You cannot draw many solid conclusions from the Dallas Cowboys’ OTAs and minicamp. They are just controlled, careful practices that are more focused on installation and coaching. However, some indications do emerge. It’s worth paying attention to anything that kept cropping up over the course of things.
Winner: Micah Parsons
Well, you’d expect the first-round pick to shine. Even if they were someone that many fans were not exactly over the moon about when their name was mentioned. He was all over the field making plays and getting a pick or two. That’s just not praise for his mobility and anticipation, but the fact that he was used at just about all linebacker positions, and even bonded with DeMarcus Lawrence over his pass rushing. The two are going to work on making Parsons even better during the break before training camp. He was getting a ton of praise from the coaches as well. While we need to be cautious about reading too much into it, he was at times getting reps ahead of both Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch. It is tempting to see that as indicative of how much Parsons will be used right off the bat.
That may not be as much of a stretch as normal when a rookie gets work ahead of veterans. Teams like to give established starters some extra protection in the offseason. What has to be kept in mind is that Smith and Vander Esch had some real struggles last year. Even though they are returning to a system that is presented as being more like what they had before 2020, the calculation in trading off getting the rook some work over making sure the vets were up to speed is intriguing.
Parsons was a clear standout all through the offseason work, and that isn’t just a win for him. It’s a big win for the team.
Winner: Brent Urban
Full disclosure: Of all the free agent signings, Urban was the one that I liked the most. His specialty of shutting down the run was so badly needed after the pitiful performance last season.
So it was gratifying to see him mentioned frequently as getting a lot of work and looking good while doing so. For linemen, it is really hard to see much with no contact, but even so Urban got noticed. More significantly is that maximizing his effectiveness has been noted as a priority for the staff.
For veterans, that means expanding defensive end Randy Gregory’s role beyond pure pass-rush specialist and maximizing free-agent acquisition Brent Urban’s ability to stay square in the trenches and defend the run. - Jori Epstein
His role is somewhat of a thankless one with few stats to brag about. But he made it clear in his first media interview that he is not only comfortable, but relishes it.
When the Cowboys drafted Osi Odighizuwa and Quinton Bohanna there was some chance that they would make Urban’s contributions to the team less needed. The evidence pretty clearly points to him not being lost in the shuffle.
Loser: Kelvin Joseph
While the first-rounder was living up to his draft position, the team’s second-round selection was not. He reportedly showed up in poor shape for the rookie minicamp, and then went into quarantine for COVID. As the cliché goes, the most important ability is availability. Joseph missed most of the practices. He is still all but guaranteed a roster spot, but his position on the depth chart is now an open question. A good training camp is now of vital importance for him and the team. Hopefully he learned something and will show up ready to go and hungry to prove himself.
Winner: Nahshon Wright
When his name was announced, there were many sprained eyebrows from quickly raising them. The initial reaction was, shall we say, less than enthusiastic from most. Almost all draftniks had him going much later in the draft.
However, Joseph’s unavailability became opportunity for Wright, and he seized it with gusto. Every day of media access to the practices seemed to feature a highlight play for him. Cornerback is an area badly in need of a talent infusion, and Wright did a good job showing that the draft analysts may have been very wrong about him. Of course, we still have to see how he does against actual NFL competition, but the start of his Dallas career could not have gone much better.
Biggest winner: Dan Quinn
Quinn has a serous challenge in elevating a defense that was so poorly ranked last season. Things got off to a great start for him. Before the OTAs, he was favored with a massive infusion of new blood via both free agency and the draft. His influence was clear when the team acquired some of his former players who presumably will already be on the same page with him. The defensive draftees showed signs that his preferences were being honored when the groceries were bought.
The next major plus for him was a return of an offseason program. Quinn was hired to fill the job after Mike Nolan took so much of the blame for what happened last year, but Nolan was handicapped from the start by the COVID shutdown. Given the reports during the season of friction between him and his players, it is not certain that things would have been much better with a full offseason. Still, if he had gotten that early installation time and a chance for better communication in explaining his system, it might have been a different story, and we could have been talking about his second year.
That was not how it went, and now Quinn is the man. Over and over, the players have had nothing but glowing reviews. Some of that is just that he is not the guy they didn’t get along with, but his very involved teaching and coaching methods were on clear display.
As an intangible, buy-in is hard to evaluate and quantify. Nonetheless, it is important, especially when significant changes are being installed. Quinn has that. The offseason practices had a lot to do with it happening. Given how crucial he is to the success of the Cowboys going forward, it may be the biggest win for him, the players, and the organization.