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Cowboys big picture: All we think we have learned from camp in one place

Trying to get our arms around it all in the early part of Cowboys training camp.

NFL: JUN 05 Dallas Cowboys OTA Photo by George Walker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As training camp continues for the Dallas Cowboys, we search every bit of news that emerges for details. Daily practice recaps, coverage of Mike McCarthy’s daily briefing, and every other single detail that emerges is data to be input and processed. A lot of that coverage is a deep dive into one player. There are also the dissections of a position group or a certain phase of the game. Sometimes it can be a bit too fast and disparate. This is an attempt to try and pull it all together and come up with a summation of what we think we have learned from all sources.

Dak is the dude

From the end of last season until the final deadline, the big obsession for most Cowboys fans was whether the team would negotiate a long-term contract with quarterback Dak Prescott or if he would play on the franchise tag. Once he wound up doing the latter, a new worry emerged about how upset he would be and just how much his heart would be in things.

Well, rest assured, he is all in. From building a football field in his back yard and having teammates over for private practices to Mike McCarthy gushing about him, Prescott is asserting himself on and off the field. His history has been as a poor practice player, but more than one of the media pool has remarked that he is stringing together some really good sessions.

Heck, even new backup Andy Dalton (who has looked like the experienced and capable pro the team signed him to be) is basically gushing about wanting Dak to be his BFF. Prescott’s leadership is obvious, and so is his talent. Despite the contract situation, he just may be the hero Dallas needs.

The wide receiver situation is very, very good

Amari Cooper doesn’t need to prove anything. He and McCarthy have praised Michael Gallup as being a WR1 in his own right. And rookie CeeDee Lamb is showing observers how he absolutely was worth the first-round investment. This is one case where our expectations and reality are aligning nicely. The talk about three 1,000 yard WRs may be more than braggadocio. However, it also needs to be taken a bit as aspirational or motivational rather than a concrete goal.

Meanwhile, the backup situation seems to be taking shape as well. Normally, the last receiver spot or two is one of the fun things to track in camp, but the highly restrictive rules on reporting make it harder to track. Still, there appear to be three names emerging as the top contenders to back up the three-headed monster starting at WR. Cedrick Wilson has had two really standout practices, Jon’Vea Johnson is having a good camp, and Ventell Bryant seems to have a head-turning catch every couple of sessions. Basically no one else is even getting mentioned, so those three are the ones getting attention.

The team won’t be ignoring the running game, but things could be different

If there is one thing that has some of the pool media feeling particularly restricted, it is what they are seeing in how the team is using Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard. It is one topic that has actually led to some not very subtle hints that this is not going to be the same old running attack. Particularly, it appears that it is more frequent to see the two on the field at the same time.

Oh, and it seems to be going very well.

In response to a direct question from me, David Helman of the mothership said that Elliott and Pollard were eating up almost all the reps in the first few practices as the team has focused on getting the changes for this year installed. However, on Thursday, he reported there was finally a bit of activity for the backup backs, with Rico Dowdle showing the most.

Also worth mentioning is that McCarthy has described Elliott as one of the key leaders on the team. That was not the impression we got in past years, at least as far as how the staff regarded him.

Tight end is under the radar

Not much has been heard from the position, although there seems to be absolutely no concern about Blake Jarwin as the starter. There are a few interesting dots to connect, though.

  • McCarthy stated that the seam route was one of the most important, because it is the most direct route to the end zone.
  • Jarwin has had his best receptions running seams.
  • Tight end blocking in the run game seems to be almost an afterthought.

The hope for some time has been that the position would be used more in the passing game and less as an in-line blocker. It may be coming true.

Trouble at tackle

It has been rough for the offensive tackles. Starting RT La’el Collins and presumptive swing tackle Cameron Erving both missed the first few practices to what were described as minor, non-COVID related health issues. Brandon Knight, who was expected to push Erving, also missed time. Then, just as he was getting back to work, Collins was involved in a car accident. He supposedly escaped unscathed, but soft tissue problems often take a day or two to become evident, so we now have that to worry about. If that wasn’t already too much, Tyron Smith left practice on Thursday with what has been described as “hamstring tightness.” It is being painted as a minor issue, but if you’ve been following this team for long, you will remember the rash of hamstring problems a few seasons back.

The result has been chaotic and poor tackle play, making the new red jerseys look brilliant as multiple pass rushers have had Prescott dead to rights off the edge. This is clearly the biggest problem the team has so far, and coming up with a solution is vital. The hope is that the injury problems will not be significant. But hope is not a plan.

Interior line notes

Zack Martin has been the rock we have become used to. Joe Looney is pretty much settled in as the starting center, for some of the same reasons the top two running backs were getting so much work. There has been some usage of Connor Williams, Tyler Biadasz, and Marcus Henry to spell Looney, but as of Tuesday’s practice, Connor McGovern was only getting work at left guard, which may indicate he will back that up if Williams were the first option to fill in for Looney should something necessitate that. At least the middle of the line is not going through the availability crisis tackle has.

Hill climbing

There is almost always a big injury in camp, and it didn’t take long for it to happen to the Cowboys. Gerald McCoy was the first free agent the team signed this year, and signaled a welcome change in how Dallas was approaching free agency. He also was the start of what seems like an overall strategy of getting short-term help for the defensive line. But in a freak accident, he ruptured a quad tendon and had season-ending surgery, followed quickly by the team exercising the injury release clause in his contract that was put in as protection for just this kind of situation.

That created immediate angst as McCoy, along with Dontari Poe, was seen as such a good fix for the woes in the interior of the D line last season. To address his loss, the decision seems to be see who will step up, with the prime candidates being last year’s second-round pick Trysten Hill, rookie Neville Gallimore, and returning vet Antwaun Woods, who was the player engaged with McCoy when the injury happened.

Fans were not filled with optimism about that, but all indications from the reports are that Hill is turning out to be up to the task. He was always something of a project. Now that may just pay off, and with Gallimore looking much more ready to contribute as a rookie than Hill was, things may not turn out so badly.

Edging toward dominance

DeMarcus Lawrence is very, very good. With the departure of last season’s sack leader Robert Quinn, the Cowboys also went to free agency, signing Aldon Smith, which was a big gamble. He was subsequently reinstated after years away from the sport. That gamble looks like it is paying off, as Smith has not looked at all like he is rusty and is already building strong chemistry with Lawrence. Then the Cowboys surprised us by adding Everson Griffen at the last minute, and suddenly the pass rush looks fearsome. Rookie Bradlee Anae may work himself into the rotation with some good reps in the latest sessions. And the team still is holding out hope that the league is finally going to make a favorable decision on Randy Gregory, who is also trying to get reinstated. Tyrone Crawford is still available and healthy after last season’s injury to help out at both end at tackle.

This could be the best pass rush we have seen from the Cowboys in a long, long time.

Linebacker may be the wide receivers of the defense

The linebacker corps is deep and strong. Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith swapped positions, and Vander Esch looks like a natural at the MIKE while the WILL position is allowing Smith to fully capitalize on his skill set, ranging from sideline-to-sideline and making plays. He also is expected to come more often on a blitz, further leveraging his abilities. Sean Lee is the SAM, and last season showed how the fewer snaps that requires benefits the elder statesman of the defense.

Depth looks good too, and Francis Bernard has turned heads with a couple of interceptions already. He is already this year’s UDFA darling and should have no problem making the roster.

The secondary is quietly coming together

Byron Jones was a huge loss in free agency, one that makes many a bit bitter still. But so far, the cornerbacks have looked good. You can pencil in Chidobe Awuzie and Anthony Brown as the outside starters, and Jourdan Lewis has done well covering the slot. However, Lewis also left practice on Thursday with an apparent ankle injury. Hopefully it is not serious, but the concern is real.

Meanwhile, rookie Trevon Diggs has been fairly good this camp and looks to be a real contributor, possibly even a starter at some point this year.

Safety has been quiet, but not in a bad way. And Donovan Wilson has had some plays to make you take notice, including an interception of Prescott. With Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Xavier Woods, he looks to solidify the position.

Oh, and it really seems that all the DBs are being coached to get their head turned around and track the ball. It has led to a flurry of picks, which is a very good thing.

Being special again

The importance of seriously improving the performance of the special teams cannot be overstated. They were horrid last season, and John Fassel is tasked with turning things around.

One somewhat surprising move was the release of Kai Forbath before camp, leaving veteran Greg Zuerlein as the sole placekicker. So far, all he has done is hit all his attempts. If he stays on track, the Cowboys will be in good shape when they need a field goal. Of course, we hope the offense goes for it more on fourth down, but it is still nice to know you can get three.

And Lamb has been working as the top punt returner, and looks electric. With Bernard as a budding ST ace and players like Bryant also in his quiver, Fassel may be on target this season.

Multiplicity

Throughout all of this, there is a sense that the Cowboys are going to come at teams with a variety of wrinkles and deception. From two back sets to defensive ends in a two point stance on early downs, there are things happening that aren’t the old way of doing business. Position flex is still a valued trait, but under McCarthy, it seems more about putting players in a position to succeed than anything. And we all cling to the hope that Kellen Moore is truly going to be unleashed. Plus things like “establishing the run,” “manageable third downs,” and “bend, don’t break” now appear to be things of the past.

It is truly a new day in Dallas. The team is facing some huge challenges with a mostly new coaching staff and the limited practice time due to the pandemic, but so far, they are rising to them. If they can just get those injuries under control, this will be exciting to watch.