For months now, we have been watching the Dallas Cowboys as old players move on and the team accumulates new players to try and reset the roster for training camp. But now the real work of the coaching staff has begun. While Dallas gives the coaches a large say in who to sign as free agents and, more importantly, who to draft, the real job for the coaching staff is to take these new faces and mold them into Cowboys.
That work began on Friday with the beginning of the three-day rookie minicamp. While this is more about teaching the playbook and evaluating the new guys, it is for us year-round Cowboys fanatics a big milestone. The shiny new toys and long-shots are getting their first taste of Dallas practices, and the coaches can start figuring out how they can use them.
Many of these players will be gone before the first game of the season, but some of them are going to play major roles, particularly on defense. The Cowboys will take a careful approach with the rookies to prevent injuries and let players who haven’t practiced since the end of their college careers ease into the workload of the NFL.
It is very early, quite obviously. But already a few storylines seem to be emerging for us to watch.
The Rico buzz looks to be for real.
After a year on the practice squad (which made him eligible to participate in the rookie camp again this year), converted basketball player Rico Gathers could have a very big role to play.
Rico Gathers is #2 on depth chart behind TE Jason Witten bc of injuries at position...wants it to stay that way. #Cowboys— Jane Slater (@SlaterNFL) May 12, 2017
He’s not wishing for James Hanna and Geoff Swaim to continue to have problems with their health, of course, but just wanting to keep the number two job on his own merits. As for how he may fit, a couple of more tweets pretty much sum that up.
When I asked Rico Gathers where he'll impress us at camp, he said blocking. #Cowboys— Jane Slater (@SlaterNFL) May 12, 2017
Sage football advice from Scott Linehan, on what Rico Gathers can do: "if they're playing man across the board, throw it to the 6'8 guy."— David Helman (@HelmanDC) May 12, 2017
No more excuses for the defense.
For several years, the Cowboys have seemed to favor the offense in building the roster. While that may be more perception than reality when you look at the raw numbers of players brought in, there is no question that things have certainly been more successful on the offensive side of the ball. Now, with seven of nine draft picks, including the first three, all going to defense, and no red-shirt picks among them (at least at this time), that is not going to fly as an excuse for why the D hasn’t improved as much as the O. Marinelli has long been praised for how well he can develop players, particularly on the line, but this year, that development simply has to start paying off. The rookie class is led by Taco Charlton, but the team also has to see some contribution from players like David Irving, Charles Tapper, DeMarcus Lawrence, and of course, Jaylon Smith. No more looking to the future for them to pay off. Their future has to be now.
The secondary coaches have to be drooling.
The term “carpet bombing” was used to describe the approach Dallas used to restock the defensive back corps. For Matt Eberflus, Joe Baker, and Greg Jackson, this has to feel like a wonderful Christmas, with one shiny new toy after another to unwrap. With the amount of position flexibility that exists, including vets like Byron Jones as well, they will have a staggering array of options in lining up the pass defense. And their seemed to be a preference during the draft for DBs that could both get their hands on the ball and lay a lick on people. For quarterbacks and receivers alike, the Cowboys’ secondary could be a much more dangerous place to operate this year.
The most fun thing to come out of the draft may be the smallest package.
If you want one rookie to watch this year, it may be receiver Ryan Switzer.
A little bit of a size difference between Rico Gathers (80) and Ryan Switzer (10) pic.twitter.com/ZqIZ7nZsU5— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) May 12, 2017
Early on, he may make the biggest impact in the return game.
Lot of options in the return game from this rookie class. Ryan Switzer, Jourdan Lewis, Jahad Thomas all took PR reps after practice.— David Helman (@HelmanDC) May 12, 2017
But the most exciting things should come as the team works him into the offense. Several analysts were puzzled why Dallas would draft Switzer when they already have Cole Beasley.
But if one highly effective slot receiver on your roster is good, why isn’t two even better? Other teams, like the New England Patriots, have shown that you can use multiple slot weapons. And it has already been speculated that Switzer will, in combination with using Ezekiel Elliott more in the passing game, allow the Cowboys to forego having a change of pace back on the roster, perhaps freeing up a spot for a sixth wide receiver on the 53.
In college, Switzer was simply dynamic as an offensive weapon, and he may turn out to be even better than Beasley after he gets some experience in the NFL. But if Scott Linehan gets creative and finds a way to use both of them at once, some really fun things may be in the offing.
Those are just a handful of things to watch, and we haven’t even gotten into Jaylon Smith and his nerve. And here’s one general observation to add in the end.
The talent level of the Cowboys seems as high as it has been in recent memory.
Not since the super teams of the early nineties has there seemed to be so much pure ability for the staff to work with. The caveat is that we still have to see the potential of the new players translate to the field, but this already looks like a roster that has a surplus of talent at more than one position. Cutting this group down may involve some really difficult decisions, but you would much rather have that problem than the opposite. Last season, Dallas had truly elite performers all over the offensive side of the ball, and now the defense may be poised to catch up - while those offensive stars are still very much in their prime.
This is the season of optimism across the NFL, but for the Cowboys, there seems to be a very realistic base for that. And the start of the rookie minicamp is where it really begins to come together.
Football just got a little bit closer. That is a very good thing.