The Dallas Cowboys are back to practicing in Oxnard for training camp. While there is still some waiting to do for things like padded practices that put Mike McCarthy’s new-look offense against Dan Quinn’s defense, just the sight of on-field work being back in the daily lives of Cowboys fans is very welcome.
The beginning phase of the offseason was just the start of Dallas getting to install McCarthy’s offense, with less contact drills than ever and time for the coaches to work hands-on with players. This makes the focus of learning an offense tasked with improving on the big numbers Kellen Moore leaves behind the main goal of camp and the preseason, Monitoring this progress across an offense that doesn’t have many true starting spots in open competition is something Mark Lane and I discussed on the latest edition of our Hidden Yardage podcast.
The intrigue for where players will line up on offense is mostly up front with the offensive line, with both Tyler and Tyron Smith having flexibility across multiple positions, and the likes of Josh Ball, Matt Waletzko, and Matt Farniok vying for depth positions behind the starting five.
There are still snaps at the skill positions up for grabs though, which is where both Mark and I put our focus on in McCarthy’s offense.
It’s still far too early in camp to make any claims about who has earned a roster spot or any real playing time, but strong buzz for Jalen Tolbert out of OTAs and minicamp has carried over into his second training camp with the team thus far. Veteran acquisition Brandin Cooks has even had praise for the approach Tolbert has taken after all but redshirting his rookie year, and the duo of Tolbert and Cooks hold the keys to if Dallas has finally figured out how to consistently have enough for Dak Prescott out wide.
CeeDee Lamb establishing himself as a top notch WR1 is still one of the best things to come from what ended up being the final year of Moore’s offense, and of course he figures to stay in this role and develop even more in McCarthy’s scheme. Counting on further progression from Michael Gallup another year removed from ACL surgery, Tolbert to keep his upward trajectory going, and Cooks to remain a consistent veteran is as good a plan as the Cowboys have had at WR in a while - but still comes with palpable risk at every spot outside of Lamb.
This makes the route concepts and play designs from McCarthy that can get these receivers more open looks than before all the more important, and was my top position to watch for a noticeable change in how the Cowboys approach the offense going forward.
The Cowboys were linked to first round-tight end prospects heavily in the lead up to ultimately picking Mazi Smith, opting for a position that players can typically contribute earlier than rookie tight ends. Dan Quinn already has big plans for Smith as a key cog in the defense, but the same can’t be said right now about the rookie TE the Cowboys did opt for in Luke Schoonmaker out of Michigan.
Injuries and existing depth have made it a quiet early start to Schoonmaker’s career, but the vision for him to fit in with Jake Ferguson and Peyton Hendershot down the line remains. For now, the pressure to replace Dalton Schultz falls on Ferguson and Hendershot, with Schultz leaving a bigger void in this offense then some may remember. While the Cowboys current experienced duo may have more big-play potential, the all-important safety valve for Prescott to throw to needs to be established this camp.
The Cowboys pass rush is unrelenting, giving McCarthy’s side of the ball plenty of opportunity to practice scramble drills and hot throws while they sort out their own pass protection across the line - another unproven area these tight ends will need work in, in addition to sealing the edge for Tony Pollard and this stable of running backs.
Targeting the middle of the field is a staple of every dominant offense in today’s NFL, and if the Cowboys are going to feel they have one of these offenses under McCarthy, they’ll need a tight end or two to step up in a big way.