OTAs and minicamps are not times where you tend to learn much that is new about an NFL team. The practices are more about working on the playbook and integrating the many new players into the system. And of course, they are limited to no contact and run in shorts and shirts, with only the helmets to make it look anything like football. Watching them, you may not learn much you didn’t know, but sometimes things you thought you knew can get confirmed. With the last practice of the offseason done for the Dallas Cowboys (and the last ever at the old Valley Ranch headquarters), here are some things that look to have been confirmed.
Tony Romo is back to his old self - if not better.
All reports from the ten days of practice are that Tony Romo is throwing and moving very well, with no evident lingering effects from his past collarbone or back surgeries. He says that he is feeling very good about things.
"I’m throwing the ball as well as I ever have," Romo said. "I think a lot of that is just based on years of trying to perfect your craft and get to a point where you feel very confident from multiple launch angles throwing the football with people around your feet, in front of you, you can’t step into it, you can, sliding left, having to move a little to the right, throwing across yourself, throwing out in front, drag routes, people who are stationary. There’s a lot of little things that come up from the quarterback position as far as the angle and launch point of the release. I feel like that’s a big thing I’ve been working on was a certain technique to that.
"Now that I feel like I’ve been able to accomplish doing it everyday, it’s been a few years of trying it. I feel like now this off-season when I wake up, it’s there everyday. That’s pretty exciting. I think that’s part of what has allowed me to, once you are there, now you can start playing with your footwork and doing things to technically, like I said, try to perfect your craft. I’m just excited that I get to throw and practice those things."
Having him back has also had a positive effect on the receivers. Terrance Williams, who was criticized for not being able to carry the load last year after Dez Bryant was injured, has looked good. Jason Witten and Cole Beasley both gave the defenders fits. Brice Butler is starting to get a firm hold on the fourth wide receiver slot, and may provide a challenge to Williams for the WR2 position. And several of the players who will be competing for the fifth and possible sixth WR spot had moments they shined.
Of course, this also adds weight to the belief that the Cowboys’ season is dependent on Romo’s continued health, but that is one thing no one had any real doubt about.
Ezekiel Elliott is apparently what we hoped he was.
There was nothing but praise for the way Ezekiel Elliott picked things up and then put them to work on the field. The bizarre smartphone-related accident to Darren McFadden had the silver lining of getting Elliott more snaps in practice, which can only help his progress. He was just as exciting going out into the pattern as he was taking handoffs. It looks like the plan to return to the run-first offensive plan of 2014 is on track.
The McFadden injury also reinforces the idea that his roster spot may be in peril, but given the lack of available depth with him out, as well as the question of whether Lance Dunbar may have to start the season on PUP, he may well stick with the team just as insurance once he recovers from falling iPhone elbow.
The defensive line is the biggest headache for the team.
Already facing four-week suspensions for Randy Gregory and DeMarcus Lawrence, the Cowboys saw even more trouble come up with Maliek Collins and Benson Mayowa both requiring surgery. With a lack of any proven pass rushers, especially if Lawrence’s full suspension stands (Roger Goodell continues to hold that in limbo), the start of the season is going to be challenging for the defense. The team is going to have to rely on what our podcast host Landon McCool refers to as "teamupsideschmorgasborg" and hope some of the young, athletic D linemen can step up this fall.
Morris Claiborne needs to stay healthy.
With the pass rush still a work in progress, the team needs to have good coverage in the secondary. Orlando Scandrick is expected back, but former first-round pick Morris Claiborne has to avoid the injury issues that have plagued him for so much of his career. He came into the OTAs with more weight, and it looks like it has helped him. He has been described as practicing with the most intensity of any of the players on the field, and he has high expectations of himself as he tries to earn himself a new contract after his current one-year deal is up.
"When y'all come talk to me, I want y'all to say, 'Oh, that was a nice pick. Oh, you made this play. How's it feel to be going to the Pro Bowl? How's it feel to be going to the Super Bowl?'" Claiborne said. "Those are the questions I want. I'm ready to take on that task and I know the coaches expect a lot from me. I know I expect a lot from myself. Nothing less. I have some high goals this year, and I'm trying to reach them. I'm going to try to do everything it takes to get there."
But the specter of injury re-emerged as he was held out of practice the last two days of minicamp after what was described as a tweak to his hamstring. He has a ton of talent when he can stay healthy, but that has not happened for him yet. It needs to this year, for both his future and the team’s plans.
Those are four things that the practices the past four weeks have confirmed, at least to this writer. What about you? Did you see other things you expected, and did anything surprise you? Jump into the comments and let us know.