When the Cowboys convene once more in Valley Ranch next week for the team's veteran mini-camp, the team likely will employ the same protocol that held true at the Optional Team Activity: very little hitting, as the session is designed to teach, above all else. But even without full contact, there are several questions that need answering.
#5. What kind of progress are the young backup offensive linemen making?
This obviously is an insurance policy, of sorts, but it's vital the Cowboys get a grip on which players will back up arguably the best offensive line in the NFC, if not the entire league.
The starting offensive line is outstanding, but there are no youngsters in the group. Left tackle Flozell Adams is entering his 12th NFL season. Left guard Kyle Kosier, center Andre Gurode and right tackle Marc Colombo are entering their eighth NFL seasons, and right guard Leonard Davis his ninth, and Adams and Colombo have had major knee surgeries.
When healthy, the quintet is among the NFL's elite, but when 300-pound guys are mauling each other for months at a time, the chances of those five getting through the season unhurt are slim. Pat McQuistan has developed into a versatile backup at both guard spots, and perhaps tackle, but at this point, he's just that: a backup. Cory Proctor has promise, and at least one of the tandem of James Marten and Doug Free needs to pan out as at least serviceable, if pressed into spot duty.
#4. With Ken Hamlin waiting on a new contract, what's the situation at safety?
Hamlin considers himself one of the league's elite safeties, and wants to be paid like it.
While his agent and the Dallas front office resolve their differences, someone has to play back there. Roy Williams has struggled in pass coverage in recent years to the point of being an absolute liability, and former backup Keith Davis is now a Miami Dolphin.
When Pat Watkins, the tall, athletic Florida State product was touted as the ultimate center fielder-type safety who could run with receivers and use his leaping ability and telescoping arms to knock down passes and make interceptions. He has shown flashes, but he needs to settle into the role and add stability. Williams needs to work with new secondary coach Dave Campo to regain some shred of confidence against the pass, and a new face — perhaps Anthony Henry, if he slides over from cornerback — has to emerge as a viable option at safety.
#3. Is this the year Bobby Carpenter becomes more than a first-round special teams kamikaze?
Carpenter was drafted by Bill Parcells, who then spent much of the next two seasons defending theuse of a first-round pick on a player many think will be remembered as a bust.
Whether or not that tag applies remains to be seen — it's still too early to tell — and to be fair, Carpenter is now working on his third linebacker position in three years. But it's time for him to perform like a first-round pick on defense, not just special teams. He has real value on special teams — he's part of the line that protects punter Mat McBriar and is on multiple coverage units — but teams don't pay first-round cash for guys who bust wedges and block for punters. Carpenter needs to show he can make plays on defense.
#2. How many rookies have even a chance to make the final roster?
Roster spots aren't decided in June, but now that they have a rookie mini-camp and the optional team activities behind them, it's time for the rookies to start making plays to impress coaches.
Felix Jones and Mike Jenkins are virtual locks to make the roster, and Martellus Bennett really will have to screw up badly to lose a spot on the roster. Beyond that, it gets a little cloudy. Tashard Choice has a chance, because the team is thin after Marion Barber and Jones. Orlando Scandrick might have a tough time, because the additions of Jenkins and Pacman Jones give the team a legitimate four-cornerback rotation. Erik Walden will need to excel rushing the passer to have a chance on a team where the outside linebackers (DeMarcus Ware, Greg Ellis, Justin Rogers, etc.) are solid. Among free agents, Danny Amondela seemed to catch Jerry Jones' eye in rookie mini-camp, and seemed non-plussed by the media fuss. In addition, he caught every pass that was anywhere near him — which always helps.
#1. Who will emerge as a wide receiver target across from Terrell Owens?
The team's coaches and players are saying they're satisfied with whomever they have lined up across the field from Terrell Owens, but the fact is that with Terry Glenn's knee uncertain at best, and with the team urging him to sign an injury waiver — and him not showing up while the discussions are held — there's no end in sight for this standoff.
Patrick Crayton is a reliable veteran, and Sam Hurd, Isaiah Stanback and Miles Austin are big, athletic targets who can get downfield or go over the middle. If Danny Amendola or one of the other rookie free agents surprises and makes the roster, one of the big guys might be out of a job. Likewise, if a veteran receiver who is reliable, affordable and a solid teammate is made available, the Cowboys still might sign or even trade for one. But there's no way someone with a huge salary or huge demands (i.e. Chad Johnson) walks in and disrupts the Dallas locker room.
5 Questions for Mini-camp
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