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Cowboys 2018 training camp: Early grades for the Cowboys defensive positions

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A progress report from what we’ve seen of the Cowboys defense in camp.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys-Training Camp Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Just ahead of the Cowboys annual Blue/ White scrimmage, let’s follow up our early training camp grades for the offense with a few on the defensive side.

Defensive Tackles: C-

The depth at this position is most concerning but so is the experience level of the guys currently starting. The Cowboys are still rehabbing Maliek Collins, there’s no certain return date of note. David Irving is on a leave of absence that will not be ending any time soon. The reason the group still barely gets a passing grade is because the guys holding down the fort right now have done about as good a job as you could expect. Jihad Ward really looks like he could be the Cowboys best bet to start along side Maliek Collins come week one. Ward has had tough battles with Zack Martin and Travis Frederick but he’s won a few of them.

Datone Jones is a very disruptive player which showed in limited action last season. He’s got a good understanding of leverage and hand placement. Here’s by far his best victory of camp one-on-one with the All-Pro center Travis Frederick:

Another young one-tech possibility is Antwaun Woods, who has been a surprise to this point with his strength and aggressive demeanor. He’s had dust ups with Travis Frederick and took him to the ground once.

Overall, this group has had a few bright moments but for the most part, the Cowboys vaunted offensive line have had their way with them. These guys are fighting their tails off but the absence of guys like Irving and Collins is very noticeable.

Defensive Ends: B+

No surprise but DeMarcus Lawrence has been far and away the best pass rusher on this team. One of the best camp stories so far, told on Talkin’ Cowboys, was during compete period after he lost one rep. Lawrence then demanded to face each and every offensive lineman “gauntlet-style” in one-on-ones. Besides missing the opportunity to go up against Zack Martin, Lawrence got a win against all of them, including a hard-fought victory over Tyron Smith. What that shows to these younger guys is leadership. Lawrence doesn’t get too low for the losses or too high for the wins but he’s not afraid to take risks as a rusher. In an age where players worry a lot about showing up poorly on tape, Lawrence is just one of those guys that sees it all as a positive learning experience. That type of effort plays strongly with the men he’s leading out there.

Tyrone Crawford started out camp getting visually frustrated which happens against the best offensive line in football. Like Lawrence, Crawford continues to give maximum effort and this rep against Tyron Smith had to feel good:

The Cowboys are still taking their sweet time with Randy Gregory but he has been out of football long enough, he’s likely to start working in after the first preseason game. Taco Charlton has had some decent battles with Connor Williams, Chaz Green, and Cameron Fleming. Charlton still has a lot of room to grow but his efforts against the All-Pro guys have been good even if he’s not winning them. Kony Ealy was really having an uneventful start to camp but he’s picked up his game over the past few practices. On Wednesday, Ealy destroyed Chaz Green, tossing him to the ground but just a few days prior Ealy couldn’t get an inch on Chaz.

Two down roster guys, Charles Tapper and fourth-rounder Dorance Armstrong have really squeezed all the juice out of these practices. Tapper’s got the explosiveness but he must show that he can stay healthy. Against Green, Tapper worked him over quickly:

Dorance Armstrong has the distinction of being the only edge rusher outside of Tank Lawrence to win against La’el Collins:

The Cowboys have built impressive depth at edge rusher and these guys are certainly motivated to rise to the top of the league. One thing that Lawrence and Crawford always reiterate from Rod Marinelli is that it’s almost never going to be as hard as they have it in practice. Getting the opportunity to rush against the quality of offensive linemen the Cowboys have is a huge helpful hand for these young pass rushers.

Linebackers: B-

There have been some good things going on at linebacker but they can’t raise this grade to an A without Sean Lee. The Cowboys want to be deliberate with him and keep him from unnecessary wear and tear. It’s understandable given all that we know about Lee but he still makes all the defensive calls from the sideline in practice.

Jaylon Smith has been outstanding, he’s shed that hitch he had in his stride last season. Smith exudes confidence now that he doesn’t have the AFO brace. Some things that Smith has done in camp have been nothing short of extraordinary. On this play, Smith has no business covering Cole Beasley but he does. Even on a ball that was a little off, Smith obstructs Beasley’s read on the pass causing the incompletion:

Leighton Vander Esch has had some struggles early on but you get glimpses of his abilities here and there. He’s been running with the second team as the MIKE because the Cowboys want him to call the defense. Vander Esch gets reps with the ones too and makes a heads up play every now and then. Like this strip fumble he caused last week:

The backups have done a fine job as well, Joe Thomas looks to be a quality pickup that can play anywhere. Damien Wilson thumped Dalton Schultz in compete period. We haven’t heard much of guys like Chris Covington but they will show up on special teams during the preseason games.

Cornerbacks: A

If any position deserves the “A” it’s the cornerbacks because they have been absolutely killing it in practice. Kris Richard does a great job of getting them hyped up and keeping the energy at a steady high throughout practice. Byron Jones has settled in nicely as a perimeter corner. He does a great job of playing the ball and getting his hands through the receiver’s to disrupt the ball. Against Deonte Thompson, Jones read this perfectly to get the interception:

If the Cowboys are going to find a shutdown cornerback in their group, it’s likely to be Chidobe Awuzie. He may never be an incredible interceptions guy but Awuzie is a constant hassle for these receivers. Even when he’s beat, he recovers in time to knock the ball away:

Awuzie has taken over practices by denying the ball over and over again, he could be special. The battle for the nickel corner spot has been fun to watch because both Jourdan Lewis and Anthony Brown have given maximum effort. Here, Lewis battles it out with Cole Beasley:

As far as the guys fighting for depth is concerned, Charvarius Ward had himself a day in Saturday’s practice. Here’s the highlight from his interception but he also broke up a few passes yesterday.

Donovan Olumba is another under-the-radar guy who is getting praise around camp. The cornerbacks on the roster have done a really nice job keeping themselves in the conversation for training camp MVP’s.

Safeties: C+

The depth is certainly concerning but what we’ve been able to gather from these practices from Jeff Heath and Xavier Woods have been mostly positive. Richard is a great coach out there and he does a nice job at getting these safeties confident in their abilities. Jeff Heath has had a few very nice reps and always keep himself in position to make plays:

Xavier Woods has done a nice job at covering different types of receivers and has been outstanding against tight ends:

As solid as these two have been in practice, it’s not going to be enough to stop the speculation on the Cowboys potentially trading for Earl Thomas. Kavon Frazier has just got himself back into practice and the Cowboys hope he can develop into an enforcer at strong safety. With everything considered, I struggle to grade this position higher than a C+ because there’s still an unsettling feeling that the position is incomplete. We need to see these guys work in the preseason and something has to be done with the lack of depth on the roster.