When Mike McCarthy was named the new head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, ending the decade-long era of disappointment tied to the Jason Garrett era, there was a lot of hope for a quick turnaround. One COVID-19 pandemic later, the entire NFL was faced with lack of an offseason and the subsequent attempts of managing an outbreak while attempting to keep the regular season on the tracks. Fast forward to 2021 and while the pandemic is still ongoing, vaccines being made available have allowed for a traditional offseason, and that means the end of any and all excuses in Dallas.
It's truly time to put up or shut up, and everyone in the building -- from the mountaintop that is owner Jerry Jones down to the valley of the 90th man on the roster -- knows it, hence the firing of defensive coordinator Mike Nolan after only one (atrocious) year. In replacing him with former Legion of Boom maestro Dan Quinn, the Cowboys have infused new life into their defensive unit, and their offensive compatriots are high on the hog with the return of Dak Prescott, Tyron Smith, La'el Collins and starting tight end Blake Jarwin readying to join Dalton Schultz after the latter had a career-best year in his absence due to injury.
Even special teams has an air about it, with major changes having been made there as well. This means that, going into training camp in Oxnard, California, the Cowboys have a slew of roster battles equivalent to pools of kerosene waiting for a hot match to be tossed their way. That'll happen/begin on July 20, and as the pads start slapping. Leading up to roster cuts at the end of August, these are five camp battles that will, in large part, dictate how the season unfolds in Dallas; and HBO's "Hard Knocks" will make sure all the world gets eyes on it.
Ring the bell.
LB Battle Royale
I expect this clash to include everything short of tables, ladders and chairs. Leighton Vander Esch is entering a contract year after having seen the Cowboys opt to not exercise his fifth-year option, and he's used it as motivation heading into training camp. Jaylon Smith isn't technically entering a contract year, , because the Cowboys can save millions by moving on from him in 2022 and using a first- and fourth-round pick on Micah Parsons and Jabril Cox, respectively, sends the glaring message that they'll have no issue doing just that if he doesn't blow the doors off of this coming season. But wait, there's more, because veteran safety Keanu Neal is now mostly a linebacker for the Cowboys and there's also the matter of promising young talent like Francis Bernard, Luke Gifford (if he can remain healthy) and a potential sleeper in undrafted free agent Anthony Hines III.
Hines is expected to force at least one uncomfortable roster decision in August, and Parsons and Cox are set to push Vander Esch and Smith to either new heights or out the door in a few months. Mix in a lot of Neal and this is an absolute Royal Rumble.
Insert "woo!" here.
Bet you didn't see this one coming on draft weekend. When the Cowboys gave Joseph the nod with their second-round pick (44th overall) in April, it was because he's quite the force on the field. So while there were pre-draft red flags waving about, his football ability leveraged the pick into a forgivable one with a boom-or-bust potential. Contrarily, the club was dragged over a bed of nails for using a third-round pick (99th) on Wright -- many believing there were much better defensive options available at the time as it instantly became clear that Quinn pounded the table for Wright. Weeks later, it's Wright who's hit the ground running in impressive fashion and Joseph now finds himself needing to have a fantastic camp in order to keep Wright at bay.
After missing much of minicamp and showing up out of shape, the rap artist known as "YKDV Bossman Fat" is going to have to raise his bar because, so far, Wright can do no wrong.
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To extend or to not extend, that is the question. When it comes to Williams, the Cowboys have a decision to make and they'll have to make it fairly soon -- sources telling CBS Sports there've been no groundbreaking contract talks as of yet between the two sides. The former second-round pick is entering the final year of his rookie deal in Dallas and is set to hit free agency in 2022, if allowed. This will not be a franchise tag situation, so scrap that thought, but instead one where Williams will have one more year to prove he's not only a starter in the NFL, but also an above average one. He's improved in his durability and his overall play, but the Cowboys adored what they saw in McGovern as a pre-draft prospect who can swing on the interior offensive line, and he flashed in a big way when given the chance due to a ravage of injuries across the O-line in 2020.
It's possible McGovern can, at minimum, make the Cowboys adjust their long-term position on Williams with a stellar camp and beyond.and Williams better lace up his gloves going into a pivotal fourth year.
Ever heard of Wally Pipp? While you type that name into Google, allow me to point out there could be a similar situation brewing in Dallas at the defensive tackle position -- more specifically, the 3-tech. Hill made great strides to begin last season in his campaign to become the permanent starter in that role, but a torn ACL ended his season and forced the team to move Gallimore over from 1-tech (nose tackle) and hope the rookie could adapt quickly. Well, he did, at least mostly, and Gallimore became more and more polished and impactful as the season wore on. With his needle pointing due north and Hill looking to return from a devastating knee injury with the added handicap of trying to adjust to a third defensive coordinator in as many years, the third-year talent has a lot of pressure on him to somehow beat back Gallimore this summer.
There are battles aplenty across the defensive interior and behind the starting edge rushers ---- but you'd be wise to draw a red circle around the bout between a returning Hill and an aggressive Gallimore.
Hey, punter battles need love, too. Sure, there are more glitzy battles that could be named here, but being shinier doesn't inherently mean they're more important. And when it comes to flipping field position, one of the most important tasks in the sport, you'd better have the right guy putting a boot to the ball. It's for this very reason the Cowboys decided to move on from longtime punter Chris Jones as they usher in a new-look special teams unit, but the initial belief was that they'd award Niswander the position after he joined the team in 2020 due to a sidelined Jones -- going on to impress right out of the gate and for the remainder of the season. It was not to be, however, because special teams coordinator John "Bones" Fassel lobbied to add Anger as competition.
With neither Niswander nor Anger under contract beyond 2021, the stage is set for what could and should be one of the most intriguing camp battles for the Cowboys. You'll get a kick out of watching this one unfold.