Dallas Cowboys

Why has Leighton Vander Esch’s injury, uncertainty for opener flown under the radar?

Training camp is finally over for the Dallas Cowboys.

Tuesday marked the final official training camp practice, as the team will travel to Houston on Wednesday for Thursday’s preseason finale against the Texans.

It’s the last opportunity for those on the roster bubble to make a lasting impression before final cuts on Saturday, and for those still jockeying for positions on the depth chart.

No veterans of any consequence will play. Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott sitting out are no-brainers, considering they didn’t play in Sunday’s 27-3 loss to the Arizona Cardinals.

But also on the list of players sitting out is defensive end Randy Gregory, whose 24 snaps in the past two games against the Cardinals and Cincinnati Bengals represent the only football he’s played since the 2016 season finale, roughly 19 months ago.

Coach Jason Garrett said they thought about playing Gregory against the Texans but ultimately decided against it.

They believe he will be ready to go for the Sept. 9 season opener against the Carolina Panthers.

Here are 5 other impressions from the final practice:

1. Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch remains sidelined with a groin strain and won’t play against the Texans. Vander Esch, the first-round pick from Boise State, has missed the past two preseason games as well. It all raises a question of whether he will ready for the season opener against the Panthers.

“I would not anticipate him playing in this game,” Garrett said. “He’s working through that groin injury. We’re hopeful that he’ll practice soon.”

That Vander Esch’s injury has flown under the radar and hasn’t been a huge concern is a testament to the depth the Cowboys have at linebacker in general, and the outstanding play of Jaylon Smith, specifically.

The Cowboys would not have drafted Vander Esch in the first round if they didn’t anticipate him making an immediate impact as an opening-day starter. Not only will he not start opening day, but he has taken few reps with the first-team middle linebacker in camp because Smith has a stranglehold on the position.

And again, it hasn’t been a big deal because Smith has been outstanding in practices and games, running sideline to sideline to make plays in the running game and showing his speed to get deep down the middle to impact the passing game.

He looks nothing like the limited player he was in 2017, in his first year back since suffering a devastating knee in his final game at Notre Dame, when he wore a brace for drop foot and was best in small doses — all reasons why the Cowboys felt they couldn’t pass up Vander Esch in the draft.

Had they known Smith was going to be this good, might they have worked harder to target safety Derwin James, who went two picks earlier to the San Diego Chargers and has already been named to the starting lineup?

2. Speaking of safety, Tyree Robinson worked with the first team in practice next to Jeff Heath. Kavon Frazier remains limited after suffering a separated shoulder against the Cardinals. Xavier Woods is out until the second week of the season with a pulled hamstring.

Robinson will play against the Texans, as he needs reps and to show the Cowboys what he can do before final cuts, when they are certain to look for upgrades at the position off the waiver wire.

The same is true for Jeron Johnson, who was signed before the Cardinals game because of his past experience in the defense with secondary coach Kris Richard in Seattle. Johnson was a volunteer high school coach when he got the call for the Cowboys to continue chasing his dream.

He has not played since 2016. He went to camp with the Jacksonville Jaguars last season but was cut after getting injured. He has not been in any camps and had not played football until the Cowboys called.

3. Right guard Zack Martin participated in a full practice for the first time since suffering a hyperextended knee against the Cincinnati Bengals two weeks ago. He practiced with the first team and said he is good to go for the season opener.

4. Defensive tackle Maliek Collins practiced in team drills for the first time since undergoing surgery in May to repair a fractured foot. Collins, who started training camp in the physically unable to perform list, appears to be on track to be ready to go for the season opener. He worked at both tackle spots.

He might open the season as a reserve behind Tyrone Crawford and sensational camp surprise Antwaun Woods, who opened camp on fourth string and is now seemingly entrenched as the starter at nose tackle.

5. The Cowboys have signed offensive linemen Matt Diaz and Kyle Bosch Tuesday because of continued injuries up front. Dustin Stanton and Korren Kirven suffered injuries against the Cardinals last Sunday. Diaz, who spent some time in camp with the Tennessee Titans, and Bosch, with the Carolina Panthers, will have to get up to speed quickly. With no starters playing Thursday, they will be on the field and asked to play heavy snaps against Texans after just one practice.

“Bosch and Diaz, they’re having to learn quickly,” coach Jason Garrett said. “They’re some great stories of signing guys on Tuesday and Wednesday before Thursday night game throughout the years, and these guys will be part of the lure going forward.”

Clarence E. Hill Jr.: @clarencehilljr
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