Training camp is an interesting animal because it’s where you get answers to certain questions, but sometimes the answers are quite unexpected. You expect stars like Ezekiel Elliott to do their thing. You expect the offensive line to be dominant, bolstered by their three All-Pro’s. You expect Sean Lee, DeMarcus Lawrence, and Tyrone Crawford to be leaders on a young defense. What you don’t expect is what’s most exciting to talk about. Here are five Cowboys that have exceeded our initial training camp expectations:
5. Antwaun Woods, DT
Free agent signing from May 30th
What perfect timing for a 1-tech defensive tackle prospect to make an impact. In general, the Cowboys were light at defensive tackle coming into camp with Maliek Collins’ injury and David Irving’s ongoing personal matters. With Collins returning, he’s likely to get first crack at the 3-tech but that still leaves an opening at the 1-tech. Jihad Ward and Brian Price have each had their moments but the real surprise has been Antwaun Woods.
Todd Archer, of ESPN, reported that the Cowboys had an eye on Woods dating back to his time with the Tennessee Titans. When Rod Marinelli finally got his mitts on Woods this summer, it wasn’t long before he started to get noticed. Woods dropped some excess weight in the conditioning program but hasn’t lost a single ounce of his power. In compete periods, often the most hyped portion of camp, Woods has taken the fight to All-Pro linemen Travis Frederick and Zack Martin on a few occasions.
In the Cowboys preseason opener, Woods got the nod to be the starting nose tackle. What you get with him is a guy that knows the game of leverage. Woods is strong at the point of attack as was evident with his ability to crush the 49ers pocket on a few plays. Woods also has lower body agility to outwork his blockers, shed them, and get to the ball carrier. Antwaun Woods has been a real find for a team that needed not just rotational depth but a potential starter for the season.
4. Joe Thomas, LB
Free agent signing from March 21st
Joe Thomas was the Cowboys first free agent signing of the offseason but most fans at the time were hoping Dallas had lured the recently retired Browns’ offensive tackle of the same name to the squad. Thomas had been a Cowboy once before back in the offseason of 2015 but he really worked on his craft in the three years he spent with the Packers.
At this point, he’s already being lauded as the next great find by Will McClay and people are puzzled as to how Thomas wasn’t re-signed by Green Bay. He fits what the Cowboys lost in Anthony Hitchens as a run-hit linebacker. After his stellar performance in the preseason opener that saw him register five tackles, a pass deflection, and an interception, Thomas has been the flavor of the week. Not to mention he accomplished all of that in only 28% of the defensive snaps.
If the Cowboys were to suffer an injury at the position, Thomas could step in at either spot. He’s got the quick reactionary skills, athleticism, and tackling ability needed to play WILL. He also has the awareness to see plays develop with the physical nature to attack rushing lanes at MIKE. Joe Thomas has shown real playmaking ability and will likely serve as the first linebacker off the bench. There’s going to be an effort to get this man involved in tons of sub-packages.
3. Lance Lenoir, WR
Practice squad player in 2017
This guy came into the offseason program determined to change his practice squad status. All he has done all summer long is make himself readily available to his coaches and teammates. One teammate in particular, Dak Prescott, has been singing his praises at every level of the offseason program. Lenoir has also shown up daily on the practice reports and highlights for all the right reasons.
Lenoir has taken all his inconsistencies of last season and committed himself to becoming a valued technician in Sanjay Lal’s vision. The rapport between Lenoir and Prescott is undeniable but he also has been a consistent target for the backups. Lance Lenoir realizes that the opportunity in front of him is huge. There may be a few veterans to contend with but there are no established stars in that receiver’s room.
With a developing quarterback, the best trait for a receiver is simply being reliable. With every day that passed in training camp, Lance Lenoir has made it harder for the Cowboys to cut him.
2. Michael Gallup, WR
We have written a ton of receiver articles over the past eight months. Michael Gallup was on our draft radar and he had one of the more productive college careers at Colorado State. When he was selected in the third round of the draft, the Cowboys were commended on what a value pick he was. As much as the Legion of Gallup Disciples like myself trumpeted his potential, it’s still surprising how quickly he has risen on the depth chart. Gallup has had plenty of rookie moments and will likely have a few more. Still, the way he battles and often beats these pretty solid defensive backs is impressive.
Wide receiver is often discussed as one of the more difficult transitions to make from college to the pros. These guys come in and just aren’t used to battling top defensive backs down after down. The guys that do have success making quick transitions are those that know how to create separation and understand the importance of learning route concepts. There’s no way that Gallup beats sticky man coverage from Byron Jones, who has played 48 games in the NFL, without being a great route salesman. Gallup is not the fastest or the biggest guy in the receiver room but it hasn’t stopped him from being one of the more consistent receivers at camp.
Everything that Michael Gallup does well fits exactly with the philosophies that Sanjay Lal has implemented. If he continues to impress in the preseason, he’ll follow that recent trend of day two receivers who were able to make impacts as a rookie.
1. Dorance Armstrong, DE
The top spot has to go to Dorance Armstrong because he went from a developmental guy to a stone-cold lock for the rotation. A roster spot was never truly in jeopardy for Armstrong because this team almost traded up for him in the third round. However, when he was selected, nobody was driving that hype train, he was mostly forgettable in the draft process to be honest. Armstrong had just struggled mightily his junior season after a breakout sophomore campaign where he had 20 tackles for loss and 10 sacks.
There’s no better teacher of the defensive line than Rod Marinelli and he’s done a nice job of squeezing the juice out of Armstrong. The Cowboys already have incredible potential between DeMarcus Lawrence, Tyrone Crawford, Taco Charlton, and now Randy Gregory. Dorance Armstrong has given the Cowboys offensive line quite a few fits during camp and showed the 49ers that he can be dynamic.
Armstrong has already outshined veteran edge rusher Kony Ealy to where he’s in danger of being cut. He also worked over Chaz Green so much during compete drills that Green could be a quick casualty, too. Dorance Armstrong has a good combination of speed, power, and amazing bend. What’s equally impressive about Armstrong is that he has a much more polished array of pass rush moves than usually expected from a rookie. He does his best to never use the same move too frequently. It’s clear that Armstrong has a place in this rotation, his outstanding training camp put the stamp on it.