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.
Cowboys OT Mitch Hyatt is an Undrafted Rookie to Watch
Going undrafted is hardly a death blow to a player's hopes of making it into the NFL. We've seen many examples of players who have lengthy careers despite humble beginnings, and plenty of them happened right here in Dallas. Could offensive tackle Mitch Hyatt be the next undrafted success story for the Cowboys?
Hyatt just finished his college career at Clemson as a four-year starter, two-time national champion, and two-time All-American. While not an elite draft prospect, many had Mitch rated as at least a 5th-7th round pick. His going undrafted was a surprise.
While he measures with good size at 6'5" and a little over 300 lbs., Hyatt lacks upper body strength. But he's overcome that deficiency through the years with work ethic, motor, and smarts.
For the Cowboys, it's a lot easier to help a guy gain strength than it is to try and improve motivation or intelligence.
Dallas was not the only team interested in Mitch Hyatt once he hit free agency. But from the rookie's own lips, he didn't have a hard decision to make.
“'I received a fair amount of calls. It was a pretty chaotic five to 10 minutes for me,'” Hyatt said. “'I had a whole bunch of people in my ear. But I knew what kind of team the Cowboys were, I knew what they were about.'”
Whether it was the reputation of the Cowboys organization, its vaunted offensive line, or the chance to work with Coach Marc Colombo, Hyatt was clearly drawn to Dallas. Another reason for that may have been the perceived opportunity to make the roster.
The Cowboys seem to already be preparing for life without La'el Collins in 2020, when Collins is set to hit free agency. They gave Cam Fleming a two-year deal which keeps him through next year, plus drafted Connor McGovern in the third round of the 2019 draft. It suggests Dallas isn't planning to pay La'l the significant money he should demand.
If Fleming gets promoted to the starting job at right tackle, that would leave a vacancy for swing tackle in 2020. Mitch Hyatt could be one of Dallas' options for that role.
Even if the Cowboys don't keep Hyatt on the 53-man roster in 2019, they will likely try to put him on the practice squad. Ideally, a year of physical development there will make him a much stronger candidate for the 2020 season.
Of course, the reason we know those undrafted success stories so well is because they aren't typical. The odds are against Mitch Hyatt having any NFL career, but his collegiate success and intangibles speak to a guy who's worth taking a chance on.
If it works out, credit the Cowboys for continuing the tradition of Tony Romo, Miles Austin, Jeff Heath, and other undrafted players who became significant contributors.
Could CB Michael Jackson Prove To Be Cowboys Best Value Pick?
Looking back to the third day of the 2019 NFL Draft for the Dallas Cowboys, running backs Tony Pollard and Mike Weber are the most discussed players among fans and analysts. The front office made some pretty promising selections in the late rounds that could have important roles on the team in the near future. While many thought the Cowboys would be quick to add a rookie safety, it wasn't until the fifth round that the team drafted a defensive back, and it wasn't even a safety. Kris Richard got his guy Michael Jackson, from the Miami Hurricanes.
A few weeks apart from training camp, the 6-1 cornerback has been overlooked by many fans. Although the team got plenty of quality players in the late rounds, Jackson might end up being the best value pick when we look back to this rookie class a year from now.
In college, Jackson started 23 games between 2017 and 2018 as he racked up four interceptions and 10 pass deflections. He seems just like the kind of guy we know DB Coach Kris Richard loves. A tall, long, press cornerback with pretty solid range. Jackson is far from a player ready to start in the NFL, but Richard will have a lot of raw potential to work with.
When the former Seahawks defensive coordinator joined the Cowboys, he let it be known that he saw a lot of potential on Byron Jones. The 2015 first round pick's career was turned around after last season, when the team finally stopped moving Jones around the defensive backfield. As a full-time corner, Jones went on to become a second-team All-Pro last year.
While it would be unfair to compare Jones and Jackson, both of them arrived to the NFL with very different expectations, I can't help but wonder how far can Richard take the Miami product. Although it wasn't discussed as much, cornerback was an important need for the team because of a lack of depth and the uncertainty surrounding Jones' future on the team.
After an impressive 2018 season, extending Jones will be a huge challenge for the Cowboys front office. After all, there's a lot of homegrown talent due for big paydays. Who knows if when the day comes, the team will have what it takes to keep Jones in Dallas. Not to mention, Anthony Brown is entering his contract year. A solid nickel corner for the Cowboys could be gone, leaving Kris Richard's unit with very little depth.
Fortunately for the Cowboys, Michael Jackson has the size and potential to play in any spot in the secondary, giving Richard the chance to develop him at the position he wishes. After all, Richard will be in no hurry to get Jackson on the field. It's tough to imagine Jackson getting an important role for the upcoming season, but he could certainly get a few snaps throughout the year. Having said that, it's in the long run that the All-ACC second-team CB can truly prove his worth.
In an ideal world, the Cowboys would keep their current CB but the cold, hard truth is NFL teams can't keep all of their players all the time. Jackson might have to eventually step up to an important spot on the defense. If Kris Richard develops him properly, Dallas won't be that concerned about a couple of their CBs potentially leaving. We'll see if Michael Jackson is ready when his name is called.
Dorance Armstrong, Kerry Hyder Stand Out in Cowboys Practices
With Left Defensive End DeMarcus Lawrence rehabbing from offseason shoulder surgery, Defensive End Taco Charlton rehabbing a shoulder and foot injury, and Right Defensive End Randy Gregory currently suspended indefinitely, there have been plenty of snaps at defensive end for other players to make a name for themselves in the offseason training activities (OTAs) and this past week's minicamp. The two players that stood out above all others on the defense were defensive ends Dorance Armstrong and Kerry Hyder.
You might be asking yourself, "what does it matter? DeMarcus Lawrence and Robert Quinn are the starters. Why should we care about a couple of backups."
First, the backup defensive ends for the Dallas Cowboys will play. After DeMarcus Lawrence and Tyrone Crawford, the leaders in defensive end snaps in 2018, Randy Gregory got 44% of the snaps on defense and Taco Charlton saw 39%. Dorance Armstrong, who played sparingly as a rookie, saw 26% of the snaps. The defensive ends that make the 53-man roster are going to get playing time.
Secondly, there's no guarantee that DeMarcus Lawrence will be ready for week one. Tyrone Crawford, who was the starter at right defensive end in 2018, could miss week one if the NFL deems his offseason altercation is worthy of a suspension. That leaves a whole lot of potential snaps at the left defensive end spot if either of those two guys misses week one.
Dorance Armstrong, the Dallas Cowboys fourth-round pick from 2018, caught the eye of several observers from the media and finished his offseason with a strong minicamp.
"These coaches have to be happy with what they’ve seen from Dorance Armstrong during these practices. Armstrong has been mainly filling in for DeMarcus Lawrence on the left side, but on Wednesday he switched over to the right. There were several snaps where he was a handful for Cam Fleming to handle. Armstrong started off well last season before hitting the rookie wall. He physically looks bigger and is also now equipped with the knowledge of how he has to prepare to play at a high level the entire season. Keep an eye on Armstrong to make that jump from the first to second year."
Bryan Broaddus - DallasCowboys.com
Armstrong had a really nice training camp as a rookie and as Broaddus notes, tailed off during the regular season. Reports are that he's added size this offseason -- as most players do between their first and second year -- and if all the reports are correct, could be a breakout player in the making.
Kerry Hyder is another intriguing player and one of the more underrated offseason acquisitions by the Dallas Cowboys front office.
Coming from the Detroit Lions, where they used Hyder as a nose tackle in Matt Patricia's 3-4 alignment, he was played severely out of position. In 2016, playing primarily as a defensive end, Hyder recorded eight sacks for the Lions. In 2017, he suffered a torn achilles which kept him out all of that year.
Now with the Dallas Cowboys, he gets to return to his more natural defensive end position. And he's making some noise in these offseason practices.
D-Linemen never get any shine during OTAs, so today is for them. With Tyron Smith & La'el Collins sitting out today, Dorance Armstrong & Kerry Hyder absolutely wrecked practice. Murdered it. I legitimately don't think Dak would've gotten a single throw out if sacks were allowed.
Of course not playing against the starting tackles in Tyron Smith and La'el Collins will allow players to shine a bit more, but let's not forget that Cam Fleming started in the Super Bowl for the New England Patriots before signing with the Dallas Cowboys. Connor Williams, who has been getting snaps at tackle as well, is no slouch as a former All-American for the Texas Longhorns.
Here's what Bryan Broaddus had to say about Kerry Hyder in one of the previous OTAs his "Scout's Notebook" from May 22nd.
"I have to be careful with my love for veteran defensive linemen, but Kerry Hyder looks like a different man playing at end instead of head-up tackle. The coaching change in Detroit did him no favors last season. Having to play in a spot where he had to fight blocks all day to now working on the edge in space is a good thing for him. It appears that Hyder has his quickness back, but he also has some pass rush moves in his tool belt. I thought maybe they were going to use him as an under-tackle, but putting him back at end might be his best shot at making the roster."
Bryan Broaddus - Dallas Cowboys.com
The Cowboys found a really good player in Kerry Hyder. He's capable of playing some 3-technique defensive tackle if needed as well as on the edge. He has a good motor and is able to make plays in the running game.
With the emergence of Kerry Hyder and Dorance Armstrong this offseason, it puts Taco Charlton behind the eight ball as the team heads to Oxnard. If they continue to play well, it's a real possibility that Charlton could be a gameday inactive during the regular season, especially if Randy Gregory is reinstated.
However they end up being deployed, this group of defensive ends will cause fits for opposing offensive lines. They've been aiming for waves of pass rushers for Rod Marinelli's defense and for the first time since becoming defensive coordinator, he looks to have just that.
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