The Cowboys entered training camp with only a few starting spots up for grabs, and most of them have been addressed with a clear-cut favorite.
Still, the reason for so much trepidation stems from a rash of injuries that included TE Jason Witten, whose availability for the Sept. 5 opener against the Giants is in question now that he is recovering from a serious lacerated spleen injury.
The Cowboys had 16 players miss the Raiders game for injury reasons, and that has trickled down throughout the 90-man roster. That’s why it’s rather difficult to assess some of the backup spots.
Here’s a look at the projected 53-man roster, with three preseason games still to play.
Stock rising: The recent injuries at tight end have opened the door for sixth-round pick James Hanna, who will get plenty of reps here in the next three games. Jason Witten’s abdominal injury, coupled with John Phillips’ ankle injury, might let Hanna work with the No. 1 offense even more. He had a few nice plays in the preseason opener in Oakland.
Stock falling: CB Mike Jenkins still figures to be a key part of the defense this year, but it will depend on when he returns from a shoulder injury that plagued him all offseason and likely will keep him off the field until the end of the preseason. His trade value has definitely plummeted, and now Jenkins has to worry if he’ll have enough playing time to get that big payday as a free agent next offseason.
QB -- In (2): Tony Romo, Kyle Orton. Out: Stephen McGee and Rudy Carpenter. Analysis: The Cowboys kept three quarterbacks last season but now with Orton in the mix, a player the Cowboys consider one of the best backup QBs in the NFL, it changes the dynamic. With so many injuries at other spots, there's no way the club can justify keeping three. It makes sense for Carpenter to stick around because he has practice-squad eligibility. McGee will get a lot of reps but could be auditioning for other teams in need of a No. 3.
RB -- In (4): DeMarco Murray, Felix Jones, Phillip Tanner and (FB) Lawrence Vickers Out: Lance Dunbar, Javarris Williams, Ed Wesley, (FB) Shaun Chapas and (FB) Jamize Olawale. Analysis: No real surprises here, although there was a time when it appeared Dunbar could unseat Tanner for No. 3. But despite Tanner’s broken hand, Dunbar hasn’t capitalized because of an injury of his own -- his hamstring. The Cowboys really like Olawale and could find a spot for him on the practice squad.
WR -- In (6): Miles Austin, Dez Bryant, Kevin Ogletree, Andre Holmes, Cole Beasley and Dwayne Harris Out: Danny Coale, Raymond Radway, Saalim Hakim, Donavon Kemp, Tim Benford and David Little. Analysis: No position has gotten more attention from top to bottom than receiver. That last spot between Harris and Coale will be interesting. Coale can help his cause in the next three preseason games and his fifth-round draft status will help. Benford has caught a few eyes and might jump into the mix if he can shine on special teams.
TE -- In (3): Witten, Phillips and Hanna. Out: Andrew Szczerba and Harry Flaherty. Analysis: The injury to Witten will certainly change the dynamics of this position. But for now, the goal is to have Witten ready for the opener. If he’s not, look for a veteran to get signed and for the Cowboys to go lighter at other spots.
OL -- In (9): Tyron Smith, Doug Free, Nate Livings, Phil Costa, Mackenzy Bernadeau, Pat McQuistan, Jermey Parnell, Ron Leary and David Arkin. Out: Harland Gunn, Levy Adcock, Jeff Adams, Tyrone Novikoff, Daniel Loper and Derrick Dockery. Analysis: While Dockery started the last preseason game, he wasn’t that impressive. Once Livings returns, he should start and Dockery likely won’t be picked over Leary, a rookie from Memphis whom the Cowboys have actually guaranteed half of his salary.
DL -- In (7): Jay Ratliff, Jason Hatcher, Sean Lissemore, Kenyon Coleman, Tyrone Crawford, Josh Brent and Ben Bass Out: Marcus Spears, Robert Callaway and Clifton Geathers, Analysis: This position could see the most changes in the next few weeks. Spears, Calloway and Geathers all have a legitimate shot to make the team in a backup role. Bass has come out of nowhere and it’s unlikely to think he can be stashed on the practice squad this year.
LB -- In (9): DeMarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer, Sean Lee, Bruce Carter, Dan Connor, Victor Butler, Alex Albright, Orie Lemon, Adrian Hamilton Out: The key player in this position is Albright, a smart, tough backup who can play both outside and inside linebacker and is one of the better special-teams player on the team. Lemon and Hamilton have flashed some ability and should be good special teams contributors.
DB -- In (10): Brandon Carr, Mike Jenkins, Orlando Scandrick, Morris Claiborne, Gerald Sensabaugh, Barry Church, Danny McCray, Matt Johnson, Mana Silva, Mario Butler Out: Lionel Smith, Eddie Whitley, C.J. Wilson, Akwasi Owusu-Ansah ,Teddy Williams and Justin Taplin-Ross. Analysis: The Cowboys often kept 10 defensive backs, but if they do this year, it’ll likely come from another team. The secondary hasn’t been completely healthy just yet. Once the cornerbacks all get on the field, it should shake things out rather easily. A rookie like Smith might have a shot to stick around if he can continue his progress here in the preseason.
Special teams -- In (3): Dan Bailey, Chris Jones, L.P. Ladouceur Out: Delbert Alvarado and Charley Hughlett. Analysis: This one might not be as easy as it looks. Hughlett could have a shot to unseat Ladouceur, who has been better than good during his seven seasons. But a younger, cheaper option is always in the cards.