Dallas Cowboys open 2015 training camp with questions, and some answers

August 1, 2015

Oxnard, Calif. -- Coming off a season that featured a playoff victory, a division title, 12 wins, and the development of the league's most potent offensive line, the Dallas Cowboys had plenty of reasons for optimism as they kicked off their 2015 training camp in the breezy California coastal city of Oxnard.

Success in Big D, however, is measured in rings, and the bitter memory of the team's playoff road loss to Green Bay -- one heavily affected by the possible incorrect interpretation of the NFL's pass completion rules by the officials -- also lingered in the franchise's collective mind, as the team appeared hungry and ready to work Saturday at practice.

Dallas will need that hunger to drive them this year, as the present roster has a few question marks, chief among them, the running back position.

Last season, DeMarco Murray led the NFL in rushing yards and played a key role in reducing the offensive burden on quarterback Tony Romo.  The Cowboys declined to re-sign the pricey free agent, projecting that Murray was perhaps due for a down year given his high workload in 2014.

As a result, Dallas is left with a running-back-by-committee approach, as Joseph Randle, Lance Dunbar, and former Raider Darren McFadden will be expected to take up the slack.

McFadden, a former high first round draft pick, probably is the greatest "home run" threat of the three, but has struggled with injuries his entire career.  It was no consolation to Cowboys fans to see McFadden begin camp already nursing a hamstring tweak, as he merely jogged around the field without pads during practice.

Randle got much of the work with the first team, and he looked quick in non-contact drills and plays.  He has had his share of off-the-field issues, but proved last year that he could be effective in a substitute role.  Whether he can make the jump to being a productive starter is an entirely different matter.

Fortunately for Randle and company, the Cowboys have the best offensive line in football.  On a unit featuring three former first round picks and a talented free agent rookie coming off the bench in La'el Collins of LSU, Dallas' line has the ability to dominate the trenches and make any offense look good.

On Saturday, the 6-4, 315-pound Collins got an early taste of the speed of the NFL game, as he was beaten a couple of times in one-on-one pass blocking drills.

As good as the offense was last season, the greater surprise was the team's overachieving defense, as that unit lost some star players, but compensated for the drop in talent with hustle, effort, and great coaching from Defensive Coordinator Rod Marinelli.

Whether the defense can repeat last year's performance is anyone's guess.  On paper at least, the defense appears to have been upgraded.

Added to the unit's defensive line this year are two talented players with off-the-field issues in Nebraska rookie Randy Gregory, and former Carolina Panther Greg Hardy.  Both will be counted on to get sacks for a defense that last year struggled with its 28th-ranked pass rush.

The secondary, which performed more consistently last season than in recent years, returns many of the same key contributors, but has added athletic first round pick Byron Jones (4.36 in the 40).

In addition, cornerback and former first round pick Morris Claiborne has come back from a patellar tendon injury that knocked him out for much of last year, and if the early returns are any indication, he appears to be 100 percent healthy, or at least close to it.

In 7-on-7 drills, Claiborne picked off Tony Romo, sending a signal to his fellow corners that he is ready to compete for a starting spot.

I had a chance to speak with Claiborne about his leg as he busily signed autographs for the many Cowboys fans in attendance, and he stated that "It's strong.  Doing fine."

The most dynamic player on the defense, linebacker Sean Lee, didn't play a snap last season due to a knee injury.  On Saturday, Lee was held out of the offense-defense play sequences, but did participate in drills with the linebackers, moving well and looking explosive.

Second-year linebacker Anthony Hitchens had his ups and downs in those same drills, at one point getting told by intense linebackers coach Matt Eberflus to "pay attention."  Noticeably absent from those drills was Rolando McClain, the talented middle linebacker who stepped in for Sean Lee last year and stabilized the front seven. McClain was out of pads and jogging with the injured McFadden.

But most eyeballs were focused on one player who participated on a very limited basis in Saturday's practice -- Dez Bryant.  Arguably the NFL's best receiver, Bryant recently signed a multi-year deal, and the Cowboys wanted to keep their star investment healthy, holding him out of some one-on-one drills.

Bryant, nevertheless, maintained a prominent presence at practice, cheering on teammates and catching a deep ball that brought loud cheers from the fans in attendance.

It was Bryant who appeared to catch that controversial pass against Green Bay during the playoffs, and it will be Bryant, perhaps the ultimate difference-maker on this team, who again must be relied upon to get this franchise back into the Super Bowl for a record ninth time.

Whether the ultra-talented Bryant can do it, is a question only he can answer.

By Mike Elliott
Editor for TheDailySportsHerald.com

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