We’ve gotten through eight practices of the Dallas Cowboys’ 2019 training camp in Oxnard, and enough data and observations have piled up that we can begin to see what is coming for the season. Sometimes, it seems like there is too much to absorb. It is therefore useful to try and prioritize things according to significance. We here at BTB always strive to help you, the reader, so here is the most important thing to watch for during these practices (and into the preseason games):
More than anything else, that trait will help you figure out who has the inside track in roster battles. It also tells you a lot about units on the team and the coaching. There is an obvious flip side, especially for individuals, if they are just not showing up the same way day-to-day.
Most importantly, do not put too much weight on any one play or practice. Almost everyone has a bad day, and most will look really good on occasion. What you want to look for are trends. Who is steady, who is rising, and who is struggling are things that you can learn from.
During the Blue and White scrimmage, I took some notes, and have since surveyed the coverage at a variety of sites. The scrimmage has really become little more than a televised practice, with a bit more contact than most sessions, so for the purposes of finding that consistency, it may actually be more useful than a traditional scrimmage. (However, while the cameras helped see a lot more of what was happening, you wonder why the organization could not put an elevated camera in place that could actually catch the entire play. After all, Jerry could come up with the funds to upgrade the inadequate coverage by cleaning the change out of the cushions in the party bus.) In any case, here are some pertinent observations for you.
The more we see, the Moore we see
Pre-snap motion was alive and well during the practice, echoing what we have been hearing since the beginning of the OTAs. It was talked about almost from the moment that Kellen Moore was promoted, but seeing him employ it is reassuring. As Bob Sturm noted in a recent article at The Athletic, we won’t really know just how much control the new offensive coordinator has until the real games start. It is still extremely encouraging to see someone go into motion on almost every offensive play. And in case you are unsure why some of us are absolutely giddy about the idea, watching some of those plays (when the camera angle showed us enough - yeah, still grumpy) let us see how the defense has to shift and adjust. A little confusion across the line can go a long way for an offense.
Motion is not the only way to confuse the opponent, of course, and Moore trotted out a really nice play that literally had the defenders running into each other (and in the case of the unfortunate Kavon Frazier, Joe Looney). Cooper Rush handed the ball to Jordan Chunn, which got the defense flowing to their right. Then Chunn flipped it to Cedrick Wilson, who had a convoy down the opposite sideline (led by Rush) all the way to the end zone.
Now, a reverse is not exactly a revolutionary call. Every team has it in their playbook. But it is not often used, because while it can work well, it can also lead to a busted play. What was encouraging was that it was just not expected. Yes, it’s practice. But the coaches are working on their skills too, so maybe that hoped for innovation and unpredictability are in the offing. We have been hearing good things all along, and seeing it on screen just confirmed them. This Dallas offense is going to be a bit of a different beast.
The most important player of them all continues to do well
Dak Prescott has had some interceptions, but he still is looking much better in practice than he did in his first three camps. The deep ball continues to be a big part of things, which is another plus for the Moore approach. And the chemistry with his receivers continues to grow. The success of the team is more influenced by the quarterback than anyone else. All indications are that things are in good hands.
The best unit on the defense may be all of them
The first day of padded practices was thought to be a win for the offense, but since then, the defense has generally come out on top of things. Sometimes that kind of lean in one direction is because one of the two sides is just not very good.
Nothing indicates that is the problem for the Cowboys. The offense is generally looking good as well. It is just that the defense has been good and deep. In defense of the offense, the offensive line is having some injury issues. Nothing serious has happened, but with Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick both being handled very carefully, Zack Martin out to try and get his back right, Connor McGovern not yet cleared for his first practice, and now Cody Wichmann nicked up, the defensive line has a purely numerical advantage.
And they are capitalizing on it. Maliek Collins has been a beast all camp, as he is fully healthy for the first time since his rookie camp. Robert Quinn is living up to the hopes for him. Dorance Armstrong is showing up a lot. Kerry Hyder and Christian Covington have not been disappointing, while Trysten Hlll is coming along. And Daniel Wise is about to force his way onto the roster as he, to coin a phrase, stacks good days on top of good days. We have heard over and over how deep the defensive line is. All the evidence is bearing that narrative out.
Wise is not the only UDFA who is trying to force the team’s hand. Linebacker Luke Gifford continues to show up with strong play. And of course, Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith are still the Wolf Hunter and the Godbacker.
We expected the cornerbacks to be more than solid with the returning players, and Michael Jackson and Donovan Olumba keep catching people’s eyes out there.
Coming into camp, the one looming question mark on defense was the safety group. As you are probably well aware, the Cowboys did not address that position until the sixth round of the draft when they took Donovan Wilson. But according to more than one writer, the best player so far in camp at any position has been Xavier Woods, who has already snagged three interceptions and just makes plays all the time. Jeff Heath continued his opportunistic ways with his own pick. And another unheralded name to keep in mind is Darian Thompson. Many think he is ahead of Wilson at this point, and may be challenging George Iloka and Kavon Frazier for the third spot in the group.
Some players on offense are making a claim as well
Although he had perhaps his worst day in practice during the scrimmage, Jon’Vea Johnson has been the most talked about name among the young hopefuls at wide receiver. Even on a day that saw drops from him, he still had some very good reps. Cedrick Wilson looks to be steadily improving, which is another trend that can be very important. Reggie Davis also has had a lot of good plays as camp has progressed and is inserting himself into the mix.
There aren’t any worries about what Amari Cooper brings to the table, but he has missed the past two practices with a heel bruise. That is expected to not have any real effect in the long run. But it has given Michael Gallup time to work in the WR1 spot, and he has not disappointed.
And if you haven’t heard, Ezekiel Elliott has not reported. That has given the other running backs plenty of opportunities. So far, the Tony Pollard hype has been justified, and he may be even better than most thought. His fellow rookie Mike Weber had a really good day on Sunday, and is mounting a real challenge to Darius Jackson and recently signed Alfred Morris.
Connor Williams is secure in his spot on the roster as long as he is healthy, but that extra muscle he added in the offseason is having a noticeable positive impact on his performance.
There are some struggles happening
Not everyone is seizing their opportunity. Taco Charlton has made some progress, but he still gets beaten too often. He also continues to rely far too much on an ineffective spin move. The offensive linemen have seen it before and are just about always ready for it.
Brett Maher is not impressing. He has missed too many kicks, including a chance to kick a game-winning field goal after a nice drive to set him up on Sunday.
The biggest uncertainty on the team may be the backup QB position. Cooper Rush has come along in the most recent practices, but still has quite a ways to go. However, he seems to clearly be ahead of Mike White, who has been slower in developing. White did give us some hope with the final offensive possession of the scrimmage, engineering a nice drive that was capped off by a really nifty run by Weber, who bounced outside and scored around right end from about fifteen yards out. The preseason games are going to be crucial for both the backups, since it is a bit hard to really judge their performance when the defense is not allowed to tackle them.
Still, if you are looking for consistency in a good way, there is much more of it than the bad kind. There is a consensus that the final cut to 53 is going to be tough at several positions because there are more good players than there are available jobs. It is still early, but so far, almost all the signs are pointing in the right direction for the Cowboys.