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Cowboys news: Highlights from first practice; big expectations for Vander Esch; pass rusher Jaylon Smith?

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Nobody knows exactly what the plans with Leighton Vander Esch are but odds are they are big. What about Jaylon Smith?

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NFL: Dallas Cowboys-OTA Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Five observations from Dallas Cowboys’ first camp practice - Clarence Hilll, Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Hill delivers his first observations from camp report, including these nuggets on a sleeker running back Ezekiel Elliott and a more fluid linebacker Jaylon Smith.

Running back Ezekiel Elliott looks sleeker than at the start of camp last season. He is in better shape and is moving better, running backs coach Gary Brown said. Elliott doesn’t have the specter of an NFL investigation and a looming suspension hanging over his head, so he is in better shape physically and mentally.

Linebacker Jaylon Smith continues to run with the first team at middle linebacker in front of first-round pick Leighton Vander Esch. Unlike second-round pick Connor Williams, who was immediately placed in the starting lineup at left guard, the Cowboys are bringing Vander Esch along a little more slowly. It’s because they plan to rotate Smith, Vander Esch and Sean Lee at the weakside and middle linebacker positions, per defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli.

Practice Recap: Cowboys’ pre-camp pecking order - Staff,
In a roundup of the day’s activities, here’s an early, early look at some players getting first-team reps.

For all the position battles facing this team, there weren’t a ton of surprises in this first, low-key practice. The established starters that we got used to seeing stayed the same on Thursday, with few exceptions. Xavier Woods handled the top safety spot across from Jeff Heath, while Connor Williams occupied his normal role at left guard. With Terrance Williams easing his way back from injury, Allen Hurns and Cole Beasley were the offense’s top two receivers, while Geoff Swaim was the first tight end into the huddle. Jaylon Smith also saw the first-team work at middle linebacker. None of this amounts to much, given that the team hasn’t put on pads yet. But is interesting to see the Cowboys’ pre-camp pecking order, before the hard work begins.

How the changes that will make Cowboys’ offense better are already evident at camp - Brandon George, SportsDay
Looks like the Cowboys did some soul-searching this offseason, and came up with a new plan for their receiving game.

Defensive coordinators likely didn’t lose much sleep preparing for the Cowboys a year ago. They knew what they’d see: Prescott targeting Bryant down the sideline or Jason Witten in the seam on his favorite Y-option route. But now they’re no longer pigeonholed with Bryant and Witten. They have more ways to attack defenses in the passing game.

The Cowboys enter training camp with plans to expand their offense by using their versatile receiving corps in different ways.

That was already evident Thursday, when 5-8 Tavon Austin and 5-8 Beasley were lined up at outside receiver with 6-1 Allen Hurns inside in the slot. Allowing Beasley and Austin to play outside at times and run different routes and lining up Hurns inside on some plays will give the Cowboys a chance to keep defenses guessing.

”A hundred percent that will make us better,” Beasley said of the changes. “Just moving guys around and not knowing what they’re going to run in those spots. That gives opposing teams a new challenge defending us. That will be good for us.”

Cowboys practice report: Vander Esch debuts on second-team defense – Calvin Watkins, The Athletic
Watkins also reflects on the changes at wide receiver in his practice report.

An interesting wrinkle in the Cowboys’ wide receiving corps: Versatility. Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan is using Tavon Austin, Cole Beasley and Allen Hurns on different spots at the line of scrimmage. Austin and Beasley lined up as outside receivers during walkthough sessions with Hurns in the slot. Hurns, who is normally an outside receiver, brings some flexibility to the offense. Last season, Linehan was stuck using Dez Bryant as an outside receiver only. If he ran inside routes, they were mainly slants. But now, the coaching staff can do so many different things with this group of receivers.

“I think that’s going to be key for us,” Beasley said. “We have a lot of guys who can do a lot of different things and can do all types of things. I’m just excited to see how we combine everything and how it works together.”

How The Cowboys Plan To Use Jaylon & LVE - David Helman,
With two young talents in the making, how will the Cowboys choose to deploy Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch?

“We all know that you need a lot of guys at the linebacker position,” said Cowboys coach Jason Garrett. “You play in base. You play in nickel. There are a lot of different situations those guys play in. We’re excited to have them all.”

There’s more to it than that, though. With two talented options available, Jones hinted that they may be able to specialize the way they deploy their two middle linebackers, depending on the personnel.

“I just think you’ll find what each one of them’s best skills are. We have a feel for that,” he said. “The other thing we think Jaylon can bring to the table is he does have some special blitzing, pressure ability that he’s going to bring.”

That presents some intriguing possibilities. Smith has shown some impressive athleticism in the backfield, logging a sack against San Francisco last year on a designed blitz. He also showed some aptitude in college, finishing with 4.5 sacks during his career at Notre Dame.

Jason Garrett press conference: Updates on Rico Gathers, Tavon Austin & Leighton Vander Esch - Dave Halprin & RJ Ochoa, Blogging The Boys
The head coach gives his first solo press conference of 2018 training camp.

Jason Garrett sort of compared Leighton Vander Esch to Brian Urlacher again

When asked about the physical makeup of the Cowboys linebacking corps, Jason Garrett noted that the one player who has really flourished in the scheme Dallas employs is Brian Urlacher.

We’ve heard these comparisons for LVE before, but Garrett specifically mentioned Urlacher again. He noted that he wasn’t comparing one to the other, but he brought it up so hey.

Cowboys 2018 training camp: All the sights & sounds from the Cowboys first practice in Oxnard - Michael Sisemore, Blogging The Boys
There's nothing better than a few action shots of the Cowboys new LB corps!

Here’s another of Smith with his tag-team partner, the General, Sean Lee:

Leighton Vander Esch was looking good after dealing with an ankle injury during OTA’s and minicamp. Coach Garrett compared him to Brian Urlacher today, no big deal:

Ankle injury not an issue for Leighton Vander Esch: 'I'm ready to go, 100 percent' - Jon Machota, SportsDay
After battling with a bothersome ankle most of the offseason, the Cowboys first-round pick is ready to roll for training camp.

“Everybody knows this is where I’ve wanted to be my whole entire life, so the fact that it’s already here and getting going with the preparation for the season is awesome,” Vander Esch said. “To run on the field with all these guys ... it’s pretty surreal.”

Thursday marked the first time Vander Esch practiced with his teammates since organized team activities. He missed the week of minicamp practices in June with a minor ankle injury.

”Just precautionary reasons,” he said. “I’m ready to go, 100 percent. Ready to start running around and practicing.”

Vander Esch brings his own high expectations - Stefan Stevenson, Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Leighton Vander Esch knows that expectations are high but nobody has higher expectations than he has for himself.

Vander Esch said the enormity of being a Dallas Cowboy started setting in during OTAs, of which he was limited out of precaution with a minor ankle injury.

“Those few weeks it really set in at that time,” he said. “Now it’s even setting in even more. It’s an exciting time in my life and for all my teammates and even the coaches, everybody is talking about how excited they are and how pumped they’ve been to get here and finally get rolling.”

Vander Esch said he’s working at all three linebacker positions.

“I’ve got to be prepared for any situation that comes up. I’ve got to know all the positions on the field,” he said. “The more I know, the more comfortable I am on the field. I’m not just trying to learn the MIKE, I’m trying to learn all three linebacker positions.”

Why Jaylon Smith may be the No. 2 pass-rusher- Reid Hanson, Fansided
Jaylon Smith may be one of the Cowboys premier pass rushers this season.

After adding Leighton Vander Esch in the first round, I speculated the Dallas Cowboys would be implementing some 3-3-5 in 2018. That’s because the 3-3-5 would be an opportunity to match up better against RPO teams (expect 2018 opponents: Philadelphia, Carolina, Washington, Tennessee, Seattle, and Jacksonville to all use it with regularity).

The 3-3-5 also would allow Dallas to play all three linebackers at once, getting their very best players on the field all at once.

Just earlier this week I got a little more specific. One of those things is replacing the 1-tech nose tackle with a SAM in the 3-3-5 nickel coverage. This would load the field with speed and pass-rushers for those pesky obvious passing situations.

Is Leighton Vander Esch another Brian Urlacher in the making? Or the Cowboys' insurance for Jaylon Smith and Sean Lee? - Tim Cowlishaw, SportsDay
Cowlishaw wonders why and how the Cowboys chose to overload at middle linebacker, with so many other needs to fill.

The real question is what both linebackers are doing here. If the Cowboys honestly believed after watching Smith last year he was the real deal -- this despite his being picked apart late in the season by teams that forced him into coverage -- why were they thinking linebacker with the 19th pick?

The drafting of Vander Esch could easily relate to doubts no one wants to voice about both Smith and Lee. But if everyone is healthy, given how much time teams spend in nickel defense using two linebackers, there doesn't seem to be much room for the massive rookie from Boise State.

Lee on the weak side, Vander Esch in the middle and Smith on the strong side seems like a potential strength for a defense that tends to get overlooked year after year. At the very least, Vander Esch provides depth and options for a club that tends to need to make second choices at linebacker as seasons progress.

If it turns out the Cowboys hit it big on Smith and have the opportunity to play even bigger with Vander Esch, then the habit of this defense to fall apart when Lee is sidelined could be eliminated.

Dallas Cowboys' Ezekiel Elliott ready to make some noise - Todd Archer, ESPN
Last season, Ezekiel Elliott's suspension hung over this team like a storm cloud but now the star running back can focus solely on what's in front of him.

“I thought he had a really good offseason, really consistent in his approach,” said coach Jason Garrett, speaking about Elliott’s on-field work in the organized team activities and minicamp. “I thought he got better and better physically as he was in the offseason program on a consistent basis. Serious-minded focus, really grasped the leadership mantle in that running back room. I thought he practiced really well, set the example for the rest of the group. He didn’t say a whole lot -- it wasn’t like all of a sudden, ‘I’m Joe leader.’ It wasn’t that at all. It was doing things the right way. Everybody sees it. He set a great example for the standards that we want to set for our team, serious-minded, came in, looks in good shape, did well on the conditioning run [Wednesday]. I’m excited where he is.”

Mailbag: What Does Gurley Deal Mean For Zeke?- Bryan Broaddus & Rob Phillips,
After seeing Todd Gurley's deal with the Rams, what does that mean for the Cowboys and Ezekiel Elliott down the road?

Rob: Stephen Jones addressed this question on Tuesday and basically likened it to Dak Prescott’s situation: If they have big years, then the team will probably have a big year, and they’ll be looking at big numbers for both them. With a fifth-year option, Zeke can be under contract for the next three years, so right now it’s not something pressing. But he’s got a chance to take a leadership role this year and show he’s put all of last year’s troubles behind him.

Jeff Heath: This reaction when Randy Gregory returned to Cowboys shows what kind of guy he is - Jori Epstein, SportsDay
As Jeff Heath points out, it wasn't just the fans that were excited about Randy Gregory's return. He was welcomed back with open arms.

Gregory packed up his life in Los Angeles on Tuesday and traveled north to Oxnard to report.

The greeting he received was welcome, veteran safety Jeff Heath said.

”Our whole team welcomed him,” said Heath, one of three teammates who wrote letters to Roger Goodell advocating in his reinstatement bid. “That shows what kind of guy he is. Guys like him.

”He wants to do right, wants to earn everyone’s trust and we respect that about him.”

Kavon Frazier being tested for blood disorder - Clarence Hill, Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Cowboys safety Kavon Frazier is on the NFI list after his physical showed a potential blood disorder.

The Cowboys don’t think it’s serious but are erring on the side of caution.

Frazier, a 2016 sixth-round pick from Central Michigan, is expected to compete with Jeff Heath for the starting spot at strong safety.

Frazier played in 15 games in 2017, registering 33 tackles and a forced fumble.

Cowboys start new season with new faces - Dwain Price, North Dallas Gazette
As training camp begins, the Cowboys will find out if a lot of their new faces on offense are ready to take the torch and run with it.

However, Bryant clearly has lost a step or two, so the Cowboys decided it was time to part ways. And Hurns, the newcomer, is being touted as the Cowboys’ No. 1 receiver.

Or, is he?

“As far as (the wide receivers go), we don’t talk about that at all,” Hurns said. “As far as the fans or the media, if they want to talk about that, talk about it. The main thing for us is we’re working each and every day so when we go out there on Sundays that we won’t be the weak point of the team.”

In short, Hurns, who caught 189 passes for 2,669 yards and 21 touchdowns in four seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars, said he did not join the Cowboys strictly to replace Bryant.

“Me and him are two totally different players,” Hurns said. “As far as me, I feel like this is a big opportunity for me, but that’s something that I got to come in each and every day and work towards.

“It’s not something I can do in one day or tomorrow. It’s a gradual thing that I’ve got to come in each and every day, even at training camp.”