A couple of months ago I wrote an article listing the top 10 things I'd be looking for during training camp. With the first regular season game just days away now, I thought I'd go back and see how those battles ended up shaking out. We do that with Mark Lane's check-in on the Cowboys health ... and we do that with a new Top 10 below ...
10. Did Dustin Vaughan make Brandon Weeden expendable and become Romo's primary backup?
No. Not by a long shot. Vaughan was inconsistent throughout training camp and didn't show the improvements and development that the coaches hoped he would in his 2nd year. Vaughan finished the preseason with a 52.2 completion percentage, 0 touchdowns, 2 interceptions, 1 fumble, an average of 5.1 yards per attempt and a 54.5 passer rating. Definitely not the kind of numbers that would make you comfortable with having this guy backup your starting quarterback. Vaughan was released and was not asked to sign to the practice squad. Instead, the Cowboys signed former Lions backup QB Kellen Moore and UDFA Jameill Showers.
9. Did the Cowboys get more out of Morris Claiborne?
Yes. Morris Claiborne was one of the pleasant surprises of camp. He surprised many with his quick recovery after rupturing his patellar tendon vs the Saints last season. That's not an easy injury to bounce back from, but Claiborne is back and arguably in the best physical shape of his career. On top of that, Claiborne has been building up his confidence, which is something he's lacked at times throughout his NFL career. Claiborne has shown flashes of his potential in camp and in limited playing time this preseason. The Cowboys just need him to carry that over into the regular season. However, as of right now, Claiborne looks primed for a comeback season.
8. Who won the 5th defensive end spots?
This was a close battle throughout training camp. Ben Gardner, Lavar Edwards and Ryan Russell all showed flashes this offseason so the coaches had their work cut out for them when it came to making their final cuts. Gardner was waived and Edwards and Russell made the team. However, Edwards was then released to make room for RB Christine Michael, leaving only Russell. The 5th round pick finished the preseason with 2 QB hurries, a QB hit and a sack. He also got work at DT, so don't be surprised to see him move around some this year.
7. Who emerged as the starting SAM linebacker?
This is still somewhat up in the air - especially until Rolando McClain returns to the lineup in week 5. Kyle Wilber took a lot of snaps at the SAM LB spot during training camp, with Anthony Hitchens playing in the middle. However, with the emergence of Andrew Gachkar at MLB during the preseason, the Cowboys could choose to move Hitchens over to the strong side - which is the most likely scenario, in my opinion. Damien Wilson is another guy who could potentially get some snaps at strong side LB as well.
6. Who emerged as the backup 3-tech DT behind Tyrone Crawford?
Jack Crawford. The native-Brit started out as a DE last season but the Cowboys moved him to DT shortly before he suffered a season ending injury. Before getting injured in 2014, Jack was showing big play potential at DT - recording a sack, a QB hurry, a forced fumble and 4 tackles in his final 2 games. He carried over that success into training camp and the preseason - recording 1 sack, 1 forced fumble, 2 QB hurries and 4 tackles in just 56 snaps this preseason. Crawford and Crawford should give the Cowboys a dangerous rotation at the 3-tech DT spot this season.
5. Did Terrell McClain unseat Nick Hayden as the starting 1-tech DT?
No - at least not yet. McClain was injured for most of training camp. Injuries have been the only thing that have kept McClain from stealing this job, in my opinion. Still, he was impressive in limited playing time this preseason, recording 4 tackles, a sack and 2 QB hurries in 51 snaps. However, while McClain was out, young guys like Davon Coleman and Ken Bishop stepped up. Bishop had 10 tackles - including a tackle for a loss - 4 QB hurries and 2 QB hits. Coleman had 13 tackles - including 3 tackles for a loss - 5 QB hurries and a QB hit. All of these guys should see their share of snaps this season.
4. Who replaced Dwayne Harris?
Lucky Whitehead. After a shaky start to his NFL career - fumbling on a punt return in his first preseason game - Whitehead has bounced back and earned himself a shot as the team's primary kick returner. Whitehead averaged 30.7 yards per kickoff return and 11.5 yards per punt return - including punt returns of 33 and 26 yards. He also showed potential as an offensive weapon as well, catching 8 passes for 61 yards, 1 touchdown and forcing 3 missed tackles. The Cowboys could still potentially find an upgrade at their 5th WR spot but for now, it's Lucky's job to lose.
3. How did rookies Byron Jones and Randy Gregory hold up against NFL talent?
Both rookies had very good camps and were impressive during the preseason. Jones was able to hold his own while going up against NFL WR's, including Dez Bryant at times in practice, and Gregory improved each day while going up against All-Pro LT Tyron Smith. Jones gave up a few catches during the preseason, but he showed off his ability as a tackler and is rarely out of position in coverage. Considering how tough it is for rookie DB's to adjust to the NFL, Jones was impressive. Gregory was dominant in the preseason, recording 5 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 QB hits and 2 QB hurries in 3 games. Both rookies gave fans a lot to look forward to.
2. Did rookie La'el Collins beat out veteran Ronald Leary for the starting LG spot?
No. At least not yet. Collins had a very good camp and preseason, but he's still a rookie and has a lot to learn. Leary is a proven veteran who wasn't going to just give up his starting job. However, I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if Collins surpasses Leary on the depth chart at some point this season. In 45 snaps this preseason, Leary gave up 2 QB hits, 1 QB hurry and was called for a penalty. In 179 snaps this preseason, Collins allowed 3 QB hurries, 1 sack and was called for 0 penalties. Granted, Collins was facing 2nd and 3rd string defensive linemen while Leary faced 1st teamers, it was still an impressive performance by the undrafted rookie.
1. Who emerged as the Cowboys starting running back?
As of now, it's Joseph Randle. However, the Cowboys still have Darren McFadden and Lance Dunbar. They also acquired RB Christine Michael from Seattle in a trade. All of this points to a running back by committee approach with Randle leading the pack - which is exactly what we've been preaching at CowboysHQ all offseason. This could all change if McFadden stays healthy and returns to form, or if the Cowboys are able to help Michael reach his full potential, or if Randle gets in trouble off the field. (Fish says he smells smoke there.) But, for now, things are shaking out just like we predicted.