The Dallas Cowboys begin training camp for the 2018 season this week after arriving in Oxnard, California on Tuesday. There is a multitude of questions that need answers, as well as numerous storylines that have yet to take shape. Here are a handful of the many thoughts I have heading into camp:
Rico Gathers needs to make this team
Unless his performance nosedives or there’s some major “off-field issue”, his value as a red zone or specialty weapon is too much to ignore. The coaching staff shouldn’t pigeonhole him as an in-line blocker unnecessarily. His unique qualities create a role that no one else can fill, similar to a lesser extent to Tavon Austin. Gathers, at a minimum, adds to the lethality of their passing attack. He has the potential to be a prolific scoring threat; that kind of ability is rare. They must harness his talents, even if it’s in a limited fashion.
Jason Garrett and Doug Nussmeier will be making a critical mistake if they cut the young tight end. If his blocking is lacking, then make his role specific to the red zone or passing situations. But find a way to keep him on the 53-man roster.
Could the Cowboys roll light at safety when they decide the 53-man roster?
With the talent along the defensive line, Rod Marinelli may want to keep an extra pass rusher. Having only Xavier Woods, Jeff Heath, and Kavon Frazier is one way to make that happen. Given Byron Jones’s experience at safety, would they use him as an emergency replacement in case of injury? Or will Kris Richard insist he stay at cornerback regardless of circumstance?
Will Dallas opt for more speed at the wide receiver position?
There are four receivers that are a lock to make the team: Allen Hurns, Cole Beasley, Michael Gallup, and Terrance Williams (despite his critics). Not counting Tavon Austin, if the Cowboys stick with a five-man receiving corps, that’ll leave one spot to fill between Deonte Thompson, Lance Lenoir, Noah Brown, Cedrick Wilson, and KD Cannon, among others. Although wide receivers coach Sanjay Lal is known as a route-running guru and has stated that Lance Lenoir is a detailed route-runner, would the speed of Thompson and Cannon or the size and strength of Brown be more valuable to the group’s depth and the scheme’s overall success than Lenoir’s precision?
Or will special teams be the biggest factor in filling the fifth receiver slot? Thompson has the most experience, averaging 10 kickoff returns per year over his eight-year career, while over 40 percent of Brown’s snaps in 2017 came from playing on kick coverage and return units.
Are Randy Gregory, Kony Ealy, and Charles Tapper competing for a single spot?
Dallas is keeping DeMarcus Lawrence, Tyrone Crawford, and Taco Charlton. They’re also unlikely to part ways with a rookie fourth-round pick, meaning Dorance Armstrong will make the team. Would they keep five or even six defensive ends on the roster? They should at least keep five, given Gregory’s flashes of premier speed and flexibility, but Ealy’s experience and ability to move inside can’t be downplayed. Should Gregory be a lock with his elite skillset, even though he’s missed most of the last two years? Tapper’s had a rough start to his career, and even though he’d be a fan-favorite, his uphill climb is pretty steep.
Will Datone Jones emerge as the unheralded rock at defensive tackle?
David Irving has superstar talent, but his upcoming suspension and track record of availability make him unreliable until proven otherwise. Maliek Collins has displayed good quickness inside but appeared to regress last season, and enters training camp on the PUP list. Most consider Jihad Ward’s two years in Oakland disappointing due to injury and performance. But Rod Marinelli is a fan of his dating back to the 2016 Senior Bowl, and Ward looks promising, according to those that have seen him practice. Brian Price is lesser known but has shown interesting strength and get-off for a 1-technique in his first season with Dallas last year. However, his playing throughout his career has been limited.
Unlike all of the players previously mentioned, Datone Jones has been healthy and available most of his career, having played in 59 of 64 possible games. Despite my previous evaluation of his scheme fit and abilities, Jones has proven himself to be a wise pickup by the team. He can play both the 3-technique and 1-technique positions like Collins, Irving, and Ward. He’s durable and, although not a flashy player, he’s been dependable within the scheme. The former Packer could be the steadying force along the defensive line’s interior to start the season.
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