There is certainly no absence of story lines as 2009 training camp comes to an end in the Alamo City. Position battles, new faces, and players past are but a few of the most popular headliners going into this year. The house-cleaning done by Jerry and Stephen Jones in the off-season has left several important positions vacated and free for the taking. And with that, here are a few positions to keep a watchful eye on as pre-season play progresses.
Wide receiver is, without a doubt, the unprecedented position of interest heading into this year. The most popular topic is obviously the departure of Terrell Owens, who spent the last three seasons as the most productive receiver the Cowboys have had since Michael Irvin. Owens’ departure means that Roy Williams will take the reigns as the number one receiver in the Dallas offense. Many are quick to scrutinize the unproductive season Williams had last year, but nary a soul remembers that Williams did not arrive in Dallas until the week six bye, and had very little time to learn the playbook. Many also forget that nagging injuries hampered Williams for most of the season and affected his speed, quickness off the line, timing with Romo, etc. With Williams at full health this year, look for him to give the Cowboys good production as the number one receiver. Also look for Patrick Crayton to regain the number two receiver spot that he held two years ago. Many also forget that Crayton posted stellar numbers as the number two receiver in 2007. The Cowboys also went without Sam Hurd for a good portion of last year, and were without Miles Austin’s services for several weeks, as well. Look for the Cowboys to use Mile Austin’s size and speed to stretch the field, and look for Hurd to be used in multiple receiver formations. The fifth wide receiver position will likely be up for grabs between Isaiah Stanback, Manny Johnson, and Jesse Holley, who won the final roster spot on 4th and Long. Youngsters on the outside looking in include Mike Jefferson, Travis Wilson, Kevin Ogletree, Julian Hawkins, and Willie Reid. For what it’s worth, I asked Isaiah Stanback via Twitter if he thought Jesse Holley was any good, to which he replied simply, “I’m better.”
It seems like the secondary tops these lists every year for one reason or another, and this season is no different. Watchful eyes will be locked on the secondary this year to see if the departures of several key veterans will pay dividends. Gone is safety Roy Williams, who since 2002 had been a staple in the Dallas secondary. Though he had several outstanding years with the Cowboys, Williams seemed to fall off the map the past several years. He became a severe liability in pass coverage, and his run support also became less effective. To replace Williams, the Cowboys signed Gerald Sensabaugh from Jacksonville. Sensabaugh is better known for his coverage skills, having also played stints at cornerback for the Jaguars. Also gone is cornerback Anthony Henry, who was traded to Detroit in exchange for Jon Kitna. Looking to fill Henry’s shoes are second year players Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick. Jenkins would seem to have the edge because of his first round draft status. But Scandrick, who looks to be the steal of the 2008 draft, showed last year that he is also worthy of the starting job. It will be interesting to see how the Cowboys will split time between these two young talents, if that is the approach they decide to pursue. I personally believe the Cowboys have three very talented rookies in Michael Hamlin, DeAngelo Smith, and Mike Mickens. Both Mickens and Hamlin were both projected to go as high as the second round in this year’s draft, and it will be exciting to see if they live up to their pre-draft stock. Eyes will also be upon Pat Watkins to see if he can be a key contributor in the secondary after a nagging neck injury last season landed him on injured reserve.
With Greg Ellis little more than an afterthought in Dallas, outside linebacker will also be an area of interest heading into the season. The Cowboys drafted Anthony Spencer (A fellow Boilermaker) several years ago with the intent of grooming him to replace Greg Ellis. To answer the question that my favorite Smiths song asks, the time is certainly now for Spencer. He has undoubtedly shown signs of being DeMarcus Ware’s counterpart the last two seasons, but has been somewhat inconsistent due to a few injuries and playing behind Ellis. At full health this year, Spencer will benefit from the constant attention that DeMarcus Ware demands from offenses, and will compliment him well on the opposite side. The Cowboys linebacking corps will also have a new face in the middle, with Keith Brooking arriving from Atlanta. He should be a much better fit next to Bradie James than Zach Thomas was last year. The Cowboys also have four talented rookies joining the linebacker corps this year in Jason Williams, Victor Butler, Brandon Williams, and Stephen Hodge. With Greg Ellis gone, look for Butler and Brandon Williams to shoulder the backup outside linebacker duties. Jason Williams will be battling for playing time at nickel linebacker with Bobby Carpenter, and Hodge will provide depth at middle linebacker. Look for all of these rookies to contribute heavily on special teams, as well. One linebacker everyone should have on their radar is Bobby Carpenter. He has not exactly lived up to expectations since arriving in 2006, but it is much too early to toss him onto the scrap pile with a bust tag. Carpenter has gotten less than a fair shake since arriving in Dallas, having been moved around to different linebacker spots multiple times. It would appear, for now at least, that Carpenter has found a home at nickel linebacker, a title previously held by Kevin Burnett. If Carpenter excels at the nickel linebacker spot early on, expect him to get more playing time in other packages, as well.
As the start of another football season grows closer with each passing day, the chills of autumn grow more intense as they go up and down my spine. Hold onto your hats fellow Cowboys brothers and sisters, for this season promises to bring much excitement. I can feel it in these silver and blue bones of mine.
In the past couple of weeks, I have done quite a bit of networking with several Cowboys players on Twitter, routinely chatting with names like Martellus Bennett, Isaiah Stanback, Gerald Sensabaugh, and Jason Williams. Having the opportunity to network with men that I call my heroes is truly amazing. As a boy knowing I wanted to “do John Madden’s job,” I never would have fathomed that I would be able to chat with players from my favorite team with the mere click of a button. I want to thank these gentlemen for taking time out of their hectic schedule to network with fans such as myself. Keep it real Cowboys fans.