The Dallas Cowboys conducted their first practice of training camp on Thursday and it was more of a glorified minicamp. The team will work out in shorts and shells the first two days and won’t go in full pads until Saturday. The offense and defense also will be working individually and will go against each other until Saturday.
Here are five observations from the first day:
1. Running back Ezekiel Elliott looks sleeker than at the start of camp last season. He is in better shape and is moving better, running backs coach Gary Brown said. Elliott doesn’t have the specter of an NFL investigation and a looming suspension hanging over his head, so he is in better shape physically and mentally.
It’s a good thing because Elliott will be asked to do more as a runner and a receiver in 2018. Brown said Elliott will be counted on to make up for a lot of catches that left with the departures of tight end Jason Witten and Dez Bryant.
Coach Jason Garrett said Elliott is a natural receiver. “Oh, I think that’s a big part of what we liked about him coming out of school,” Garrett said. “That’s definitely something we can continue to grow with. He’s a very natural receiver just in the course of a pass concept, but he’s also someone you can isolate. You can isolate him out of the backfield, you can isolate him, putting him on the line of scrimmage in maybe an empty formation. So that’s definitely one of the talents that we want to continue to take advantage of.”
2. Receiver Terrance Williams participated in the first practice after missing the entire offseason recovering from surgery to repair a fractured foot. The Cowboys plan to bring him along slowly, using him on a limited basis, but it is good news he was ready to go the first day. Williams needs to bounce back from a disappointing 2017 campaign when he had 53 catches and no touchdowns.
3. Williams is part of a new-look receiver group that is looking to find its footing with the departed Dez Bryant. The Cowboys will focus on a receiver-by-committee, stressing fundamentals under new coach Sanjay Lal. The group drew the ire of coach Jason Garrett on Thursday for focusing too much on technique and not running fluidly.
“I know we are counting steps but we have to ... run,” Garrett barked. The Cowboys used a lot of different receiver groups with quarterback Dak Prescott, including undersized receivers Tavon Austin and Cole Beasley working at times with the first team with Allen Hurns. Cowboys offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said all the receivers can run routes from different spots, which should make the offense more versatile and unpredictable. As long as they are running and not counting steps.
4. Linebacker Jaylon Smith continues to run with the first team at middle linebacker in front of first-round pick Leighton Vander Esch. Unlike second-round pick Connor Williams, who was immediately placed in the starting lineup at left guard, the Cowboys are bringing Vander Esch along a little more slowly. It’s because they plan to rotate Smith, Vander Esch and Sean Lee at the weakside and middle linebacker positions, per defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli.
And on offense, teams prefer to have the line in place with no rotating. It’s also because of the continued progress of Smith, who is playing without a brace in 2018 and looks faster and more fluid.
“I think he’s grown really over the course of his time back and his rehab was excellent,” coach Jason Garrett said. “I do think taking that brace off in the spring has helped him move better. He just seems more comfortable, he seems more natural, more instinctive, changing direction, you have to be spontaneous when you play.”
5. With just three players over 30, including just one position player in linebacker Sean Lee, the Dallas Cowboys are a decidedly young team. While that means there will be a lot of inexperience and a lot more teaching, it also means fewer old guys to manage their snaps and practice reps. Outside of Lee, defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence and left tackle Tyron Smith, the Cowboys don’t have to really worry about giving guys a veteran day off as they have in the past.
That means the Cowboys can do a lot of teaching in what amounts to a shorter amount of time before the first preseason game against the San Francisco 49ers on Aug. 9. “One of the things we try to put in front of everybody is that we don’t have that much time,” Garrett said. “There just isn’t that much time. Every day is critical for us to get better. That is with any team. It’s certainly with a young team.
“We have to maximize every opportunity that we have. There are 15 days before the first preseason game. The first day is Day 1 and you can’t do anything but a conditioning test. The first two days we are not going against each other. There is two days off before that. There is not a lot of practice time before we play San Francisco. We have to maximize the walk-throughs. We have to maximize the meetings and certainly the work on the field.”