Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Cowboys 2022 training camp: Three battles to keep an eye on, with the spotlight on wide receiver

It can justifiably be stated that the Dallas Cowboys are in a worse position, roster-wise, than they were when they opened up training camp in Oxnard, California last July. They’ve moved on from Amari Cooper and La’el Collins and lost defensive end Randy Gregory to the Denver Broncos in free agency — three starters now deleted from their 2022 equation. The release of tight end Blake Jarwin makes Dalton Schultz the definitive TE1 in Dallas, but that may or may not be for long, considering they wouldn’t acquiesce to his contractual demands and instead prefer to see him play under a franchise tag. 

Dak Prescott is feeling fantastic, and that’s great news in that this year’s headlines do not include questions regarding his health, but he now leads an offense that has a lot to figure out at skill positions and in the trenches. Defensively, the Cowboys are all smiles after convincing Dan Quinn to stay put on a new deal but, as noted with the departure of Gregory, there are wrinkles to be ironed out on that side of the ball as well if Quinn is to replicate the runaway success he had in Year 1 with the organization.

So which battles should you key in on when the Cowboys fire up training camp this summer? 

Truthfully speaking, the correct answer is “C. All of the above,” but there are at least three position battles that might take the cake, the ice cream and all the cookies when the pads start colliding in Southern California. 

Wide receiver

It’s the position that has carried headlines this offseason, and mostly because it didn’t have to. That is to say that the Cowboys created a need at WR by trading four-time Pro Bowl receiver Amari Cooper to the Cleveland Browns, and then losing the wager that Cedrick Wilson would return in free agency (he’s a Dolphin now). The two losses immediately thrust former first-round pick CeeDee Lamb into the role of WR1, and while he says he’s ready, we’re all about to find out if that’s truly the case — especially at the start of the season when factoring in the likely absence of Michael Gallup (ACL) in early to mid September. Suddenly, a WR room that was spilling over with talent must now figure out who’ll be WR2 on Sept. 11 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, along with the rest of the rotation.

Could this be the year Simi Fehoko makes an impact? Or will rookie third-round pick Jalen Tolbert steal the show? Then again, James Washington joins Dallas on a prove-it deal and a lot of potential to push for a key role in the offense, while annual incumbent Noah Brown is no stranger to avoiding roster cuts in August, etc. 

The battle at WR is easily the most intriguing of them all for the Cowboys, so glue yourself to it.

Tight end

Dalton Schultz couldn’t convince the Cowboys to meet his contractual demands this offseason and, as such, he’ll report to training camp preparing to play under a signed franchise tag that will pay him $10.931 million this coming season. The tag does something else as well, however, and that’s immediately create competition not simply for the role of TE2 for 2022, but for the throne of TE1 heading into 2023. When Schultz received the tag in March, the Cowboys were in a bit of desperation due to the happenings with former starting tight end Blake Jarwin — now released after undergoing a rare surgical procedure — but they went on to use a fourth-round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft on Jake Ferguson.

Ferguson has the skill set to potentially succeed Schultz in the future, and young upstart Sean McKeon was nearly ready to make an impact in 2021 before battling injury, plus it would behoove many to keep an eye on undrafted rookie Peyton Hendershot (a record-setting TE from Indiana). All told, with McKeon is now healthy and the Cowboys having proven they can turn a fourth-round pick into an NFL starter (e.g., Schultz), the veteran can’t rest on his laurels; absent a multi-year deal and, as such, assurance that the job of TE1 is his after 2022. 

The fight for the future at TE in Dallas begins on July 26.

Linebacker

Micah Parsons might be the best linebacker in the league already, and after only one season, but while that’s arguable, it’s inarguable that there isn’t anyone else in the LB room who is free of question marks heading into training camp. The Jaylon Smith experiment is now over and it took a very solid 2021 campaign to avoid suffering the same fate — re-signing in Dallas on a one-year deal that provides the team some insurance but also pits him against some incoming + returning talent. Jabril Cox, the team’s 2021 fourth-round pick, is back in the mix after suffering a torn ACL that prematurely ended what might’ve been a promising start to his NFL career, and he’s going to be looked upon heavily to become an impact player beside Parsons.

They’ve also added Damone Clark, Cox’s former teammate at LSU (hint), in this year’s draft as a fifth-rounder, Devin Harper (Oklahoma State) as a sixth-rounder and then swiftly grabbed three (!!) undrafted linebackers — Aaron Hansford (Texas A&M), Mike Tafua (Utah) and Storey Jackson (Utah) — before signing former Longhorn and Dallas-area native Malik Jefferson to a one-year, homecoming deal. Adding in Luke Gifford on a one-year deal, there are 10 healthy linebackers currently on the Cowboys roster, and Parsons is the only sure thing.

The other nine linebackers have a lot to prove, and that makes this competition an absolute free-for-all.

Honorable mentions

Admittedly, the Cowboys have so many question marks regarding their roster heading into 2022 training camp that you could easily replace any one of the three top positions battles I’ve named above with the ones set to take place at defensive back and across the offensive line (Zack Martin’s seat notwithstanding). In the defensive backfield, Kelvin Joseph has all of the talent in the world to become an NFL starter opposite All-Pro cornerback Trevon Diggs, but his off-the-field red flags are haunting him in a major way, and that may or may not impact the value of Anthony Brown, a player the Cowboys have an affinity for; but there is also Jourdan Lewis, who signed a three-year contract extension in 2021.

That, in and of itself, applies pressure to Brown, who is also entering the final year of his current contract, and let’s toss in rookies DaRon Bland (FSU) and Isaac Taylor-Stuart (USC) for good measure and what you have is a recipe for heated competition at cornerback. The safety position isn’t exactly settled either though, and while it’s not nearly as in flux as that at CB, can breakout talent Donovan Wilson remain healthy and stave off a surging and now re-signed Malik Hooker as well as a promising rookie talent in Markquese Bell (Florida A&M)? 

We shall see.

From the need to identify the complement to DeMarcus Lawrence at defensive end (Dorance Armstrong versus Sam Williams) to attempting to figure out if Tyler Smith will plug the gaping hole at starting left offensive guard — or if he’ll have to spell Tyron Smith for a few games — to Matt Farniok attempting to overtake Tyler Biadasz at center, to Josh Ball (and rookie fifth-round pick Matt Waletzko) wanting to do the same to Terence Steele in the post-La’el Collins era, and lots in-between (hey, there’s even a battle at kicker “actually” set to take place); this is easily one of the most pivotal training camps in recent Cowboys history and one that has the launches what feels like a do-or-die season for head coach Mike McCarthy. 

As if you needed any more of a reason to throw all of your attention at it.

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