The Cowboys aren’t done with training camp just yet, but the portion of camp that takes place in Oxnard, California has concluded. Now it’s on to Seattle for the second preseason game, and then the team returns home to The Star in Frisco to finish out camp.
So with the Oxnard portion - which is the bulk of training camp - now in the books, who were the players that gained the most in camp? And, conversely, which players lost the most ground during camp? We’ve got nine winners and nine losers from Oxnard, though it should be noted that all of these players could still drastically change their fortunes going forward.
G Zack Martin
Is it possible to win training camp without even showing up? If your name is Zack Martin, yes! Martin, one of the most dominant offensive linemen of the last decade and a surefire Hall of Famer, decided to hold out from camp due to a contract dispute. He had last signed a contract prior to the 2018 season, which extended him through 2024 and made him the highest paid guard in the NFL.
Since then, though, the market for guards has exploded and Martin found himself eighth among his position in terms of annual average value. Naturally, the 32-year-old who has more All-Pro and Pro Bowl selections than he does holding calls wanted to be paid more. It took a while, but he got there. Now, Martin is back at camp and sitting pretty as the third highest paid guard.
Paying $850k to make ~$35m is a tidy bit of business.— David Helman (@davidhelman_) August 16, 2023
God I’m so broke https://t.co/HN56ctT6xU
WR Jalen Brooks
Seventh-round rookie receiver Jalen Brooks was often forgotten when discussing the Cowboys receiver group coming into camp, but that changed real fast. The South Carolina product quickly established his smooth route running and reliable hands at the catch point, becoming a favorite target of both Cooper Rush and Will Grier.
Brooks was unable to transfer that to the first preseason game, but he’s remained impressive in camp since then. He still hasn’t locked up a roster spot, but Brooks is trending that way. He’s shown value to contribute on special teams often, and proving himself as a receiver is only helping his case.
WR Jalen Tolbert
There might not be anyone who needed a bigger camp than Jalen Tolbert. A third-round pick a year ago, Tolbert hardly played in his rookie year and was a healthy scratch come game time all too often. With Brandin Cooks in town and Michael Gallup another year removed from his ACL injury, Tolbert had a little less pressure to become a starter and could instead focus on improving his play.
And he did exactly that. Tolbert was turning heads pretty much from the first day, and he kept that effort consistent throughout the Oxnard portion of camp. He also carried it over to the game, looking impressive in limited action against the Jaguars. It’s safe to say at this point that Tolbert has locked up the WR4 spot he was competing for coming into camp.
RB Deuce Vaughn
The Deuce is loose! The People’s Choice!
Those are the two most common chants that have now become synonymous with rookie running back Deuce Vaughn. A dominant runner at Kansas State and the son of Cowboys scout Chris Vaughn, Deuce has quickly earned plenty of fans despite being the shortest player in the NFL at 5’5”.
Dubbed the smol king, Vaughn has earned every bit of that praise in camp too. He’s crazy quick and agile, and his diminutive stature has made it hard for defenders - whether it be Cowboys or Jaguars players - to properly tackle him. Not only that, but Vaughn has shown he can hold his own in blitz pickup as well. Nothing is set in stone yet, but Vaughn certainly appears to be the frontrunner for the RB2 spot.
TE Jake Ferguson
It seemed as if Jake Ferguson would have to compete with rookie Luke Schoonmaker for the top tight end job, and even then the Cowboys sounded likely to take a committee approach to the position. But Schoonmaker started camp on the NFI list, giving Ferguson plenty of reps with the first team. And he did not give an inch.
Ferguson has looked like a pro’s pro in camp, playing way ahead of his years and looking comfortable as TE1. He flashed in a big way in the preseason game, too, getting vertical for an acrobatic catch and highlighting his aggressiveness at the catch point. Schoonmaker is back now, but Ferguson has cemented himself as the frontrunner for the top tight end job now.
CB Eric Scott Jr.
One of the bigger surprises of the Cowboys’ draft this year was trading into the sixth round to take corner Eric Scott Jr. The trade for Stephon Gilmore gave the Cowboys a clear top four at cornerback (once Jourdan Lewis gets activated off the PUP list) with a likely competition between Nahshon Wright and Kelvin Joseph. But Scott has been thrust in between those two and, so far, emerged as the leader.
Scott made his presence known on day one, picking off Dak Prescott after a deflection. Since then, he’s been a consistent force, often congesting receivers around the catch point and making plays on the ball. He seems to be moving towards a roster spot.
S Juanyeh Thomas
The Cowboys had two injury scares on the first day of camp when safeties Donovan Wilson and Israel Mukuamu went down early. Both seem to be fine, but they haven’t been going at full speed as a result, especially Wilson. That’s meant more work for Juanyeh Thomas, an undrafted rookie from a year ago.
Thomas has quickly impressed and is pushing hard for what is likely the final safety spot on the roster. He’s made plays left and right in camp and carried it over to the preseason game, picking off Trevor Lawrence early on in the game.
TE John Stephens Jr.
You’d be forgiven for not knowing the name John Stephens Jr. at the start of camp. Now? Not so much. An undrafted rookie out of Louisiana, Stephens is actually listed as a receiver on the team website, though he’s been working with the tight ends all camp. The 6’5”, 221-pound athlete has looked natural at the position, too.
Stephens has flashed in practices and had a great preseason performance, leading the team with five catches for 56 yards and a touchdown. He’s a fluid athlete with natural pass catching skills and a frame that makes him tailor-made to play tight end. And for his work, Stephens is now firmly in the mix for one of the final spots on the roster.
HC Mike McCarthy
One of the more persistent stories of the offseason has been the changes being made to the Cowboys offense with Mike McCarthy taking over play-calling and Brian Schottenheimer replacing Kellen Moore as offensive coordinator. McCarthy has been his usual guarded self when discussing these changes, but training camp was our first real shot at glimpsing what Dak Prescott has dubbed the Texas Coast offense.
The early results have been positive. The first team offense started camp strong, and even as Dan Quinn’s unit started to reassert their dominance we’ve come to expect, McCarthy’s offense kept pace. In the preseason opener, the execution wasn’t always perfect but McCarthy himself showed off some features of the new-look offense, highlighted by a fast-pace tempo and quick hitters in the passing game. McCarthy won’t be getting any final grades until the regular season, but it’s definitely a good sign that things have looked good thus far.
RB Ronald Jones
When Ronald Jones was first signed in the offseason, not too long after the Cowboys released Ezekiel Elliott, the expectation was for him to become the primary backup to Tony Pollard. Since then, a lot has changed. Deuce Vaughn was drafted, and the duo of Malik Davis and Rico Dowdle have impressed.
Then, Jones was handed a two-game suspension and subsequently injured himself, which kept him out of the first preseason game. Nothing has broken Jones’ way, and the veteran running back faces an uphill battle just to make the roster at this point.
CB Kelvin Joseph
Kelvin Joseph has been a popular cut candidate since last year, as the talented cornerback has struggled to translate his potential to the field while also running into issues off of it. It was a quiet offseason this year for Joseph, which was a positive, but the silence has remained throughout camp.
Joseph has been unable to make a name for himself in camp, though he did have a standout performance in the preseason game. But with Scott Jr. looking as good as he has, Joseph will need to do much more to keep his roster spot.
G Josh Ball
Perhaps the only player on the roster more unpopular than Joseph is Josh Ball, who made the move from tackle to guard this offseason. Coaches have talked Ball up, loving his physicality in the run game, but Ball has yet to show major improvements on the field.
He was one of a handful of offensive linemen who got manhandled by the Jaguars in the preseason opener. While he wasn’t alone in that distinction, it was an accumulation of less-than-stellar play that Ball has demonstrated since arriving in Dallas. His roster spot may not be as endangered as Joseph’s - largely because all of the Cowboys’ backup linemen have struggled in camp - but Ball has missed his opportunity thus far to impress in camp.
WR Simi Fehoko
Let’s make one thing clear: Simi Fehoko has had a good camp. He hasn’t been dominant, but he’s been solid. The issue is that two other receivers have stood out in a big way. Fehoko entered camp in a clear competition with Tolbert for the WR4 spot, and Tolbert has been so impressive that he’s run away with that job.
Now, Fehoko finds himself in a competition with Brooks for what might be the final receiver spot, depending on how deep the Cowboys go there. Fehoko was significantly better in the preseason opener than Brooks, but the seventh-round rookie is showing out in practices. Fehoko has been solid all camp, but he might need to kick things up a notch to beat out Brooks.
TE Luke Schoonmaker
Like Fehoko, second-round rookie Luke Schoonmaker finds himself in the loser column not because of his play so much as it is because of others at his position. Schoonmaker started camp on the NFI list, still rehabbing from a partial tear to his plantar fascia suffered in college. That meant Schoonmaker had to sit and watch as Jake Ferguson took all the first team reps and looked great doing it.
Schoonmaker is in practice now, and looked solid in his limited reps in the preseason opener. His talent is undeniable, and had he been good to go from the jump, Schoonmaker might have wound up in the winner column. But now he has plenty of ground to make up to Ferguson, and a dwindling amount of time in which to do it.
OL Chuma Edoga
Journeyman offensive lineman Chuma Edoga was brought in to be one of the Cowboys’ top backup options along the offensive line, and his versatility to play both sides and switch between tackle and guard was talked up a lot. But Edoga did not have a good start to camp, frequently getting beat in drills and not looking like the player Dallas seemingly thought they were getting.
To make matters worse, Edoga suffered a hyperextended knee leading up to the preseason opener. That kept him out of the game, and he hasn’t returned to practice yet. It’s unclear how serious the injury is for Edoga, but it’s another sour turn for a player who had been struggling already. Edoga isn’t necessarily in danger of getting cut - nobody has really wowed in his absence, and he could always spend time on the injured reserve if necessary - but he hasn’t accomplished what he certainly hoped to in camp.
DT Neville Gallimore
Neville Gallimore’s roster spot was in jeopardy to start camp after the Cowboys drafted both Mazi Smith and Viliami Fehoko while also bringing back Johnathan Hankins. But Gallimore hasn’t done much in camp to fight back against those threats.
To his credit, Gallimore had one of the best defensive performances in the preseason opener. But the fact that he was playing considerable snaps well into the third quarter of that game speaks to his current pecking order. Gallimore has frequently been listed as a top cut or trade candidate, and nothing in camp thus far has changed that notion.
CB Nahshon Wright
Nahshon Wright is in a similar situation to Joseph, his fellow draft mate from a few years ago. With the strong play of Scott Jr., it seems that Wright is competing with Joseph for a final spot at cornerback, depending on how deep the team goes there. Jourdan Lewis’ status also complicates things here, but Wright is fighting for his job regardless.
So far in camp, Wright has looked a lot like former Cowboys cornerback Chidobe Awuzie in that he’s given up a lot of big plays but also been in good position on said plays. How this coaching staff evaluates that is anyone’s guess, but Wright can’t keep ending up on the wrong side of those plays.
K Brandon Aubrey
The kicker drama just won’t go away. Brandon Aubrey entered camp as the clear frontrunner over Tristain Vizcaino, and it didn’t take long for Aubrey to become the only kicker on the roster. However, he’s routinely missed kicks in practice and it bled over to the preseason game, where Aubrey missed an extra point. Aubrey also hasn’t really been tested from deep yet, something special teams coordinator John Fassel has really valued in kickers throughout his career.
For now, Aubrey remains the Cowboys’ sole kicker. But if his struggles continue, it will be very hard for the team to ignore the presence of veterans Robbie Gould and Mason Crosby, in addition to a handful of other kickers either on the market or soon to be available pending other teams’ roster cuts.