It seems a little remarkable that the Dallas Cowboys only have three open training camp practices remaining in Oxnard. After wrapping up the last one on Wednesday, they will travel to play the Denver Broncos in their first preseason game on Saturday, with a joint practice or possibly two beforehand. For now, we have the ten completed practices to mull over. And there is a lot to mull.
Noah Brown poised for a breakout year
The Cowboys entered the offseason in a precarious situation at wide receiver after the departures of both Amari Cooper and Cedrick Wilson, and with Michael Gallup set to miss several games to start this season. Their response was to sign free agent James Washington, which was greeted with a lot of “meh” responses, and to select Jalen Tolbert in the third round of the NFL Draft. They added the usual crop of UDFAs to have some other options.
Then Washington was lost for several games after being injured. That left CeeDee Lamb, the undisputed WR1, and Noah Brown as the only wide receivers on the team who had ever caught a pass in a real NFL game. The unease of the offseason began to evolve into torches and pitchforks time for fans.
There is a saying that NFL injuries are bad for those who are hurt, but are often golden opportunities for players who get a chance to step up. Arguably, no one on the team has done more stepping up than Brown. He has had good to outstanding practices all camp. That continued on Saturday.
I keep saying it: Noah Brown is having a phenomenal camp. Multiple catches in team drills including a fantastic deep ball catch just now in double coverage. #Cowboys— Patrik [No C] Walker (@VoiceOfTheStar) August 6, 2022
Barring something unforeseen, Brown is going to be one of the three starters in 11 personnel to start the year. It is one thing when a player flashes in a practice or two. Observers at camp have been heaping nothing but praise on him from day one. As with so much in this article, it all will ultimately depend on what happens in real games this fall. But Brown has made himself a clear candidate to get the bubble wrap treatment in preseason games. He has become too valuable to this offense.
Meanwhile, the rest of the receivers are not being quiet
Recently we wondered if the Cowboys had managed to somehow make the WR situation work, and Saturday did nothing to dispel that notion. Lamb shows up in every practice, which was expected. Tolbert does as well to give us hope he will prove to be a draft hit.
Second-year receiver Simi Fehoko is also making a good bit of noise with some impressive and consistent play.
Another second-year man, T.J. Vasher, also keeps cropping up making plays. All of the names mentioned here after Lamb are pleasant surprises. But the big one is the completely unheralded UDFA Dennis Houston.
Dak caps off the hurry up offense with a scramble TD.— Skywalker Steele (@SkywalkerSteele) August 6, 2022
But it was Dennis Houston on back to back catches that got him and the offense in a flow. Dak trust Houston pic.twitter.com/314Hc2Msdn
It is worth noting again that when Washington was taken off the field, Houston was the player who stepped in to take snaps with the first team. The coaches obviously see something in him. More importantly, so does Dak Prescott.
Cowboys’ Dak Prescott lights up when talking about WR Dennis Houston the way franchise QBs seldom do with undrafted rookies. “He’s where I expect him to be on each and every play. And he’s coming back and asking about things, communicating about things.” Tough, resilient player. pic.twitter.com/6PxWrQZmca— Michael Gehlken (@GehlkenNFL) August 4, 2022
That is six receivers who have made quite a case for making the 53-man roster, and it doesn’t even include late addition KaVontae Turpin. He is just about a lock as the punt and kick returner, but has seen a good bit of work with the offense. There is no part of the roster I have done as much of a 180 on as wide receiver. This may be a very good group, and Gallup is coming later to add more.
Stop it, he’s already dead
It ain’t all rainbows and unicorns for Dallas. There is one unquestionable failure to date in camp, and that is the attempt to make UDFA Jonathan Garibay the team’s place kicker.
Cowboys QB Dak Prescott hypes fans for 39-yard Jonathan Garibay FG attempt. And the miss deflates them. Garibay has missed four straight FGs. He’s 4-of-11 for today. Lirim Hajrullahu is 8-for-11. Camp competition been a runaway. pic.twitter.com/iefHQy7fP5— Michael Gehlken (@GehlkenNFL) August 6, 2022
Attempting to continue this “competition” is now just cruelty. For whatever reason, Garibay has crumpled. Lirim Hajrullahu is not having an outstanding camp, but he is clearly doing better. It would be an absolute mistake to still have Garibay on the roster when practices resume Monday. The team would be much better served releasing him and signing another kicker. Any other kicker.
Can we have Moore of this?
70% of the offensive plays have had some kind of motion. And plenty tempo changes, between snaps pic.twitter.com/sON6EGg4hk— Voch Lombardi (@VochLombardi) August 6, 2022
Many have noted this, as the tenth practice was apparently the time to work on this aspect of the offense. But it should remain a big part of Kellen Moore’s plan. It confuses or manipulates the defense to the offense’s advantage. Moore has shown the ability to incorporate this, but last season he seemed to do it less and less as time went on. This needs to be a fundamental part of the scheme. Always.
Maybe we’re sleeping on Zeke
There is a lot of cringing every time one of the Dallas brain trust talks about relying on the running game. But Elliott has looked very good in camp. We know we won’t see him play in preseason, but practices indicate this may be more the vintage Zeke that burst into the league in 2016.
It is not just about his running, either. He has had some very nice receptions, including one in 1-on-1 drills where he went deep. Even more tantalizing, he has been used in two back sets with Tony Pollard, and looked quite good lead blocking. It revives the question of just how much the PCL tear last season hampered him. The answer seems to be “a lot.” If he is back to contributing 80 or so yards a game rushing on average, and not just on volume carries, he adds a needed dimension to the offense. The idea of a run-first offense is still suspect, but if they can make it work than there will be no complaints.
The defense may still be called on to carry this team
So far, most of this has been a discussion of things going right for the offense. But one worrisome thing has developed. We all knew that getting the left guard situation right was crucial, and so far, it looks like first-round pick Tyler Smith is that guy. But another spot on the line is creating some real unease.
I’m terrified of the RT for the Dallas Cowboys :)— Connor Livesay (@ConnorNFLDraft) August 6, 2022
More than one observer has expressed this. That right tackle, of course, is Terence Steele. The Cowboys were confident enough in him to move on from La’el Collins, but Steele has had some notable struggles in camp. Admittedly many of those have been against DeMarcus Lawrence, who is looking as good as ever. Still, this could be a real issue, and one that could negate much of the good things listed above.
That means Dallas may have to look to the defense to create some wins. Once again, based on what we have seen in camp, that may not be at all unrealistic.
The secondary is looking like the best part of the defense, and maybe the entire team. Up front, while Lawrence is rampaging, second-round pick Sam Williams is inspiring comments like this.
To repeat something, Micah Parsons is still Micah Parsons, only more so. Leighton Vander Esch is looking to redeem himself and earn a nice contract next year. We haven’t even seen what new signee Anthony Barr still has in the tank. And the defensive tackles look to be noticeably improved from last year.
It is going to be very hard to take the ball away at the league leading rate of 2021. But the rest of the defense was much more average in performance. Those other things look to be on a real upswing, which could well make up for any drop off in interceptions.
I think practices tell us more about the team than preseason games. Most of the starters see very little time on the field in them, for good reason. They are mainly a chance for some bubble players to try and show the coaches something. In many cases, they are more about finding a practice squad job somewhere. Outside of kicker and right tackle, there has been very, very little negative come out of camp for the Cowboys. That is quite encouraging. It still may be a more challenging year for them than the last, especially if one of the other NFC East teams has their quarterback step up.
Still, Dallas is going to be in the thick of things barring total disaster somewhere. It still is not time to buy into the hype. There are, however, some very intriguing things to make us interested in how the real games will go.