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Seven takeaways from Cowboys training camp: Which players are pushing for roster spots?

Question marks at defensive end; exciting depth at wide receiver and safety.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Minnesota Vikings
Kavon Frazier is excited.
Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Tuesday's practice was the eighth practice of training camp, and the sixth in pads. And it was probably the most spirited practice we've seen in Oxnard so far, in part because the Cowboys practiced some goal line situations with some live hitting.

Those goal line drills resulted in some of the most intense football in camp so far, even if the offense came out on top on the majority of snaps. I didn't keep count of every single snap, but Todd Archer of ESPN did:

The first team won on seven of the eight short-yardage or goal-line snaps. The second team won on six of eight snaps.

The eighth practice also marks halftime for the Cowboys in Oxnard. Once they return from Canton, they'll have eight more practices here in Oxnard before they head back to Dallas.

So instead of summarizing my impressions of the day's action, I'll try to offer my accumulated impressions over the eight practices so far.

A good stable of defensive tackles

Maliek Collins looks every bit the undertackle that Rod Marinelli likes for his defensive scheme. He's been out with a hip flexor the last few practices, but his progress from his rookie season in terms of conditioning, technique, and strength will change the face of the entire D-line.

In his absence, Stephen Paea played the undertackle spot, with Cedric Thornton lining up at the 1-technique. Both improved over the course of the first eight practices, but Paea in particular is giving the first-team O-line a lot to handle. He's disruptive, he penetrates, he's making things happen, and he's giving Travis Fredrick and Zack Martin a serious run for their money. Keep in mind that Chicago drafted him in 2011 specifically for Marinelli's defense, and it's showing. He may turn out to be the best free agent addition the Cowboys made this year.

There really isn't much depth beyond those three. Joey Ivie probably has a leg up on Jordan Carrell, and the LSU-clique is hyping Lewis Neal, but none of those guys are making the 53-man roster at this point.

Question marks at defensive end

It's too early to say with any type of confidence where the Cowboys currently stand with their edge rushers.

The Cowboys have been careful with DeMarcus Lawrence as he works his way back from two back surgeries, and while he certainly has looked good in position drills, he hasn't really stood out in team drills. Tyrone Crawford has looked healthy (which is a very good thing) and has played like the experienced veteran that he is. He has looked like the most dominant edge rusher in camp so far.

Taco Charlton and Charles Tapper look and play like rookies, and that's not a knock on either of them. Both have improved quite a bit over the first eight practices, with Charlton improving his technique and repertoire of pass rushing moves, and Tapper showing off some nice speed and burst around the edge. Both still have a steep learning curve ahead of them, but this is not unexpected, and anybody telling you otherwise (“Is taco Charlton a bust?”) has had his brain addled by too many hot takes.

David Irving and Benson Mayowa have both had to work through injuries, so they've only been limited participants so far, and I personally didn't notice anything much from either player.

Like Charles Tapper, Damontre Moore has also flashed speed around the edge, but has stood out more for his off-field issues than for his on-field performance.

Spoiled for choice at safety

The Cowboys traditionally don't differentiate much between strong and free safeties, as they expect their players to play both positions.

Byron Jones has been one of the highlights of camp, and a lot of his highlights have come while playing the deep safety, or free safety, spot. Jeff Heath has not had as many highlights in part because he's tended to play closer to the line, in a more traditional strong safety role. And absent some real hitting, that spot is not going to generate a lot of highlight plays.

Behind the two starters, Robert Blanton, Xavier Woods, and Kavon Frazier are likely competing for two roster spots.

Xavier Woods had some trouble in goal line drills today, but he has looked good in a free safety role away from the line: he has shown good coverage skills and has shown good anticipation and closing speed in the defensive backfield. Kavon Frazier on the other hand looks like a thumper up front and would be better suited for the more traditional strong safety role near the goal line.

Trouble is, that's also the role Robert Stanton played in Buffalo before signing with the Cowboys this offseason. In the end, the battle for that fourth safety spot will likely be decided between Blanton and Frazier.

Nolan Carroll is nowhere near as bad as you may have been led to believe

When Colin Cowherd recently criticized Cam Newton's playing style by saying, "Running is the easier, lazier way to play QB,” the Panthers Twitter feed brilliantly answered as follows:

The Nolan Carroll criticism has taken on a very hot take-ish feel over the last week or so, perpetuated on social media by people who haven't been in camp and offer seven-second clips from camp as “proof”.

Nolan Carroll isn't the second coming of Deion Sanders, and while he has struggled against Dez Bryant on occasion, every single corner to ever face Bryant in practice has struggled at times. So far in camp, Carroll has shown a solid performance and has played with the veteran savvy the young corners are still missing - and not every single snap he has played has made it onto Twitter.

The Cowboys have Carroll and Scandrick as their starting corners in the base defense. In the Nickel, they move Scandrick to the slot and bring in Anthony Brown as the second outside corner. There is no indication that this is going to change anytime soon, so the next time you read another hot take on social media about Nolan Carroll, block, unfriend, unfollow, or mute the source if you value the integrity of your social media filter bubble.

Thinking ahead to next year's comp picks

Over the years, Cowboys fans and the Cowboys front office have taken a certain pride in the amount and quality of undrafted free agents that have made the roster, as the Cowboys have traditionally been a good place for college free agents who went undrafted. Between 2010 and 2015, 18 UDFA players made the Cowboys' opening-day roster:

  • 2010: OC Phil Costa, S Barry Church, S Danny McCray, FB Chris Gronkowski.
  • 2011: RB Phillip Tanner, OC Kevin Kowalski, OLB Alex Albright, K Dan Bailey
  • 2012: OG Ronald Leary, WR Cole Beasley, RB Lance Dunbar
  • 2013: S Jeff Heath
  • 2014: QB Dustin Vaughan, CB Tyler Patmon, DT Davon Coleman, OT Donald Hawkins
  • 2015: OG La'el Collins, WR Lucky Whitehead

You could take this as a sign of the quality of the Cowboys' scouting department, who seem to be able to land an eventual starter from the UDFA ranks almost every year.

You could also take it as a sign of weak depth across the roster, where undrafted free agents take up slots that other teams might be able to fill with draft picks.

In 2016, no UDFA made the opening roster, and I'd be very surprised if a UDFA makes it this year, as the quality across the entire roster is simply too good. In fact, I don't even think that any of the Cowboys' seventh-round picks (Noah Brown, Joey Ivie, Jordan Carrell) will make the roster this year.

As it currently stands, the Cowboys will get four comp picks in the 2018 draft, likely a fourth-round pick, two fifth-rounders, and one sixth-round pick. Add their six regular picks and the Cowboys could have a total of 10 picks in 2018.

Given the trouble of finding roster spots for their late-round picks and UDFAs, I wonder if the Cowboys should look to prioritize quality over quantity and package some of those picks to move up in the draft.

Exciting wide receiver depth

The top five spots at receiver are taken, but I wonder if the Cowboys could add a sixth receiver this year, perhaps at the expense of the third QB or fourth tight end. Both Andy Jones and Noah Brown have looked better by the day in camp and have created separation from the remaining down-roster guys. I would give Jones a slight edge over Brown at the moment, but both could warrant a roster spot.

Like many of the early impressions here, the preseason games will offer a lot more clarity on the wide receiver roster battle, and we'll know a lot more after Thursday's game against the cardinals that is bound to showcase a lot of the down-roster guys.

The surprising Joe Looney

The star-studded Cowboys O-line casts a long shadow, especially over the guys fighting for backup spots behind the pedigreed starters, which means we don't really hear a lot about the backups.

Such is the case for Joe Looney, who's quietly been performing very well as the backup center. So much so that Cowboys may soon consider trying him out at guard, which could make the battle for the left guard spot a three-man battle between Looney, Chaz Green, and Jonathan Cooper.

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