It is the eve of the first preseason game for the Dallas Cowboys. They will meet the Los Angeles Rams tomorrow night in a nationally televised affair to inaugurate the new era of pro football in LA. But this also marks the end of the initial phase of training camp. The game will be the first chance to see the players in action against another squad, and the emphasis will be on new and backup personnel trying to make the team. Camp seems to be going well for the Cowboys, with the established stars looking like just that and some new additions catching eyes. But one of the most interesting things to watch is players who suddenly emerge when no one was expecting them to. And no one this year has come from nowhere the way tight end Geoff Swaim has.
Swaim got an opportunity this camp, and he seized it well. The team finally has convinced (or perhaps forced) Jason Witten to take it a little easier, with him sitting out a day. James Hanna is on the PUP list. Gavin Escobar surprised everyone by not joining Hanna there, but is being handled in the deliberate manner Jason Garrett has made the watchword in 2016. Rico Gathers is still trying to drink from a firehose as he learns the job. This has thrown a lot of reps to Swaim and UDFA Austin Traylor. and Swaim has already started to emerge as something of a safety blanket for Dak Prescott and Jameill Showers. But even more importantly, when Witten has not been on the field, Swaim has made strides in gaining the confidence of Tony Romo. And for a receiver, there is nothing more important in making a place for yourself on the Dallas roster.
We are finally seeing why the Cowboys traded away their sixth round pick for this year to get an additional selection in the seventh round in 2015 that was used to take Swaim. He was very underutilized during his college career at Texas as well as his rookie season in the NFL, but now he is finally demonstrating his abilities. With Witten expected to see very limited or no time at all in the Rams game, Swaim’s opportunity will continue. It is likely he will see the most plays of any tight end.
If Hanna does not make a full recovery by the beginning of the season, Swaim is probably a lock to be the third TE. Even if Hanna does make it back, Swaim is still in the running if the Cowboys elect to go with four TEs - and given that Escobar is also coming off injury, it is very conceivable the team will want four for depth. There was a good debate raging in the Twitterverse about whether the team should keep Gathers over Swaim, but strong performances in preseason games may make that moot. Gathers is a project and Swaim is on the cusp of proving he is fully ready to contribute now. Several other teams are hurting at tight end, and it is unlikely Swaim could clear waivers to make the practice squad if he continues to perform well. Gathers is also a risk, but a team would likely have to be willing to tie up a spot on their 53 man roster for a player that is almost certainly unable to be ready to play except in a very limited role. Swaim is much more of a complete player.
Of course, there is the question of how much use the team would get out of him in the regular season, since there is no indication that Jason Witten has any intention of playing fewer snaps. Dallas has not done much with 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends) groups. But the way Swaim has been catching the ball opens up one way to make use of him. 12 personnel is usually a running package for the Cowboys, but the team can give Romo the option to move Swaim into the slot if the defense is loading up in the box to counter the run. This would allow Dallas to send Dez Bryant and Terrance Williams (or another wide receiver) deep, have Witten and Swaim working the middle (with maybe those “rub” plays so many teams use effectively to get around offensive pass interference calls on what are actually pick plays), and have the running back able to release into the flat if he is not needed for pass protection. This would also be something that Escobar and Hanna might be used on, but Swaim is making a serious case for being the player used in this situation with his receiving so far.
There have been other surprises in camp, of course. Morris Claiborne has looked like the cornerback the team always hoped he would be as the sixth overall pick of his draft class. Ryan Russell and Mike McAdoo have been better than expected on the defensive line. UDFA Andy Jones is this year’s wide receiver pet cat of the masses. Alfred Morris and Darius Jackson have kept us from becoming overly concerned about the team also being deliberate with Ezekiel Ellliott and his hamstring. And Prescott seems to be far ahead of where anyone predicted he would be in transitioning from a college spread to the Dallas offense.
But all of those players had some level of support among the fans and media prior to camp. Claiborne has started camps like this before, so he is in some ways the least surprising surprise. Based on a very unscientific survey (consisting of looking through my sometimes sieve-like memory), there was no real expectation that Swaim would be frequently mentioned as one of the stars of practices at any point. Many, if not most, questioned if he had any real chance of keeping his job this year. Instead, he is putting some real pressure on Hanna to get back on the field to protect his spot.
If you are still looking for players to watch in the first preseason game, add Swaim to your list. Doing well in practice is one thing, but going up against NFL players on a different team is another, even if many are bottom-of-the-roster types also fighting for a job. But with Prescott and Showers expected to split all the reps (Romo is likely to sit the game, and at most would be in for a couple of series), this could be a big night for him. Young, inexperience passers often go with checkdowns since they are still learning to read the coverages. And when they do, they are likely to find Swaim there to bail them out. If he holds up his end of the bargain, he could do a lot of good for his chances of staying on the roster.
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