The opening of the Dallas Cowboys’ training camp in Oxnard is now just about three weeks away. You can almost smell football in the air. Well, at least you are probably starting to get a little excited, and maybe a tad impatient. As the 2017 season draws ever closer, we have a lot of questions about the Cowboys. One was presented to our staff here at Blogging The Boys:
If you had to focus on one player to watch in camp this year, who would it be and why?
Here is what the group came up with.
Tom Ryle: Damontre Moore
With the evergreen concern about how the Cowboys can get more pressure and sacks from their defensive line, Moore is for me the most intriguing player in camp. He had a very good showing in the OTAs, and the recently confirmed suspension of David Irving means that Dallas has an "extra" roster spot to use for a potential rushman. It is also encouraging that he was an attendee at Von Miller's recent "Pass Rush Summit", where he had a chance to work with and learn from some of the best sack artists in the game.
Moore came out of college with what appeared to be plenty of talent and potential. He has been held back mostly by his own maturity issues and work habits. Early signs are that he has gone a long way to resolving them. He is signed to a very inexpensive two-year contract which won't hurt his case. If he can emerge even as a five- or six-sack producer with proportional pressures along the way, he could be a real factor in solving the pass rush woes for Dallas.
One.Cool.Customer: I don't have to speculate about who I would watch, because I'm going to be in Oxnard for the first three weeks of camp, so I know exactly who and what I will watch.
The first thing I will watch is the starting lineup on the kick return team, because that always gives you an early indication of who may have a leg up for a roster spot. Early in camp last year, this was the first-team lineup on kick returns:
Kick returns: Byron Jones, Jeff Heath, Anthony Hitchens, Keith Smith, Mark Nzeocha, Gavin Escobar, Geoff Swaim, Charles Tapper, Jack Crawford, Rod Smith, and Lucky Whitehead as the returner.
Note that all eleven players above made the 53-man roster.
The player I will watch is not a mystery:
Dawn Macelli: Rico Gathers
The Cowboys went back in time to the early Landry days when they decided that a basketball player was a potential tight end. Gathers had not played organized football in many years but he does have a skill set that projects well for his potential role. The dual questions were always would he make the transition and if so how long would it take.
Now that Rico is entering his second NFL camp it will be our first time to gauge his development. The things coming out of the Star have been positive. I prefer to judge with my own eye.
Danny Phantom: Last year marked the first time I have ever bought a rookie's jersey before they even stepped on the field. My love for Ezekiel Elliott was that strong. I'm halfway inclined to do it again and add another #33 jersey to my collection. I'm extremely excited about so many of the new faces in the Cowboys secondary, but the guy that excites me the most is Chidobe Awuzie.
Chido is a smothering defensive back who is going to make several splash plays for the Cowboys this season. The group as a whole will be a more trusting unit and I foresee Rod Marinelli dialing up more blitzes in attempt to generate more pressure on the quarterback. Awuzie will fit nicely in those plans whether his role is the blitzer or hanging back in coverage. The DB coaching tandem of Joe Baker and Greg Jackson worked magic in the secondary last year and I'm excited to see what they can do with a legitimate talent like Awuzie.
VAfan: What new player could have the greatest impact in 2017? There are several one could choose from. If I have to pick one, the guy who intrigues me the most is Jourdan Lewis. This guy was like glue on receivers at Michigan. Bob Sturm listed these stats for his last two years: 23 games, 4 interceptions, 7 TFLs, 77 tackles, 31 passes broken up, forced fumble. The leader in the NFL last year in passes defensed was Brent Grimes with 24 in 16 games. The next highest was Dominique Rogers-Cromartie, with 21. That's essentially the same rate as Jourdan Lewis. 1.3 passes defensed per game. Of course, the NFL is not college, and Lewis won't start out getting anything close to full time snaps, but that seems to be his potential. I love this PFF profile which compares him to Chris Harris Jr. of the Denver Broncos, who just happened to be the highest rated cornerback in the NFL last year by PFF. Lewis's passer rating allowed in 2016 was 47.1. No cornerback on the Cowboys was even in that universe. The Cowboys desperately need to lower opposing QBs passer rating. Lewis might quickly become the best at doing that on the team. What's more, despite his diminutive size, he's a willing and skillful tackler who's unafraid to mix it up. The coaching he got at Michigan was from a highly successful former pro coach who led his team to the Super Bowl, so I expect him to take to the NFL quickly.
Dave Halprin: Jaylon Smith.
The reasoning should be obvious to everyone. Can he move and make plays when the pads come on, or will his injury linger and hamper his ability to make a difference on defense? If he's healthy and moving well, the combo of him and Sean Lee would be formidable. But if he can't move well with the pads on and live contact happening, then that pick starts looking shaky. It could go either way, but we really won't know until he's got the pads on and the action is happening. It's a huge mystery that will start to be solved at training camp.
Cole Patterson: Chidobe Awuzie.
Awuzie has the ability to play all over the secondary. With Dallas struggling to find a big playmaker in the back end of the defense, Awuzie will have the opportunity to step in to that role. Awuzie played all over the Colorado defense -- seeing action at cornerback, free safety, strong safety, nickel and even occasionally outside linebacker. He can grow into a ball hawk, has impressive ball skills, and can even blitz off the edge. I think he can make a big impact for the Dallas Cowboys.
RJ Ochoa: Damien Wilson.
Wilson was the star of training camp two years ago and last year missed the beginning because he'd been shot in the eye with a paintball. So much of what we're expecting from this season is predicated on Jaylon Smith being the 34th overall pick from two years ago, but this team's depth is precarious. Wilson didn't quite take the leap that most would've hoped for in either of his first two seasons, and with Anthony Hitchens being in a contract year it only adds to the level of intrigue surrounding the position.
Joseph Hatz: La’el Collins.
The play of Collins in 2017 could be the barometer that measures the effectiveness of the Cowboys vaunted offensive line this year. Some seem to think that there is blood in the water concerning the Cowboys dominant line due to the retirement of Doug Free and the departure of Ron Leary, but many are overlooking the fact that Collins could very well be an upgrade at right tackle over Free and a potential Pro Bowler himself. He wasn’t as effective at left guard as some hoped but now he is back on the edge, albeit the opposite side of what he played in college. When he lines up on the right side in two months it’ll be the first time he’ll be playing a game that counts on the edge in nearly three years, ever since his final collegiate game. If he can lock down that spot, and potentially even represent an upgrade over Free, the line could actually be even better than it has been over the last few years. If he struggles, combined with the uncertainty at left guard, the Cowboys line could have tougher times ahead and the organization may have to start looking at investing yet another premium draft pick at the position.
Michael Sisemore: Jourdan Lewis
Out of all the moves the Cowboys made in the offseason, the selection of Lewis in the third round may be their best. Lewis may not be the biggest cornerback but he does have good length, and abilities at defending passes that some cornerbacks would get roasted on. In this league, you have to have three or four good cornerbacks and Lewis has the potential to be outstanding. Go back and watch the tape on how he played in college and see the plays he made on the ball. This is something the Cowboys have desperately needed to upgrade in their secondary. Lewis is the type of player that can really put the clamps down on receivers. If he starts to have a good game, his personality is infectious. To me, Lewis may be their best pick in the draft and now it's time to see how he plays against his own teammates in practice. I want to see that Lewis is ready for the NFL because he's a really nice piece for this defense.
There you have our players to watch. What about you? Let us know who you are most interested in seeing in camp and preseason in the comments.