With two weeks of training camp down and Thursday’s preseason opener against the San Francisco 49ers upon us, the process of building the Dallas Cowboys for the 2018 season is in full swing.
Impressions have been formed and decisions are already being shaped by the team’s brain trust.
Just know that while the Cowboys are not getting much love nationally about their chances in 2018, they feel good about themselves.
Team insiders believe they are being overly shortchanged because of the losses of receiver Dez Bryant (cut) and tight end Jason Witten (retired) and not being given enough credit for the improvements made on defense and the return of running back Ezekiel Elliott for 16 games.
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Per the Cowboys, the passing game will be at least as good as it was last year, if not better, as neither Bryant nor Witten was in the prime of their careers. More importantly, a motivated and trimmed-down Elliott will be in the running for NFL MVP honors.
Here are seven other whispers from training camp to contemplate as the Cowboys take the field against the 49ers:
1. There are no worries or concerns about quarterback Dak Prescott and the struggles of the passing game so far in training camp. Prescott is still working to get on the same page with the revamped receiver corps, a process that has been slowed by injuries to Deonte Thompson (Achilles tendon) and Allen Hurns (groin). The Cowboys have no regrets about moving on from Bryant, and rookie Michael Gallup has the biggest upside of anyone in the group.
2. At tight end, know that the Cowboys are considering keeping the foursome of Geoff Swaim, Blake Jarwin, rookie Dalton Schultz and Rico Gathers. Swaim is the one they can count on the most because he can block and catch. Jarwin still has work to do as a blocker, conjuring up images of the disappointing Gavin Escobar. But he is the best receiver of the bunch. Schultz came in adept at doing both. The wildcard is Gathers, the former Baylor basketball player. The Cowboys understand he is still behind as a football player, but they covet his upside and potential as a red-zone target. His job in the preseason is to not do anything to force the Cowboys to cut him. There can be no backward steps. The front office wants him on the roster.
3. Rookie left guard Connor Williams has made a smooth transition to the starting lineup. Add in the return to health of left tackle Tyron Smith, who has had no back issues in training camp after being hampered by back problems the past two seasons, and the line is again the undisputed strength of the team and the foundation of their success. The Cowboys feel very good about the depth up front for the first time in years with swing tackle Cam Fleming and guard/centers Joe Looney and Marco Martin already locks for the backup spots. The question the Cowboys need to figure out in the preseason is whether they will keep eight or nine offensive linemen. The final spot will come down to Kadeem Edwards or Chaz Green.
4. At defensive end, Kony Ealy and Charles Tapper need to step it up in the preseason and final weeks of training camp if they want to make a push for the roster. Rookie fourth-round pick Dorrance Amstrong has been turning heads since the start of camp. The Cowboys believe they have a steal in him. He looks like he looked on tape in college and only dropped in the draft because of a slow time in the 40-yard dash at the combine.
5. The Cowboys are putting defensive tackle David Irving and defensive end Randy Gregory in the same category. They consider both as late-season bonuses. Irving is away from training camp dealing with personal issues and will miss the first four games under NFL suspension. Gregory is back in camp after missing more than a year under NFL suspension. He will ramp up in training camp after the 49ers game by doing more and more in practice. The Cowboys will remain deliberate with him and are not counting on an early-season impact. They hope to get Gregory up to speed by the time Irving returns. Just know that the Cowboys feel good about their defensive line with or without Irving. But they don’t downplay his talent and know he can put them over the top if he returns focused and ready to go.
They also don’t worry about Irving being out of shape as he is working out in a gym owned by FOX Sports reporter Jay Glazer, who is providing regular updates.
6. One aspect of the move of cornerback Byron Jones from safety to cornerback that gave the Cowboys initial pause was a concern over who would cover tight ends in the passing game. That was Jones’ forte and moving him from safety made that a question. Suffice it say, the Cowboys are bothered no more. Rookie linebacker Leighton Van Esch has shown that he can handle that responsibility. Having him in the game in the nickel defense puts another bigger, physical player on the field to handle potential runs out of the passing game.
7. In the secondary, it’s interesting to note that the Cowboys believe they have only three safeties on the team they would consider for the active roster in Xavier Woods, Jeff Heath and Kavon Frazier. That means the Cowboys could go long at cornerback with the possibility of using Byron Jones or Chido Awuzie at safety, if necessary. Or they could add a safety after final cuts. And while the Cowboys have had no recent talks with Seattle about safety Earl Thomas, know that trading for him is still a talking point within the organization.