The position battles to watch for as Dallas Cowboys training camp approaches

By Matthew Postins

Dallas Cowboys Training Camp logoThe Dallas Cowboys start training camp later this week in Oxnard, Calif. Ninety players will descend on this southern California town with an eye on making the 53-man roster.

But some position battles are not equal. As camp evolves, these are the five battles you need to be watching.

Right tackle. This will be the battle of training camp. The Cowboys managed to get incumbent starter Doug Free to take a pay cut in order to complete with former Ole Miss basketball player Jermey Parnell. Parnell shared some time at right tackle with Free late last year, but wasn’t able to unseat him as starter. Free had one of the worst seasons of any offensive lineman in the NFL last year. It wasn’t just that he ranked in the Top 2 in individual penalties. He also struggled in pass protection. Parnell is seen as quicker and more athletic. But he lacks Free’s NFL experience. Heck, Free had more college football experience than Parnell, who didn’t start playing football at Ole Miss until his senior year. But the Cowboys are pitting the two against each other in an effort to see if it fuels better play out of Free or pushes Parnell to make progress.

Advantage? Free, though I think the Cowboys secretly want Parnell to do enough to win the battle.

Left and right guard. Don’t think for one second the Cowboys won’t make more changes on the interior of the offensive line after last year’s performance. The Cowboys had their worst rushing season in team history and quarterback Tony Romo was sacked nearly 40 times. Nate Livings and Mackenzy Bernadeau are the incumbents, but both were banged up during the offseason. That allowed youngster Ron Leary to worm his way into the mix. He had one of the best-received offseasons of any Cowboys player and is making the team look prescient in spending the time to develop him. He has the size to compete with both starters. The real question is whether he can put it all together and provide the cohesive package – run blocking, pass protection and disciplined play. Same goes for second-year guard David Arkin, who received plenty of playing time in the preseason last year and, because of that, offers flexibility at center and guard and has the eye of the coaching staff. He’s a bit undersized at 308 pounds, but the team respects how he stepped into a bad situation last preseason and did his best at a position (center) he wasn’t used to playing. The wild card is Phil Costa, who appears to have lost his job at center due to first-round pick Travis Frederick. Would the Cowboys consider working Costa out at guard? And, if so, could he play well enough to give any of these guys a run for their money? Remember, last year the Cowboys ran the football at their best when Costa was on the field.

Advantage? Leary and Livings. I think Bernadeau is on the way out. All Leary has to do is play well enough to give the Cowboys that final nudge.

Strong safety. The Cowboys’ unofficial depth chart has second-year pro Matt Johnson as the starter, ahead of veteran safety Will Allen. That’s a big step for the former Eastern Washington safety, as he missed all of last season due to injuries. Coming out of school the Cowboys liked Johnson’s ability to play the run and the pass, and both come in handy in the Cover 2. The Cowboys would have used Johnson liberally last year, had he been healthy. That’s clear. What isn’t clear is if Johnson can last the rigors of a full training camp and NFL season. Plus, has he learned enough about the Cover 2? Allen, his backup, played for Kiffin in Tampa Bay for several years and knows the formation in and out. He lacks Johnson’s pure athleticism, but he’s less likely to make mistakes.

Advantage? Johnson. The Cowboys clearly want him to have the job. Allen had a nice offseason but he’ll have to step it up.

Strong side linebacker. On the surface this should be Justin Durant’s job to lose. He’s played in the Cover 2 formation, he understands how it works and he’s excelled in it. That’s the reason the Cowboys brought him here. But the Cowboys really like Alex Albright, his backup. When I spoke to linebackers coach Matt Eberflus last year he remarked about how flexible Albright was. He played as an end in a 4-3 in college and moved to outside linebacker in the Cowboys’ 3-4. Now he’s being asked to play outside linebacker in a 4-3 Cover 2. At 260 pounds – 20 pounds heavier than Durant – Albright would seem to be a non-fit for this defense. Yet he’s shown the ability to adapt.

Advantage? Durant. But, don’t be surprised if Albright pushes Durant. For that matter, don’t be surprised if third-string linebacker Devonte Holloman pushes Albright.

Backup Tight End. The Dallas Cowboys drafted Gavin Escobar to play right away. Yet, when you look at the depth chart, last year’s late-round pick, James Hanna, is behind Jason Witten. This battle may not seem like a big deal to you. But given all the noise the Cowboys have made about running two-tight end sets this season who wins this battle is a big deal. Escobar has two inches on Hanna and that makes him a bigger target for Romo. But Hanna did some nice things late last year, showing the ability to stretch the middle of the field. Both had solid offseasons. The bigger question is which one is the better blocker. That will be the tiebreaker if both prove to be equally capable receivers.

Advantage? Escobar. The Cowboys want their second-round pick playing as much as possible.