The seventeenth and final training camp practice in Oxnard is in the books. Over those 17 practices, BTB-correspondents rabblerousr and I have worked very hard to not just keep you abreast of what went on in camp on any given day, but also tried to provide an assessment of what all of it could mean going forward.
The players didn't wear pads in Oxnard today, which made the afternoon's practice basically a glorified walkthrough. So in my final report from training camp (technically, from L.A.), instead of delving into the minutiae of what went on in Oxnard today, I'll try to summarize a big-picture view of what we've learned over the last four weeks of Dallas Cowboys training camp.
Training camp may have been a battle for roster spots, but it was not a battle for starting spots. With very few exceptions (perhaps Sims/Durant at SAM and the left guard spot), not a single one of the starter jobs was up for grabs. You could take that as an endorsement of the guys penciled in as starters, and in cases like Dez Bryant, DeMarcus Ware, Sean Lee and Bruce Carter, you'd be correct. But you could also take it as an indictment of the quality of the backups, and in some cases you'd also be correct with that assessment.
Take Dez Bryant. Bryant is exhilarating to watch. Nobody, not even Brandon Carr or Morris Claiborne can shut him down completely. He outplays everybody with a mixture of power, elegance and confidence that makes the training camp crowd go wild every time he touches the ball.
Yet as great as Dez Bryant is, his performance also highlights one of the issues that we as fans have with reports (including mine right here) from training camp. When you read reports that this or that guy made a nice catch or a nice block or even had a would-be-sack, that by itself often doesn’t mean much, because it doesn’t account for the quality of competition, and by that I don't mean just the opponent faced in that particular situation.
What many training camp reports fail to properly convey is just how much better a player like Dez Bryant is - and most other starters are - versus the other players in his/their position group.
We've spent quite some time pondering the depth chart at wide receiver. Who's number three, who's number four, do they keep five or six guys? In this battle, it looks like Terrance Williams is a lock for the No. 3 spot ahead of the remaining wide receivers. But regardless of how the numbers three through five eventually shake out, none of them will be anywhere close to the top two guys (Bryant and Austin) in their abilities.
That’s one of the key takeaways for me from camp: A lot of the performances we’re seeing in camp, while impressive in their own right, look downright pedestrian compared to what the stars on the team are doing.
So far, that difference in position groups is most pronounced at WR, CB, DL and OT. At wide receiver, Austin and Bryant are easily in a class of their own. At cornerback, the Cowboys are three deep. In addition to Carr and Claiborne, Scandrick has been a revelation in camp. On the defensive line, nobody even remotely compares to Ware and Hatcher. And at OT, there really is nothing after Smith and Free, perhaps Parnell and Bell can change that over the next few weeks, but through four weeks of camp: nada.
That difference is not as pronounced at other position groups. At safety, the starters look solid, but I think Matt Johnson (when healthy) and J.J. Wilcox may push for playing time this year. At running back, I think we can be confident in the depth even if Murray should miss a game or two. At linebacker, along with having two of the top guys in the league in Carter and Lee, the depth looks very, very good.
Context is everything in camp. If CB Micah Pellerin records an interception against WR Tim Benford on a pass thrown by Nick Stephens, that doesn’t automatically make him a lock for the Hall of Fame.
Over the last four weeks, both rabble and I have repeatedly written about how the defense "flows" or "swarms" to the ball in the new scheme. It has really been fun to watch this super-fast, hyper-aggressive defense in action, and the results have been quite impressive.
Except against playaction (and probably against the read-option). In camp, this defense has shown a tendency to bite hard on playaction, and frequently found itself out of position to make plays, as the defenders were swarming towards where they thought the ball was, instead of where the ball actually was.
We've been told that instead of a read-and-react defense like the 3-4 was, the new scheme is a react-and-read defense where defenders react off the ball, and then read what happens. I wonder if that is going to be an issue this season.
It's only fitting that rabble also get a say in this summary, so I'm re-appropriating something he wrote yesterday, something which I feel is a key takeaway:
Going into training camp, this was a team with myriad questions: who would play RT, and at what level? Who will be the F/H back? Will someone step up as the third receiver? How will the offense function without a fullback on the roster? Can DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer make the transition to playing with their hands on the ground? Who will be the backup linebackers? Will any safeties step up? Will they have any depth in the defensive backfield?
Almost miraculously, all of these questions have been answered in camp, most of them affirmatively and very positively. As a result a team that looked to be a year away began to consider that they could make a run this year.
Rookie Walls: Every camp has them, and every rookie hits them at some point in camp. And this year's draft class was no different. At different times, different players struggled with different things, and naturally these things dominated the headlines: Frederick is not a great guard; Escobar can't block; Williams had the dropsies; Wilcox is too aggressive; Webb overpursues; Randle has a lot of catching up to do; Holloman makes a lot of mistakes despite his highlight plays.
But don't get fooled by these rookie struggles and don't let them distract from the overall quality of the 2013 draft class. This is a remarkably solid draft class. Not only will every single draft pick make the roster, but this year's draft class, barring significant injuries, will challenge for some serious playing time. And I wouldn't be surprised if they collectively notch more snaps in their first year than any of the last five draft classes did in their first season.
Over the years, Cowboys fans have taken a certain pride in the amount and quality of undrafted free agents that make the roster, as the Cowboys have traditionally been a good place for college free agents who went undrafted. Everybody has, of course, heard the stories of Tony Romo and Miles Austin, to name just two of the more recent examples of undrafted free agents who eventually ended up as stars for the Cowboys.
Over the last three years, 11 UDFA players made the Cowboys' opening-day roster. Here are the Cowboys' UDFAs who survived training camp to make it onto the initial 53-man roster.
- 2010: OC Phil Costa, S Barry Church, S Danny McCray, FB Chris Gronkowski.
- 2011: RB Phillip Tanner, OC Kevin Kowalski, OLB Alex Albright, K Dan Bailey
- 2012: OG Ron Leary, WR Cole Beasley, RB Lance Dunbar
You could take this as a sign of the quality of the Cowboys' scouting department. You could also take it as a sign of weak depth across the roster, or take it as a combination of both. But here's the thing: It's going to be awfully tough for the college free agents to make the roster this year. LB Brandon Magee and Safety Jeff Heath may be the closest to making the 53-man roster, but even they are longshots. 2013 may be the first year in a while in which not a single UDFA makes the final roster.
I've got a lot of faith in Jason Garrett, but I don't think I'm going to trust anything he says related to the medical condition of his players.
The ongoing game of musical chairs at offensive guard has got to make even the most optimistic Cowboys fan a little nervous. The timing of these injuries is indeed a little unfortunate and eerily reminiscent of last year's situation. But while today we're discussing which guard is healthy enough to play, and with the signing of Brian Waters possibly imminent, in two weeks we might be discussing which guards to release. Nate Livings, Kevin Kowalski and Ray Dominguez should all be ready to practice again next week, and even Ryan Cook could be back soon. Until then, David Arkin, Mackenzy Bernadeau and recently signed Dennis Godfrey will hold down the fort.
12-personnel, or the two tight end offense, could make things very interesting this season. We've talked about it at length this offseason, but seeing it in action in practice is something else, especially since the depth at tight end allowed the coaches to experiment with endless personnel permutations. Most importantly though, this offensive formation is hard to read. Will they run? Will they pass? With the 12 as the base offense, anything is possible.
In terms of playcalling, we've seen an emphasis on the running game over the last few sessions in camp, coupled with an encouraging amount of movement by the offensive line. We've seen screens being practiced, to both the wide receivers but especially the running backs. There will be a lot of variability to this offense. Let's hope this is put to good use to score early and often.
More from Blogging The Boys:
- Dallas Cowboys 2013 Training Camp: FanPosts Mania - All Interior O-Line, All The Time
- Dallas Cowboys Roster Moves: Predicting The First Round Of Cuts
- Dallas Cowboys News And Notes: Life's A Beach
- Cowboys Guard Ron Leary To Have Knee Scoped, Out 2-6 Weeks
- Cowboys Crunchtime Podcast Replay: 2013 Training Camp Winds Down