The Dallas Cowboys returned to practice Monday morning after a trip for the ages to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, winning their preseason opener, partying with Justin Timberlake and then celebrating the induction of owner Jerry Jones.
It was a whirlwind of a weekend that had the Cowboys getting back to training camp at 3:30 a.m. Sunday.
The four-day hiatus had the Cowboys running a little slow during the walk-through practice, drawing the wrath of coach Jason Garrett.
The effort was better by the padded practice in the afternoon as the team began focusing on Saturday’s preseason game against the Los Angeles Rams.
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Quarterback Dak Prescott, running back Ezekiel Elliott and the rest of the starters will play for the first time as the team begins in earnest the process of getting ready for the regular season.
So what have we learned after two weeks of training camp?
Ezekiel Elliott and the NFL’s yearlong investigation into domestic violence and other issues remain the dark cloud hanging over camp. Elliott has gone about his business with focus and energy on the field. He missed much of camp last year so the reps he’s getting are invaluable, especially with him expected to be an even bigger part of the offense with an increased role in the passing game. Of course, it would be a huge setback for the Cowboys if he is suspended for any games.
Dak Prescott has picked up where he left off at the end last year. He is the unquestioned leader of this team and sets the tone with his approach and work ethic. Prescott is more comfortable in his skin and role as the face of the Cowboys. He also has a stronger grasp of the offense, giving him more freedom to make checks at the line of scrimmage.
Linebacker Jaylon Smith, who missed all of last season with a devastating knee injury, hasn’t been unleashed yet, but the arrow continues to point upward. There have been no setbacks. He is doing more in every practice. He is not a starter because the Cowboys are being very deliberate with him, but it looks like he will be on the field and ready to go when the season starts.
No pass rush
The pass rush remains a concern, especially with David Irving and Damontre Moore opening the season with NFL suspensions. Rookie top pick Taco Charlton will be a versatile contributor, but has yet to flash top pass rush potential. Tyrone Crawford and DeMarcus Lawrence are who they are at this point. Keep an eye on the speedy Charles Tapper.
Left guard battle
It’s hard to show concern for an offensive line that features three Pro Bowlers in left tackle Tyron Smith, center Travis Frederick and guard Zack Martin. Add in the luxury of moving La’el Collins, a first-round talent, to right tackle to replace the retiring Doug Free. Left guard remains unsettled. Jonathan Cooper has seized the position, despite an injury to Chaz Green. Byron Bell is taking snaps with the first team.
Byron Jones has shined the brightest of all the defensive backs so far. He will be used more as a center-field safety where he can make plays with his athleticism. That is the buzz word for the entire secondary. They are younger, but faster and more athletic than the group of a year ago. Second-round pick Chido Awuzie will be in the mix in the dime packages. Orlando Scandrick looks like the pre-injury Scandrick of two years ago.
Tight end surge
Rico Gathers gets a lot of attention at tight end because of his size and his story of being a former college basketball player. He has come a long way, but he still has a ways to go mentally. Look for him to make the team. No more practice squad. Look for Geoff Swaim and James Hanna to be the primary tight ends behind Jason Witten.
Don’t sleep on Jaylon Smith’s big brother, Rod Smith. He is firmly in the mix as the third running back behind Ezekiel Elliott and Darren McFadden. The Cowboys value his ability to play special teams, but also like his physical running style and pass catching ability. Alfred Morris could be used as cut-down trade bait.
Dez Bryant spoke volumes early in camp when he said this is a running offense. That means he understands he might not catch 90 or 100 passes. Bryant is in the best shape he’s been since 2014. Add in the improved consistency of Brice Butler and the Cowboys have a dangerous corps of receivers with Bryant, Butler, Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley and rookie Ryan Switzer. That’s not even including strong camps from Andy Jones and Noah Brown. It’s another reason why Lucky Whitehead was a dead man walking long before the arrest-non arrest story.
The 36-year-old Luke McCown got $250,000 in guaranteed money to sign with the Cowboys as a third-string “developmental” quarterback, per Jerry Jones. But the Cowboys pretty much know what he can do. Undrafted free agent Cooper Rush had a nice outing against Arizona. If he continues to develop and the Cowboys can’t sneak him on the practice squad, McCown might have been blessed with a nice four-week payday to return home to Jacksonville, Texas, and resume playing catch with his son.
Cowboys at Rams
8 p.m. Saturday, KTVT/11