The Dallas Cowboys are taking their first break of training camp with four practices, two padded, in the books for 2017. There will be only four more sessions before the Hall of Fame game against the Arizona Cardinals. We are halfway to the first real (close approximation of) football! Some may think things drag, but when your non-personal life basically revolves around the Star, camp seems to be flying by at this point. Let’s take stock of some things we have gleaned so far.
It is all subjective, but the Cowboys seem to be further along than you would think after so few practices. We have already seen fights breaking out between the offensive and defensive lines, something that usually doesn’t develop until the team is much further along.
While not all the players are off to great starts, a few names already stand out.
Dak Prescott. The big discussion about him during the offseason has been whether he would suffer from a “sophomore slump”, but so far, it looks like exactly the opposite. He has been very crisp in practice, which is markedly different from his first training camp. Things were a bit rocky for him last year until the first preseason game, when the lights suddenly and brightly came on. This year, he has hit the ground looking very close to mid-season form (and if you remember the eleven-game winning streak last year, that was some very good form indeed). He had not thrown an interception in either OTAs or camp until the Wednesday practice. The success of the offense will naturally be driven by how well he does, and it is very encouraging to see him playing so smoothly already.
Chidobe Awuzie. So far, he is the rookie standout, with two interceptions in the first two padded practices. His performance is greatly alleviating the concerns over the Cowboys letting three starters and a key backup from last year’s secondary leave in free agency. With the many good receivers Dallas will face, especially in the NFC East, it is a much needed development. And these are not just bad throws from the quarterbacks. His first pick was an acrobatic gem. Even better, his fellow rookie Jourdan Lewis, who some think may be even more capable as a ball-hawk, has yet to see the field after getting his legal issues cleared up.
Damontre Moore. The pass rush is still the biggest concern for most fans, and Moore has been an early bright spot there. He has shown up in all the practices, although we will not know fully how he can contribute until we see full contact. But so far, he is the real star of the Cowboys’ limited free agent acquisitions, getting praise not only from Jason Garrett but from Jerry Jones as well. And there is an extra level of sweetness in that he was not a success with the team that drafted him, the division rival New York Giants.
La’el Collins. The Cowboys gave him the ultimate vote of confidence with his two-year contract extension, effectively sealing his role as the starting right tackle. And he has not let that lead to any reduction in his effort to prove himself there. He has had some nice splash plays in camp. More importantly, there has been no reporting of bad snaps for him. You know that if he was having any glitches out there, certain media types would be all over them to criticize the move to lock him up for a couple more years.
Anthony Brown and Maliek Collins. While Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott got the bulk of the coverage as rookies, both Brown and Collins had very impressive debuts with the Cowboys. Collins has been one of the best defensive linemen so far, and the brief scare over an injury looks to be minor. Brown got his first interception of camp on Wednesday, mirroring his start last year when he recorded an INT right off the bat.
Jaylon Smith. Of course we can’t ignore the excitement over Smith seeing his first work since his devastating injury to close out his college career. But that comes with some real caveats. The team is being very deliberate with bringing him along, and close observation show that he is not really the dominant force we still hope he will become. His role in real games this year is going to be limited, especially to start the season. He is still unlikely to be a full-time player even at the end of the year. But any contributions at all are a harbinger of what may be to come, and he is certainly going to be one of the most watched players on the team.
Something else that stands out is that things are going very well on the field at Oxnard despite the potential distractions surrounding the Cowboys. The Lucky Whitehead storm was fierce but seems to be blown out except for some media types who try to keep it alive. The NFL is still dragging its feet on what, if any, punishment is going to be meted out to Elliott. And there are all the known and potential suspensions outside of Elliott. It is a testament to the staff and the team that they have not let all the various controversies lessen their focus one bit.
That may well be a sign that the team is drawing together and taking some motivation from all the negative coverage of the Cowboys and their misadventures off the field. Attitude is a big part of playing the game. It looks like Dallas is going to have a nasty one when they line up against opponents. That may pay some unexpected dividends for them this year.
But so far, camp has gone very well indeed. The only significant injury has been to backup quarterback Zac Dysert, who was always seen as just a camp arm. The players are mostly doing good things in practice. And the team just seems further along than it has at this point in the past. In less than a week, we will see them line up against the Arizona Cardinals in Canton. While that will feature far more work from the backups than the eventual starters, it will be the best gauge of how the team is developing and especially of the depth this year, always an important concern for the long grind of the NFL season.
It has been a long time coming, but Cowboys football is here.