OXNARD, Calif. – The Dallas Cowboys will call to an end their time in California on Friday, returning to their Texas roots.
In truth, a 53-man roster the Cowboys would pick today would not look all that different than the one they will pick Sept. 1. Injuries, waiver-wire claims and potential trades will change some things, but there won’t be many surprises.
So what have we learned and what remains to be settled after 13 practices – 10 of which have been in full pads - in Oxnard?
What we've learned
Ezekiel Elliott is ready. His only work in the preseason will come Aug. 26 against the Arizona Cardinals, but he has shown he is ready for the Sept. 9 regular-season opener against the Carolina Panthers. Without the six-game suspension looming over his head, Elliott has been much more relaxed, looking like the fun-loving player from his rookie season instead of the brooding player who did not interact with many people last year. Elliott spent 20 minutes after one practice making sure he signed autographs for an entire youth football team that was in attendance. A happy Zeke makes for a happy Cowboys offense and make no mistake, he will be at the epicenter of what they do in 2018.
Kris Richard’s impact – Richard has brought a different attitude and technique to the Cowboys’ corners. No longer are they playing off and soft. They are challenging receivers at the line of scrimmage. They want to use the length of Byron Jones and the physicality of Chidobe Awuzie at the line of scrimmage to disrupt the offense’s timing. The defense has also been more aggressive in its pass rushing, sending one linebacker more than Rod Marinelli has done in previous camps, and that's another sign of Richard’s tone-setting.
Tavon Austin is a receiver – When the Cowboys acquired him on draft weekend, some thought he would be used as a running back. Not so much. So far in camp he has lined up at running back twice. At receiver, he has lined up all over the formation. He has made plays down the field and underneath. He had a career-high 59 carries last year for the Los Angeles Rams, but given how much work Elliott will get it’s hard to see him getting nearly four carries a game.
Jaylon Smith can move – A year ago, the Cowboys knew Smith would be able to contribute as he returned from the serious knee injury that caused him to miss rookie season. Now running without the brace that helped keep his foot flexed, he is showing what Garrett has called an ability to play spontaneously. In one practice, he ran stride for stride with wide receiver Cole Beasley down the middle of the field. That’s impressive for a 245-pound linebacker.
What remains unsettled
Finding a third corner – Anthony Brown has been working as the nickel corner since the offseason program. While he has had two interceptions in camp practices, he had two penalties in the preseason opener against the San Francisco 49ers. Jourdan Lewis has been working as the second-team slot corner and might get a shot with the No. 1 group even if he does not have the size Richard covets at cornerback.
The receiver rotation – Allen Hurns missed a few days with a groin injury. Deonte Thompson has been working through a sore Achilles and has not practiced. Cole Beasley is working through a groin strain. Terrance Williams is coming back from offseason foot surgery. Noah Brown has not taken part in a full-padded practice because of a hamstring strain. That has played a part in the passing game’s inconsistencies. The Cowboys need to get the receivers they are counting on for Week 1 to get healthy so they can get on the same page with Dak Prescott.
Manning the nose – If there is one spot Rod Marinelli has not quite gotten to his liking since joining the Cowboys, it has been at nose tackle. Nick Hayden was solid. Terrell McClain was able to get a big free agency deal. Last year, Maliek Collins played out of position as the nose tackle. So far in camp, Datone Jones and Antwaun Woods have taken the one-technique snaps with the starters. Woods started against San Francisco and has impressed Marinelli, but Garrett said there is nothing settled about the defensive tackle rotation at the moment.
Safety depth - Most of the talk about the Cowboys and a safety has been around the possibility of seeing Earl Thomas in a Dallas uniform. The Cowboys like what they have seen from Jeff Heath and Xavier Woods, and Kavon Frazier can be solid, but they don’t have a fourth safety as of yet. Marqueston Huff suffered a groin injury in the first preseason game, which has put undrafted Tyree Robinson in with the second team now. Jones and Awuzie can play safety in a pinch, but they would rather not have to make that kind of change.