Top 10 preseason storylines for the Dallas Cowboys in 2014
The NFL preseason is finally here, which means that I no longer have to beat the dead dog that was the Dallas Cowboys 2013 season. Last season ended short of the postseason for the Cowboys, just like the year before, and the year before. Get the point? In the event that you stopped caring for America’s Team, I wanted to give you a few things to pay attention to before the beginning of the regular season.
The Cowboys preseason begins today, with a match up in San Diego versus the Chargers (9:00 p.m. CST, NFL Network). This season has been full of speculation and intrigue for the Cowboys, as well as injuries. That leaves many concerns for the Cowboys, before they kick off the regular season on September 7, 2014 at 3:25 p.m. CST versus the San Francisco 49ers at Cowboys Stadium (FOX).
Here are some interesting storylines to pay attention to for this preseason:
1. Tony Romo doesn’t appear to be completely recovered from back surgery.
Fort Worth Star-Telegram reporter Clarence Hill Jr. broke the story that Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo has had problems throwing the deep ball since coming back to the playing field after back surgery earlier this week. It could be something as simple as Romo holding back, or he may not be completely recovered from surgery. This injury has lingered for a couple of years now, and the Cowboys have done a great job of covering it up. Backup Brandon Weeden has taken most of the first team snaps, and will continue to take most of the snaps in the preseason if Romo’s throws are still off. It could be a telling sign of what is to come for the 34 year-old quarterback, who is on the tail end of his career.
2. B.J. Webb is coming around.
Cowboys defensive back BJ Webb had a normal rookie season last year. He made the mistakes that a player usually makes with picking up a new playbook, and converting to the speed of the NFL. Webb has put on some weight, and developed into a much improved player in man coverage. He has also increased his endurance, playing in an Iron Man role for most of camp so far. He has been able to hold his own in camp this preseason, and should continue to improve with the increased reps.
3. Which TE not named Jason Witten will step up to the plate?
The Cowboys added two tight ends, signing Jordan Navjar, and Dallas Walker to the roster this offseason. It is possible that the James Hanna and Gavin Escobar experiment is not working at this point, and that the Cowboys need to find another tight end that can catch and block. Navjar was undrafted from Baylor, and is a physical specimen, that can pick up the slack for Hanna and Escobar when it comes to blocking. Walker was recently signed when the San Diego Chargers decided to part ways, but the verdict is unknown if Walker will make it past the preseason. Witten needs a dependable backup, and by the looks of last year’s contributions (21 receptions, 207 yards, 2 TD, 6.5 yards per game avg.), neither Hanna or Escobar proved themselves trustworthy last season. One thing is for certain – If Walker or Navjar make the roster, the Cowboys will not have a fullback on the team in 2014.
4. Cowboys key position battle this preseason will be between Mackenzie Bernadeau and Ronald Leary.
The Cowboys have been diligent with the building of a solid offensive line and is have made tremendous strides in the last few years with the additions of LT Tyron Smith, C Travis Frederick, and RG Zack Martin. Right tackle Doug Free held his own last season, and made quite the improvement from his 2012 campaign. The only position in question is the battle at the left guard position between seven year veteran Mackenzie Bernadeau, and two year veteran Ronald Leary. Bernadeau is first on the depth chart, but Leary has been gaining a lot of attention, and his fair share of snaps with the first team offense. He was removed from the PUP list just last week. Both players have showed that they are capable, but also struggled last season. For Leary, it can be expected as a second year player, however Bernadeau’s ups and downs have almost become routine. Bernadeau was inconsistent at times last season, and it is still a question which Bernadeau you will get. Leary started 16 games last season at left guard, and Bernadeau started 11 at right guard. It is only a matter of time before Leary becomes the permanent starter however, it will be interesting to see if Bernadeau’s experience will get him the nod.
5. Just watch Dwayne Harris.
Harris has played his tail off, and has been one of the full-tilt guys at camp. This should not be a surprise to those that know Harris. This ECU standout, and four year veteran, has continued to get better every season, and is convincing many that he is arguably one of the most physical skill players on the Cowboys roster. He is one of the most proficient blockers on the team, and is an explosive playmaker when given the opportunity. As a shoo-in for kickoff and punt returns, Harris also in not afraid to go downfield and make a play as a defender on kickoffs as well. Harris should eliminate himself from any type of position battle this year, and solidify the slot receiver position.
The Cowboys secondary is a who’s who of injured players. Camp has been torture for the healthy players, and another player was bitten by the injury bug this week. Defensive back Tyler Patmon left practice early on Tuesday, leaving Cowboys defensive backs coach Jerome Henderson to fill in as a safety in order to complete the team’s practice. At the current moment, Orlando Scandrick, Terrance Mitchell, and Webb are the only healthy corners available for the team’s first preseason game. Safety Ryan Smith is expected to fill in versus the Chargers, and the Cowboys are currently working on signing a couple more defensive backs to meet the team’s needs before the end of this week.
7. Safety JJ Wilcox is that good.
Okay, you finally see exactly what I was raving about all of last season. Just in case you did not see the hit that Wilcox delivered on wideout Dez Bryant, just know that he is a playmaker, and he has been doing exactly that since he was a freshman at Cairo High School. He has a nose for the ball, and has a sixth sense in terms of stepping back into the box as a safety. What is best about his skillset, is that he has never been afraid to step up and make a play on the ball. That is something that the Cowboys haven’t seen from a safety since 2007. Don’t get me wrong, Wilcox is a raw talent, and will continue to improve, but one thing that he is not lacking is confidence, tenacity, and swagger on the field – which goes a long way.
8. Is the Offensive line that good or is the defensive line struggling?
The Cowboys have been diligent with the building of a solid offensive line and are reaping the rewards. The same cannot be said for the defensive line, who have been plagued by injuries in 2014. Veterans like Henry Melton are finally starting to get into regular season form, while just about every other player with NFL experience is on the injury report. Almost half of the defensive line (7/18) are injured, including Anthony Spencer, and DeMarcus Lawrence. Both players are doubtful for the season opener, and that will diminish the chances of some of the younger guys, such as Ken Bishop or Ben Bass making the roster. The Cowboys need all the help they can get on the defensive line, and it looks worse because of the dominance by the first team offensive line. Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli is an exceptional defensive coordinator, and it will be great to see what potential he will be able to get out of the players before the season starts.
9. Can Devonte Holloman win the mike linebacker position?
As a former strong safety, Cowboys linebacker Devonte Holloman can make plays on the ball. You may have seen it last year in the Hall of Fame game, when he turned a tipped pass into a 75-yard touchdown. In terms of pass coverage, Holloman is the best linebacker not named Sean Lee. He will have his work cut out for him at the mike linebacker position. Bruce Carter has made major strides, in terms of his pass coverage, but he is still raw at defending the pass. This preseason will address all concerns at linebacker, as every linebacker on the team can move around. No one is ahead of anyone in this group, and now is the perfect time for Holloman to make an impact.
10. Scott Linehan’s debut as signal caller.
Thursday will be Cowboys passing game coordinator Scott Linehan’s first game calling plays. Even though it is a preseason game, you should be able to gain a feel for the pace that he wants the offense to maintain, and his situational play calling. Unlike coordinators from Cowboys past, Linehan will be calling plays from the sideline. He should be able to communicate more with players, and that shouldn’t be negative for the unit. The verdict is still out on how often the Cowboys will throw the ball, but expect it to increase. Romo has averaged 36 passes per game in the last three seasons, while Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford averaged 42 under Linehan.
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