Cowboys: 2012 position battles
Several guys among the army of receivers whose next NFL catch will be their first have shown flashes. However, Kevin Ogletree still ranks as the team’s top reserve.
“He’s piling a couple of days together here that are really good,” passing game coordinator John Garrett said. “He really has outstanding speed and quickness, and he has a unique ability to get off the line of scrimmage. Those things are showing up.
“The thing with Kevin is just continuing to improve and the ability to master the offense -- all the different routes, all the different positions -- and he’s showing he can do that.”
Sound familiar? Yep, we heard the same things about Ogletree last summer.
Ogletree had the most productive year of his career with 15 catches for 164 yards, but that was a pretty major disappointment after being given a prominent role at the beginning of the season. Laurent Robinson moved ahead of Ogletree on the depth chart after Ogletree made several mental busts in the Week 3 win over the Redskins.
You get the feeling the coaches want to see Andre Holmes claim the job, but that certainly hasn't happened yet. His route running is too often sloppy, and Holmes has had several drops.
Dwayne Harris, Danny Coale, Tim Benford, Raymond Radway and Cole Beasley remain in the running for the role. The Cowboys don’t care whether their third receiver is suited to play in the slot or outside because Miles Austin can play any of the receiver spots.
“We have freedom because of Miles’ versatility,” coach Jason Garrett said, “so really what we’re looking for is the best player.”
That’s a pretty good sign for a guy in a battle for a starting job.
The Cowboys need both Carter and Dan Connor, who signed a two-year, $6.5 million deal to come to Dallas this offseason, to contribute. They're competing to see who gets the majority of the snaps next to Sean Lee.
If it’s close, expect the Cowboys to give the edge to Carter based on potential. After all, they considered him a first-round talent who slipped to them in the second round last year because of a knee injury suffered his senior year in college.
“I’m just out here to prove to everybody what I can do and that they didn’t make a mistake picking me as early as they did,” Carter said.
The Cowboys have always been enamored with Carter’s speed and athleticism. They just weren’t comfortable giving him defensive snaps as a rookie who didn’t practice until the seventh week of the season.
They’re starting to see more and more glimpses that Carter is ready for a significant role.
“He’s getting better every day -- more comfortable with the defense, more comfortable with the reads,” Lee said. “He’s learning to play faster and faster. That’s a big thing because he’s a good athlete. Once he gets his reads and gets more experience, I think he’ll continue to improve.”
The owner is counting on it.
Wide receiver Tim Benford accomplished that Sunday afternoon.
Benford made some key catches, including a long first-down reception during the full-speed portion of the scrimmage. The Cowboys don't have a clear No. 3 receiver after nearly a week of training camp practices.
"I came from a small school and everybody wants me to show my talents, so I'm just trying to do what I can do," said Benford, who attended Tennessee Tech. "It's a work and grind every day, you never know what they're talking about. I'm just coming out to compete every day."
Benford is competing with Dwayne Harris, Andre Holmes, Raymond Radway, Kevin Ogletree, Cole Beasley and -- when he returns from his foot injury -- Danny Coale for the No. 3 position.
You could find good and bad things to say about several players after the scrimmage. Holmes dropped a touchdown pass. So did Harris. Beasley made some good catches.
Then there's Benford, a 5-11, 200-pound undrafted rookie.
"I wanted to work hard and compete every day," Benford said. "This is the same mindset every day, that's all it is."
Right now, Kevin Ogletree has the lead in the race for the third receiver role, assuming that player is currently in camp. Dwayne Harris and Andre Holmes are next on the list. Danny Coale has yet to practice, but the fifth-round pick will be given every opportunity to earn a roster spot.
However, it’s going to be awfully hard to release Radway if the former Abilene Christian track star keeps coming up with big plays. A 6-foot-3, 204-pound receiver with that kind of speed is hard to sneak through waivers onto the practice squad.
Radway had earned a roster spot as an undrafted rookie last year, but he suffered a season-ending injury on the final play of preseason, needing surgery to place a steel rod into his broken leg. He started this camp slow, but he’s come on strong in the last few days.
That continued Saturday, when he caught a couple of deep balls for touchdowns. Radway beat $50 million cornerback Brandon Carr on one of them.
“He has really good speed and can get on top of the defense,” passing game coordinator John Garrett said. “As you can see, he’s made some big plays. He just needs to be consistent and keep learning all the positions so we can insert him anywhere and he can become reliable and dependable.”
That doesn’t necessarily mean that he’ll start next to Jay Ratliff and opposite of Jason Hatcher.
“Whether he starts or is a backup, he’s going to play the same number of snaps as a starter does,” defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said. “It’s no real big difference. I think he’s got great position flexibility, which adds to his reps. However it comes out, Sean Lissemore is going to be a big part of us.”
It’s possible that the Cowboys could choose Lissemore to start at defensive end over Marcus Spears and Kenyon Coleman, although Coleman is getting the majority of work with the ones at this point. However, Lissemore might be able to have more of an impact as a jack-of-all-trades reserve than as the starting defensive end.
Lissemore, like Ratliff, has experience playing defensive end and nose tackle in a 3-4 and as an interior rusher in the four-man sub-package fronts. He got extensive work at nose tackle during Friday’s practice.
That versatility could be especially valuable if the foot injury that has prevented Ratliff from practicing since last season continues to be problematic.
Expect to see Lissemore on the field a lot this season, whether or not his name is announced with the starters.
Bruce Carter and Dan Connor are splitting the reps evenly at inside linebacker. It’s too early to say which player has the edge, but you get the feeling that the coaches would like to see Carter emerge as the guy who gets the bulk of the playing time.
That’s not a knock on Connor, a four-year veteran who started 19 games over the last two seasons for the Carolina Panthers before signing a two-year, $6.5 million deal to come to Dallas this offseason. It’s just that the Cowboys are enamored by Carter’s potential.
The Cowboys considered Carter, like Sean Lee, a first-round prospect who slid to them in the second round because of a knee injury suffered in college. The Cowboys hope that Carter’s second NFL season comes close to being comparable to what Lee did a year ago.
However, Carter didn’t get near the reps that Lee did as a rookie. Carter spent all of training camp and the first six weeks of the season on the physically unable to perform list and barely got any defensive snaps once he did get activated.
As a result, Carter is essentially a redshirt rookie right now.
“Once I learn the system like second nature, which I’ve already done, I can come out here and just play football,” Carter said. “My speed and my athletic ability will show.”
Added linebackers coach Matt Eberflus: “I really think he’s on the verge of that. He’s starting to react better. He’s quicker. Mike Woicik did a great job with him during the offseason, and he’s got great ability. He’s starting to show it.”
It wasn’t apparent during Wednesday’s practice, the Cowboys’ first in full pads. Carter didn’t make any eye-popping plays and seemed to struggle getting off guards’ blocks. He was in position to stop DeMarco Murray in the backfield once, but Murray froze Carter with a hesitation move before accelerating around the edge.
“I know what I’m capable of doing,” Carter said. “I’ve just got to go out here and work.”
If that work doesn’t pay off, Connor will get the bulk of the playing time.
Mackenzy Bernadeau might have been the guy, but the Cowboys just want the free-agent addition to focus on guard after he recovers from hip and knee surgeries.
Bill Nagy or Kevin Kowalski could have had a shot at it, but they both look like long shots as they nurse ankle injuries. Nagy is probably out for the rest of training camp after suffering a high ankle sprain during the first practice. Kowalski is still out indefinitely with an ankle injury that sidelined him for all of the offseason workouts.
David Arkin, the fourth-round guard who was inactive for every game as a rookie last season, played some center during Tuesday’s practice. The results weren’t pretty. He was part of a handful of botched center-quarterback exchanges.
There are some decent options on the open market. That includes two unsigned centers who were starters last season: ex-Buccaneer Jeff Faine and ex-Ram Jason Brown.
A source said the Cowboys are aware of the options outside of the current roster, but they don’t feel a sense of urgency to bring in another center.
“You try to create competition certainly for a spot on a team – a guy trying to make a team, have a spot on the team, have a role or be a starter on a team,” coach Jason Garrett said. “You try to do that as best you can, but for Phil Costa, it’s pretty competitive for him every time he breaks the huddle and has to go against our defensive linemen. That’s a competitive environment we’re similarly trying to create.”
Even that is too easy for Costa right now, with Pro Bowl nose tackle Jay Ratliff out indefinitely due to a foot injury.
Church’s competition for the starting strong safety job is a veteran who failed the Cowboys’ conditioning test (Brodney Pool) and a rookie who missed almost the entire offseason program (Matt Johnson).
“I feel like they’re looking for a more confident me,” Church said. “I need to show that I know what I’m doing back there and can cover the deep half of the field. I feel like if I can do that, I can insert myself in the starting lineup.”
Pool has the advantage of having played for Rob Ryan in Cleveland, but the eight-year veteran made a poor first impression with the Cowboys by failing the conditioning test.
“I guess his back tightened up really bad,” Ryan said. “But we’re not going to make an excuse. We don’t give a (expletive). The next guy up is going.”
Church believes he’s ready to seize the opportunity.
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