Top 10 Stories to Watch at Dallas Cowboys Training Camp: Breakthrough Players
By Matthew Postins
The Dallas Cowboys had some terrible drafts in the post-Bill Parcells era that have led to this team needing to rely upon young players to not only serve as depth but also to become relied upon starters and heavy contributors, perhaps before their time. As the Cowboys try to break out of this 8-8 cycle they’ve been in the past three years, here are five players — all with less than five years of experience — that must provide the Cowboys with something more than they’ve received in the past, or must be major players as a rookie. Unlike our injury piece from yesterday, we’re focused on players that have seen the field more often than not:
Morris Claiborne. Jerry Jones probably shouldn’t have compared him to Deion Sanders coming out of college. But even without the comparison Claiborne has not lived up to his selection as a Top 10 pick. The Cowboys expected a player that could shut down receivers and create turnovers. In two seasons he has two interceptions and 13 passes defended. Injuries have played a role. But he hasn’t measured up. Plus, Claiborne wasn’t a fan of the new scheme last season and made that known publicly, to the point where it helped influence the Cowboys to use more man defense late in the season. Thing is, Claiborne didn’t look any better in that formation, either. Entering his third season Claiborne needs to be healthy, needs to be more productive and needs to be less vocal about whatever displeases him, or else he risks being labeled a bust with two years remaining on his contract.
Demarcus Lawrence. These days first-round picks are expected to play immediately in the NFL. So, Zack Martin isn’t on this list. He’s expected to start at right guard and, frankly, expected to play well. Lawrence is a player some believed was a first-round talent before he slipped into the second round to the Cowboys. Dallas cannot afford for Lawrence to get hurt or fail to show progress in his adjustment to the NFL. The easy way out is to think of Lawrence as a replacement for DeMarcus Ware, but that’s asking too much of Lawrence. What he must be this season is productive. He must get to the quarterback, net close to 10 sacks and stay on the field. Lawrence as a productive part of the defensive line rotation is a must-have for the Cowboys to be successful in 2014. It’s that simple.
Gavin Escobar. His first NFL season fell well below expectations, even if your expectations were modest. He caught just nine passes for a team that was supposed to use two-tight end passing sets more often. But Escobar never seemed to find a niche in this offense, struggling with blocking and route-running alike. He made a nice touchdown grab against St. Louis, a play that showed off the athleticism that intrigued the Cowboys when they drafted him in the second round in 2013. None of the Cowboys’ 2013 draft picks needed a better offseason than Escobar. Forget the two-tight end set for a minute and recognize that Jason Witten isn’t getting any younger. Quarterback Tony Romo loves throwing to the tight end as a safety valve. Escobar’s progress is key, if for no other reason than to avoid a repeat of the David LaFleur-Eric Bjornson succession plan after Jay Novacek. We all saw how well that worked out.
B.W. Webb. Webb really should be in for a better sophomore campaign. He has the perfect pedigree as a corner — a four-time all-conference performer in college at William & Mary. Unlike the other defensive back taken last season, safety J.J. Wilcox, Webb had a boatload of experience entering the NFL. But his first season was bumpy and the improved play of Orlando Scandrick made Webb relatively irrelevant. But fourth cornerbacks are important in the NFL these days, as spread sets and four-wide receiver sets are in vogue. The Cowboys play plenty of nickel (five defensive backs) and dime (six defensive back) packages, so Webb will play. He has to prove this season that he can be the productive, ball-hawking corner in the NFL that he was in college, when some teams were so scared of him they wouldn’t throw his way at all.
Kyle Wilber. The Cowboys really haven’t done right by this guy. Dallas drafted Wilber as a pass-rushing 3-4 linebacker two years ago. Last year they tried to convert the 250-pounder to a pass rushing 4-3 defensive end, but that never really materialized because the Cowboys were so decimated at linebacker they had to move him back to his original position. Now, entering his third season Wilber is listed as a linebacker, and at 250 pounds, that’s a little too big to play in the Cover 2. But the Cowboys are looking at every possibility these days, and Wilber’s size makes him an interesting candidate to play on the strong side, where he would come in handy against the run. Wilber is entering his third season and his job is by no means secure. His combination of size and speed puts him in a position to do some nice things for this team, but he has to prove he is a fit for the scheme. He needs to have a great training camp.