Although the Dallas Cowboys had their first chance to show the coaching staff what they could do in the rookie minicamp, they were only going up against a bunch of other rookies. A much more important second impression, if you will, came for them during the OTAs and minicamp when they got to line up with the veterans. Even under the limitations of practicing in shorts and shirts, this at least provided a chance to gauge potential.
There is not much solid to go on, but there were some rookies who began to stand out. Others did not do so well for various reasons. Here are some of the more solid hints that could be garnered from various reports, particularly the running commentary provided during the podcasts from DallasCowboys.com the days the media was allowed in .
For all the UDFAs (with, of course, one notable exception we'll discuss later), making the team is a long shot, but there are players like Cole Beasley and Tyler Patmon every year who break through and make the roster, or at least find a way onto the practice squad to get another chance later. The big news in the initial wave of UDFA signings for the Cowboys was George Farmer, who received a large signing bonus. He was relatively quiet during the OTAs, but began to get seen a little more in the minicamp. He is facing a stiff challenge from other wide receiver hopefuls like Lucky Whitehead, Deontay Greenberry and Antwan Goodley who all flashed at times. Some other UDFAs who received some nice reviews were cornerbacks Robert Steeples and Jason Wilson, and offensive tackle Reshod Fortenberry.
Among the draftees, two were impacted by injury. Mark Nzeocha was still rehabbing from the injury that cut his senior year short, and Chaz Green had hip surgery. Both may be "red-shirt" rookies, a tactic that the Cowboys seem to be using more in recent years.
Neither Laurence Gibson or Ryan Russell had much said about them. But the last player taken by Dallas, tight end Geoff Swaim, is causing some to take notice. When Dallas surrendered a sixth-round pick from 2016 to get him, the belief was that he was seen primarily as a blocking end. But during the practices he showed good hands and routes in the passing game. According to Bryan Broaddus, there is now discussion of keeping four TEs this year, raising the ghost of the 12 personnel package again. It will mean something else has to give, with the fullback position being the most likely suspect. This will be something to keep an eye on once pads come on in Oxnard and the preseason games get started.
When Damien Wilson was drafted in the fourth round, the parallels between him and the previous year's fourth-rounder, Anthony Hitchens, were unmistakable. And they just continued in the OTAs, as the coaches put him in at all three linebacker positions. The absence of Rolando McClain and the obvious pitch count being used with Sean Lee gave him some extra opportunities. There is clearly a plan to at least try and replicate what was done with Hitchens, who turned out to be invaluable for the defense in 2014.
That brings us to the top two plus one, the much discussed trifecta of first-round talents that Dallas managed to score. La'el Collins is the plus one, who clearly cannot be compared to the other UDFAs given the unique and sad circumstances surrounding him. He was given some work at tackle early on, but by the minicamp he was seen exclusively as a guard. He has a ways to go to challenge Ronald Leary for a starting spot, but showed some good ability and even seemed to be developing a little chemistry with Tyron Smith when given a chance to work with the ones. There are still many who think he will supplant Leary some time during the preseason, but his best option is to become the primary backup at guard. He would certainly have been a starter for most other teams if they had drafted him in the first round where he was predicted to go. Dallas is not most teams with the established and proficient line they have, and with Collins on a UDFA payscale, the team can afford to keep him a backup. A lot of other teams are probably experiencing great regret at not taking the risk on Collins after the tragic events he was caught up in, like (going totally at random here) the Philadelphia Eagles, who now have a very uncertain situation at both guard spots.
Second round pick Randy Gregory has been getting extensive work with the ones. In the defensive line rotation that Rod Marinelli uses, the starter designation is not as important as with some other positions, and Gregory is clearly seen as in that rotation. What was most exciting was a personnel group that was used repeatedly during the practices that may be the main pass rush package once Greg Hardy finishes his suspension, assuming the NFL office ever makes its decision on his appeal.
DeMarcus Lawrence, Greg Hardy, Tyrone Crawford, Randy Gregory pic.twitter.com/xUqisMqkSh— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) June 19, 2015
Speed. Power. Quarterbacks staring at the sky from flat on their backs. Let the dreaming begin.
Speaking of dreams, perhaps the most solid performance of all the rookies was turned in, appropriately enough, by first-rounder Byron Jones. One of the most appealing things about him as a prospect was his background playing both corner and safety, and the team has been putting him outside and in the slot as well as working him at safety, often in the same practice. He has received some raves from Tony Romo and secondary coach Jerome Henderson, and Jerry Jones, always quick with a colorful description, used the phrase "visions of sugar plums" in talking about him. He also had some more football specific things to say.
"I don't think we could have asked for more, sitting here today, than what he's shown," Jerry Jones said Wednesday. "He certainly has shown the athletic ability, which was a given, but he's shown the instincts, shown the ability to have position flex of corner as well as safety. With those tall guys, a lot of times you have a little limitation in how you basically turn, and some of that.
"One of the first things that we talked about once he had been out here a few days was just his hip flex and his ability to do what you've got to do at corner. We know it's there for safety, and so there is no doubt he'll get some work at both places.
"You couldn't ask for a pick to pan out better than he's panned out, much less being a first-round pick. He is everything as advertised."
From the big picture view, things look good for the Cowboys' rookie crop. However, this is the season of unbridled optimism in the NFL, so take it all with a grain of salt. But in recent years, there have also been high expectations and good reports on players like Hitchens, Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, Terrance Williams and Zack Martin. Sometimes the optimism is justified. On July 30th, we start to find out the truth about this bunch.