Doom and gloom. The sky is falling. The season is over. According to some, the Dallas Cowboys are in serious trouble already in their 2022 training camp, mostly all of their own doing.
Are they really? Or are we just overcorrecting for the many camps we have guzzled the Kool Aid only to be disappointed? While a couple of things have been upsetting, there is actually some good news coming out of camp. In some cases, the good and bad apply to the same thing. Here are some of the ones that are getting the most coverage, and some that may not have hit your radar.
Minus - Depth takes a hit
One of the reasons for negativity is that one problem was obvious the entire offseason, and it just got worse with the first couple of injuries in camp. Players getting hurt is always the worst thing that happens before the season even starts. What is a bit remarkable is that the two most severe injuries to date came in position groups where we were begging, to no avail, for the staff to do something more. And by staff, I mean mostly Stephen Jones.
The first was the loss of rookie OT Matt Waletzko. Backup/swing tackle was one of the big needs for the team this year, and they have adamantly refused to address it in free agency. Many thought Waltezko was going to be in the mix to try and sort things, but now he is out of the picture. To be truthful, that was probably an unrealistic take all along for a fifth-round pick. Now, the great hope seems to be Josh Ball, who sat out all last season with injury. A bad situation has gotten worse.
Then James Washington, one of the few outside free agent signings, was lost with what is ironically termed a Jones fracture in his foot. He could return, but will miss the crucial time when the team is also waiting on the return of Michael Gallup. Many expected him to be squarely in the mix for a starting job, at least partly because of his veteran experience. That is gone. And as you have probably heard, it leaves the Cowboys with just two WRs on the roster that have ever caught a pass in an NFL game, CeeDee Lamb and Noah Brown.
Meanwhile, that cap space just sits there. Jerry Jones has stated the team feels no urgency to address the issue with another veteran at the position. This is particularly galling because so many saw the issues throughout the offseason.
Plus - The WR young’uns (and one not so young’un) are showing up in practices
Jalen Tolbert seems to be claiming a starting job alongside Lamb and Brown. Dennis Houston, a bit of an unheralded UDFA signing, was the player that started getting the first team reps as soon as Washington went down. T.J. Vasher has used his length to his advantage and had the most impressive reception of camp to date. Second-year player Simi Fehoko has inserted himself into the conversation with a very good camp.
And a player to watch is the truly unknown KaVontae Turpin, who was not signed until after camp opened. He came out of nowhere, having sat out for four years due to a disturbing off-field issue. He seems to have bettered himself and is now a 26 year old UDFA. The main plan for bringing him in was to find a punt/kick returner to not have to use Lamb or Tony Pollard in those roles. In itself that is a very valuable thing, and so far Turpin has been getting a lot of work there. What is surprising is how much they are involving him in the offense as a slot receiver and jet sweep weapon. He is showing quickness, a strong ability to evade tacklers, and a lot of hops for a 5-9, 155 lb player. He is shaping up to be this year’s Malik Hooker, who was signed during camp last year and has become a solid part of the secondary.
Big minus - There is a problem at kicker
After the decision to not bring back Greg Zuerlein, the team added UDFA Jonathan Garibay. For a while, it looked like they were prepared to roll with him, but just before camp they brought back Lirim Hajrullahu, who had a cup of coffee with the team last year. We hoped that one of them would win the job.
Sadly, so far, neither has seemed ready to claim it, with the kicking performances of both on Tuesday being dismal. Just like with OT and WR, there is no sense of urgency to go out and find another alternative. There is still time for one of them to stake a claim. Further, it is not at all unusual for teams to sign a street free agent kicker and start them with little to no preparation. The disappointment comes from the Cowboys once again having a clear need and doing little to nothing about it. While we can semi-jokingly discuss going for it on fourth down all the time, there are inevitably situations when winning or losing can ride on a dependable kicker. Dallas has none at the moment. It needs to change.
Plus - The top three draft picks
The Cowboys did address three clear needs with their first three picks in the 2022 NFL Draft, and none have disappointed. Tyler Smith was the first-round pick to fill the hole at left guard. After experimenting with him a bit at tackle during the OTAs, the staff has kept him focused on guard in camp. And he has had some powerful pancakes, even if those might have drawn flags in a real game. But he has been impressive all around. With the team insisting it will be leaning on the running game, that is important, even if a questionable overall strategy. Getting the offensive line right was crucial for the offensive success in both phases. So far, Smith looks like the absolute right decision.
DE Sam Williams has been getting a lot of work with the ones and twos, plus some one-on-one attention from coordinator Dan Quinn. Expectations for the second-rounder were that he would be more of a rotational piece to start the season, but he is making a serious bid to grab the starting job. Dallas may have to depend more on the defense as they try to get all the new pieces working on offense. That will mostly be on the many returning veterans on defense, but Williams could be a very key addition for Quinn.
With Washington out, Tolbert becomes even more important, and as mentioned he is looking the part. The team almost has to have him step up for a starting role. So far, he is giving us reason to believe he can.
Prowess in drafting well is one reason the Cowboys don’t rely on free agency to fill holes. They need to have gotten this right. It is still early, but the returns are favorable.
Plus - A possible resurgence for a former first round pick
Leighton Vander Esch looked very good at the start of his tenure with the Cowboys, but the past couple of seasons were lackluster, at best. The team did not exercise his fifth-year option. Instead, they brought him back on a relatively team friendly one-year contract. He has somewhat quietly had an outstanding camp. He is playing this year for his NFL future. It shows, and if he can continue this into the regular season, linebacker depth is much better. That was another thing that looked like a problem during the offseason. A Vander Esch who looks more like he did his first couple of years could really help.
And late Wednesday news broke that Stephen Jones had finally opened the money bin a crack to sign former Minnesota Vikings LB Anthony Barr. While it was not seen as quite as big a need as OT or WR, there was certainly a need at the position. Now the depth looks to be more solid, assuming Barr’s tank isn’t completely depleted. And they now boast two former first round picks in the group.
Could go either way - The battle to back up Dak
The team will live or die with the health of Dak Prescott, but it also has to be able to survive a short absence. It managed to do that last year with Cooper Rush. The first game after Prescott’s calf strain last year saw Rush drive the bus to a win. Most thought the team would just go into 2022 with Rush as the QB2, but Will Grier has entered the conversation. He and Rush are splitting the second-team work, and for the most part, Grier has been better.
It still is a bit unnerving to have to depend on such inexperience as the backup QB. Competition should only make these two better - or so we hope.
Plus - The stars are shining
Although he had a down day on Tuesday, Prescott is the unquestioned starter, and up until that had looked very good. Ezekiel Elliott, who like Prescott battled through injury for the latter two-thirds of the season, has looked as good as he has in years. Tony Pollard is getting work as both a runner and a big part of the passing game. We hope Kellen Moore will continue to use him effectively, but we’ve been hurt before. CeeDee Lamb is wearing the WR1 role like a bespoke suit from Savile Row. Dalton Shultz is clearly both a key part of the passing scheme and the security blanket when Prescott goes into the scramble drill. Tyron Smith and Zack Martin merely look like the All Pros they have been so much of their careers. Terence Steele may be the only question mark left as even Tyler Biadasz seems to be doing quite well.
On defense, Micah Parsons is still Micah Parsons, only more so. DeMarcus Lawrence is practicing like a man who is out to silence the critics. The defensive tackles are hungry to prove themselves, and even Trysten Hill is making some noise. As mentioned, linebacker is looking better than expected.
But the real strength of the defense so far has been the secondary. Trevon Diggs may have trouble approaching his league-leading interception total last year, but he is making up for it with some tight coverage. Anthony Brown continues to be one of the most underappreciated players on the team with his steady performance. Many thought Jourdan Lewis was going to lose his starting job, but he has made it clear he is not getting demoted without a fight. Meanwhile, all Nahshon Wright has done is become an early candidate for most improved returning player, using his own length to good advantage and joining his more experienced teammates in intercepting passes.
Jayron Kearse gave us a scare when he left the field briefly after a play, but he came back and all seemed fine for the player who was so important to the defense. Hooker is showing why they brought him back, and Donovan Wilson is, at worst, a player who doesn’t hurt you when he’s out there. That is not to be sneered at given how the team struggled at safety not long ago. Israel Mukuamu, UDFA Markquese Bell, and even Tyler Coyle are making the battle to fill out the safety room one worth watching.
While the team certainly has a lot of pitfalls to navigate, they do have more strengths than you might expect if you listen to the more negative observers. It is still going to be hard to repeat as NFC East champions as the rest of the division looks to have gotten better. But as long as Prescott is starting, Dallas has the biggest advantage you can have as all the rest have some questions about their QBs.
It is still just training camp. But things are overall better than I, at least, expected.