After 21 practices or walkthroughs in Oxnard, Calif., ESPN Dallas’ Calvin Watkins, Todd Archer and Tim MacMahon hand out their training camp awards and disappointments.
Best player, offense: Definitely Dez Bryant. He’s always been a physical freak who can make ridiculously acrobatic catches look easy. There are few receivers in the league who can match Bryant’s hands or explosiveness or ability to go up and fight for the ball. He’s made major strides in the mental aspect of the game, giving him a chance to establish himself among the truly elite. And he sets the tone at practice in terms of intensity.
Best player, offense, not named Dez Bryant: Jason Witten is a perennial Pro Bowl tight end who firmly believes he is still in his prime, and he certainly backed up that contention throughout training camp. Maybe the most interesting thing about Witten’s camp is how involved he was in the red zone. It’s puzzling that Witten hasn’t been utilized more in scoring territory throughout his career (only 44 touchdowns in 10 seasons), and it’s a point of emphasis to get Witten the rock in the red zone this season.
Best player, defense: Rest assured that DeMarcus Ware’s “down year” of only 11.5 sacks will not be the beginning of a trend. He appears to be as good as ever, having consistently dominated left tackle Tyron Smith. Ware has bulked up to about 265 pounds without sacrificing any explosiveness. As frightening as he is as a pass-rusher, the best display of his pure athleticism occurred when he sprinted to the sideline and caught receiver Dwayne Harris from behind to drop him for a loss on an end-around.
Best player, defense, not named DeMarcus Ware: Sean Lee, who should have plenty of Pro Bowl invitations in his future if he can just stay healthy. Lee’s blend of instincts and athleticism make him a great fit to play middle linebacker in a Tampa 2 scheme. The former high school safety slimmed down to 234 pounds to prepare for all the running the scheme requires, and he gets his hands on the ball a bunch.
Best rookie: Travis Frederick. The first-round center is far from overwhelming athletically, but he makes up for his lack of speed with off-the-charts smarts. Third-round safety J.J. Wilcox deserves an honorable mention for his strong start, but he needs much more seasoning and sadly missed the last week of camp due to his mother’s death.
Biggest surprise: Lance Dunbar, undrafted out of North Texas is 2012, has essentially locked up the second running back job. He’s too small to be a workhorse type, but the electrifying Dunbar can be a poor man’s Darren Sproles. He’s an upgrade over former first-rounder Felix Jones in the change-of-pace role.
Biggest disappointment: Injuries wreaked havoc to a defensive line making the transition from the 3-4 to 4-3. End Anthony Spencer practiced once before it was determined that he needed arthroscopic surgery on his knee. Tackle Jay Ratliff is on the physically unable to perform list, still recovering from the sports hernia surgery that ended his 2012 season and adding a hamstring strain to his health issues. And key reserve Tyrone Crawford (torn Achilles tendon) is out for the season.
Biggest question answered: Can Ware make the transition to 4-3 defensive end after spending his whole career as a 3-4 outside linebacker? Ain’t no doubt.
Biggest question that remains: Can the Cowboys’ guard play drastically improve? Ronald Leary and Nate Livings are recovering from knee scopes, although the Cowboys are optimistic that at least Leary will be ready for the season opener. Dallas backed out of talks with Brian Waters, but he’d have been the best guard on the roster if he had signed.
Best moment: Take your pick of highlight-reel catches by Bryant. I’ll go with the deep ball that he caught cleanly with one hand while warding off a cornerback with his other arm before sprinting into the end zone without ever breaking stride.