In 13 days, the Cowboys tee it up at high noon in Tampa, and at that point, we will have a whole new list of issues to ponder. But, until then, let's spend some time examining many of the questions down the roster:
The Draft Class cannot stay healthy - As you may recall, here are the draft picks from this past April's 12 selections:
Rd 3 - #5(69) Jason Williams (OLB) W Illinois
Rd 3 - #11(75) Robert Brewster (OT) Ball St
Rd 4 - #1(101) Stephen McGee (QB) Texas A&M
Rd 4 - #10(110) Victor Butler (OLB) Oregon St
Rd 4 - #20(120) Brandon Williams (DE) Texas Tech
Rd 5 - #7(143) DeAngelo Smith (CB) Cincy
Rd 5 - #30(166) Michael Hamlin (S) Clemson
Rd 5 - #36(172) David Buehler (K) USC
Rd 6 - #24(197) Stephen Hodge (OLB) TCU
Rd 6 - #35(208) John Phillips (TE) Virginia
Rd 7 - #18(227) Mike Mickens (CB) Cincy
Rd 7 - #20(229) Manuel Johnson (WR) Oklahoma
Robert Brewster and Brandon Williams (ACL) are already done for the year. Stephen Hodge and Stephen McGee have not been healthy much at camp. Michael Hamlin has just been lost for 6 weeks. And, Jason Williams hurt his ankle on Saturday night.
I don't mean to point out the obvious, but this team needed to hit the jackpot in this draft. The depth on this team has not been as good as it needs to be, and they needed several of these young players to step forward. Further, many of the reserves who have been on this team for several years appeared to be on the verge of losing their job to the young bucks. But, because the rookies are not healthy, guys like Patrick Watkins may still make the roster - even if they looked like a dead-man walking just a few weeks ago.
On the other hand, Courtney Brown and Isaiah Stanback do not appear to be so fortunate. And, Cory Procter looks like he may be on the same page. At some point, a young reserve player has to respond to that fork in the road. Are they going to figure out a way to join the starting line-up and contribute? Or are they going to remain on the periphery of the roster and always make us wonder what they bring to the table? You see, as a rookie reserve, your salary is very low. But, each year, even the last guy on the roster sees his salary rise. Did you know Procter is on the books for over $1.5 million? If Duke Preston can replace him at less than half the cost, Procter better be pretty special.
Same goes for Stanback. It would be one thing if he was out-playing Kevin Ogletree, but he isn't. Ogletree is making plays, while Stanback bailed out of a deep crossing route when he saw the safety out of the corner of his eye. Yes, he is a solid kickoff returner, but with Felix Jones and Miles Austin already on the roster, along with Mike Mickens from that rookie class who is known for that trick, Stanback has to bring more to the table than that.
Good Signs from Pass Rushers- One of the least-discussed issues on this team is the question of pass rush. And why would it be discussed when the Cowboys led the NFL in sacks in 2008? But each year brings new issues, and I have wondered who is going to assist DeMarcus Ware and Jay Ratliff in getting to the QB. By the way, counting on your NT to get sacks is a dangerous proposition, but I think Ratliff is so explosive that he will keep his end of the bargain. He should expect a double-team every down this season.
But, who else? We know Marcus Spears cannot get to the QB (although he certainly dance well) and Igor Olshansky is also known as a run stuffer who doesn't get the the QB. So, you can see why everyone is wondering if Anthony Spencer is everything he has been advertised to be. Can he get to the QB? Well, based on Saturday, there is reason for optimism. First of all, he is generally working from the defense-left. Usually, that will mean that he is lined-up against the weaker of the tackles, the Right Tackle. But on Saturday night, in many scenarios the RT was blocking down on the DE, leaving Spencer up against either a TE or a RB. Well, if that happens this season, the RBs will get destroyed. Spencer overpowered Glen Coffee and sacked Shaun Hill with great ease. The Cowboys know that to properly replace Greg Ellis, they need Spencer to make teams pay for concentrating their protection schemes on 90 and 94. Spencer must expose that. When he does, they slide protection to him, and the levy breaks on the other side, or up the middle. And that is how you lead the NFL in sacks.
Another player who is generally inserted when it is time for the nickel package is Jason Hatcher. Hatcher, 27, and a 3rd rounder from the 2006 draft, must emerge this year with performance. Much like Stanback, he is a guy who has all of the tools (6'4, 305) but unless Hatcher can actually perform on game day, he is just another guy with an impressive body.
Felix Jones vs Marion Barber vs Tashard Choice - I am very interested in how the touches are split between these three when the games become real in a few weeks. The most comfortable strategy will be to make Barber the starter, with Felix replacing him either on 3rd downs or alternate drives. The problem with the 3rd down idea, of course, is that this will limit Felix to a primarily shotgun-only scenario. I think he should be involved in just about every package you have. He is not Darren Sproles. He can be so much more than that. Further, 3rd down is a ton of blitz pick-up. I would rather have Barber in for that on a regular basis. I think I might alternate drives - like they did with Julius Jones and Barber in 2007. Split the touches nearly 50/50, and let them each run wild. This is a real strength of the roster that must be used.
As for Choice? I think he will have to be happy with staying ready. He showed his value in December, and the way this league chews up RBs, there is a good chance he will be needed again very soon. But, as for now, there just aren't carries for 3 guys in a NFL game plan. It is a nice luxary to have, and one of the few places on this roster where the Cowboys are prepared to handle an injury.
What is on your Cowboys plate today?