IRVING, Texas -- Soon I’ll be on a plane for Los Angeles and then on a drive up the 101 to Oxnard, California, for my 12th training camp covering the Dallas Cowboys.
For most of the offseason we have covered the big stuff: Greg Hardy’s signing, suspension and appeal; Dez Bryant receiving the franchise tag and a $70 million contract; Jason Garrett signing a five-year deal; and anything and everything about Tony Romo. We’ve projected a roster and ranked a roster.
With the first training camp practice coming Wednesday, I want to look at some under-the-radar happenings in this version of Five Wonders.
So away we go:
I had the Cowboys keeping Lucky Whitehead as the fifth wide receiver in my most recent roster projection. My belief is that he could help replace Dwayne Harris as a return man. It’s not that I don’t believe he can be that guy, but I wonder what else he can bring on game day to make his spot on the 53-man roster worth it. While Harris was a top returner, he could also play all of the wide receiver spots, was a devastating blocker and even lined up as a running back a couple of times. Harris could also cover kicks and punts; he was the definition of versatile. I’m not sure Whitehead can do all of that. He’s not an outside receiver and he’s not going to take snaps away from Cole Beasley. Whitehead is not big enough to block the way Harris blocked. So as I think about it some more, Whitehead better be a special returner. If he’s not, then I think it’s possible the Cowboys go with four wide receivers on their 53-man roster, or it could open up a better chance for Nick Harwell, George Farmer or Deontay Greenberry.
I struggled with my decision to not keep rookie tight end Geoff Swaim on the 53-man roster. The Cowboys gave up a sixth-rounder in 2016 to take him in the seventh round this year. He has skills to be an on-the-line tight end, and he might be a better pass catcher than expected after not getting a lot of chances at Texas. But I wonder how the Cowboys carry a fourth tight end. One option is to go with four wide receivers. Another possibility is going without a true fullback. Yes, I know the Cowboys have liked what Tyler Clutts has done since he joined the team late in 2013, but I do think we overvalue the importance of the position to a degree. Ultimately I went with Clutts over Swaim because of special teams. If Swaim can do something on special teams, he could play his way onto the roster.
Keith Rivers was a first-round pick of the Cincinnati Bengals. He was a starter for the New York Giants at one point. He lost his job with the Buffalo Bills and signed a veteran minimum salary benefit deal with the Cowboys this offseason. As I put together my 53-man roster, I had him as the 53rd guy because of Rolando McClain’s suspension. Without that suspension, I think Kyle Wilber is the seventh linebacker because he is a core special teamer and can play some defensive end in a pinch. But after doing some poking around before camp, I wonder if I have undersold Rivers to a degree. Not that he would be a lock, but he is a guy who should be better with the pads on than in the spring. He might even have some position flexibility (strong-side and middle linebacker). The Cowboys have bet on former first-round talents in the past and squeezed what they could from them for a year or two. Could Rivers do what Ernie Sims did a couple years ago?
I wonder if Danny McCray comes to training camp having to win a job. He was a great special teamer for the Cowboys before heading to the Chicago Bears last season. He came back on a one-year deal this year. With cornerbacks Corey White and Byron Jones having the ability to play some safety, the Cowboys might not have to keep four safeties on their final 53-man roster. McCray has some fans on the coaching staff. He is dependable. He is a good locker room guy. He is a core special teamer. But so is Jeff Heath, who gets far too much grief from fans for what happened his rookie year when he was forced to play too much too soon defensively.
As the Cowboys start camp, Darrion Weems is the swing offensive tackle on game day. He was the starting right tackle in the spring with Doug Free recovering from foot surgery. Weems' chances of making the team were aided when third-round pick Chaz Green had hip surgery. The Cowboys have been patient with Weems, whom they claimed off the Denver Broncos’ practice squad in 2013. He didn’t play last year because of a shoulder surgery. But I do wonder if the Cowboys want such an inexperienced player in a key role as the backup to Free and Tyron Smith. Jermey Parnell fulfilled that role for three years before signing with the Jacksonville Jaguars in the offseason with big-time starter money. He didn’t have experience either, but the Cowboys put their faith in him. Perhaps Weems could reward that faith this season.