Top 10 Stories to Watch at Dallas Cowboys Training Camp: Top Competitions
By Matthew Postins
The Dallas Cowboys are locked in with starters and backups at several key positions. But as training camp unfolds there will be several positions that will feature fierce competition. Some of those competitions will be for starting roles, while others will be just to stay on the roster. Here are the five competitions to watch in Oxnard:
J.J. Wilcox vs. Jeff Heath. The Cowboys did not address the strong safety position this offseason, which means they’re intent on seeing which one of their second-year safeties rises above the other. Wilcox was the Cowboys’ third-round pick in 2013 and he assumed the starting job a month into the season, but did not play at a starter’s level. An injury to Wilcox gave way to Heath, an undrafted free agent from Saginaw Valley State, who was in over his head. How much did a full NFL offseason help both players? The Cowboys must hope it allowed both to close the gap on being a legitimate NFL starter, because if it didn’t the Cowboys don’t have a backup plan.
DeVonte Holloman vs. Anthony Hitchens. Whoever wins this battle, most likely, will start in the opener with Bruce Carter and Justin Durant, though the position they would play isn’t clear. But the injury to Sean Lee created the opening. Holloman, a sixth-round pick last year, was hurt for part of last season before assuming a starting role in the season finale against Philadelphia and played well. Hitchens, a fourth-round pick in May, played middle linebacker at Iowa and has, thus far, looked solid in workouts. Right now the primary competition to the pair is Rolando McClain, the veteran who just came out of retirement. The Cowboys need both Holloman and Hitchens to play at a high level at camp and ease any fears that the pair can’t be a competent starter.
Mackenzy Bernadeau vs. Uche Nwaneri. Here’s why this competition is important. Zack Martin, the first-round pick selected in May, is on course to start at right guard. Now, that might put Ron Leary’s starting role at left guard in play, but let’s face it — Leary played well last year, he’s cheap and it doesn’t appear he’ll be face suspension related to a DUI two years ago. If he improves in 2014 the way he improved entering the 2013 season he should hang on to his spot. That leaves the two veterans. Nwaneri was signed by Dallas earlier this summer and is making the veteran minimum, but was a long-time starter with Carolina before he was released. Bernadeau, who is experiencing his first healthy offseason in three years, is set to make nearly $3 million this year. If Nwaneri were to beat out Bernadeau, that could allow the Cowboys to release him and save $1.1 million in base salary in 2014 and $1.5 million in base salary for 2015. If Martin and Leary are the starters, there’s may only be room for one veteran backup.
Dwayne Harris vs. Cole Beasley vs. Devin Street. There’s a good chance that all three of these players makes the final roster. But the pecking order could be important. Street, taken in the fifth round, comes into the NFL with a reputation as an above-average route runner, which puts him ahead of the curve as he adjusts to the NFL. Beasley is a solid slot receiver that has good hands and runs precise routes, but doesn’t stretch the field quite like Street. Harris, of course, is one of the best returners in the NFL and can provide spot service either inside or outside. The competition is important for 2015. Harris is an unrestricted free agent who will have some suitors due to his return ability. Beasley will be a restricted free agent This competition is as much about sorting out a rotation this year as it is about finding out who the Cowboys keep in 2015 and beyond.
Brandon Weeden vs. Caleb Hanie. Let’s assume Kyle Orton does not show up for training camp. Then it’s up to Weeden and Hanie to duel for the right to back up Tony Romo. Neither of these guys looks impressive on paper, but someone has to win the job. Entering camp, it appears to be Weeden’s to lose, but don’t underestimate Hanie’s motivation to stay employed and play for his hometown team (he’s from nearby Forney). One of them needs to prove they can handle the job or the Cowboys will have to look elsewhere in free agency for an emergency backup.