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Cowboys 2018 training camp: The new look offense shows up

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Camp is a time to look for hints and clues. A big one has already emerged.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys-Training Camp
Beas with the ball is always a good thing to see.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Let us pause a moment and lift up our eyes to Oxnard from which springeth our hope. The Dallas Cowboys have put in the first practice of their 2018 training camp, and it is good.

Now, all we have seen so far is a non-contact practice with the offense and defense mostly working separately. That doesn’t give us much data to work with. And that is normal. The team is getting its football legs back, learning new plays and relearning old ones, and seeing how the new faces fit in with the veterans. But one thing jumped out at me from Thursday.

No, I’m not talking about new web-back-of-all-trades Tavon Austin. I’m talking about that “10 personnel” remark from David Helman. David knows what is important, and for the offense, that is big.

Just in case you are not familiar with the nomenclature for offensive personnel groups, 10 personnel is one running back and no tight ends, which means four wide receivers are also on the field. That is something that was almost never used the past few seasons, because of the presence of Jason Witten. The now-retired tight end was on the field for all but a tiny handful of plays every season. While Witten is already a legendary figure for the Cowboys after his incredible career, his insistence on being there for every play was something of a roadblock to more creative plays. He is gone now, and as is already emerging, we can expect to see a lot of formations that are very popular around the NFL, but that have been missing from Dallas’ repertoire.

During the offseason, we heard repeatedly that the offense was going to be less predictable and more suited to the skill set and style of Dak Prescott. On day one of practices, that has started. 10 personnel puts four receivers in the pattern for Prescott to work with. But that does not mean it is strictly a passing package. Those four WRs spread the defense out, which means fewer defenders in the box. That can open lanes up for Ezekiel Elliott, as well as moving the defensive backs away from the line of scrimmage as they follow those receivers. It is also a great package for the run-pass option, where Prescott can make the read to decide between handing the ball to Elliott or keeping it to throw (or run it himself). It allows the Cowboys to take what the defense gives them, in the sense that they will be more vulnerable to either the run or the pass, and the play call can take advantage of that.

Of course, the big question remains as to who the Cowboys will have to fill those wide receiver spots. And we may have a hint as to who will be doing that with the first team.

By no means does this tell us who will emerge as the top four WRs by beginning of the regular season. But, if Terrance Williams recovers from his injury quickly and gets into the full workload, this certainly appears to be a logical starting point for the team. Many may question why Michael Gallup is not with this bunch, but he is a rookie, and a third-rounder at that. Dallas starts things off with veterans in most starting roles. First-round pick Leighton Vander Esch and second-rounder Connor Williams are exceptions, with both having been drafted as day one starters. Gallup, in that very crowded wide receiver room, is going to have to earn his place. He will get every chance, however, and can be expected to contend with someone ahead of him for a higher spot on the depth chart and possibly a starting role, most likely Williams.

That still is to be determined, and the way the wide receivers shake out is one of the most anticipated stories of this camp. The way those receivers wind up being used, however, is arguably more important. The cream is expected to rise to the top of the depth chart, anyway. How they are employed is of deeper significance. It looks like all the talk about changing the offense is more than just words.

Stay tuned. This is going to be fun.