Saturday marks the first day of practice at Oxnard for the Dallas Cowboys. Many of the players are well-established, and this is all about getting ready for the regular season for them. But for many of those taking the field, this is their chance to prove themselves and try to win a roster spot. They will be displaying their talent and drive for the coaches. And they will also be looking for any breaks that may favor them. That is where injuries often enter in. While each one is bad news for the player who suffers it, each also presents an opportunity for a backup to get some additional reps.
As with most teams, there are a few players who come to camp nicked up or still recovering from a prior injury. Here is the initial list for Dallas.
Official PUP list: Dunbar, Maliek Collins, Benson Mayowa, James Hanna.— David Helman (@HelmanDC) July 29, 2016
NFI: McFadden, Jaylon Smith, Damien Wilson
Of note: Two of those names are running backs. Lance Dunbar is still recovering from the devastating injury he suffered last season, while Darren McFadden has not yet fully healed from the broken elbow he incurred during a poolside mishap in the offseason. That only leaves the Cowboys with three healthy running backs for the first practices: First round rookie (and presumed starter) Ezekiel Elliott, veteran Alfred Morris, and sixth round pick Darius Jackson.
For Jackson, this is a tremendous chance to go out and show the team what he can do. He comes with a skill set that will let him work as both a three-down style runner and in the change of pace role that Dunbar fills. It was already expected that he would get a lot of carries in the preseason games to protect those ahead of him on the depth chart. But now he is going to get more snaps in practice as well.
[Disclaimer: Jackson is the officially selected pet cat of the author, who most sincerely hopes that the curse of the goatmouth is well and truly dead.]
Jackson is a fast and strong running back who also has good hands as a receiver, and displayed a lot of ability with the ball in his hands in college. He lasted until the sixth round largely because he was a small school product, playing against lesser competition. This is his chance to show that he can step up and perform against NFL level talent.
It was always going to be a considerable challenge for him, since he was fifth out of five on the depth chart. Elliott has a huge level of expectations for his rookie year, and the others are all veterans who have to have a head start on Jackson. But now two of those vets are going to be watching from the sidelines (or working with the trainers) while Jackson gets to eat up reps on the field. The extra work will also allow him to work on his pass protection skills, probably the area he needs the most improvement. For a rookie who was taken late in the draft, those chances on the field are precious, and he has just been given a whole bunch more than he would have had if all the running backs had shown up healthy.
Jackson is also competing with the two fullback candidates, Keith Smith and Rod Smith. Although Jason Garrett has a true fondness for the fullback position, keeping one comes at the expense of a running back. Now Jackson can make the argument through his play that he would be more valuable to the team than a fullback. That position is a dying, or at least seriously declining, one in the NFL. It is just another way a rookie can fight his way into a roster spot.
While he may have some real splash plays in camp, what Jackson needs to display the most is consistency. Get his assignment right, don’t get caught for negative yardage, catch the ball when he is out as a receiver, and above all hang onto it whether he is running it out of the backfield or catching it. Additionally, never, ever blow a block that puts the quarterback in danger. A big play never hurts, but coaches prefer a player who is always doing a good job over one who is up and down from play to play, practice to practice, and game to game.
And consistency is much easier to demonstrate when you have more repetitions. Jackson needs to get off to a fast start, because the team is hoping Dunbar and McFadden will be back sooner rather than later. Those extra plays will not be available all camp. But to start things off, Jackson should have a high number of carries just due to being one of the few runners available. He needs to put his best effort on the field with every one. Beating out veterans is not going to be easy.
But he has a real chance to gain some serious ground in the early days of camp. It will be a good story to follow.