DALLAS — The Dallas Cowboys departed for sunny Oxnard, Calif., to begin training camp and their first practice will come on Thursday. It’s only a preamble for what’s to come, but the 2021 season is about to begin as the Cowboys aim to reclaim the NFC East.
What happened last year is now firmly in the past and the Cowboys have a chance to redeem themselves. The offense should be one of the best in the league – led by returning quarterback Dak Prescott – and, if the defense can get modest improvement under new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, it could be a successful bounce back campaign.
It all starts with training camp, though, as head coach Mike McCarthy is tasked with pairing down the roster to the best 53 players. With that in mind, here are some of the battles for roster spots and playing time that the Cowboys face this summer:
The Cowboys got serious about upgrading their run defense after one of their worst performances in team history. Brent Urban was added as a free agent to be a major force for Dallas’ rush defense and should be one of the starters.
However, everything else on the interior of the defense feels like it’s up for grabs. Trysten Hill was one of last year’s starters, but he had an ACL injury that he’s trying to come back from. Another option is second-year man Neville Gallimore, who flashed potential as a rookie. A jump from Gallimore in year two could make him one of the best DTs on the roster.
The Cowboys also drafted two defensive linemen to help fill out the depth. The versatile Osa Odighizuwa was taken in the third round out of UCLA, and run stuffing specialist Quinton Bohanna came in round six out of Kentucky. It’s hard to count too much on a rookie, but both will fight for a role on the defense.
Carlos Watkins was also signed this offseason to pitch in, but he might see himself on the outside looking in.
Dallas did a nice job of creating competition on the defensive line, where there wasn’t much depth last season. It will be interesting to see how it all shakes out.
Trevon Diggs, who will be in his sophomore season, appears to be locked in as the team’s CB No. 1, but the fight to start opposite him will be fun to watch. Veteran Anthony Brown looks like the top choice before camp begins, yet he shouldn’t be penciled in just yet.
The Cowboys selected Kelvin Joseph in the second round of the draft, and he will get every opportunity to win the job. Joseph is blessed with the size, speed, and athleticism that the team desires for the position. If the rookie out of Kentucky plays up to his potential, he’ll be hard to beat out.
Another rookie, third round selection Nahshon Wright from Oregon State, will get a chance to stake his claim as well. Wright did well in OTAs and minicamps, so he’s someone to monitor for the job opposite Diggs.
Cornerback is another spot where the Cowboys added significant pieces to help beef up the defense so training camp should offer great competition.
The battle for backup tackle will be an intriguing internal fight because the Cowboys will likely need someone to win the job and play a decent number of snaps. Tyron Smith and La’el Collins both missed significant time last season and the veteran Smith has had trouble staying on the field in the past handful of years. Dallas needs to have a reliable option should either get hurt again.
Terence Steele had a rough start to his rookie year after injuries forced him to be cast into the fire early. The undrafted signee improved as the season went on, so he’s in the running to be the main swingman. If Steele can make the second-year leap that comes from a full offseason of preparation, he might be a solid option.
The Cowboys also added veteran tackle Ty Nsekhe and drafted the troubled, but talented Josh Ball in the fourth round. It might take Ball some time to get acclimated to the NFL and the team has always had a preference for veterans as their swing tackle, so Nsekhe is perhaps in a good spot to claim playing time.
Another option might be Brandon Knight, but he could be moving to guard for more depth on the interior of the offensive line.
We probably won’t see a lot of Smith or Collins in the preseason, so swing tackle is a battle where we’ll get a good look at all the options for the Cowboys.
An injury to Blake Jarwin in the season-opener last year caused the unexpected rise of Dalton Schultz as the team’s starter. Heading into the 2020 season, Schultz was thought of as more of a blocking TE, but his emergence as a receiving threat will benefit the offense in 2021.
Jarwin is the better athlete and receiver; he was thought to be one of the rising stars without Jason Witten in the picture. Schultz is a better two-way player, and with Jarwin coming off a major injury, don’t be surprised if Schultz keeps the starting gig.
Either way, it will be one of the more interesting position battles in camp and a good problem for the Cowboys to figure out.
This isn’t a heralded position battle, but it bears watching. Hunter Niswander had a great end to the 2020 season as a replacement for the injured Chris Jones, so he comes in as the incumbent. However, the Cowboys brought in veteran Brian Anger to compete for the job.
With a newfound emphasis on special teams, the Cowboys will have an opportunity to come out of camp with the best option to help win the hidden yardage game.
Are you happy that the Cowboys are back in California for training camp in 2021? Share your thoughts with Ben on Twitter @BenGrimaldi.