Kick the tires and light the fires, because it's finally time for the Dallas Cowboys to begin training camp. Of course, this might be dampened a bit depending upon the results of ongoing COVID-19 testing for players, but the expectation remains camp should begin just ahead of the calendar turning to August. And with no preseason games on the slate for 2020, each having been scrapped due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, each and every practice will carry that much more weight for both players and coaches. It is a point that will be that much more poignant for someone like-- considering they also haven't had the luxury of minicamp to get acclimated to their players.
With so much pressure packed into each coming practice, there are plenty of questions the Cowboys must answer if they're to be successful in Year 1 under McCarthy. The exit of Byron Jones in free agency leaves a massive void at corner they hope they've found the answer to but, even if they have, it doesn't resolve the other glaring issues in the secondary.
The addition of Aldon Smith and should tandem with the signing of All-Pro defensive tackle Gerald McCoy to add firepower that could be more potent than even what Robert Quinn brought to the table in 2019, but expect the battle at defensive end to get hot-and-heavy from minute one to determine who gets the lion's share of the snap count.
That is especially true with the return of Tyrone Crawford, . There are no worries of Dak Prescott not being in uniform despite lack of a longterm deal, considering he's signed his franchise tag, but what happens on his offensive line will determine how clean his jersey remains in 2020; and who'll open up lanes for two-time NFL rushing champ Ezekiel Elliott. Now all set at wide receiver, to say the least, and with the tight end situation all sorted out -- .
And, with that, let's see which player battles will likely yield the most fireworks in North Texas this August.
This feels a whole lot like the movie "Groundhog Day" only Bill Murray won't be running onto the field at camp. Albeit a different coaching staff in 2020, Lewis will again find himself duking it out with Brown for the right to be the team's starting nickel corner. As it stands, it was Lewis who finished the season in the role after Brown continually battled injury, and his ability to hawk the ball proved invaluable for a Cowboys defense that otherwise could not figure out how to take the ball away on a consistent basis. The knock on Lewis, however, has come by way of coaches who place a premium on cornerback length, and he's again up against that as he enters the Mike McCarthy regime.
For his part, Lewis notes it's a "clean slate" going into 2020 training camp, and he's not entirely wrong.
For while defensive backs coach Al Harris isn't biting his tongue about preferring length, he's also not operating under any biases regarding the current roster, which is something Rod Marinelli and Kris Richard did -- having made up their mind early on and then refusing to change it (regardless of how much Lewis proved). To be fair, Brown has proven himself a very capable starting nickel corner, so that in-and-of-itself makes it challenging for Lewis, but when comparing the ability to take away the ball, the latter easily bests the former. Both are hyper-physical at the line of scrimmage and cover well, but this battle has often devolved to height over potency, with Brown getting the nod prior to injury derailing his 2019 season.
Things will certainly get interesting when factoring in the lust defensive coordinator Mike Nolan has for takeaways, making it clear this offseason the Cowboys defense will get precipitously better in that category (or else).
And so here we stand, waiting to find out if the new regime values length over takeaways or vice versa, and if Brown can retake his starting role; or if the chip on Lewis' shoulder (not to be confused with the literal one tattooed onto Brown's) will launch him to new heights as he enters a contract year that will determine how the next stage of his NFL career looks. That includes assessing -- by both he and the team -- if the uber-talented corner is to remain with the Cowboys in 2021 and beyond.
Kicker: Kai Forbath vs. Greg Zuerlein
It's difficult to fathom a battle at kicker dominating a team's training camp, but consider what the Cowboys have dealt with in recent seasons. It's a club that's desperately needed and is far late on forcing a battle of the boots, after stunning the entire league with their decision to move on from All-Pro kicker Dan Bailey in 2017. The initial call to pass the torch to an unproven Brett Maher raised many an eyebrow, but the CFL product proved early on he had a mule's leg, going on to set franchise records for distance. What Maher never had, however, was consistency, yet former head coach Jason Garrett opted to forego forcing a kicker competition in 2018 or 2019 -- the wheels falling off for Maher last season en route to his release.
Bailey, contrarily, recently signed a three-year extension to remain with the Vikings through 2022, after again finding his mojo.
Enter Forbath in Dallas, a leg who was once an undrafted free agent of the Cowboys in 2011 before battling injury and ultimately being released to give, guess who, Dan Bailey the starting job. One decade later, he now looks to be named longterm successor to Bailey after a perfect debut in December -- going 10 for 10 on both extra points and field goal attempts -- earning himself the moniker "Kobra Kai".
In his way is Zuerlein, a former longtime kicker of the Los Angeles Rams brought over by newly-hired special teams coach John "Bones" Fassel, and on a multi-year deal that eclipses the one-year re-up granted to Forbath. But while the size of the contract gives Zuerlein the edge, he's trending in the wrong direction with his accuracy, his 72.7 percent rate in 2019 was the second-worst of his eight-year career. , and this sets the stage for a camp battle that could finally solve the Cowboys kicking woes in the post-Bailey era.
Or, , if no definitive winner steps forward.
Cornerback: Daryl Worley vs. Reggie Robinson, II
With so much to figure out in the secondary this year, it stands to reason two of the top five camp battles in Dallas would involve defensive back head-to-heads. With the signing of Worley, Byron Jones, but is it a safe bet Worley will move into the role opposite Diggs in a situation where Awuzie does land at safety to battle Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and upstarts like Donovan Wilson -- for the right to play in tandem with Xavier Woods (who is also heading into a contract year)?. The addition of second-round pick left behind by the exiting
While things get figured out at the third level of the defense, the more pressing issue (due to the sheer amount of flux at CB) is determining if McCarthy will lean more heavily on a veteran like Worley to play alongside Diggs and Lewis/Brown, especially considering the lack of preseason games to acclimate and assess a rookie like Robinson.
This isn't a foregone conclusion though, because Robinson is lengthy (aha!) as well as rangy and physical, making him quite the specimen to consider taking over the CB2 role. What will also help Robinson get a strong look is the fact veteran cornerback Maurice Canady -- who signed a one-year, $1.25 million deal this offseason -- has decided to opt out of the season, a source tells CBS Sports. This inherently adds value to Robinson in Year 1 before he even steps onto the practice field, but being a rookie is still an unavoidable roadblock when comparing him to Worley.
The latter has been around the block a time or two, and it would seemingly be more attractive to the Cowboys to not line up two rookies as starters to begin the season. Then again, with Worley's ability to flex and play safety, does it mean Awuzie will get another and final shot at corner and end up battling Robinson in the process?
These are the types of fluid questions the Cowboys must find answers to, and quickly, but as it stands; you can assume it'll be Worley and Robinson duking it out for the CB2 nod.
D-Line: Antwaun Woods vs. Neville Gallimore
The curious case of Woods still looms as training camp readies to fire up, but it's clear he's none too pleased with his situation in Dallas. Woods came on strong after signing a two-year deal with the Cowboys in 2018. Once looked upon as a camp body, his fiery demeanor and unwillingness to back down won the hearts of Marinelli and Garrett, and he went on to become one of the more productive nose tackles in the league that season. Things were noticeably different in Year 2, however, as the veteran battled injury that cost him games and ultimately cost him his starting spot on the roster in 2020.
That seat now belongs to the newly-acquired Dontari Poe, an All-Pro with a better resume who has the eye of McCarthy, Nolan and defensive line coach Jim Tomsula. Poe is immediately being viewed as an upgrade at 1-tech, and things didn't get much better for Woods when the team selected Gallimore in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft. , leaving some to wonder where Woods fits in all of this -- assuming he fits at all.
It's Cowboys or bust for Woods in 2020, considering he's an exclusive rights free agent. That means the team holds his rights and if he chooses to not sign, he won't be allowed into the NFL this coming season. The expectation, a source with knowledge of the situation tells CBS Sports, was that Woods would sign his ERFA tender and suit up in camp.
Time will soon tell if that's the case, but should he show up, he'll have to show out in order to force a very talented Gallimore to third-string and likely save himself a roster spot in the process, on a defensive line loaded with talent; and one that isn't expected to give up on former second-round pick Trysten Hill just yet to make room for him.
Center: Joe Looney vs. Tyler Biadasz
Those who would have you believe Looney isn't a capable starter would also have you purchase sand at the beach because the veteran interior lineman has already proven his ability to be just that. In the absence of perennial All-Pro center Travis Frederick in 2018 due to his initial onset of Guillain-Barre Syndrome, Looney stepped in and up, becoming a dominant replacement. As easy as it may have been overlooked, he allowed only one sack in 16 starts, a number some Pro Bowlers around the league didn't match. So as Frederick bows out permanently in 2020 due to GBS, it's Looney who enters camp with the justifiable nod at starter, -- re-signing him to a deal just ahead of Frederick's news.
That was before they saw Biadasz still available in the fourth round of this year's draft when they decided to trade up to grab a player who instantly reminds them of Frederick. After all, he also enters Dallas as a Wisconsin legend and admittedly designed his game to mirror that of Frederick's, making him an intriguing prospect to potentially steal the starting position away from Looney at some point this season.
If the Unanimous All-American (2019) and Rimington Trophy winner (2019) can hit the ground running in camp, he'll make it very difficult for the team- and fan-favorite Looney, in a competition that could rightfully make Looney that much better as he tries to hold off the incoming two-time First-Team All-Big Ten talent.
The Cowboys could also look to use this opportunity to also give second-year talent Connor McGovern a test drive at center as he returns from a redshirt rookie season wherein he suffered a torn pectoral muscle ahead of preseason. McGovern logged a number of impressive snaps at the position for Penn State and gives excellent flexibility in that he can play either center or left guard, but an additional need for resolution at the latter position would make him better suited to battle Connor Williams -- who is also returning from injury and continues to polish himself -- left of the clash between Looney and Biadasz.
At worst, Looney is the stopgap for Biadasz to be brought up to speed. At best, the Cowboys might have one of the best camp battles (and ongoing 2020 battles) at center in the entire NFL. And that's not too shabby for a team that just lost a Hall of Fame talent.