The Dallas Cowboys opened up a three-day minicamp on Tuesday here at The Star in Frisco with a notable level of competition for roster spots across the board … and on defense, a notable number of starting jobs up for grabs.
Here, a defensive position-group-by-position-group look at the battles as they started to unfold on Day 1 of this three-day minicamp:
Depending on how one wants to quantify “starter,’’ Dallas lost four of ‘em via free agency: Barry Church, JJ Wilcox, Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne. The philosophy was purposefully, COO Stephen Jones and staff believing that the draftees who would come through the “in’’ door would match or better the talent heading for the “out’’ door.
Jones and staff really need to be right here … and loaded up on DBs in the draft to help assure they’d be right.
In come rookie corners Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis, locks to make the roster, versatile enough to play outside and inside, and arguably talented enough to compete to start.
Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli absolutely raved about Awuzie on Tuesday.
“We’ve got to find a way to put speed on the field, and that’s the thing we’re trying to do,'' Rod said of the kid from Colorado. "He’s a guy who’s got flexibility, he’s got really nice athletic ability and he’s smart – really smart. So at this time of the year you try to teach as much about your scheme, and then hopefully when we get to camp you’ve got a little more bone-on-bone and we’ll see if we can go compete.”
Meanwhile, a young incumbent is last year’s sixth-round pick, Anthony Brown, a starter from a year ago who will be tough to dislodge in this minicamp.
A veteran addition is free agent Nolan Carroll, late of the Eagles, who has 54 career starts (and one DWI arrest during his short time in Dallas, though the Cowboys do not believe there is a character risk here.)
A wildcard is 10th-year veteran Orlando Scandrick, who when healthy is an elite slot corner … but who was also on the trading block during NFL Draft weekend. Frankly, I don't think Dallas is done considering making a Scandrick-related move this summer.
Having said that, Marinelli raved about how important he thinks Scandrick is here.
And Scandrick agrees.
"I accept the challenge of the new guys coming in,'' Scandrick said. "Like I told them, I’m not going to give anybody my job and I’m going to come work every day. I want to be back to where I was, and until I’m back to where I was and I’m doing it Sunday after Sunday after Sunday, I’m going to keep striving. And then when I get back to where I was, I’m going to reach for higher. The time is now and my time is now.''
Toss into the conversation rookie Marquez White, young vet Leon McFadden and end-of-benchers Jeremiah McKinnon, Sammy Seamster and Duke Thomas, and Dallas has lots of bodies who can line up at corner. In Byron Jones (with a blitz sack here) and Jeff Heath leading a safety rotation that should include youngster Xavier Woods and maybe Robert Blanton and Kavon Frazier and you hope there are more than "bodies'' there.
Heath in particular demonstrated that in this workout, starring with a pair of interceptions. The first was largely a one-handed snag off a Jason Witten tip, the second a two-minute-drill pick in the end zone.
Ultimately, making sure they have two bodies who are specifically superior to the steady Church and Carr is, as coach Jason Garrett might put it, “Line One’’ around here. Oh, and the Darrelle Revis talk, via Dez Bryant? I've got the scoop from inside Cowboys HQ here. But moving on from that: Dallas needs ballhawks in the secondary. Maybe Heath will continue to be just that.
A similar situation exists with the Dallas defensive line — except for the suspension thing, which robs this group of some of its bodies.
Randy Gregory is unavailable for a year. David Irving (PEDs) is slated to be out the first four games. Include the patience being granted to DeMarcus Lawrence after back surgery and to Tyrone Crawford after shoulder surgery and maybe even to Charles Tapper, coming off a “redshirt year’’ due to the Pars defect detected in his back a year ago, and we might be a ways from knowing what this group will truly look like.
So far, Tapper’s been a participant in lots of offseason stuff. he could be a difference-maker helping at right end — along with QB the most difficult position in the NFL at which to find an elite talent — but Dallas has so many “potential difference-makers at right end’’ … and if you have four or five of ‘em, doesn’t that mean you really don’t have one?
Could it be Tank? Tapper? Irving, eventually? Benson Mayowa? First-round draft pick Taco Charlton, who said on Tuesday that he is busy sampling DFW's finest tacos while also watching his weight? Reclamation project Damontre Moore, of whom Marinelli is clearly a fan?
That’s six candidates to do a job you really wish you had one dynamo you could count on.
Elsewhere, Dallas has fewer questions along the line. Crawford can play inside or out, as will Irving. The trio of Maliek Collins (six sacks as a rookie last year), Cedric Thornton and Stephen Paea (both 1-tech guys) can handle defensive tackle. Essentially, the Cowboys have a lot of pieces in place heading into the summer. Now, it’s just a matter of determining the best way to use them.
Dallas could keep nine D-linemen to begin the year (Lawrence, Crawford, Tapper, Mayowa, Charlton, Moore, Collins, Thornton and Paea) with Irving coming on as the 10th guy in that meeting room. (I’m not counting on seventh-round draft picks Joey Ivie and Jordan Carrell sticking, but we shall see). And that would add up to depth and position flex, for sure. First, of course, this group needs to be healthy. On Tuesday it looked like Tank, Paea, Tapper and Mayowa all sat.
But do any of those guys emerge as a pass-rushing demon, a “War Daddy,’’ as Jerry Jones likes to say? If Dallas employed that sort of individual, this would be the best roster in the NFC.
But it doesn’t. So maybe it’s not.
Let’s make sure we get the headliner right here.
It’s not Jaylon Smith.
It’s Sean Lee.
Early last December I started writing about how not only was Lee deserving of Pro Bowl votes … he wa deserving of Defensive MVP votes. Critics scoffed, I guess because Lee wasn’t the centerpiece of a stifling defense, or because he didn’t have 10 interceptions, or because Dallas’ offense was so good that it overshadowed all else.
My view was eventually vindicated, but all I’d done is listen to the people who watched film of Lee and then played against Lee. He’s become “The Guy On The Other Side Of The Line That You Have To Account For.’’ Opposing QBs, offensive linemen, running backs and receivers locate Lee. They want to know where he’s coming from and they want to know where he’s going.
And they know that Lee — a gridiron mindreader — already knows where they’re going.
So you are set at Will, with Lee now playing at a high and healthy level that puts behind him any thought that he’s any more of an “injury risk’’ than anybody else.
Now if you could only say the same thing about Jaylon Smith.
The talent is obvious; had he not sustained that devastating knee injury on New Year’s Day 2016, he would’ve been a top-five pick in his draft class. The Cowboys rolled the dice by taking Smith at the top of the second round, believing they had “inside medical knowledge’’ about his ability to recover from the nerve damage.
Dallas still believes.
Jaylon, like Sean Lee, is built of the right stuff. Smith at middle linebacker and Lee alongside him would be an as-good-as-it-gets tandem. But Jaylon’s progress, grand as it is — he is scheduled to participate in this minicamp, just as he did, on a limited basis, in the three OTAs — does not yet make him an NFL player.
Smith still wears the brace that essentially serves as an “artificial ankle’’ that holds up his drop-foot. The test isn’t whether he can run and cut and jump; the test is where he can push off the left foot, whether he can avoid coming up with just the tiniest limp after contact, and ultimately, where he can engage in 60 car-crash-like collisions every day with 300-pound men … and beat them … and then tackle the ballcarrier.
There is no way of knowing that can happen until it does.
And therefore, there is no way to know for certain that Jaylon Smith -- who was essentially a "limited participant'' in this minicamp day, with just a handful of live snaps -- won’t start the 2017 season on PUP.
In the meantime, Anthony Hitchens is a capable starter in the middle; you wish he could get bigger and stronger there. Mark Nzeocha, the 2015 seventh-round pick who has dealt with injuries in each of his first two seasons (and this spring underwent a clean-up procedure on a knee that will sideline him until camp), might contend here.
Also in play at linebacker are Kyle Wilber, Damien Wilson and new vet John Lotulelei, who our man Bryan Broaddus cites as a standout in OTAs.
But the real story is at the front of the linebackers room.
And that real story isn’t the potential excellence of Jaylon Smith. It’s the proven excellence of Sean Lee, who will begrudgingly take Wednesday off and be back at it Thursday as this team's best defensive player.