With the Bengals heading to Dallas this weekend, we reached out to David Halprin (actually he reached out to us) for an exchange of knowledge regarding our respective teams. A little trivia: Halprin recruited me in 2006 to join SB Nation. You can find my responses to his questions at Blogging the Boys, one of the top football sites at SB Nation.
Murray had a minor strain during OTAs, but nothing serious. You've written recently that you're concerned about the running game, but not the backs. What are you looking for the Cowboys to improve in the running game this Saturday?
In my opinion the problem is the blocking of the offensive line. The Cowboys have been making a switch to using more zone-blocking, so one issue is the line getting more comfortable with that. The second problem is injury and sub-standard players. Our guards have been in a rotation of injury, including your old friend Nate Livings. Mackenzy Bernadeau is not a top level guard but is manning the right guard position, Livings was losing his job to Ronald Leary but now both of them are hurt.
Last year's center Phil Costa needed to be replaced (he has). So the Cowboys are working on upgrading their offensive line, but it's a process that has been hampered by injuries and getting a new scheme of blocking down. It's a lot of change recently and the continuity is just not there.
Do you worry about the offensive line?
Yes, (see above).
But there is some good news on the offensive line. Tackle Tyron Smith is a really good player and has solidified the left tackle spot. Doug Free at right tackle, who was terrible last season and was in danger of losing his spot on the roster until he took a paycut, has actually rebounded and looked very solid so far. His technique is back to where it was when he had some good years and the Cowboys feel good about his direction.
Also, Travis Frederick is a new addition (see below). But the guards remain a major issue. The Cowboys could tinker with their lineup for this game to get a look at Free at guard and Jeremy Parnell at right tackle. With both Livings and Leary out, they are looking for contingencies for the opener if neither of those two are available.
What's the general impression of Travis Frederick. Is he a sure-starter in the first regular season game?
When I spoke of Phil Costa being replaced, Travis Frederick is that guy. He's definitely going to start at center in the first game and the Cowboys are better off for it. Frederick has come in and proved the two things he needed to in order to start right away.
One, he's very intelligent and is already making the line calls and seems to have no problem with that. Second, he hasn't been overwhelmed physically. He's been able to hold up in the middle and has not shown a lot of rookie mistakes so far in the preseason. Coming into training camp I was a little shaky on whether he could be the guy, but so far he's change my mind. He's looked very good. Also, he's had no problems so far with clean exchanges with Romo.
Considering that this game should be the so-called dress rehearsal, what is the primary position battle that you're looking at Saturday?
The Cowboys don't have a lot of position battles going for the starters, most of them have been set for a while.
The only one really still going on is at strong-side linebacker where free agent signee Justin Durant is battling with Ernie Sims, but Sims has been slowed recently by a groin injury. Of course, there are some second-string and down-roster battles going on.
Running backs Joseph Randle and Phillip Tanner are battling for the #3 spot behind DeMarco Murray and Lance Dunbar. At receiver, rookie Terrance Williams is battling with vet Dwayne Harris to be the #3 receiver, along with Cole Beasley who is a sneaky slot guy (but has an injured foot). Second-round pick Gavin Escobar is trying to unseat James Hanna as the #2 tight end behind Jason Witten.
On defense, there's a group of guys along the defensive line who are looking to be primary backups like Nick Hayden, Ben Bass, George Selvie and Sean Lissemore. Matt Johnson, J.J. Wilcox and Jeff Heath (along with a couple others) are jockeying for second-string safety spots.
What are your overall impressions with Bill Callahan calling offensive plays and the hiring of Monte Kiffin?
As for Callahan calling the plays, it's hard to get a read on that right now. Preseason games are so vanilla in game strategy and with the offense trying to look at different guys and the starters barely playing, you can't really get a good feel yet for what Callahan wants to do and how it may differ from what Jason Garrett used to call. I'm reserving judgment on that aspect until I see Callahan operate under real game conditions.
The hiring of Monte Kiffin is going to be a good thing. He's simplified the Cowboys scheme, something that was problematic over the last few years when blown assignments and confusion led to big plays. In this defense, the assignments are pretty easy and the idea is just to attack upfield with the front four and use maximum effort to get to the ball. The linebackers and secondary are mostly running the Tampa 2 coverage, so it's primarily zone coverage without a lot of variation. But when done right, it is impressive. The Cowboys defense has looked pretty good so far and they are playing without Jay Ratliff and Anthony Spencer (expected back for the opener).
Who is your preseason MVP thus far and what players will be introduced to that we otherwise don't know about?
The guy everyone is raving about is Dez Bryant. He and DeMarcus Ware have been cited as far and away the best two guys in camp and preseason. But that's not really unexpected.
As for up and comers, unfortunately for us, you guys won't see backup running back Lance Dunbar. The second-year back has been explosive so far, he's a quick back who excels in space but got injured in the last game and won't be back for a few more weeks.
Keep an eye on Terrance Williams at receiver, he could start breaking out soon, he has the tools to be a contributor as a rookie at wide receiver. George Selvie was a guy the Cowboys picked up during camp to help with the defensive end rotation when Tyrone Crawford went down with injury, but he's really had a great camp and preseason. He has three sacks in three games. At linebacker, rookie DeVonte Holloman looks like a playmaker, he has a couple INTs and looks good as a blitzer.