Several fierce battles are ahead for the 2016 Dallas Cowboys training camp. Typically, a team’s most anticipated position battles center around spotlight roster spots, but this Cowboys team is either already set or has their bed made in all the most high profile positions.
The quarterback position is set in stone. Tony Romo is the starter. However, if someone comes along and breaks that stone, much like Tony Romo’s clavicle in 2015, then Cowboys fans could be looking at yet another dismal rotation of sub-par signal callers. Here’s what the 2015 quarterback situation looked like:
Tony Romo: 4 games, 5 TD / 7 INT, 221 yards per game
Brandon Weeden: 4 games, 2 TD / 2 INT, 184 yards per game
Matt Cassel: 8 games, 5 TD / 7 INT, 159 yards per game
Kellen Moore: 3 games, 4 TD / 6 INT, 259 yards per game
Hardly spectacular numbers, by any stretch of the imagination.
Some of 2015’s woes can be attributed to Dez Bryant being injured, others to Tony Romo’s multiple injuries. In either case, the players backing up Romo and Bryant played significant roles in the team’s 4-12 season.
The team heads into their 2016 training camp with Kellen Moore, Jameill Showers, and newly drafted QB Dak Prescott. Each vying for one of the coveted 53 roster spots available and each toting their own baggage.
Kellen Moore was the fan-favorite after just a handful of games with Matt Cassel under center. He was an unknown with a grassroots following and a mountain of untapped potential in the NFL. Cowboys coaches stuck with Matt Cassel for far too many games, leaving Moore just three starts to wrap up the season and show off what he could do.
Here’s how he did in his three starts in Dallas:
Week 15 vs NYJ: 1 TD, 3 INT, 158 yards = 16-19 loss
Week 16 at BUF: 0 TD, 1 INT, 186 yards = 6-16 loss
week 17 vs WAS: 3 TD, 2 INT, 435 yards = 23-34 loss
In spite of his improving numbers from one game to the next, Moore was unable to provide the spark needed to win games.
Personally, I don’t put this all on Kellen Moore. Dez Bryant ran routes for Moore, but it’s well known that Bryant was still struggling due to injury. The #2 WR in 2015, Terrance Williams, managed to haul in eight catches for a substantial 173 yards in the final contest of the season, but it was #3 WR Cole Beasley and the always-reliable TE Jason Witten who scored on three passes from Moore.
But beyond that, beyond the injuries and missed opportunities, Moore came in at a time when the fight was already over. This sort of circumstance tends to inspire extra fight in a team, and that showed against Washington, but it also deflates confidence. And confidence is important.
So as the 2016 campaign kicks off, the Dallas Cowboys are looking to find a suitable backup to Tony Romo with more urgency than in years passed.
Kellen Moore has the upper hand on his competition due to his regular season experience, but Jameill Showers will look to bolster his noteworthy performance during the 2015 preseason. Showers didn’t have a lot of opportunity but when he did, he made it interesting. It’s a far cry from a starter’s persona, but nevertheless, it’s a base he will attempt to build on.
And then you have rookie Dak Prescott. His pro football abilities are entirely unsubstantiated, but he’s a prospect that fans are hopeful can change the backup QB game in Dallas.
Backup Running Back
Make no mistake about it; Ezekiel Elliott is the starting running back for the 2016 Dallas Cowboys. That’s not even a question, and only an injury could change that reality (knock on wood).
There are two RBs returning from the 2015 try, Darren McFadden and Lance Dunbar.
Dunbar, viewed as the team’s very capable third string RB and ultimate passing threat out of the backfield, suffered an injury during kickoff return duties that sidelined him, not only for the bulk of the 2015 season, but also through at least the 2016 preseason. While the position is stacked with competent backs, Dunbar holds a special place in the hearts and minds of coaches and fans alike. So don’t count him out just because he’s still recovering.
More to the point, and in addition to McFadden returning, the Cowboys picked up free agent RB Alfred Morris in the offseason, and added some competition for the second/third RB spots through the draft.
Darren McFadden might have churned out some impressive numbers for a back fighting an expectant defense each week, but it’s no secret that the zone rushing scheme employed in Dallas is not his forte. Add to that his fool-headed injury protecting a cell phone this offseason and you have one less viable contender in the mix. But McFadden is a known commodity, and perhaps one of very few saving graces from Dallas’ 2015 season.
Alfred Morris isn’t known as well, yet.
Morris was selected in the sixth round of the 2012 draft pick by the Washington Redskins. In four seasons with Washington, he amassed 4,713 yards on 1,078 attempts, scoring 29 touchdowns and recording 11 fumbles. As the starter, Morris saw steady gains from one year to the next in both attempts and yards, with 2015 culminating in his best year to date with 1,613 yards and 13 TDs.
Unlike most backup position battles in the NFL, the Cowboys are in the fortunate position of having three solid starters at running back. This isn’t a position to watch because of need, but because it makes us feel like a kid let loose in a candy shop.
A lot can change between now and the September 11 home-opener against the New York Giants, but it’s generally shaping up to be one of, if not the most prolific ground attacks in the NFL. All anchored by the Cowboys’ remarkable offensive line.
Second String Wide Receiver
Getting back to needs for a bit, the 2016 Cowboys look to benefit from the return of a healthy Dez Bryant. With Bryant at 100-percent, he’s among the most capable leading wide outs in the game today.
But what about the group he leads?
Terrance Williams has been a point of frustration for fans – and likely coaches as well – since he entered the league. Heading into his third pro season, expectations were high for good Ole T-Will, but those expectations were never met (unless you count his season-best outing in week 17 as more than just one game). And even still, he only scored three TDs all year.
Meanwhile, number three WR Cole Beasley suffered something of an off year compared to seasons passed, and yet still managed to be one of the foundation components of the offense all year. Sure, he sheered his golden locks, and the excitement of his play, but his presence was felt.
A new variable introduced in 2015 was WR Brice Butler, picked up early in the season from Oakland, Butler quickly became an electric deep threat. That is until hamstring injuries sidelined him.
The situation at WR in Dallas is one I’m personally keeping a close eye on. After years of frustration with the performance of the number two wide out, I saw Butler’s arrival as a welcomed challenge to Terrance Williams for that second spot on the depth chart. For all the good Williams has done, and there are plenty of highlight reels featuring his abilities on YouTube, Butler might have just matched him in 2015 and that bodes well for both Butler and the Cowboys.
We need a go-getter behind Bryant, someone who can run solid routes and high-point the deep ball for crucial yards. Williams seems to be limited to passes that hit his chest. So a top story line for this year’s camp will be how well Butler competes against Williams, and this team – and its fans – will be all the better for it.
Backup Tight End
It’s an unpopular opinion, but one that I feel will only continue to become more common with each game, that Jason Witten is not the young man he once was.
Having just turned 34 years old in May, Witten seemed to have lost a step in 2015. A strong case can be made that his declining stats were the result of no Dez Bryant and no Tony Romo for much of 2015. He was clearly targeted more by opposing defenses, but there’s some merit to the argument that his stats have been declining for the past couple of years, however slight it may be.
When you have a guy like Jason Witten, who is Mr. Reliable and a security blanket for his QB, it’s easy to take his production for granted. I try not to do that. If his days of high-level performance are coming to an end, then it stands to reason that the hunt for the next great tight end in Dallas should be underway.
Geoff Swaim (#SwaimTrain) was picked up on a late round trade in the 2015 NFL draft, but his 2015 production left him entering this year’s training camp much like a rookie still. This is clear in his lone non-zero stat of one reception for no yards.
Gavin Escobar is still rehabilitating a torn right Achilles suffered last last season, and James Hanna is considered a lock for the 53 man roster this year.
The Cowboys took a flyer on a 6-foot 8-inch basketball forward named Rico Gathers in the 2016 NFL draft. There is a certain level of novelty in his potential, and lord knows what such a tall receiving threat could do in the current NFL, but Gathers is a long-shot to have any real impact on the position.
All-in-all, the Cowboys’ most dramatic competitions on the offense are more about finding the best of the best than finding good solutions to troubling issues.
The 2014 Dallas Cowboys closely resemble the team ahead for 2016 and it was a season that came down to a single fourth-quarter catch in the divisional round of the playoffs. If that is any indication of what’s to come, fans better get their popcorn ready.