Offseason practices for the Dallas Cowboys have always been of great interest to those of us who follow the team closely. It’s the same for all NFL franchises. Those limited no-contact teaching sessions are like a good teaser trailer for a movie - some intriguing hints of what’s coming, but not all that much really given away. Nonetheless, every report and video that emerged would be dissected and put under the microscope.
Not this year, as you well know. This was the time that things would really be underway had that virus not intervened. So we get bupkis. Here are some things we might have gotten a hint or two about had things proceeded normally.
What are the packages?
We all know that Dallas has used a lot of 11 personnel on offense, and the anticipation is that they could lean on that even more. But would 12 show up? Would there be some two-back sets mixed in? How about four WR sets, or going empty in the backfield? This should have been our first chance to see just how the Mike McCarthy/Kellen Moore offense was going to look, and just how much it is evolving from last season. With no contact and the other limitations of the offseason, that is one data point that could offer at least some indication of what was to come.
On the flip side, how often would a rush end stand up? The talk continues to be that this will be something of a hybrid defensive scheme, and perhaps less of a scheme at all, with the focus on putting the players in the best position to use their particular skills and get stops. Even in glorified walk-throughs, seeing if one end had his hand off the ground at times could have been telling. And if the WILL linebacker also walked up to threaten the quarterback, we could have been in leg-tingle territory.
Slot, slot, who’s got the slot?
Like with the packages, this one is two-sided. It is an open question who will be the slot receiver. Many people assume that is what CeeDee Lamb was drafted to fill, since there was an open job there once Randall Cobb departed. But my hope was that they would use Amari Cooper there as well, and maybe give Michael Gallup a look. Unpredictability is a huge advantage for an offense, and not having a set slot WR is another way to accomplish that. It would also have been a way to get both Blake Jarwin and Tony Pollard more involved in things. Jarwin being moved out a bit from the inline spot the TE traditionally occupies would also help spread the defense out, which would be quite beneficial for Ezekiel Elliott.
And who lines up to cover the slot on defense? That could have given us a head start on figuring out who would be the top three corners, which are the de facto starting positions as the nickel defense is the new base. We are very curious to see if Trevon Diggs is being evaluated as a potential day one starter, so if Jourdan Lewis or Anthony Brown were getting a lot of time lined up to handle the slot, that would seem to be more likely, since Diggs sure looks like a press man type more suited to the outside.
Speaking of running backs not named Zeke
Pollard was underutilized last season, and the fullback was largely an afterthought all year. Seeing where the other backs got work outside of filling in when Elliott was not on the field would have been an excellent peek into what Moore might have up his sleeve. The idea of sending two backs out in a 21 or 20 package and either running from that or motioning one or both backs out as receivers would be tasty.
Replacing Travis Frederick is a big task, and drafting Tyler Biadasz to add to the mix with Joe Looney, Connor McGovern, and perhaps others was one of the big draft decisions. It would have been very early, but any word on who was running with the ones, twos, and threes would have been seized on with alacrity.
Veterans looking to make a splash
While much of the excitement has been focused on the spectacular draft class and the bigger names acquired in free agency, there are other veteran players that are particularly interesting and would have been fun to keep an eye on.
Our David Howman already did my work for me on him in an earlier post on how Mike Nolan might use him.
Now listed at 256 pounds on the team’s site, it seems that Jelks beefed up a bit to fit into a more traditional 4-3 defensive end role like Marinelli preferred, but Nolan’s arrival could reverse that. Coming into the draft, Jelks was noted for a high motor, incredible length, and consistently winning his pass rush reps with pure athleticism. However, he had glaring weaknesses in run defense and pass rush moves, and the long list of positions he played didn’t help.
McCarthy has constantly stressed the idea of finding ways to use players’ best attributes rather than trying to shoehorn them into coaches’ preconceived ideas of that they should do. Jelks is a prime test case for that.
He has yet to make a big contribution to the team, but with Jason Witten gone, he should certainly get opportunities to prove his worth. The backup TE job is going to be a lot more interesting this year than it has been in quite a while.
The wide receiver room has two clear strata, the big three and everyone else. Brown is another player that has not proven much in his time with the team. Now in the final year of his rookie deal, he is not only fighting for a roster spot, but looking to build a résumé to catch on with another team if necessary. He has proved in college that he could make some pretty spectacular catches. Becoming a third down/red zone specialist might be one path he could take.
Brandon Knight and Mitch Hyatt
The Cowboys went out and added Cam Erving to the mix at swing tackle, but I have a sneaking suspicion the team would rather one of these two beat him out. Knight did get some playing time last year as injuries forced him to fill in when both Tyron Smith and La’el Collins missed a game.
He impressed the staff last year. It will be fun to see if he can do so with a new set of coaches.
Some UDFAs that deserve attention
The Cowboys still await a proclamation from the mountaintop about the eligibility of both Randy Gregory and Aldon Smith, and OTAs would have been a chance for Carter to make himself known. He has a very good reputation but comes from a small school, so that unknown quality makes him really interesting.
He may be the main competition for Gifford, and has a lot of fans. You always love a good camp battle, and this might have been an interesting open round if only.
The mothership lists him as a fullback, which puts him in the mix for those new wrinkles we hope to see on offense. But he played running back at TCU, and did so very well. That adds a versatility that Jamize Olawale does not, and this could be another fun competition when football finally starts.
Ben DiNucci is a special case, because of his links to Mike McCarthy and his philosophy of drafting and developing quarterbacks. He was not going to create any controversy behind Dak Prescott and Andy Dalton, but he could well be the future QB2, so whatever work he got would have drawn rapt attention. Add in that before the Cowboys drafted him, most of us only knew two things about him, diddly and squat. Just more reason to watch him like a hawk.
That’s just some of the less prominent things that could have made for fascinating stories during offeseason work. Instead, we just have to sit and twiddle our thumbs. But if you want some other things to watch for when the glorious day comes and camps start, this might be a handy list.