With the Dallas Cowboys in Oxnard, it is time to review the most important single objective for NFL training camp: Get the roster through things as healthy as possible. Position battles get a lot of attention, but the real business is to get the players ready for the regular season without getting hurt. That is something where teams are seldom completely successful. But all strive to minimize injuries, even when all they can really do is hope they happen to someone else.
Right now, the Cowboys only have two players who are not ready to go at the beginning of camp.
Justin Durant to start camp on Active/NFI list; Richard Ash on Active/PUP. Both are eligible to be activated at any point during camp.— Rob Phillips (@robphillips3) July 22, 2017
It appears that Justin Durant and Richard Ash are the only two Dallas players who will be held out of practice. Durant simply has to have some time to get back into playing shape after being coaxed (again) out of retirement to come help provide depth in the linebacking corps. And Ash is not exactly a key part of the defensive line.
A couple of things are important here. This means that the other 88 players in camp now can only be placed on injured reserve if they are deemed unable to play from this point on. PUP and NFI are only available to the team at the start of camp. Once a player sets foot on the practice field, they are no longer options. (For a more detailed explanation of how this works, this article from our sister site Niners Nation from a couple of years back does a good job of laying the rules out.) This tells us a few things about some Cowboys who had injury concerns coming into camp.
First and foremost, Jaylon Smith is going to be given a chance to prove he can play. This has been the way all signs have been pointing, but there were still some out there who believed he and the team would have been better served holding him out another season, or at least not putting him on the practice field until he had recovered more. The recent news that he could see full regeneration of his injured nerve in six to nine months added a little fresh impetus to that. Now, it is clear the plan is to let him try out the brace he is still wearing, which is still considered an AFO, but a modified, less restrictive one. The plan the team is discussing is not for full participation, but a modified one with days off, probably every other practice. He has been out of football for over a year and a half now, and will need time to get back into game shape. And don’t expect him to be challenging for a starting job week one, either. He will certainly be worked in slowly. What will be most interesting to watch is how his workload is handled during the preseason games, which should give us some idea of how many plays and in what kinds of situations he may be on the field when the games start to count.
But he is not the only player who is going to be watched closely.
At tight end, both James Hanna and Geoff Swaim appear to be ready to see at least some action as they both return from injury. It will also be worth watching if they are on a modified schedule the first week of practices. If one or both of them had started the season on PUP, it would have been a concern for depth at the position. Now that is not as bad, assuming neither has a setback. But it also may set up a bit of a quandary regarding Rico Gathers. If he continues to show the kind of improvement he has to date, he may force the team to consider carrying four TEs on the 53-man roster. With his tremendous athleticism, it may become too risky to try and get him to the practice squad for another year. That might be the best way to develop him for the future, but it would come with the obvious risk of having him poached by another team who would be willing to spend a roster spot to invest in his future. If he is challenging Hanna or Swaim in camp and preseason games, then he will likely earn his spot on Dallas’ roster.
Another player who had some real questions about his health was Mark Nzeocha. Durant was signed to insure linebacker depth, at least partly because of the uncertainty about Nzeocha (although that was certainly secondary to the questions surrounding Smith). Now, Nzeocha may finally get his chance to prove his value. Our own OCC is probably a wee bit excited to see his fellow German getting his shot.
Someone else who will bear watching is Chaz Green, he has not had a good injury history with the Cowboys. With the competition at left guard, as well as swing tackle, he needs to have a good and healthy camp to make sure he stays on the active roster.
For all these players, it will be informative to see if any of them are working on the side when practices open. If they are, it will slow things down for them. Hopefully, that will be a short-term thing if it happens. They can’t earn their spots if they aren’t on the field with the rest of the team.
Now, we just have the long, agonizing wait to see if any injuries accrue during practices and preseason games. We all remember how things went with quarterback a year ago. And the odds are incredibly small that the team could have things turn out as well as they did with Dak Prescott. But that is just part of football. For now, things are looking very good for the Cowboys’ health.