OTAs have started for the Dallas Cowboys and the rest of the NFL. (Or at least the teams that are not foregoing them.) There is a strong sense of optimism for all the teams, an annual tradition. Everything is good, or at least presented as good. We see coaches finding every possible reason to pump up their players, leading to things like Ron Rivera gushing about Ryan Fitzpatrick. Each and every player that is in camp is in better shape than ever and poised to have the best year of their career. Except, of course, for the rookies who are all looking absolutely like they belong in the league.
Fans and some media often get swept up in these things. Our expectations are elevated. The problem is that OTAs are very limited, and teams are taking more precautions than ever to avoid injuries. We should curb our enthusiasm over quarterbacks completing throws against air, or defensive backs picking off the QB4. Objectively, there are almost no concrete things that come out of these practices that show the improvement that teams look for at this time of year, whether they are the Jacksonville Jaguars or the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
However, there are six things that we have seen in the OTAs for the Cowboys that are significant and justify more optimism. They are:
- Dak Prescott
- Tyron Smith
- La’el Collins
- Zack Martin
- Tyler Biadasz
- Demontae Kazee
What did these individuals do? They showed up. All but Martin and Biadasz were doing first-team work, and any limitations were more due to caution at this early stage than any real worries about their recoveries. The two interior linemen are expected to be at full speed shortly.
All six of them missed much or all of last season with injuries. In the case of Prescott and free agent addition Kazee, they were particularly devastating and led to some legitimate concerns about how ready they would be.
And their absences, or in Kazee’s case just not having a player with true free safety ability, were all part of why the Cowboys struggled so mightily last year. Blake Jarwin also deserves to be mentioned, although the surprisingly effective job Dalton Schultz did in his place does reduce the relative impact of Jarwin’s return.
Check out the latest episode of Ryled Up on the Blogging The Boys podcast network where Tom Ryle and Roy White discussed this subject more in length. Subscribe to our podcast feed on Apple devices right here or on Spotify right here.
Almost no other team was as impacted by injuries, and none saw as many of the key positions affected as Dallas did. Prescott was arguably the single-biggest injury of the year for the entire league, with only the Cincinnati Bengals’ Joe Burrow a possible contender for that unfortunate distinction. And no team can expect much success when you are down to one of the offensive linemen that were expected to start the season. As for Kazee, getting a true free safety has been a glaring and unanswered need for the Cowboys for several years. Signing him in free agency was seen as a clear risk given his torn Achilles tendon from last October and how long and difficult that recovery can be. Having him ready to line up and take first-team reps this early is an indication that the risk was well worth it.
That is seven positions that are instantly upgraded from last year, and not just the tail end. Martin’s was the latest to occur, on Thanksgiving of last season when the Cowboys were still somehow in the hunt for a playoff spot thanks to how incredibly bad the NFC East was. It is almost certain that no other team in the league has that much talent coming back after they were lost to IR. That alone means that the Cowboys should be considered one of the most improved teams already in the offseason. It does not require projection of how draft picks will perform at the next level, or guessing how much improvement a coaching change will bring.
In Dallas, at least, the OTAs are already a roaring success just because of who is back.