The final preseason game of any season is a mixed bag at best. While there is still competition going on at some positions, many teams opt not even to risk playing their starters with the regular-season opener just a little more than a week away. Because of that, the Vikings game Friday with the Dallas at the Metrodome will see a Cowboys team that will be resting many of its star players, but giving others an extended look to see if they can either or hold on to starting jobs.
The case of the Cowboys is an interesting one because there are many jobs up for grabs and the Cowboys have been extremely active during in the last couple of weeks, releasing players and signing others off of waivers to compete for some wide open roster competitions, which should make for a high-intensity performance from the Cowboys' backups.
There are no question marks at quarterback. Tony Romo is the clear-cut starter. Despite having no postseason success, Romo is a playmaker who will take chances deep down the field on a regular basis. He likely will play a series or two at most, turning the game over to veteran backup Jon Kitna. The only real question here is at No. 3 QB, where rookie Stephen McGee is fighting Rudy Carpenter for the final roster spot. Neither is likely to see any regular-season action, but their duel will be something to watch Friday.
Few teams have the running back talent the Cowboys have. Injuries last season allowed the team to showcase three different running backs, and each has the ability to change a game in a hurry. Marion Barber was a fourth-round draft pick coming out of Minnesota, but has established himself as one of the top running backs in the league. Known as "Marion the Barbarian" by his teammates, his hard-nosed running style lends itself to the potential for injury, which is why he was at his most successful in a time share with Julius Jones, where Barber would play the second and fourth quarters and wear down defenses. There is a new Jones in town and his name is Felix. Injured much of last season, he has incredible speed and the buzz out of Cowboys camp is that he is too talented not to get on the field. Whether they go back to the old formula of mixing them up, the speed of Jones and the power of Barber is impressive. While both were sidelined last year, rookie Tashard Choice stepped into the fray and, in the final four games of the 2008 season, rushed 62 times for 325 yards and two touchdowns, showing he deserved a chance to see the field as well. Fourth running Keon Lattimore should win a roster spot as a special teams player. The fullback spot is expected to be the domain of third-year pro Deon Anderson, but he missed most of the preseason due to injury, opening the door for practice squad player Julius Crosslin. His increased playing time has distanced the gap between him and roster hopeful Asaph Schwapp for the No. 2 fullback role.
The receiver corps will look much different this year with Terrell Owens out of the picture. While there was no questioning T.O.'s ability on the field, he was viewed as a locker room cancer that divided the team. He was released after last season. As a result, Roy Williams was elevated to the No. 1 spot. Williams, who had some dazzling games with the Lions during his tenure there, was traded at midseason for a first-round draft pick. Williams struggled to integrate into the Cowboys offense, catching just 19 passes and one touchdown in the nine games he played for Dallas. His situation has been complicated by a shoulder injury that has sidelined him the last couple of weeks and he is doubtful to see action Friday. That has upped the ante on the competition not only for the other starting job, but the Nos. 3 and 4 spots as well. It's a three-horse race with veteran Patrick Crayton trying to fend off fourth-year men Sam Hurd and Miles Austin. Austin is the team's designated deep threat, having averaged 20 yards per reception in limited duty. Crayton, who ideally is best suited as a slot receiver, gives Romo a steady pair of hands who knows all three receiver positions. Hurd still needs a lot of refinement despite being in his fourth year, but appears to have a roster spot locked down. The battle for the fifth spot is being contested between converted quarterback Isaiah Stanback and Mike Jefferson.
The Cowboys may only keep five wide receivers because they are deep and talented at tight end. Jason Witten caught 81 passes for almost 1,000 yards last year and his role is expected to be increased with Owens gone, but the big news surrounds the ascent of second-year pro Martellus Bennett. Athletically gifted and able to stretch the field, Bennett is a mismatch nightmare that has many believing he will line up as a slot receiver in three-receiver sets and that the Cowboys will employ a lot of two-TE looks. Sixth-round rookie John Phillips has a chance to make the team because of his blocking ablity.
Few teams boast a bigger or more experienced offensive line than the Cowboys, with Flozell Adams and Marc Colombo at tackle, Leonard Davis and Kyle Kosier at guard and Andre Gurode at center. Barring injury, this unit will remain intact all season long. But depth is a concern. The Cowboys recently released guard Greg Isdander to add defensive help and third-round rookie Robert Brewster has already been lost for the season with a torn pectoral muscle. At the tackle spots, third-year pro Doug Free and fourth-year player Pat McQuistan seem locks in their spots at backup. At the guards, Montrae Holland brings experience to the left side and unproven Ryan Gibbons and Travis Bright are competing for the backup job on the right side. Dependable fifth-year man Cory Proctor has all but earned his spot as backup center, giving the Cowboys veteran depth behind a very strong O-line, something most teams would kill for.
With head coach Wade Phillips taking over control of the defense from former coordinator Brian Stewart, who was fired after the team's late-season collapse in 2008. The Cowboys are one of the few NFC teams to employ a 4-3 defense and one of the reasons for its success is man mountain Jay Ratliff in the middle. Although not as publicized as many of his contemporaries, scouts will tell you Ratliff may be the best pure nose tackle in the NFL. He is flanked by Marcus Spears, who is a better run defender than pass rusher, and Igor Olshansky, who was signed away from San Diego after the Cowboys lost pass rusher Chris Canty via free agency. The Cowboys seem set with 330-pound Junior Siavii as the backup nose tackle, but there is definitely a battle going on for the backup DE spots. Fourth-year backups Jason Hatcher and Stephen Bowen have the inside track, but the Cowboys recently claimed defensive end Curtis Johnson off of waivers, putting him in the mix with Derreck Robinson and Marcus Dixon for the last line spot on the roster.
For any 3-4 defense to work, a team needs strong linebacker play and Dallas is loaded in that regard. With the tandem of DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer on the outside and Bradie James and veteran Keith Brooking on the inside, the Cowboys are stacked. Ware became the first player to record 20 sacks in seven years in 2008. Spencer is in his third year, but his first as a starter. Competition for backup spots are being contested for by fourth-round rookie Victor Butler and recently-signed Tearrius George on the strong side, and practice squad player Steve Octavian on the weak side. The Cowboys suffered another rookie hit when fourth-round pick Jason Williams suffered a high ankle sprain expected to sideline him for four to six weeks and fellow fourth-rounder Brandon Williams was lost for the season with a torn ACL. On the inside, fourth-year pro Bobby Carpenter and rookie Stephen Hodge are expected to win roster spots, but Hodge was sidelined with a knee injury the last couple of weeks and remains a question mark. That could open the door for seven-year veteran Matt Stewart to find his way on the 53-man roster.
The biggest weakness of the Cowboys defense is arguably at its most vulnerable point – the secondary. While Terence Newman has locked down the left cornerback job, there remains an ongoing battle between former top pick in 2008 Mike Jenkins and fellow second-year pro Orlando Scandrick. Both showed flashes of brilliance last year, but have been scorched as well – making this competition one that may be determined by their play Friday against the Vikings. Depth is thin, with the Scandrick/Jenkins loser facing Mike Mickens and Alan Ball for backup spots. Ball hurt his chances after suffering a concussion against the 49ers, but claims to be ready to return against the Vikings. At safety, big hitter but suspect cover man Roy Williams, a player for whom the horse-collar tackle penalty may as well have been named, was sent packing following the 2008 season. He has been replaced by former Jaguar Gerald Sensabaugh, who, along with seven-year vet Ken Hamlin, form a formidable 1-2 punch at safety. With fifth-round rookie Michael Hamlin sidelined six to eight weeks with a broken wrist, the competition for backup spots has come down to fourth-year special teamer Pat Watkins, third-year man Courtney Brown and recent waiver claim from the Buccaneers DeAngelo Smith. There isn't room for all of them, and their play Friday could go a long way to increasing their job security.
The Cowboys haven't won a playoff game in more than a decade, but once again there are high hopes that they can return to past glory in a new stadium with a new outlook. They have talent on both sides of the ball, but, with most of the starters likely to either sit out completely or play a series or two at most, most of Friday's game will be centered around those fighting for roster spots, not those who hope to lead Dallas back to the top of the always-tough NFC East.
Preview: Cowboys battling for spots
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