OXNARD, Calif. -- The Dallas Cowboys open their 2022 NFL training camp here Tuesday at the River Ridge Residence Inn. Here’s a closer look at a few storylines:
What's the most compelling position battle? Maybe it is the starting receiver opposite CeeDee Lamb, at least at the start of the season. Or the battle to replace Randy Gregory (Sam Williams, Dante Fowler, Dorance Armstrong). But for the Cowboys to be a real contender, it will come down to their offensive line. The Cowboys selected Tyler Smith in the first round with the idea that he would be Tyron Smith's eventual successor at left tackle and their left guard in 2022. He and Connor McGovern will enter Oxnard in a competition for the job. McGovern is entering a contract year but could not hold the job last season after replacing Connor Williams, who left via free agency for Miami. For years, the Cowboys’ line has been called “among the best in the NFL,” whether deserved or not. Either Tyler Smith or McGovern could help the unit by winning the job and not earning it by default because one played poorly.
Who's the player with the most to prove? Dak Prescott. Not because he has a $40 million-a-year contract. Not because he faces a win-or-else mandate that coach Mike McCarthy seems to face. Not because he isn’t one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. The Cowboys are banking on Prescott to elevate the passing game, having traded receiver Amari Cooper and not adding either a big-money replacement or a receiver in the first or second round. The last time Prescott entered training camp with a group of receivers with this many questions was 2018, his third season, when the Cowboys went with a committee approach with Allen Hurns, Deonte Thompson, Cole Beasley and rookie Michael Gallup. That did not go well but Prescott is a much different quarterback now than he was then. This time he has Lamb as his No. 1, but Gallup (knee) is expected to miss at least a couple of games in September, and Prescott has had limited work with free agent pickup James Washington and Jalen Tolbert, a third-rounder, in the offseason. Prescott will be asked to make the group better.
Biggest question: What can defensive coordinator Dan Quinn do for an encore?
He took over a defense last season that allowed a franchise-record 473 points in 2020 and made an immediate improvement. He was helped by the addition of Defensive Rookie of the Year Micah Parsons, the ascension of cornerback Trevon Diggs and a group that bought into his teachings. Plus, he changed his modus operandi of playing mostly single-high defenses to more man coverage. The results were noticeable. The Cowboys led the league in takeaways and gave up just 358 points. With questions on offense, the defense will be asked to carry more of the load than it has in years. It will be up to Quinn to stay ahead of opponents who had an offseason to get a read on his new look.
What's the fiercest fantasy-relevant battle? It’s not so much Tony Pollard vs. Ezekiel Elliott; it’s Pollard vs. the rest of the offense. Much has been made of Elliott’s drop in production and how he finished last season, but few mention that he played the bulk of the season with a partially torn posterior cruciate ligament. Before getting injured, Elliott looked like he could contend for a rushing title. The goal for the Cowboys should be to maximize Pollard’s touches and they can do that without minimizing Elliott’s impact on the offense. Pollard played more receiver in college than running back. The Cowboys have questions at receiver with Gallup’s injury and untested depth. Pollard will have to show he can run multiple routes, but if he can, that should increase his touches and his fantasy value.
Camp prediction: Williams will claim the starting defensive end spot opposite DeMarcus Lawrence as Gregory's replacement. The Cowboys' second-round pick has all of the pass-rushing skills Quinn loves to work with -- speed around the edge, the ability to bend, solid hands. Armstrong and Fowler have more NFL know-how, and while being a “starter” can be overrated since Quinn likes to rotate his defensive linemen, Williams’ talent will get him on the field early. Look for him to come close to matching Gregory’s six sacks from 2022.