We are deep into Dallas Cowboys training camp, to the point where in a few days the team will engage the San Francisco 49ers in their first preseason game of the 2018 season. That is a milestone moment for all fans waiting for football to really begin again. Going into camp, there were the sure-things, players that we knew would perform like stars. Zack Martin, Ezekiel Elliott, Travis Frederick, DeMarcus Lawrence... these guys are going to do their thing and do it well. Then there were players who we thought would look pretty good based on last year or draft pedigree. These types of players included Connor Williams, Chidobe Awuzie, Michael Gallup, and a few others.
But every year at camp, there are players who manage to surprise everyone. These are either down-the-roster guys who suddenly start showing up, or veterans who we start to see in a new light because of their camp performance. Here are five Cowboys who fit that criteria for 2018.
We’ve already spoken about Lenoir a lot in this camp. He’s been the poster boy of surprise players. Coming into camp, the wide receiver position was very unsettled. There were the top guys like Cole Beasley and Allen Hurns, then everybody else had a chance to make their name. Many have, but no one has grasped the opportunity like Lenoir. He keeps showing up day after day, making plays and climbing the ladder toward a spot on the 53-man roster. In the Blue/White practice on Saturday, he made a beautiful catch for a touchdown that required him to re-position his body to reach the football, then make sure to get both feet in bounds for a legal catch. It was beautiful. That’s the spectacular, but what’s really winning the day for him is his consistency in each and every practice.
Talk about a guy who kind of came out of nowhere. But maybe we should have been aware, our own Connor Livesay told us when the Cowboys signed him we need to keep an eye on him. The absence of Maliek Collins and David Irving opened the door for the backups to get a shot. Woods has taken advantage to the point he’s now running with the 1s at times in practice. He is what we typically think of as a prototypical 1-tech, a big body who can eat up blockers and be a force against the run. But he’s also shown an ability to push the pocket and create some disruption in the backfield from his spot. That’s exactly what Rod Marinelli is looking for in his scheme. These preseason games are going to be huge for Woods if he wants to lock down a spot on the 53.
Remember how hyped we were about Brown after his breakout rookie season? Remember how down we were on Brown after struggling and getting benched last year? Well, it’s time to get hyped again. Brown has had an outstanding camp as the starting nickel corner. He’s been battling Jourdan Lewis for the spot and so far has held off the darling of the 2017 secondary. Brown has always had speed, but last season his technique and confidence went awry. Now it looks like Kris Richard has stepped in to right the ship. In the Blue/White scrimmage, Brown had a pick-six and created another interception by tipping a pass to Jeff Heath. He’s making plays again.
He’s a fourth-round draft pick, so there was maybe a little expectation that he could produce. Still, it was thought he would be a project that might take some time. That may still be true, but in camp he’s been outstanding. He’s got the gifts you want in a pass rusher - explosion off the snap, the ability to get low and bend to get around the edge. He might still be learning, and experience will surely help his game, but right now he’s making the Cowboys consider putting him into the defensive end rotation during the season. Preseason games will tell us a lot about his status heading into real games.
When the Cowboys traded for him, most fans were thinking - man, if someone could just unlock his potential on a regular basis, he’d be a real threat. Austin has the speed and agility to open up an offense, but for whatever reason it’s just never been on display consistently. Nobody has found the formula of using him to his full potential. The Cowboys are giving it a shot and so far the results look promising. Austin has mainly been lining up as a receiver, outside and in the slot, and the results are good, including an outstanding catch for a touchdown in Saturday’s Blue/White scrimmage. They also unleashed him on a reverse that was a success. The Cowboys offense has lacked elite speed over the last few years, teams were never truly worried about getting beat deep, or about yards after catch (except maybe Ezekiel Elliott on screens). Austin can provide that element on offense, and in training camp he’s been doing it regularly.