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Post-Oxnard musings on the state of the Cowboys

The team is done with the California portion of training camp. Time to take a look at where things stand.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys Training Camp Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Well, it hasn’t been dull. But let’s take a break from the current strife between the NFL and a certain Dallas Cowboys running back and focus on football for a bit. The team has broken camp in Oxnard. While there still are six practices scheduled at the Star in Frisco before the cutdown to 53 players, plus three more preseason games, the bulk of the data has been gathered by the staff. Barring the dreaded “i” word, the team is probably down to a handful of roster decisions, no more than six or so. Here are a few thoughts on where the team is now.

The passing game looks to be in very good shape.

Dak Prescott had a very strong camp, which is something of a turnaround for him. Last year, he developed a reputation for not practicing nearly as well as he played in the preseason. Now, after a year as the starter, he seems to have gotten his focus in place full time. He had both a high completion rate and a low interception rate in camp. And he seemed to be taking more risks with his throws at the same time. That opens the play book up even more.

Kellen Moore seems entrenched as the QB2, despite being outplayed so far by UDFA rookie Cooper Rush. Rush may be fighting to force the team to carry three quarterbacks (something the team has done the past two years). If not, the team will likely try to get him to the practice squad and hope the rest of the league isn’t as fond of him as the Dallas fanbase.

Dez Bryant was in primo form, frequently embarrassing defensive backs. Terrance Williams was solid and using his hands more effectively. Cole Beasley still always gets open. Brice Butler looks poised to have a breakout year if he can get enough targets (a bit of a problem in such a talented group). And Ryan Switzer has great promise, although he was hampered much of the time by a nagging hamstring problem. Outside of that, there may not be room for any more wide receivers on the 53 given the other demands of the roster.

Tight end remains in good shape as Jason Witten still shows an amazing ability to beat coverage despite his age and lack of speed (something he never had a lot of). Rico Gathers has many salivating about his potential as a receiver. James Hanna and Geoff Swaim both look like they will be available to start the year, providing good depth and experience. It looks very much like the team will carry all four on the 53, because it seems impossible to keep Gathers from being claimed if they would try to get him back on the practice squad.

The ground game has to adjust (probably).

Running back will be in fine shape once the Ezekiel Elliott suspension either is done or otherwise resolved. As stated, we’ll leave the discussions about that for elsewhere. The team is doing what it can to get ready for any missed games by Elliott. It will rely on some combination of Darren McFadden, Alfred Morris, Rod Smith, and fullback Keith Smith to take up the slack. The abbreviated final practice on Thursday indicates that the team is moving forward with figuring that out.

The game Saturday night against the Indianapolis Colts will be our first chance to see much of the starting offense, although it will undoubtedly be a brief look. It will be interesting to see if they pick up where they left off in practices, or have a little rust to work out.

There is still a caveat about the offensive line.

The Cowboys still have three All Pro linemen to anchor things in Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, and Travis Frederick, so there is no reason for doom and gloom. But it may not be the well-oiled machine we have been used to, especially at the beginning of the season.

La’el Collins seems to have nailed down the starting RT job. He has had a good camp, but also showed some signs of working through the transition back to tackle after playing guard in his previous seasons with Dallas. (Trivia fact: He did play tackle in college.) He is replacing the retired Doug Free, who was a good tackle, but also who was struggling in his final season with the Cowboys, as Bob Sturm pointed out in his analysis of where the sacks of the Cowboys quarterbacks came from last season. The preliminary read of Collins is that he has superior talent to Free, especially in the run game, but has to work on his technique and assignments. Look for him to get a lot of help early on, particularly in pass protection.

The big question remains LG, Collins’ old position. Chaz Green seems to be the staff favorite to win the starting job. However, he is still fighting injuries to stay on the field. It looks like he will get the start against the Colts, so that is a spot you may want to watch closely if you can get the game. Jonathan Cooper appears to be plan B.

OL depth is also an issue. There will be a lot to parse there after the starters sit on Saturday to see who might earn a roster spot.

The defense has a lot more questions, but there is real excitement, too.

Let’s start with what should have been the story of the Cowboys’ preseason before Roger Goodell sucked all the air out of the room: Jaylon Smith is going to play, and it looks like he could be starting against the Colts.

Sean Lee, who will definitely start the season, is likely to be held out with a very minor issue (also a hamstring according to reports). Also, there remains a chance that Damien Wilson will face suspension over an incident involving road rage, but that is still working its way through the legal system. The NFL won’t do anything until that is done. Linebacker does look to have some good depth with Justin Durant, Kyle Wilber, and Mark Nzeocha in the mix, and could see a UDFA breakthrough in Joseph Jones, who had his moments.

But what about that pass rush?

The suspensions of David Irving and Damontre Moore complicate things to start the season, but there have been some solid camp performances among the rest. DeMarcus Lawrence may finally be living up to his potential. Maliek Collins looks to build on his strong rookie season. Stephen Paea has been very impressive at times. Rookie Taco Charlton took a major step forward in the preseason game against the Los Angeles Rams. Also offering some hope: Charles Tapper, Benson Mayowa, veterans Tyrone Crawford and Cedric Thornton, and another possible UDFA find, Lewis Neal. We still don’t know if there is a Jerry Jones “war daddy” in the group (although Lawrence at least shows some potential), but if the team can get a pass rush by committee, no one will complain. There are certainly a lot of bodies who offer hope backed by some displays of talent during camp.

Youth in the secondary will have to step up at some point.

The Cowboys are pinning a lot on their quartet of rookie defensive backs, but because of minor injuries, Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis will likely sit out the Colts game. Xavier Woods, however, was excellent against the Rams. And we should get a chance to see what Marquez White brings to the table this game.

But don’t forget the veterans. Nolan Carroll has been getting some negative reviews from the fans, which may be undeserved. He has won some battles against the starters in camp. Orlando Scandrick has quietly had a very good showing. Anthony Brown is another DB being handled cautiously due to minor nicks, but he proved a lot last year. Byron Jones is very good, and Jeff Heath is looking to prove to the world that he is a starter. Kavon Frazier has also been a bit under the radar, but will almost certainly be on the roster as a special teams ace.

It will be crucial to see how the pass coverage works with the rush to contain opponents. The remaining preseason games will tell us a lot.

No worries with the specialists.

For the umpteenth year in a row, ‘nuff said. Dallas is blessed to have Dan Bailey, Chris Jones, and L.P. LaDouceur.

Injuries are being managed rather than generating major concerns.

While the word “hamstring” has come up far too often in camp so far, the team has so far avoided any really significant injuries. The staff will continue to be very deliberate, to coin a phrase, with players who get bumped and bruised. This is always the biggest concern in preseason game, of course, but not having any players lost to injury in practices is something that many teams have not been able to avoid. Knock on all the wood.

We will find out a good bit more as the preseason games are played, but a quick look at the roster reveals that most of the names for the season can easily be identified. With Oxnard done, it is time to point toward the regular season.

Here’s hoping for a great year.

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