There are some things you should keep in mind when going through the reports out of training camp for the Dallas Cowboys. First and foremost, this is not like a real game. Players are holding up to reduce the risk of injury, some plays happen only because of that, and there are certainly times when a first-team player is lined up against a guy fighting to make the bottom of the roster. It is also important to note that the reporters are mentioning the highlights and might not be as focused on negative moments. Add in the annual overoptimism that is rampant throughout the league, and there are plenty of reasons to stomp on the brakes before pre-ordering that championship memorabilia.
But, man, this camp is going so well. There have been the annual injuries, most notably the season ending one to Gerald McCoy, and the offensive tackles are a walking MASH ward. Outside of that, though, there are a bunch of things that are not just going well. They are going far better than we really should have hoped.
Let’s start with the player that is doing so well that the spectacular is now the expected for him. CeeDee Lamb just makes plays. On Tuesday, he casually made three touchdown grabs. As David Helman observed from practice, it is just assumed that he is going to have a highlight play, or several. If there was ever a scintilla of doubt that he would be the third starter at wide receiver, that should be destroyed by now. He is showing that he was absolutely the right pick for Dallas when he stunningly slid to 17.
While we are talking rookies, the rest of the class is having a good camp. With Chidobe Awuzie nursing one of those hopefully minor injuries on Tuesday, second-round pick Trevon Diggs got more more work. If Lamb not been there in the first round, many thought that Diggs would have been the choice for the Cowboys. Had that happened, we would probably have been very satisfied with the results based on what Diggs is doing. Experienced and accomplished veterans like Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup do not faze him, and he has had a nice group of highlight plays already.
Neville Gallimore and Bradlee Anae got off to slower starts, but have been coming on stronger of late. Anae looks like he has a real chance to be part of the rotation at defensive end, especially with the indications that the defensive plan will move him inside at times to befuddle offenses. Gallimore is starting to show some burst off the line. Reggie Robinson II is still likely to make the roster primarily for his ability to contribute on special teams, but is worth noting that he is getting some work at safety. The Cowboys for now are not making a hard pursuit of Earl Thomas, so finding some options at the position is important.
Tyler Biadasz is working mainly with the second and third teams as Joe Looney cements his position as the starting center. The interior of the offensive line is a hard place to stand out in practice, since they usually aren’t noticed unless they have a really bad rep. But Biadasz looks like he will be part of the plans for the future, which is great given his draft position. And even Ben DiNucci is having a good camp with the limited chances he gets as the third-string quarterback.
There’s always a UDFA darling that emerges, and so far that is Francis Bernard, who is well on his way to earning a spot as a special teams asset and backup linebacker. This was seen as one of the strongest groups of rookies for Dallas in recent memory, and their performance in camp has supported that impression.
Meanwhile, there are plenty of encouraging reports about the veterans. Let’s start with Dak Prescott. A lot of those great receptions are coming from his arm. He has a reputation for not practicing as well as he plays in real games, but he is having a strong camp already, and was seen as having his best day so far on Tuesday. You want to see improvement from the players as camp goes on, so that’s just one more good thing to report. Andy Dalton is that dream backup, one who plays like a starter. The QB group had a practice without an interception on Tuesday as well. That always is a plus for them.
We expected one of the interesting battles in camp, and one of the few real ones, to be for the backup wide receiver jobs. Cedrick Wilson has taken a big early lead, but keep an eye on Ventell Bryant and Jon’Vea Johnson as well.
Not throwing any picks is notable, because the defense has been grabbing them with regularity so far. The limited video from practices makes the reason obvious. The defensive backs are playing with their heads turned around to track the ball. The failure to do so in recent seasons drove us to distraction. The new staff is making a real difference already that will hopefully pay off when the games count.
There was an expectation that this would be a good year for Blake Jarwin. With Jason Witten gone, Jarwin has been making some plays, especially the coveted long receptions down the seam. But he is not the only tight end to prosper, as Dalton Schultz has been making some nice grabs as well. Even Blake Bell has shown he has the ability to contribute as a receiver. No one is talking about their work as in line blockers, and that is a good thing.
All the focus on the passing game has kept Ezekiel Elliott out of the spotlight. Mike McCarthy insists that he will get his touches. Touches, but not necessarily carries. The tantalizing prospect that Elliott and Tony Pollard are going to be more integral to the passing game is another encouraging sign. It hints just how the focus has shifted to throwing the ball rather than establishing the run.
Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch are healthy and in the right positions now, and both are having very good camps. And defensive backs like Anthony Brown and Donovan Wilson are quietly turning in strong performances. But if you want the unit that has really come on strong on defense, as well as having some of the biggest stories so far, that is the defensive line.
If you are looking for the biggest surprises this year, you should probably start with Trysten Hill and Aldon Smith. Hill was disappointing his rookie year, but with McCoy gone from the roster, he has stepped in and all reports are that he is up to the task in the interior of the defensive line. If he continues that into the regular season, he will make many of us change out minds about his selection in the second round of 2019. Meanwhile, Smith is far ahead of where anyone expected him to be after his years away from the game. The reasonable projection was for him to need some time to shake off the rust and get back into football shape. Instead, he has looked at or near his peak from the first practice. Now, with DeMarcus Lawrence and the late addition of Everson Griffen, the defensive line is one of the strengths of this team. The veiled hints that the team is looking for ways to get all three of them on the field on passing downs just make things more exciting.
Even special teams, a real Achilles heel for the team the past few years, is seeing good news. Lamb is working as a punt returner, which is exciting. And all Greg Zuerlein has done is be perfect kicking field goals in camp. When the team cut Kai Forbath before the start of camp, it raised a few eyebrows. Zuerlein had a decidedly down year in 2019. The theory that it was due to a now-healed groin problem seems to be borne out, and as has been noticed, the team is not even having him practice really long distance kicks. That may be an indication that they will not settle for 50-yard attempts, but go for it more on fourth. It is one more thing that tells us that this is indeed a new day under Mike McCarthy and his staff.
Now, time for a deep breath. This is all great, but camp practices can be misleading. We have seen supposedly great camps lead to mediocre or worse seasons before. Yes, there are good things happening all over the field so far, but we’re talking about practice.
One thing does seem different, though. Outside injuries, there just hasn’t been anyone who seems to be doing badly. There are a handful that may have been passed, like Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Darian Thompson has been stealing first-team safety reps from him. However, cases like that seem more about one player rising than the other really falling.
See? Even when I want to offer a word of caution, I just go back to a good thing. The hype is strong this season, but there just seems to be an equally strong foundation for it.
We’ll start to find out in less than three weeks when the Cowboys kick off their season against the Los Angeles Rams. For now, we all hope this is not just another preseason mirage.