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A look at the Cowboys’ offseason checklist to date

What the Cowboys have and haven’t done through OTAs and minicamp.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys Minicamp
Yeah, this was a BIG one.
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

With their minicamp concluded early, a not unexpected decision, the Dallas Cowboys now are taking some weeks off until the start of training camp. The rookies still have some work to do next week, but that is more of a classroom/teaching situation than practices. This has been another unusual year with the pandemic still affecting things. Some teams skipped offseason work entirely, others curtailed things even more than Dallas, but all were glad to report that things went great, everyone was in the best shape of their lives, all the draft picks are locks to make the roster, and no problems were seen at all, even for teams who are still rather uncertain just what Aaron Rodgers and Deshaun Watson are going to do this fall.

Every team has different goals in the offseason, although there is also overlap. But we don’t care about the overlap, we just want to know how the Cowboys did. So here is an examination of how the team did during OTAs and minicamp on some of the major items they had to do.

No new injuries

Having one of your starters go down during OTAs or minicamp, even for a short while, is unnerving. Seeing a starter lost for the entire season during what are supposed to be carefully conducted no-contact drills is horrifying, and we have lived through that in recent memory with Sean Lee. Getting to the end of things with no new injuries is the biggest goal for teams that are being honest.

Based on all reports to date, and assuming that Mike McCarthy doesn’t plan to get too wild on his team-bonding last day, the Cowboys were successful in this. While we did have a previously reported (although perhaps a bit underreported) ankle injury revealed for Amari Cooper, that was not a new thing that developed during the OTA period. There were a lot of players rehabbing, but these were all known situations. In many cases the individuals could have participated more, but there was no reason for them to do so. After all, how much is Tyron Smith going to gain from some reps in this offense? Holding the still recovering vets out of some of the drills until camp makes nothing but sense.

There was one vaguely disturbing development. The offseason would really be incomplete without one. Second-round draft pick Kelvin Joseph was in COVID quarantine for most of the activities, and was reportedly out of shape when he came to rookie minicamp. We don’t know the full significance of this and hope that he will catch up quickly in training camp. It is still worth watching, since many are already penciling Joseph in as a starter at some point in the season, if not out of the gate. Anthony Brown did not waste his chance to make a case with the coaches, looking very effective in practices. Don’t write off the veteran yet.

Dak

That’s it. That’s the heading. The most important joint of Dallas’ entire year is the ankle that Dak Prescott had so badly injured early last season. We saw nothing but glowing reports from the staff about his recovery, but we’ve been led down that primrose path before.

It was all non-contact, and Prescott was held out of any 11-on-11 work as an added precaution, but he certainly looked like he was completely ready to go.

Just about the only lingering question concerning Prescott is whether he somehow orchestrated that picture as a tie-in for his switch of shoe sponsorships. From all we can tell he is fully good to go, and for fans, that is a very, very good thing.

Teaching, teaching, teaching

OTAs and minicamps are really mislabeled. The proper way to describe them is offseason installation and integration. Figuring out who will make the roster is a long way off, and these so-called practices are of limited value, although some significant hints do arise. What the coaching staff is really into is introducing new schemes or elements, which was mostly on defense for the Cowboys, and getting free agent signees and rookies on the same page with the veterans. This is foundational, of course, with work still to come in camp.

The lack of any of this during 2020 and the shutdown of any offseason activity due to the pandemic is widely believed to have been a contributing factor in the struggles Dallas had, particularly for that defense. Since departed defensive coordinator and possible scapegoat Mike Nolan made significant changes from the previous season despite the shutdown, and then was reportedly very poor at teaching the new things once camp and the regular season rolled around. In his first year, Dan Quinn has a more or less normal offseason behind him. There were plenty of reports that he is decidedly hands-on in his approach as well. The real reason for the debacle of 2020’s defense, player performance versus coaching, is still a subject for debate, and almost certainly some combination of the two. Now Quinn not only brings some new ideas and style to things, he has had a chance to get the crucial teaching done. Things should be much simpler on offense, but this might be a make or break element for the defense. It should be more make.

Those roster hints

Yes, I just said that the offseason is not when rosters are made or missed, but a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of some Spider-man movies, or something like that. Besides, there were a couple of little hinty things that really got the attention.

First, after a week or so to make sure he was over his own injury, Tyler Biadasz settled in as the starting center for the rest of the way. That seems big, and not just because it does indicate he is on track to be 100% for the beginning of the season. There is no other real offensive center on the roster, just some linemen that can serve as emergency backups. At the moment, there does not seem to be any plan to reach out to Joe Looney, who served as such a valuable backup/starter for the past couple of seasons. Instead the team looks to be trying to grow their own, with seventh-round rookie Matt Farniok a possible candidate.

It must be kept in mind that a rebound for the offensive line that was so injury depleted last season is probably second in importance for the team only to Dak Prescott’s recovery. The rest of the line are veterans with multiple seasons working together, but Biadasz only had four starts last year, with backups at tackle. Every rep is important to him, and we can expect to see him lining up with the rest of the expected starters in camp.

Then there was this note.

I am only aware of Archer pointing this out, bur he is one of the more perceptive and accurate reporters on the Cowboys beat, however. This is an exciting development.

While this is not a unique problem for them, Dallas has certainly been among those teams that let other factors besides who is the best player affect roster decisions. The worst one is how much they are locked into paying players. One fear for this year is that Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch will be the starters because they represent $9.8 and about $3.8 million in cap space, respectively. Both were healthy as far as could be told, so this may be the staff taking an early look at alternatives. It is certainly a slim reed to grasp. Even if camp and perhaps preseason games indicate that Smith or Vander Esch deserve to start, it can still be hoped that the evaluation of the roster can be more honest than it has in the past.

If you are a bit skeptical, you have a right to be. This team is still run by Jerry and Stephen Jones, and those dollars definitely are part of their equations in discussions over who starts. Hopefully McCarthy and his staff can sway them as necessary. For now, we can only hope that this is a move towards a more value on the field orientated process.