third spot.
Carroll’s veteran experience will be big, especially early on as the rookies adjust to NFL speed. However, his DWI arrest in May will likely result in at least a two-game suspension. One of the rookies will have to play in his absence, and the Cowboys will be giving them plenty of time during camp and preseason to be ready for that role.
This really leaves the spot wide open now and until Week One. Having to get the rookies ready for Carroll’s suspension just might cost the veteran his spot all together. If Awuzie and Lewis earn the team’s trust, Dallas might even be tempted to cut Carroll and leave a roster spot open for sixth-round pick Marquez White.