As training camp approaches for the Dallas Cowboys, the franchise has some interesting decisions to make regarding its starting lineup.
With Dak Prescott back in the fold after his ankle injury last season, the Cowboys hope to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2018. Training camp will present the biggest opportunity for any contender to grab the remaining starting spots available.
Three position battles to watch during the Cowboys training camp
Starting tight end: Blake Jarwin vs. Dalton Schultz
This is an interesting one, as Dallas put a lot of faith in Blake Jarwin before the 2020 signing to a contract extension that netted him almost $9M per year.
Luck wasn't by his side, however, as he tore his ACL in Week 1 and was replaced by Schultz, who made the most of the opportunity and amassed 63 receptions, most ever by a Cowboys tight end in the regular season.
Now healthy, Jarwin has a lot of work to do to take back the starting job from Schultz, who's in a contract year and hopes to cash in on the upcoming free agency. It's a good problem to have since both are talented, but it is still a tough decision.
Starting linebackers: Leighton Vander Esch vs. Micah Parsons/Jaylon Smith vs. Keanu Neal
Remember when everybody was envious of Dallas' starting linebacker duo? Those times are gone now after an awful season for both Vander Esch and Smith in 2020.
Dan Quinn, the Cowboys' new defensive coordinator, will have no problems benching Vander Esch or Smith. He has known Keanu Neal since they were together with the Atlanta Falcons and Micah Parsons has been impressive in his first workouts with the team.
Neal has moved from safety to linebacker full time and, in a Quinn defense that uses a lot of nickel personnel, he'll be a valuable asset on passing downs. Smith is a good player as well, but after a below-average 2020 season, he's got a lot of work to do to keep his starting job.
In the middle linebacker spot, Parsons is the favorite to land the starting job, but Vander Esch surely won't let it go easily. Let's not forget he received second-team All-Pro honors in 2018 as a rookie. Also, since the Cowboys declined his fifth-year option, Vander Esch will be a free agent after this season, and we all know how players improve on contract years.
Starting running back: Ezekiel Elliott vs. Tony Pollard
Now it's getting interesting. It's easy to think Zeke will be the Cowboys starter in week 1, and, let's face it, he probably will. But Pollard was the better back last season without a doubt.
The Cowboys don't have a lot of options about what to do with Elliott's contract because they'll face a ton of dead money if they cut him. Pollard is the cheaper, fresher running back with less mileage and, while Zeke seemed less explosive from his first years in the league.
If Pollard outplays Elliott in camp once again, the coaching staff will have an interesting decision to make regarding the offense: play the better player or the most expensive one?