As the Cowboys complete their last training camp practice in Oxnard, California today, one can certainly identify a number of positives that have emerged. For example:
- Rico Gathers has gone from a red-shirt rookie to a blossoming threat in the passing game, with two long touchdowns and several other impressive catch-and-runs in his first two preseason games. Even an unfortunate concussion sustained in practice this week is unlikely to derail his rocketing up the depth charts at tight end.
- Jaylon Smith has been a marvel in practice, and will finally see his first game action since his Fiesta Bowl injury this week against the Colts. Meanwhile, Anthony Hitchens has looked fantastic in camp. So it looks like the linebacking group will be much stronger than last year.
- Cooper Rush has shown the best backup quarterback play the Cowboys have seen since ... Dak Prescott. But, seriously, other than Prescott, what other UDFA quarterback has gotten the fans excited recently? You’d have to go back to Matt Moore in 2007, whom the Cowboys mistakenly thought they could slip onto the practice squad, to find someone as capable as Rush has looked.
The Cowboys have also seen some surprise play from Lewis Neal at defensive tackle and Lenny Jones at defensive end, both of whom were very disruptive against the Rams.
And, of course, many of the veterans have been balling out in practice.
But that doesn’t mean all is rosy and will be ready to go for the Cowboys on September 10th at home against the Giants. Here are three major concerns the Cowboys are facing.
At the moment, the Cowboys are looking at:
- Six games for Ezekiel Elliott. This is on appeal, which will be heard on August 29th. Will the Cowboys even have an answer on Elliott’s appeal before cut-down day September 2nd? Most observers believe Elliott will take his case to court unless the suspension is wiped out, and will perhaps receive an injunction allowing him to open the season with Dallas, but this is all very much up in the air, and likely will be the week the Cowboys will be preparing for their opener. If Elliott is out, the Cowboys offense will look much different without their hammer.
- Four games for David Irving. Where would you rank Irving among Cowboys’ defensive linemen? At times, he’s flashed as their best: for example, the regular season game against Green Bay where he won defensive player of the week in 19 snaps. Or the end of the Tampa Bay game where he harassed Jameis Winston enough to close out the game. The Cowboys will cover for Irving’s loss, but they’ll be a weaker team without him.
- Two games for Damontre Moore. Just how good is Moore? We’ll have to wait to find out. It’s too bad he’ll miss his former team, as he might have been jacked up to get after Eli Manning.
- Nolan Carroll? Damien Wilson? Carroll is still open to league discipline for his DUI, and Wilson for his bizarre incident where he brandished a firearm over a parking space. Carroll would be the much bigger loss, as the Cowboys don’t have a third veteran cornerback to replace him against the Giants’ upgraded receiving corps.
Whatever you think the impact of these suspensions, that’s up to five starters or key depth guys who could be out to start the season.
Fortunately, the Cowboys have not suffered the really bad kind of injuries (knock wood). There is no one, for example, who has been lost for the year like Jaylon Smith and Charles Tapper were last year.
But there have been quite a few nagging injuries that have kept players from practicing and assimilating into the team. For example,
- Tyrone Crawford. The Cowboys appear to have dodged a bullet when Crawford went down in practice with an ankle injury, as he may be ready for the opener. Still, his injury will prevent the defensive line from fully syncing before they have to go live.
- Tyron Smith. The Cowboys All-Pro left tackle has continued battling the kinds of back issues he had last pre-season, which eventually cost him a couple of starts. The team can ill afford to lose him to any games this year, with Elliott likely out several games and the rest of the line an issue (see below).
- Jourdan Lewis. The third round cornerback has yet to seriously practice or play, so we have no idea how he might look, or how quickly he’ll pick up his assignments if and when he does get onto the field. Many of us had very high hopes for Lewis; we’re all going to have to wait to see if he can realize them.
- Ryan Switzer. He impressed in OTAs, but hasn’t done anything in Oxnard or in games. It’s easy enough to see him coming in on punt returns and doing well without much preparation. It’s a much bigger lift to see him adding a new wrinkle on offense, where he would need time to sync with Dak and the other receivers. The Cowboys have never really run plays without a tight end, and if they are planning on running some double slots this year with Beasley and Switzer, it would be helpful if they had a chance to practice it before they unleash it in a game.
- Chidobe Awuzie. He has had time in practice, and played the Hall of Fame game, but missed the Rams game to injury and is still nursing a hamstring injury that will likely sideline him against the Colts too. These rookie cornerbacks need all the reps they can get.
- Marquez White. All three cornerbacks the Cowboys drafted have faced hamstring problems. White is also likely on the roster bubble and needs every chance he can get to make a case to stick. (It appears White has returned to practice, at least in a limited capacity.)
- Anthony Brown. Chalk up another Cowboys cornerback to injury. With this many defensive backs unable to practice or play in preseason games, will the new-look secondary be ready for the Giants week one? It would be one thing if it was a veteran group that had played together before. It’s another thing with so many new parts trying to get on the same page. (Brown was back practicing today.)
All of this could be overcome before the opener. The Cowboys still have two more preseason games after this week, and while they likely will rest veterans in the final game, they could give their rookies game action if they are healthy.
But the nagging injuries in the secondary are concerning because the Cowboys are fielding a new-look group back there, and were hopeful one or more of their rookies would develop quickly enough to provide an upgrade. Those hopes appear on hold with each day lost to hamstring injuries.
The Offensive Line
We all know of the struggles at left guard this preseason. Many penciled in Jonathan Cooper, the former high draft pick. But he may be showing why three previous teams gave up on him.
Chaz Green is probably the best offensive linemen outside of the three All-Pros and La’el Collins, but he hasn’t remained healthy for a long stretch in several years, and has missed time again this preseason. Plus, if the Cowboys start him at guard, who is the backup swing tackle? Perhaps he can jump outside and someone else can fill in at guard during a game, but that means swapping out two spots, which is not ideal.
Byron Bell was signed as insurance, and to compete for the guard and/or backup tackle jobs. So far, he’s kept his weight down, but his performance is not there.
Emmett Cleary and Joe Looney, previously capable backups, both look worse than they did a year ago.
It’s also not clear whether La’el Collins can match or exceed Doug Free’s performance at right tackle. (Read this Sturm column that blames Free for a number of last year’s sacks.) Collins has always been athletic, and shows flashes of dominance. But is he going to be there play after play? In recent practices both DeMarcus Lawrence and Taco Charlton have beaten him off the edge.
Add in Tyron Smith’s back issues, and the offensive line has to be a real cause for concern in Dallas.
This is especially true if Zeke has to miss several games, as holes he might exploit might be missed by Alfred Morris or Darren McFadden. And if the Cowboys have to throw more, it will heighten the pressure to protect Dak Prescott.
None of these issue are insurmountable. But they do raise concerns as to whether the Cowboys will be ready to start the season.