Five Big Question Marks for Cowboys Heading Into First Preseason Game
1. Is Alan Ball ready to be a starting free safety?
Ball is more of a playmaker than former Cowboys free safety Ken Hamlin, but he has yet to show it during training camp. Up to this point, second-year safety Michael Hamlin and undrafted rookie Barry Church have both outplayed Ball. Of those two players, only Hamlin is a legitimate threat to Ball’s starting job, although both players will also eventually have to fend off rookie Akwasi Owusu-Ansah.
I previously detailed Ball’s battle with Hamlin. If Ball continues to struggle, there is certainly a possibility that Hamlin overtakes him. Ball’s play in the preseason games, starting this Sunday, will be critical. Mission No. 1 for Ball: Improve upon his 22.2 percent missed tackle rate in 2009.
2. Can David Buehler handle all kicking duties?
Buehler has been magnificent so far in training camp. He has consistently been 6-for-6 (or at least 5-for-6) on field goals each day. As I’ve said before, Buehler’s only competition right now is himself.
The Cowboys aren’t going to allow poor kicking demolish their chances of a deep playoff run this season, so Buehler is on a very short leash. Veterans John Carney and Matt Stover are on speed-dial in the event that Buehler folds. Making kicks in practice is one thing, but Buehler will need to convert on basically every opportunity in the preseason to retain all kicking duties.
3. Will Alex Barron make a push for the starting left tackle job?
Just about everyone believes Free has the starting job pinned down, but I’m not as convinced. Free is certainly an overwhelming favorite, but Barron’s talent is so outstanding that anything can happen. Barron has looked great thus far in training camp, especially since he has limited the false starts that plagued his career in St. Louis (although false starts aren’t as costly as they appear).
Neither player is particularly mauling in the run game, but both will be an upgrade over ex-Cowboy left tackle Flozell Adams in pass protection. Take a look at my analysis of the Free/Barron battle.
4. Will Jason Williams’ athleticism be enough to overcome rookie Sean Lee for the nickel linebacker position?
After struggling last season and in the early portions of this year’s training camp, Williams has come on of late. His athleticism and speed are undeniable, but he has suffered from mental mistakes. Further, the Cowboys certainly view Lee as a player who can start immediately (considering they had such a high draft grade on him).
This positional battle may be the Cowboys’ closest, as both players hold advantages over the other. Williams is a playmaker and Dallas may want his talent on the field in their effort to maximize takeaways. Lee, however, is probably the future at inside linebacker. Perhaps the Cowboys want to get him experience as early as possible.
5. What will be the distribution of touches among the running backs?
Many pundits (including myself) predicted Felix Jones would overtake Marion Barber for the starting running back job, but the Cowboys have said “not so fast.” Barber is still No. 1 on the depth chart and looks to be rejuvenated in the early portions of camp.
Whoever starts, however, is less important than the distribution of touches. Jones looks to see an increased role in every aspect of the offense, particularly the passing game. Tashard Choice has also shown that he deserves more work, so it will be tough to justify more than 200 or so touches for Barber–whether he starts or not.
The truth is that we probably won’t learn much about the Cowboys’ intentions regarding this situation until the regular season. Choice may lead the team in preseason carries in an effort to “save” Barber and Jones and limit their chance of injury.