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Looking under the radar at Cowboys 2020 training camp

Some players, and one trend, that have been overshadowed by the “big” stories.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys-Training Camp
Don’t count Noah Brown out.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

There are obvious things happening for the Dallas Cowboys in training camp. Rookies CeeDee Lamb and Trevon Diggs are dazzling folks. The offensive tackles are struggling to stay healthy. The defensive line looks absolutely scary for opposing quarterbacks. But one of the fun things about camp is looking for the overlooked. There are things going on that get a bit drowned out by those big, widely reported stories. When the final roster is announced, there are usually some surprises, unless you were digging a bit. Long-term futures are shaped without us realizing it. And even though the team has done everything it can to limit information getting out, short of just banning all reporters from practices, there is at least one coaching trend that is being heavily hinted.

Let’s take a look at some of those under-reported stories.

Daryl Worley

The veteran cornerback was getting overlooked long before camp started. When the Cowboys were signing free agents Gerald McCoy, Dontari Poe, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, and Aldon Smith, Worley seemed almost like an afterthought. With Diggs and Reggie Robinson II getting drafted, he was nearly forgotten. But he has not only had some highlight plays in practices, he has brought consistency, which is even more important.

Now, he and Robinson are also getting work at safety, a position with questions like cornerback. There is a general impression that the coaching staff wants defensive backs that can play a variety of positions in the secondary, which elevates Worley’s value for the Cowboys. He may not be the starter you are looking for, but if he is able to be your fourth or fifth best corner AND your fourth best safety, then he essentially frees up a roster spot for team.

Coaches kinda like that stuff.

Noah Brown

This is an easy position for a player to get lost in the weeds. The presumptive starters, Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and Lamb have been providing highlights from the first reps. Cedrick Wilson looks to be cementing his hold on the fourth WR spot. Both Jon’Vea Johnson and Ventell Bryant have had days that put them in the discussion about the fifth and perhaps sixth WR jobs.

Don’t sleep on Brown. He has managed to hang around on the roster for a few years now, and there must be a reason. Production on the field, however, wasn’t it. He has fought injury as well.

Turns out, there might be a clue as to why he has been largely a non-factor for the team so far.

That use as a lead blocker was so pronounced, that seeing Brown take the field used to be a clear signal that the ball was going to be handed off. It does seem like every day we come across another way this year’s Cowboys are just being coached differently than the last edition. (More about that later.)

An honorable mention here for Devin Smith. A quick survey of the camp coverage doesn’t show him as often as Brown, but he is not going down without a fight. In the end, you can expect the Cowboys to have seven or eight wide receivers between the roster and the practice squad, and there are some really good options for all the backup jobs.

Dalton Schultz

Big things are anticipated for Blake Jarwin, the presumptive starting tight end. Part of the reason is it is widely believed the Cowboys will have him much better integrated into the passing game. Under the old regime, tight ends were run blockers first, possession/safety valve receivers second, and it almost seemed like a glitch when they targeted Jarwin going downfield - despite the fact he was very good at that. Now, he should get plenty of targets, even with so many others for Dak Prescott to use.

While Jarwin has always been stronger as a receiver than a blocker, Schultz has the opposite reputation. Some wondered if his roster spot was in jeopardy due to his perceived lack of value catching the ball. But he has been making the most of his opportunities when the ball comes his way. His ceiling for now is still clearly TE2, but recent practices have indicated he is working on securing that job. Further, establishing his chops catching the ball means that Mike McCarthy and Kellen Moore can get even more creative. When you put a pair out there that can get open and make some chunk yards, a two tight end package is no longer an automatic running situation. You might sense a trend here.

Ben DiNucci

For years, the Cowboys had a clear starter and hope for a backup. As in, they had a name on the roster and hoped he would not be a complete and utter disaster if they needed to call on him. It didn’t go so well in 2015, but the very next season, they wound up having to start the QB that was the third-stringer going into camp, a fellow named Prescott.

Stumbling onto a true franchise quarterback in the fourth round of the draft is a lot less likely than having the parade of ineptitude that preceding season. That is not how they are approaching depth at the position, with Andy Dalton now backing Prescott up, and doing so very impressively.

Were the Cowboys not blessed with an experienced and still talented former starter at QB2, we would certainly be paying a lot more attention to what seventh-round pick DiNucci has been doing. He has not gotten many reps as the third-stringer, but he has handled them quite well. More importantly, he looks to have potential in becoming an NFL quarterback, and has been involved in more than a couple of highlight plays. That’s saying a lot, given the huge leap he is making from James Madison to the big league. Some say his performance has been reminiscent of a certain other small school passer the Cowboys had. And DiNucci has come out of the gate faster than Tony Romo did.

He was always a long play, but there are hints already that he could contend for the QB2 role down the road.

Going for it on 4th

This is one of those things that requires some creative interpretation of what is happening, but also fits nicely with other things we have seen and heard. So far, new kicker Greg Zeurlein has been perfect in camp. However, he has yet to try one from 50 yards or further. That long range was not just something that got practiced in previous Dallas training camps, it was often the determining factor if there was any kind of competition.

It was nice to have a kicker who you felt could get a 50-yarder to win the game. The problem was that those long attempts weren’t just reserved for end of game or end of half situations. The team often trotted out the field goal unit for a long, and by definition lower percentage, attempt at any time, even on the opening possession. And in those cases where the ball was off target, all they accomplished was setting the opponent up with good field position.

Which led me to formulate a theory.

I’ve mentioned a lot of ways things are different for the Cowboys in the McCarthy regime, but this could become my favorite. Analytics presents a strong case that going for it on fourth down is the choice that leads to the most positive outcomes over time. And if you are going for it on fourth more often, why have the kicker work on range? Just drill down on the accuracy for when you do need to kick and focus on getting seven rather than three in as many situations as you can.

It may not happen quite so clearly. And all these players may not pan out the way it looks at the moment. But there’s a good chance at least a couple will. It’s been a pretty positive camp so far, and these are just some pluses you may have missed.

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