Training camp in Oxnard is over, and the Dallas Cowboys will spend the rest of the preseason practicing at the Star in Frisco. It has been a very positive time for the team in California. There have been more stories about players who exceeded expectations than ones who disappointed, and it’s been by a fairly good margin. Injuries have not been a major issue, with the loss of WR Cedrick Wilson and G Marcus Martin the only ones of significance. We did have a scare with Travis Frederick, but it looks like that was not a big issue. The feeling around the team is perhaps best described as one of confidence.
Not everyone shares that, but after digging through articles on camp for several years, I can’t remember one that just felt so positive. But is that too much optimism? Or is it grounded in reality? To get a better feel for things, here is a rundown by position group of just how much confidence we can feel in the team as they transition from camp mode while also making the final roster decisions.
For the first time in a long time, there is a certain amount of concern here. Dan Bailey finished 2017 poorly, with an injury a factor. He had some misses early on, but seems to have righted the ship the past few practices. Still, we will hold our breath a bit more on field goals than in the past.
Confidence level: Medium, trending towards high
Did Dak Prescott have a real sophomore slump last season, or was he just thrown off his game by the Ezekiel Elliott suspension/legal fight and some key injuries around him? He looked extremely sharp in the one series he played in the first preseason game. It is a bit harder to gauge him in practice, because he is more a gamer than a practice player, he is still working on timing and chemistry with a LOT of new receivers, and he will press to make throws he would avoid in a game. The call here is that he has another strong year. The backup situation looks to be alright, with the only real question being how many QBs are on the 53-man roster.
Confidence level: Pretty high, but will be watching every snap Dak takes in preseason
Ezekiel Elliott led the NFL in yards per game last season. He would have been the league’s leading rusher if he had played 16 games. The plan is to get him more involved in the passing game. Rod Smith is an excellent backup. Jamize Olawale is an exciting fullback with more talent and offensive skills than most at the position. That offensive line looks to be better than it was to start last season - by a good bit. The battle for RB3 is a pretty good one.
Confidence level: No worries here, the running game will drive the offense
Did I mention the state of panic until the Travis Frederick situation was resolved? That speaks to both sides of the coin for the offensive line. The starters are talented, perhaps the best assemblage in the NFL. But the depth is, once again, questionable. With Marcus Martin (who was not doing that well) gone, and Chaz Green likely to follow him, the Cowboys are not much better off than they were last year. At least they have a serviceable swing tackle in Cameron Fleming, but they may be in the market for some interior line talent.
But did you see what Frederick said about Tyron Smith?
But I will say that he’s playing, in my opinion, now I don’t know tackle quite as well as center, but in my opinion he’s playing better than he has in the last couple of years. He’s taken another step and we didn’t know that that step was available. (From an interview on 105.3 The Fan.)
That’s kinda good.
Confidence level: Absolute faith in the starters, but scared to death of injuries
Sometimes, you have to go with things that aren’t easily expressed with numbers or stats. You just get a sense of things from how the practices and games go. And here’s the sense I get right now about the wide receivers: Despite the loss of Dez Bryant, and the fact that they seem to be the group dealing with the bulk of the camp injuries, they are going to be just fine. Sanjay Lal seems to be exactly what the team needed to reshape this group into what best suits Dak Prescott, and so far, Tavon Austin, Cole Beasley (when healthy), Allen Hurns, Michael Gallup, Lance Lenoir, and Terrance Williams have all been better than anyone expected.
Confidence level: Buying into the whole “spread it around” concept
Things have been pretty positive. Until here.
The tight ends have not been terrible. But do the Cowboys really have what they need for both the running and passing games? This is the biggest issue on offense. Let’s face it, the situation appears to be cross your fingers and hope. Don’t be surprised to see the team bring in someone else to bolster this group.
Confidence level: Hope the rest of the offense can mask the deficiencies here.
Now to go to the opposite end of the spectrum. By midseason, when David Irving is hopefully back in the swing of things, the Cowboys may have one of the most fearsome pass rushes in the league. And even if Irving does not come through, with DeMarcus Lawrence, and others like Randy Gregory, and surprising rookie Dorance Armstrong, the group looks like it could be scary. Add in Tyrone Crawford, an improving Taco Charlton, and maybe Charles Tapper, and it’s gonna be quarterback-hunting season.
Confidence level: So pumped for this!
A couple of weeks ago, this was right up there with tight ends for an area of concern. But Antwaun Woods has many believing. Brian Price and Datone Jones have had good camps as well, and Maliek Collins looks to be on his way back. With the ability to kick an end or two inside on passing downs, this seems much more manageable.
Confidence level: Feeling okay now.
Last season, lack of depth here really hurt. This season, the linebackers are vying to be the deepest unit on the team. Sean Lee is, after all, Sean Freaking Lee. Jaylon Smith looks to be at or near the incredible level of athleticism the team was hoping they would see when he healed completely. Leighton Vander Esch is still learning but flashes real potential. Joe Thomas has become another Will McClay Special. And the forgotten guy, Damien Wilson, is looking very, very good in coverage and bringing the wood on tackles.
Confidence level: Enter the second level of the Cowboys’ defense at your own peril.
The good news: Byron Jones has not only not missed a beat moving back to corner, it looks like this is where he should have been all along. Chidobe Awuzie promises to just get better.
The bad news: Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis have been inconsistent as they fight to become the nickel corner. And none of the other corners have really laid claim to the expected fifth spot on the roster. Kris Richard still has work to do in molding this bunch.
Confidence level: We are going to see some good plays - and some guys get burned.
The Cowboys have three capable but not outstanding safeties, Jeff Heath, Xavier Woods, and Kavon Frazier. And nothing has yet emerged from the UDFAs they brought in after eschewing the position in the draft. If Richard has work to do with the corners, he has a real task ahead of him here. There are many who still hold out hope for Earl Thomas, but the Seattle Seahawks are playing hardball with him. Look for the team to seek answers when players get waived by other teams, if not before. And hope they find one or two.
Confidence level: Not good at all, especially if the injury bug bites.
Overall, it’s a lot more good than bad, but there are clearly weaknesses that still have to be addressed.
Still, this year’s edition of the Cowboys seems one of the strongest to come out of camp in recent years. So how do you feel? Join the discussion in the comments.