5 Things to Watch at Cowboys Minicamp
The Cowboys conclude their offseason work this week with their mandatory 3-day minicamp which begins today. Here are “5 Things to Watch at Cowboys’ 2017 Minicamp”:
Can La’el Collins and Chaz Green solidify themselves as Starting RT and LG, respectively?
By reputation, the Cowboys have the best offensive line in the NFL. But there’s a 40% turnover rate along the starting line from the 2016 season to the 2017 season. Right tackle Doug Free has retired from football, and Ron Leary vacated the left guard spot when he departed in free agency for big bucks from the Broncos.
La’el Collins has worked in place of Free at right tackle through OTAs. And last week, cleared to return to practice after rehabbing from a back injury, Chaz Green worked at first-team left guard.
Collins at RT and Green at LG is a flip-flop from what many observers expected coming into the offseason. Collins started games in 2015 and 2016 at left guard, and Green (when healthy) was the swing tackle (backup at both left tackle and right tackle). So observers assumed Collins would step-in for Leary at guard and Green would takeover from Free at right tackle. Instead, Green has been moved inside to guard.
Will Green be able to solidify himself at guard? Or will he end up sharing first-team reps with Jonathan Cooper, a former Cardinals’ 1st round pick who was signed by the Cowboys as a free agent six months ago? Cooper has been working at backup center during OTAs. Because the Cowboys usually suit-up only 7 offensive linemen during regular season games, Cooper would need to be able to step-in at center if All Pro center Travis Frederick suffered an injury during a game.
Defensive Line Rotation Will Continue to Take Shape
Pass rush is once again a high priority for the Cowboys, and rookie first-round pick Taco Charlton is sharing reps at right defensive end. That means he’s going one-on-one against perennial Pro Bowl left tackle Tyron Smith in practice. That high level of competition will continue to help Charlton who is sharing first-team reps at RDE with Damontre Moore.
Charlton and Moore are getting extra practice reps while veterans Benson Mayowa and DeMarcus Lawrence continue their rehab during OTAs.
Charlton also expects to get some practice reps inside at defensive tackle, as does Moore. Versatility is valued by defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli who likes to move his players to different spots along the line to create mismatches with opposing offensive linemen.
We’ll see if Charles Tapper is on the field this week. After missing his rookie season with a back injury, Tapper was anxious to prove that he can be an important part of the pass rush in 2017. But after straining a hip at last week’s OTAs, we’ll have to see how much work (if any) Tapper gets this week.
The Re-Stocking of the Secondary
The four rookie defensive backs drafted by the Cowboys worked second and third team during OTAs as they learn the ropes. The rookies are getting plenty of attention this offseason, but so far it’s the veterans that have worked first-team including Jeff Heath who takes over at starting strong safety in place of Barry Church who left in free agency.
Heath has been a role player for the Cowboys through his first 4 NFL seasons as backup safety and special teams ace. Heath is taking advantage of his opportunity to step into his new role as a starter and veteran leader. He’s working alongside Byron Jones as the new safety tandem.
As for cornerback…second-round pick Chidobe Awuzie and third-round pick Jourdan Lewis are working behind starters; they are drawing praise from coaches for their progress. Veteran free agent pickup Nolan Carroll (former Philadelphia Eagle) and Orlando Scandrick are working first-team, however. When the Cowboys go to their nickel defense, Scandrick slides inside to the slot and second-year player Anthony Brown takes Scandrick’s spot on the outside.
All Eyes on Jaylon Smith at MLB
If all of us who cover the Cowboys on a daily basis received $1 for every time a fan has asked “How is Jaylon Smith looking?”, we could retire early.
Smith is a huge storyline this offseason as the linebacker returns from a career-threatening knee injury that sidelined the Notre Dame star his rookie season.
But the truth is that it’s still too soon to know how quickly he can be a contributor this season. The team continues to take a cautious approach in regards to his workload: he’s still not practicing on back-to-back days.
And over the past month, reporters have been allowed to watch only one OTA practice in which Smith took part in drills (he works with strength & conditioning coaches on the days he’s not practicing alongside teammates).
I’ll remind everyone to temper their enthusiasm when it comes to Smith’s return. He’s been practicing at second-team middle linebacker behind the returning starter, Anthony Hitchens.
And if you won’t believe me when I say “tap the brakes” on Smith and don’t put too many expectations on him, maybe you’ll believe Coach Marinelli.
“A lot of it is going to be answered for us with pads” noted Marinelli following last week’s non-padded OTA practice. “Pads are everything because now it’s bone on bone, it’s weight on weight. He’s going through stage 1 here and it is good stuff so far. Step by step progress and try not to seem more than it is. It’s just progress.”
That doesn’t mean the coaches and medical staff are not pleased with Smith’s progress. They are happy and laud his positive attitude and diligent approach. But this is a long game they are playing with Smith, not short-term gratification. As great as it would be for Smith to be ready for the regular season opener in September, it’s more important to remain clear-eyed regarding his long-term career.
Ryan Switzer Proving He Can Be an Early Contributor, What About Rico Gathers?
With Cole Beasley and Lucky Whitehead nursing sore hamstrings during OTAs, rookie fourth round pick Ryan Switzer made the most of his extra opportunities the past month. He got first-team reps as the slot receiver in place of Beasley. Switzer also gets reps at punt returner which was Lucky’s job the past two seasons. Switzer drew praise from Dak Prescott as being “quarterback friendly”. And in a conversation I had with backup QB Kellen Moore, he was effusive in his praise for Switzer.
It’s also worth noting that tight end Rico Gathers has benefitted from the extra work in OTAs while starter Jason Witten gets time off (‘veteran days’). Returning backups James Hanna and Geoff Swaim are rehabbing injuries, so there’s tons of work for Gathers during the upcoming minicamp, even with Witten taking part. Gathers will get second-team reps behind Witten instead of 4th-team reps behind Witten/Hanna/Swaim.
Gathers is miles ahead of where he was last season, but according to tight ends coach Steve Loney “there’s still a long ways to go”. Still, Loney and other offensive coaches are pleased with Gathers’ progress. Gathers will have plenty of opportunities to prove himself in the coming minicamp, training camp, and 5 preseason games