THE WULF DEN: TRAINING CAMP PREVIEW June 29, 2004 Okay…free agency has been going strong for months, and most of the high quality players have been either signed by new teams or re-signed. The draft has come and gone and the grades have been assigned by all of the “experts”. The June 1st cuts have been made and the signings of these high-priced (and often overpriced) veterans has begun. So just exactly where are we? I’ll tell you where we are: we’re standing in the middle of Valley Ranch four and a half weeks away from training camp with a big bag full of “IF”. “IF” RB Julius Jones can be the back Parcells thinks he can instead of the one the ‘experts’ anticipate, making people forget—or at least diminish the impact of—passing over both Steven Jackson and Kevin Jones in the first round of April’s draft. “IF”WR Antonio Bryant can get his head in the game and become the next Keyshawn or Irvin instead of the next Darren Hambrick or Derek Ross. “IF”CB Pete Hunter can live up to his potential and effectively replace Mario Edwards. “IF”DE Marcellus Wiley can finally give the Cowboys the double digit sacks they’ve been lacking since the exit of Charles Haley, or apply enough pressure to allow Ellis to do so. “IF”QB Quincy Carter can reduce his mistakes (particularly his number of interceptions) enough to gain Parcells’ trust and give the Cowboys an opportunity to win. “IF”the special teams improves significantly, including not only the punting game—where two rookies are battling it out—but also both the punt and kickoff return units. And that’s not all of the “IF”—just the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Now we could be standing with a bag full of something much worse, but it could surely be significantly better. We are as likely to end up with a bag full of fertilizer as a bag full of gold, and the truth is likely somewhere in the middle—digging through the refuse to find a few nuggets and praying for the mother lode. So let’s take a few moments to shake the “IF’s” through the sieve and see what we find as we head to training camp. Quarterbacks Vinny was signed as expected, and has presumably been told that he will have the chance to compete for the starting job. But that’s simply the way Parcells operates—open competition regardless of experience or pay, and the best man will play. So unless Carter takes a huge step backward or gets injured, expect him to start with Vinny backing him up and teaching Drew Henson. Where, you may ask, does that leave Chad Hutchinson? Clearly, somewhere other than Dallas. The front office was not impressed by Hutch’s performance in Europe, and is likely hoping that another team will have seen something they didn’t and offer a conditional draft pick for him. Their best chance of this happening may be if a team has a QB go down with an injury. If this doesn’t happen, expect Hutchinson to be released. He’ll get at least one more shot somewhere else, whether in a trade or as a free agent, but his days in Dallas are numbered, barring significant injury. Oh, and Tony Romo? If there’s any way they can put him on the practice squad, they will—particularly now that they’ll be allowed to keep eight players instead of just five. If he’s not eligible for the practice squad, Parcells will have a difficult decision ahead of him, as he likes what he’s seen thus far. Should there be a significant injury to any of top three QBs (serious enough to place one of them on IR), don’t be surprised if Romo gets the spot over Hutchinson. Running Backs/Fullbacks Troy Hambrick wanted to go to Oakland, and he got his wish. Julius Jones is the man on the spot, and most “experts” think he will not be able to deliver. I happen to disagree. If he stays healthy, he has the skill to be a 1,200 – 1,400 yard back. Of course, the health of the O-line and the quality of the passing game will directly affect his production, but that’s the same as with any other team. Jones’ back up will likely be ReShard Lee. Erik Bickerstaff had a chance to take that position, but his torn Achilles tendon will put him on the IR for the season or lead to an injury settlement. Lee has impressed the coaching staff in the mini-camp practices, though, showing quickness as well as the ability to make plays between the tackles. He did the same in training camp last year before suffering an injury that put him on the shelf for the season. If he continues to show this ability through camp, he should beat out Aveion Cason for the position. Speaking of Cason, he’s added 15 pounds or so during the offseason—supposedly without lessening his speed—in an effort to prove to Parcells that he can take the pounding associated with being an every down back. He’ll have to talk fast and live up to whatever he says, however, as beating Lee out for the back-up position may be his only chance to make the roster. The reason? Richie Anderson. Parcells likes having Anderson as the third-down back, and asked him to lose some weight to play more in that role instead of as a FB. Considering the number of true FBs on the roster, Cason will have to beat out either Lee or Anderson for a RB position. His best hope may be contributing on special teams—but there are a lot of return men on the squad, and he wasn’t the answer in that role last year. As for the FBs, this will be Jamar Martin’s year to put up or shut up. Parcells says the third year is the year players have to prove themselves, although it may be unfair to Martin as he lost his entire rookie season to injury. Still, he played more and more as the season progressed last year, and if he shows the ability to catch the ball, he should be the starter. For a change, the Cowboys should have a legitimate back-up at the FB position this year. They traded down in the 7th round of the draft to acquire Darian Barnes, a 250-pound thumper from Tampa Bay. He’s not much of a danger for the starting position, but is expected to make the roster as a special teams expert. The curveball may come from undrafted rookie Lousaka Polite. He was rated as the best FB not drafted on most boards, and many were surprised that he wasn’t taken. He’s a strong contender for the practice squad, and could challenge either Barnes or Martin with a strong camp. Wide Receivers/Tight Ends Everyone thought we had three sure-fire WRs (Johnson, Glenn, and Bryant) and a special teams ace (Williams) already set, with the battle to come between the rest of the pack for the #5 position, and potentially a #6. That was before Bryant threw his temper tantrum, removing his jersey and throwing it at Parcells’ feet before being escorted out of Valley Ranch. And, although he’s back in Dallas, he is reportedly not working out at the training facility with the rest of the team. Whether that is his own idea or a continuation of the “cool down period” recommended by the front office, there is still a lot of work to be done to mend fences and get him ready for the season. Trading or releasing him is likely not an option, at least this season, but things could change as camp progresses. Of course, the Cowboys moved fairly quickly, signing free agent WR Dedric Ward, an 8-year veteran originally drafted by Parcells in the third round when he was with the Jets. He is not in Bryant’s class in regards to talent, but would replace his experience. Of course, that’s assuming he makes it back from his broken foot, which required surgery this past week. He says he’ll be back by the time training camp starts, and, if he isn’t, he likely won’t be in Dallas at all this year. The battle for the remaining position(s) will still come down to special teams. Zuriel Smith, James Newson, Cedric James, Patrick Crayton, Terrance Copper, and Brandon Middleton will battle it out, with only one or, at most, two making the squad. The rest (those that are eligible, anyway) will be trying to claim a spot on the practice squad. At TE, there will be a battle to watch between James Whalen and rookie Sean Ryan for the third spot. Jeff Robinson may catch a pass here and there, but he is the deep-snapper, plain and simple. The combination of Dan Campbell and Jason Witten will get most of the snaps, depending on whether it is a pass-first or run-first formation. Rookie Sean Ryan caught the ball well in the mini-camp, even though he is primarily a blocker. Whalen is no more than an H-back and a special teams guy. He may be battling FB Darien Barnes for a special teams spot, and is a long shot at this point, barring injury. Offensive Line Dallas has discovered the hard way over the past few years just how important it is to have healthy depth on the O-line—and just how devastating it can be when that depth is missing. This year, there is the potential for great depth, but only time will tell just how effective and healthy they can be. Flozell Adams has the LT position covered, and Larry Allen—after working out his own issues with Parcells—may be ready to return to the form he had four or five years ago at LG. Al Johnson is ahead of schedule in his rehab, and is expected to reclaim his starting spot at C. Heck, they even have depth at these three positions, with OT Kurt Vollers, G Matt Lehr, and C Gennaro DiNapoli…not to mention multi-purpose OL Tyson Walter. Not as good as the starters, of course, but solid and with starting experience across the board. The real questions will be asked and answered on the right side of the line. At RG, Andre Gurode will be challenged by rookie Stephen Peterman and veteran DeMingo Graham. At RT, the battle should be intense between rookie Jacob Rogers and second-year man Torrin Tucker. Regardless of the winners of these battles, however, there should be depth at each position. Should there be any injuries, of course, the depth will suffer. OT project Javier Collins and NFLEurope veteran Dave Volk are solid but unspectacular, and the rest of the O-line is made up of undrafted rookies and retreads. Defensive Line Ellis and Wiley should be the best starting tandem at DE since the days of Charles Haley and Tony Tolbert, and could produce as many as 20 sacks between them. Their back-ups, Eric Ogbogu and Kenyon Coleman, have put in a lot of work in the offseason and have received some rare positive comments from Parcells. The remainder of the DEs on the roster (Ryan Wingrove, Darrell Lee, and Kevin Emanuel) are likely battling for a spot on the practice squad. At DT, La’Roi Glover is one starter, and the other will be a battle between Leo Carson and last year’s starter Willie Blade. Blade wore down as the year went on, but he was coming off of his first offseason of true preparation. With another under his belt, Parcells will expect a lot more. As for Carson, he made some significant plays last year, and has received some praise from Pacells already for his work this offseason. With the likelihood of there only being one other D-line position available, the job will come down to the winner of a battle between Daleroy Stewart, Jermaine Brooks, Shaun Smith, and rookie Cedric Hilliard. Stewart is likely the frontrunner entering camp, but one of the others could take his position and/or take a spot on the practice squad. Linebackers Singleton, Nguyen, and Coakley are still the likely starters entering camp, but Coakley is going to be pushed by Bradie James. They’ve been splitting time in mini-camp practices, and the fact is that Coakley isn’t getting any younger. If he loses any of his speed, his effectiveness is going to drop like a rock. The other back-up positions are likely going to come down to special teams play and versatility. Markus Steele was on the bubble last year because of spotty special teams play, but he improved as the season went on and was one of the better special teams players by year’s end. If he continues to show that ability, he should make the squad as Singleton’s back-up. That likely leaves only one roster spot for a LB, and it will likely come down to Jamal Brooks, Keith O'Neil, or Scott Shanle. Brooks has the lead at this point IMHO, as he is able to play all three LB positions. Rookie Kalen Thornton, a former DE from Texas who is being moved to OLB, is a perfect prospect for the practice squad. Defensive Backs There will be at least five slots open for CBs and four slots for S. Barring injuries or an unexpected veteran pick-up via free agency, there are likely only two roster spots up for grabs, and the remote possibility of a tenth defensive back making the roster solely for special teams play. At CB, the starters entering training camp will be Terence Newman and Pete Hunter. Of course, Hunter is the big question mark. I expect him to step in and play as well as Mario Edwards did. He doesn’t have Edwards’ instincts, but he has greater physical ability and speed. He’ll be pushed by rookie Bruce Thornton, who has shown himself thus far to be better than expected. Donald Mitchell, who is returning from a season on IR, is the perfect nickleback—an area of weakness for the Cowboys last year. The other spot will come down to a battle between Jemeel Powell and Andrew Davison, two relative no-name guys who seem to have impressed Parcells. Should there be an injury amongst any of the top 4, the loser of the Powell-Davison battle may make the squad as well. At S, Roy Williams and Darren Woodson are the starters. Tony Dixon should have a spot locked up, although he’ll have to continue to contribute on special teams to be certain. This is also his year to show what he’s got, or he may be on his way out next year. The fourth S spot—the back-up FS—should be the battle to watch. Incumbent Lynn Scott has held on to his spot by the skin on his teeth the past couple of years, much to the chagrin of many fans. His main competitor will be Keith Davis, who had a shot at unseating him last year before being shot outside of a nightclub and subsequently released. Davis is coming off another outstanding campaign in NFLEurope, and is a solid special teams player as well. If both players stay healthy, Davis should finally end Scott’s stay in Dallas. As for the other players in the defensive backfield that are currently on the roster, they will all be fighting for a spot as a special teams specialist, trying to force Parcells to keep a 10th DB. This should be a spirited battle between CB Jacques Reeves, S Tom Crowder, CB Nathan Jones, and S Steve Cargile, with a spot on the practice squad likely also up for grabs. Kickers/Punters Billy Cundiff will get challenged by NFLEurope veteran Jonathan Ruffin, but is expected to retain his job. Cundiff may be working on his kickoffs, but it is unlikely he will be able to improve that area of his game significantly enough to handle those duties at the beginning of the season. That means that the punter battle will have one more deciding factor. Of course, Parcells puts great importance on field position, and being able to pin opposing teams inside their own 20-yard line. But the punters will also have to battle to prove they can kickoff consistently. If neither Ryan Flinn or Mat McBriar wins the job outright, don’t be surprised if Parcells goes out and grabs a veteran that he knows can get the job done. Closing Thoughts As is usually the case, injuries will determine just how many moves are made between now and the end of training camp, as well as who claims the last few roster spots. I do not expect any big trades to take place between now and camp. The only possibilities that would be significant are trading away QB Chad Hutchinson, trading away WR Antonio Bryant, or trading for CB Mike McKenzie. I think all three are unlikely. Every team knows that the Cowboys are likely to release Hutchinson before camp, so why trade a draft pick for him unless you think there will be a bidding war? (Bidding war…oh, that’s rich! ) Parcells and company likely are not ready to part ways with someone with Bryant’s ability, particularly since Parcells has had rough patches with players like Keyshawn and Glenn before and they are some of his most devoted players. And Green Bay will have to lower their asking price significantly for the Cowboys to even consider trading for McKenzie. The Pack is saying they want a first round pick plus another pick or player. I think the Cowboys would trade, at best, a third rounder, and it is far more likely that they go to camp with the current roster and see what the youngsters at CB can do. It is too early to tell what this season will hold, or to even begin making predictions. At the end of camp, when we see whether we have a handful of gold or a handful of fertilizer—or somewhere in between—then we’ll be able to make a more accurate determination. In the meantime, we sure won’t be without battles to watch and questions to answer. So come on, everybody—grab a pan and start sifting…“IF” you dare! Wulfman Comments? Send me a message at this site.