- Dan Graziano, ESPN Staff Writer
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There is a lot to like about this year's Dallas Cowboys. If the linebackers can stay healthy this time around, the defense should be much better than it was last year. The offense is loaded with high-octane players in their prime, and it even has fresh, exciting depth at running back and tight end. The optimism the Cowboys brought with them to training camp is, in many ways, justified.
But it was somewhat short-lived, it appears, since camp began with a major injury to defensive lineman Tyrone Crawford, a less major one to franchise player Anthony Spencer and continued nagging ones along the middle of the offensive line. With Crawford out for the year, Spencer out for camp and most of the leading candidates for the starting guard spots hobbled and out of practice, the most questionable parts of the Cowboys roster have already developed even more questions.
This is no small thing. The lines are the biggest areas of concern for the Cowboys, and the past couple of seasons have shown the extent to which a lack of toughness, talent and effectiveness in the trenches can sink an otherwise promising year. The Cowboys believe they got better at center with Travis Frederick, but they still need better guard play and something more from right tackle Doug Free. They believe their starting defensive line is very strong, but Crawford was a key part of the depth and projected as a valuable member of the line rotation, and now they won't have him. Should Spencer's knee remain a problem for any part of the regular season, the lack of depth behind the starters up front on defense would likely cost the Cowboys games.
This will be the story all year, as it has been for Dallas in recent years. They need the offensive line to play better than expected -- to jell and play strong and develop game-to-game consistency. They need the defensive line to stay healthy, and that also means Jay Ratliff, who hasn't been able to do that very reliably the past few years. Every team has question-mark areas, but in few places are those question marks such proven season-sinkers as they are in Dallas. The injuries they've suffered at the start of camp, unfortunately for them, hit the Cowboys at their weakest point, and raise fresh doubts about their ability to correct their biggest problems.