IRVING – The Dallas Cowboys begin this week’s series of OTAs as an 8-8 team. With eight position groups. And with eight things I’ll look for starting Tuesday at Valley Ranch:
The position group of QB: More than ever, Tony Romo is this team’s “Mood Ring.” By virtue of everything from his new $55-million-guaranteed contract to his vow to cut back on golf to his owner’s preposterous pronouncement that his involvement in the decision-making process will be Peyton Manning/Roger Staubach-like, this quarterback is the gauge. The thermometer. The Mood Ring.
OTA’s (which run Tuesdays through Thursdays at Valley Ranch for the next three weeks) is non-contact stuff. It’s about formations, 7-on-7’s, 11-on-11’s … It’s an arrangement where a masterful quarterback can be the dominant player on the field, if he’s comfortable and confident when it comes to the changes being made for his benefit – changes that may include more play-calling influence from Romo. Question 1: So … how’s Tony Romo’s mood?
The position group of RB: I was told on Draft Night – minutes after the second-round selection of tight end Gavin Escobar – that it was to be taken as a signal that Dallas is going away from using a fullback. That means more multiple looks at other positions and it means more of DeMarco Murray lining up alone in the backfield. This week marks the on-field start of the remolding of a running game that last year finished 31st in the NFL.
Question 2: So … is a change of personnel groups the answer to changing the effectiveness of the running game?
The position group of TE: “12 Personnel” and the drafting of Escobar would seem to place a spotlight on the rookie. But for me, I’m interested to see young James Hanna take the first turn behind/alongside Jason Witten. Escobar is long, smooth and graceful. But Hanna has some of those traits, is thicker, and is much faster. He dominated on the practice field as a member of the scout team last year, and emerged late in the season in live action.
Question 3: So … in the much-ballyhooed “12 Personnel” group, who is the second tight end? The position group of WR: Dez Bryant has handled this offseason with the same level of maturity that he handed the second half of last season on the field, when in the final eight games of the year he caught 72 passes for 879 yards and 10 touchdowns. He is quite clearly evolving into a Pro Bowl-caliber performer, the sort of thing that doesn’t come with talent alone. At 24, he has what coaches say is a “mastery” of the playbook, something that wasn’t the case early last season. He also is charismatic enough to become a leader of this group, somebody kids like Dwayne Harris, Terrance Williams, Danny Coale and Cole Beasley can look up to.
Question 4: So … is Dez Bryant grown up to the point where he works and produces like a Pro Bowler not just in huge games with the world watching, but also in OTAs where he needs to be his harshest critic?
The position group of OL: I’ve heard it argued that Dallas’ mediocre offensive line play from a year ago has little shot of an upgrade because the Cowboys didn’t undergo enough change. But there can be changes: A new starting center in rookie first-rounder Travis Frederick; competition for the incumbent guards; a chance for Jermey Parnell to beat out Doug Free at right tackle; left tackle Tyron Smith’s added 10 pounds making him more of a road-grader.
At this early stage, though, the offensive line is about the installation of some components that aren’t yet fully known. Will Dallas use more zone blocking? Is offensive coordinator Bill Callahan being allowed to wield greater influence? Is there a way to “coach ‘em up” here?
Question 5: So … can this OTA mark the start of this group achieving continuity?
The position group of DL: DeMarcus Ware (rehabbing) and Anthony Spencer are, to the coaches, known quantities even as they move from 3-4 linebackers to 4-3 ends. It also seems that vets Jay Ratliff and Jason Hatcher very much have the inside track on the starting tackle jobs.
But defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin’s 4-3 utilizes a “3-technique” defensive tackle and a “1-technique” defensive tackle. The latter player occupies two blockers; it’s not a glamour spot. The “3-technique gets to oppose one-on-one blocking; it’s an opportunity for someone to become a star.
Hatcher tells me that Kiffin informed both players that they have a shot at the glamour job. It’s a good coaching trick, setting up a race between a pair of reliable veterans. Ratliff is the favorite, but this will be a friendly-but-intense competition.
Question 6: So … Is there a poor-poor-poor man’s Warren Sapp who can emerge here?
LB: More than in any position group, the Cowboys believe that Kiffin’s 4-3 alignment is tailor-made to get the most out of linebackers Sean Lee and Bruce Carter. Both players have superior east-to-west speed, and Lee in particular also seems to have what it takes to drop deep into coverage while also launching himself into gaps as a run-stopper. But each potential standout missed huge chunks of last season.
Question 7: So … frankly, will the Cowboys be able to finish the day with a sigh of relief regarding the health of their promising young linebackers?
DB: The Tampa-2 will require an adjustment for Mo Claiborne at cornerback. It will fit his running mate, Brandon Carr, just fine. Dallas knows what it has in slot corner Orlando Scandrick and is already close to feeling confident about slot corner B.W. Webb, even though he’s a small-school rookie.
But there is no such confidence merited at safety, where the two guys who end up starting must be rangy centerfielders, sure tacklers and ballhawks.
Barry Church will win one of the jobs but is coming off an injury. Rookies like J.J. Wilcox and undrafted Jakar Hamilton have so much to learn. Veteran newcomer Will Allen would mean a band-aid at the position.
Question 8: So … is oft-injured kid Matt Johnson ready to jump off of YouTube and jump off of IR and look like a real live NFL player?