The pads come on for the first time in Cowboys training camp on Wednesday. And with pads - and actual hitting - comes a whole new perspective on how individual players are performing.
For now, the impressions from camp are mostly based on how the players are performing in position drills. That still leaves us with plenty of impressions from the first two days of non-padded practices, even if everything we've seen so far needs to be confirmed once the pads come on.
For no player is this more true than for Jaylon Smith, who practiced for the second consecutive day, and had both ankles heavily taped. Here's a close-up of Smith's left foot, taken on Tuesday at practice, which appears to show the outlines of the brace Smith is wearing.
For starters, there’s the brace the 2016 second-round pick out of Notre Dame has been wearing on his left leg. It’s not an AFO (ankle/foot orthoses) brace, which has been widely reported. It’s actually a custom-made Richie Brace, with plastic, bendable, hinged sides, much like an air-cast for a high-ankle sprain.
“I’ve heard some doctors and trainers, who haven’t ever seen Jaylon, say that there’s no way he could play in the NFL with an AFO brace, and they’re right,” said Cowboys associate athletic trainer/director of rehabilitation Britt Brown. “With the brace he is wearing, Jaylon can take his natural linebacker stance and come off the ball the same way he would without the brace.”
Even with the brace in place, there were no limitations to Smith's movement. There had been speculation that Smith's straight-line speed wouldn't be impacted by the brace (it isn't) but that he'd have trouble with lateral movements and sudden changes in direction. That was not evident either, as Smith participated in linebacker drills, some of which required him to backpedal, change direction, shedding blocks while moving laterally, and more, all without a noticeable limitation. Here's a short youtube highlight reel from the first day of practice.
Smith is expected to go through some contact drills during Wednesday's first padded practice.
Smith wasn't the only player to stand out over the last few days, which brings us to our five observations of the day.
Maliek Collins is “sudden”.
That's the word Marinelli used after practice to describe Collins and the way the 2016 draft pick is playing the 3-technique position.
For the first time this year, defensive linemen are wearing boxing gloves as they go up against tackling dummies, but these aren't ordinary boxing gloves, these boxing gloves contain extra weight in order to develop strength and stamina as the player hits and rips his way past the tackling dummy.
Nobody does this as as impressively as Collins.
No. 96 stood out in the D-line drills with his power and his explosiveness, and looks to have taken his game to much higher level than where he left off last year.
In January 2013, when Warren Sapp first heard that the Cowboys were going to switch back to a 4-3 and hire his former defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin as the defensive coordinator in Dallas, Sapp's first question was: "Who is the motor...? Because it's got to be the 3-technique."
The Cowboys have been looking for that guy ever since, and it looks like they found him in Collins. His explosiveness will likely make him the centerpiece of a revamped interior defensive line that may hold the key to solving the Cowboys' pass rush issues.
Charles Tapper looks like the fastest pass rusher.
Again, these are impressions from position drills, and not from padded scrimmages, but Tapper really impressed with his speed and get-off during D-line drills.
Tapper recently reminded us about his speed, speed that that saw him run a 4.59 forty at the Combine - at 270 pounds.
With his speed and closing ability, Tapper looks like a prime candidate for that weakside DE spot. The Cowboys may be hesitant to put a rookie at that position, but if Tapper maintains his form and technique, he'll see his snp counts increase quickly at the position.
Demarcus Lawrence is probably the best lineman in camp.
Jeff Cavanaugh of 105.3 The Fan summarized Lawrence's performance today nicely.
Demarcus Lawrence is the best DL here and it's not close. Based on drills which is dumb. But he's explosive, healthy, strong.— Jeff Cavanaugh (@JC1053) July 25, 2017
Many have already written off Lawrence after two back surgeries, and some will be quick to attribute anything positive about Lawrence to the fact that he is entering a contract year. But that's missing the point.
Lawrence is healthy, he's the Cowboys' most accomplished pass rusher, and it is showing in camp so far. As Cavanaugh explains:
In drills while most are just clubbing dummies, Lawrence stringing together pass rush moves. Rod approves.
People like football. Here's Demarcus Lawrence. pic.twitter.com/wpSTB3COr7— Jeff Cavanaugh (@JC1053) July 26, 2017
The Cowboys scouts are out in full force at camp.
Many repeat visitors to Cowboys camp are familiar with pro scout Henry Sroka; he's the guy helping out in position drills every year, especially with the defensive linemen, where he'll block players with little more than hand shields, never mind that he's three times their age and half their size. He even won a game ball a couple years back for his undaunted efforts.
But Sroka isn't the only scout in camp, far from it. Word in camp is that all the scouts are in Oxnard this week and self-scouting the roster. Once they've concluded their assessment on the different areas of the team and submitted their findings to Will McClay, the Cowboys could well make some personnel moves as a result.
Sean Lee is all in.
If intensity could be measured on a scale of one to ten, Sean Lee's value would be somewhere in the teens. He runs through every drill as if the outcome of the entire season will be determined by that one play. And along the way, he sets a great example for his fellow linebackers.
Lee is always the first player in every drill, partly because he wouldn't want it any other way, partly because he leads every single drill with exemplary technique and his unique intensity.
It's quite an impressive thing to watch up close.
Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott set the world on fire last year and headlined a strong Cowboys 2016 draft class. If Jaylon Smith, Maliek Collins, and Charles Tapper continue the performance they've shown over the first two days of camp, great things await the 2016 draft class that also includes Anthony Brown, Kavon Frazier, and Rico Gathers.