Realistic expectations for 'redshirt' rookies

Jerry Jones often refers to most of last year’s draft picks as the Cowboys’ “redshirt class,” a group he has repeatedly stated he thinks will help the Cowboys this season.

He’s essentially asking folks to wait until the bulk of the group has one healthy year under its belt before declaring the class a bust.

Third-round offensive tackle Robert Brewster (torn pectoral), fourth-round outside linebacker Brandon Williams (knee) and sixth-round inside linebacker Stephen Hodge (knee) missed the entire season. Third-round inside linebacker Jason Williams (ankle) and fifth-round safety Michael Hamlin (wrist) had their development stunted by preseason injuries.

What would constitute success for the redshirt rookies this season? Let’s look at each of their situations:

J. Williams: He’s the Cowboys’ fastest defensive player other than the cornerbacks, so there’s no reason he shouldn’t be able to claim one of the linebacker spots in the nickel package. And he absolutely has to be an impact special teams player after being a nonfactor last season. Wade Phillips insisted that the second-round selection of Sean Lee shouldn’t be considered a sign that the Cowboys lack confidence in Williams. However, Williams needs to prove this offseason and training camp that he can handle the mental strain of playing linebacker in the NFL. He was consistently confused during last year’s camp, which isn’t a surprise considering his simplistic, blitz-mad role at Western Illinois.

Brewster: The Cowboys are counting on Brewster to be the swing tackle. If they’re confident enough to use him as an injury fill-in instead of shuffling the line to put Leonard Davis at tackle, it would be a strong sign that Brewster is on track to eventually be Doug Free’s bookend. Brewster, who arrived at Valley Ranch with a blubbery body, has earned rave reviews for his work in the strength and conditioning program.

B. Williams: His challenge is to prove that he’s capable of serving as a pass-rushing specialist. The Cowboys would like to be able to give DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer occasional breathers, but the coaching staff didn’t develop enough confidence in fourth-rounder Victor Butler to do so last season. Phillips said Williams, a more powerful rusher, was ahead of Butler before he tore his ACL in the preseason finale. Williams will also have to be a solid special teams player, which Butler was last season.

Hamlin: Alan Ball is the frontrunner to start at free safety, but Hamlin should be able to challenge him. Hamlin is bigger with better ball skills, which he used to set a Clemson record with 14 career interceptions. If Hamlin performs well but can’t beat out Ball, there’s a possibility that Phillips and Co. will find roles for him in some of the substitution packages. He worked at Roy Williams’ old spot in one version of the dime during his rookie training camp, making a couple of spectacular, leaping picks on balls aimed to receivers in zones behind him. He also should be a core special teams player.

Hodge: If he sticks on the 53-man roster, it’ll be because of special teams. The Cowboys drafted Hodge, a safety at TCU, because they believed he could be a Bill Bates/Kenny Gant kind of impact player in the kicking game. But there are at least five players in front of him on the depth chart at inside linebacker, and Hodge isn’t expected to be fully cleared until training camp due to his recovery from microfracture surgery.