Now that training camp in Oxnard is winding down, there are a few positions that the Cowboys should feel much better about, but there are also those that still have questions. In this “Three Up/Three Down” piece, we’ll highlight the positions that have risen to the challenge while shedding light on the Cowboys weakest areas, too.
UP - Linebackers
The Cowboys saw a definite trouble area after Anthony Hitchens left town. It’s a simple fact that the Cowboys struggled mightily on defense last season without Sean Lee. They were in many ways handcuffed by that position for a variety of reasons, be it health or inexperience.
What we’ve gathered so far through a few weeks of practices is that this may be the most improved position on the roster. It’s starts with Jaylon Smith, who has been outstanding now that he has that explosion and change of direction back in his repertoire. Smith has the athleticism and impeccable playmaking ability that could vault this defense to new heights. Leighton Vander Esch hasn’t been this highlight reel rep after rep but has shown his ability to cover, which is one of the most important tools for a linebacker in today’s NFL.
Joe Thomas made PFF’s Preseason Team of the Week, grading out at a 92.9 for multiple stops and a heads up interception. Thomas has a real shot to be a big contributor on defense this season and looks to be quite the find for Will McClay. Damien Wilson and Justin March-Lillard have also had some bright moments of their own. The Cowboys made this position a priority and now they’re deeper than they have been in a while. They most definitely will be in a better position to cover themselves when guys get banged up.
DOWN - Safety
It’s been a stress point all offseason because the Cowboys just don’t have any sort of depth at this position. Xavier Woods has an incredible opportunity to show that he can be the free safety of the future but he’s got to learn on the fly in a scheme that demands results from that position:
I like Xavier Woods a ton. But man people around here have crowned him king before he has shown anything at FS in an incredibly demanding scheme for that position. He will need time and patience. https://t.co/0pRo3Y6w2F— Bob Sturm (@SportsSturm) August 14, 2018
Jeff Heath is the Cowboys pick to play strong safety but he did leave practice yesterday after tweaking his ankle. The Cowboys are calling it a mild ankle sprain but that’s troublesome for the position. Kavon Frazier has brought the boom stick on occasion but he’s also very inexperienced. What’s worse is that according to the Cowboys depth chart, Woods and Heath are the starters but they are also each other’s primary backup. Behind them are guys like Marqueston Huff, Kameron Kelly, and Tyree Robinson. One of those three will likely make the final roster but none of them would make you feel comfortable if they had to start games.
UP - Cornerbacks
If there is a silver lining in the secondary it’s at cornerback, where the Cowboys have been rejuvenated by secondary coach Kris Richard. Byron Jones has really taken to his transition to corner. Jones has the athleticism, length, and man cover abilities to handle receivers with success. Chidobe Awuzie has been outstanding every time he’s taken the field. Chido has that mentality it takes to shut receivers down play after play. No corner is perfect but Awuzie is another match for Richard, who demands length and physicality from the position.
Jourdan Lewis and Anthony Brown have been battling it out for the nickel corner position all summer long. Brown will often look better than Lewis in practice at times but he really struggled in the game against the 49ers. Lewis may finally have the opening he needs to take that position and run with it. Lewis will always have to earn it with Richard because he doesn’t fit the measurements profile. However, where Lewis excels and Brown falters is in the ability to trust your technique. Brown often finds himself playing the man or peeking back at the quarterback, two things that will end badly for defenders in the NFL.
On the back end, Charvarius Ward looks like he could be a solid cornerback with more polishing but the Cowboys do like Duke Thomas too. Marquez White and Donovan Olumba are very much the definition of hit or miss. Overall, the Cowboys are looking pretty solid at corner, especially in their Top-4.
DOWN - Swing Tackle
We have a pretty good idea of what the capabilities are of the starting five, three of which are All-Pro’s. Yet, these camp practices have shown an steep drop off in the backups at offensive tackle. The Cowboys signed a tackle with experience in free agency when they got Cameron Fleming. He was considered starter-level coming in to be the swing tackle in Dallas. Maybe we just have extremely high standards developed from watching the best line in football but Fleming has been underwhelming for the majority of camp. Now, confidence is not totally shot because he played much better in the preseason game. Still, with Tyron Smith’s injury history, Fleming needs to be much better than he has.
Chaz Green has been solely focused on right tackle but he’s just not the guy. Green has struggled with cramps in just about every other practice. His performance in the preseason game was below average. He’s been routinely beat by Dorance Amrstrong and Taco Charlton in compete periods. Green just doesn’t play with the necessary technique, footwork, and most of all confidence the position demands. Right now, the Cowboys really need a lot more from their backup tackles.
UP - Receiver
As impressed as we’ve been with the cornerbacks, we have to give credit to these receivers as well. The receivers room doesn’t have a clear alpha presence like it has in the past but there is still some solid NFL talent in that room. The Cowboys made a clear point to spread the ball around to the open man and so far that’s exactly what we’ve seen. It feels like a new receiver takes over each practice. Cole Beasley was unstoppable for the first few days but then rookie Michael Gallup emerged as “always open”. Allen Hurns was the most recent receiver getting the attention but there’s also an obvious rapport between Dak Prescott and Lance Lenoir.
In the preseason game, there were 24 completions by the quarterbacks, 13 of those completions came from nine different receivers. With all the questions that many of us had about the receiver position, these guys have really stepped up to the challenge. The Cowboys have a really nice variety of receivers on their roster that can all do different things. What’s been evident though is the influence of Sanjay Lal and his vision to create technicians at the position. Lal has been adamant that every receiver will run the full route tree and you see it every day in practice. The only thing we’re waiting to see is which receivers will emerge in this offense when the games start really mattering.
DOWN - Tight End
In this final spot, you could argue that defensive tackle depth is concerning. Still, even without David Irving, Maliek Collins has returned and the guys who have been out there have done surprisingly well. That’s why tight end is a little more concerning right now because the three on the roster haven’t really done much of anything to make you feel comfortable.
They can all run routes and catch the ball, which is certainly part of the job. The issue primarily for a run-based team is that you need your tight ends to be able to block. At the point of attack, these tight ends have been struggling to deliver and maintain their blocks. When you have running backs as solid as the Cowboys, it may not always be noticeable. It’s equally problematic in pass rush situations, where one missed block can get the quarterback killed.
At the same time, the Cowboys drafted Dalton Schultz because he was a solid blocker that needed polishing in the passing game. So far, with Schultz, Geoff Swaim, Blake Jarwin, and Rico Gathers, we’ve seen them struggle to pick up their assignments. It begs to question whether or not the Cowboys may look to pick up a better option at roster cuts.