ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 4
OXNARD, Calif. -- No one would blame 34-year-old linebacker Keith Brooking for taking a day or two off in training camp, but that's not his style. He missed the Cowboys' OTAs this offseason after having a relatively minor knee surgery and now he's refusing to leave the field.
"Dick Butkus is my idol and he always said you never want your last play to be a stinker," Brooking told the NFC East blog . "In saying that, he knew how precious this game is. The window's closing on me every passing day and it's time to push all my chips in."
Brooking has become the inspirational leader of this defense. He was frustrated last season when he had to come off the field in the nickel and he has reminded everyone in this camp that he can run step for step with running backs in pass coverage. Everyone expected Lee to replace Bobby Carpenter in the nickel defense, but Brooking's not making it easy.
"They've been drafting guys to take my place for 13 years," he said. "I thrive on the competition and I'm going to keep coming no matter who they bring in."
That said, Brooking and Lee have become fast friends. Lee speaks in awe of Brooking and Bradie James. Coach Wade Phillips has taken to calling Lee "Brooking" when he sees him around camp.
"Sean Lee keeps me young," Brooking said. "They've made a lot of comparisons between us, and most of them are accurate."
But Lee will have to wait his turn with the Cowboys because Brooking may be having the best camp of his 13-year career.
THREE HOT ISSUES
1. Is there enough depth on the offensive line? That's a question folks were asking even before starting left guard Kyle Kosier and right tackle Marc Colombo suffered injuries. Colombo probably will return in time for the opener against Washington on Sept. 12, but Kosier could miss a couple of games. Veteran Montrae Holland (48 career starts) will replace Kosier. Holland's had his moments in the league, but he has started only two games since joining the Cowboys in '08.
Robert Brewster may get the start in Colombo's place, and that's a problem. Brewster's footwork has been questionable and he's getting blown off the ball in pass protection. And on Wednesday, the Cowboys couldn't seem to decide whether quarterback Tony Romo would play Saturday against the Chargers. The Cowboys are extremely talented at the skill positions, but a couple of injuries on the offensive line could derail this team. The good news is that left tackle Doug Free has had an excellent camp. Owner/general manager Jerry Jones believes that Free will be an upgrade over Flozell Adams. I think that may be the case down the road, but for now, Free's still somewhat of a wild card.
2. Will the Cowboys score in the red zone at any point this preseason? Romo's coming off the best season of his career with 26 touchdowns and only nine interceptions. He stopped putting so much pressure on himself to constantly make plays, in part, because he knew the defense would get him the ball back quickly. But for all the yards, the Cowboys were not a good red zone team. They ran the ball well between the 20s, but they were stymied after that.
Romo told a couple of us Monday that we're going to "enjoy" the Cowboys' new red zone plays. He said that Jason Garrett was purposefully being vanilla with his play calls because he doesn't want to tip his hand. The good news is that tight ends Jason Witten and Martellus Bennett have made several plays in the red zone during practice. If Romo can develop some trust in the 6-foot-6 Bennett, it would give the Cowboys quite a weapon. Bennett has made some remarkable catches since returning from an ankle injury Sunday. He's trying to persuade Romo to go ahead and force the ball to him even when it looks like he's covered.
3. How much of a setback was Dez Bryant's high ankle sprain? Bryant was supposed to be the story of this camp, and he delivered all the headlines until Jon Kitna fired a pass behind him. He appears to be ahead of schedule in his rehab work with Cowboys associate head athletic trainer Britt Brown. Bryant has done a nice job of staying in the playbook and he passed a pop quiz from Garrett after practice Wednesday. You can stand there and watch him play catch during practice and be amazed by the way he snags balls with his left hand. The more I'm around Bryant, the more obvious it becomes that he's going to force his way into the starting lineup early in the season. I think we'll see him play in the final preseason game just to get a feel for game speed. It will be interesting to see if Phillips lets Romo play a series with him just to work on their rhythm.
Cornerback Cletis Gordon and safety Danny McCray tied for this coveted award. My colleagues at ESPNDallas.com have Gordon with 10 interceptions in training camp. The ball just seems to find him and that's a great thing for a cornerback. He'll be the Cowboys' fourth cornerback.
The University of Texas wanted to make McCray into a linebacker, so the Houston native opted to play at LSU. He's one of at least nine rookies from the school and he was not even close to being the headliner. He played in the shadows of Chad Jones, the Giants' third-round draft pick who was in a horrific car accident this offseason. Special teams coach Joe DeCamillis thinks McCray could be a star for him. His play on special teams jumped off the screen in the Hall of Fame Game, but he also has shown excellent range at safety. There's no way to keep McCray off the 53-man roster.
The Cowboys still like wide receiver Kevin Ogletree's potential, but he's really missed some great opportunities in this camp. The knock on Ogletree is his consistency, and he hasn't done a lot to overcome that reputation. He has tremendous speed and runs nice routes. But he'll lose focus and drop a couple of balls in practice. When Bryant suffered the ankle injury, Ogletree should've seized the opportunity. But all he did is make Patrick Crayton look more valuable than ever.
Bennett has pretty much taken over camp the past three days. He told me Tuesday that he watched film of Brandon Marshall before practice every day because he loves his intensity. Bennett believes that he's been too nice of a guy to everyone in general and wants to play with more attitude. I don't know about the attitude, but he's catching everything. Perhaps he'll gain Garrett's trust heading into the season. As I mentioned earlier, I think he could be a huge weapon in the red zone.
Nose tackle Jay Ratliff had surgery on both elbows in the offseason and he's finally playing without pain. He's relentless in practice and he has put some of his mixed martial arts training to use. Ratliff has quietly become an important leader for this defense.
Brewster's still a work in progress, and that's as nicely as I can put it. He's had a difficult time anchoring in the two preseason games and he's lunging at defenders. The good news is that he's doing everything in his power to turn the corner. And he's going to get a huge opportunity this Saturday against the Chargers. If he can hold up well as the starter (if Alex Barron is out), that should solidify his roster spot.
Romo walked past the Beast West Coast bureau Wednesday and jokingly asked me whether he was playing Saturday. Moments earlier, Phillips had indicated that Romo might play an entire quarter. In other Romo news, he was seen sprinting after practice Wednesday near a busy street in Oxnard. I was later told that he was filming a spot for a TV network. According to an eyewitness, he was trailed by two motorcycle cops.
David Buehler has to be the cockiest place-kicker I've met -- and that's not a bad thing. The former USC kicker doesn't seem to have a care in the world, even though Cowboys fans are wondering what he'll do in real games. Other than that 49-yarder that he almost hooked into the stands in Canton, Ohio, he has been pretty consistent.
The Cowboys are going to try to get the ball to Crayton in the red zone. They've been lining him up in the slot and they're hoping to take advantage of his strength and sure hands. I love watching him compete against press coverage. He's a heady player who knows how to set up a route.
Safeties coach Brett Maxie has done some solid work with Alan Ball in camp. Ball looks like he has been starting for years. There are no false steps with this guy right now. Maxie is trying to get Ball to be a little more vocal on the field. That's not really Ball's nature, but he's getting a lot better at communicating with his teammates.
The John Phillips knee injury really hurts the Cowboys' offense. Garrett had made Phillips an important part of the running game and he was getting a lot better at catching passes. In fact, he was sensational against the Bengals before the injury. Without Phillips, the Cowboys only have two legitimate tight ends on the roster. We'll see what Scott Sicko does when he comes back from this concussion, but it's not a deep position right now.
What a superb camp it has been for Terence Newman. Everyone thought Mike Jenkins had passed him by, but Newman has responded with an excellent camp. He's doing a good job of getting his hands on everything.
Felix Jones looks so much bigger than I remember him, but the burst is still there. The Cowboys may have the best three-deep backfield in the NFC. Tashard Choice is an excellent back who could start for a lot of teams. Garrett has to find different ways to get him the ball. This team needs to get Jones and Choice in space.