Cowboys' OTAs aren't 'real football' but things come 'alive'

IRVING, Texas -- It's not quite "real football" practice, as head coach Jason Garrett called it last week, but it is the closest thing to football practice the Dallas Cowboys have seen since January.

The Cowboys hold the second of their nine organized team activities Wednesday at Valley Ranch. It's the first that will be open to the media.

"We'll be out there going through what looks like a regular practice that we'll have during training camp and the regular season," Garrett said. "Obviously different from the fact that we won't have pads on, but we'll structure the practice the same way."

Football played without pads is like basketball without a hoop. It's not football. But OTAs do allow the first live looks at players coming back from injuries, free-agent signings and veteran standbys.

Tempo is always important to Garrett. He wants to see the players moving quickly, but not so quick that they are out of control. The on-field teaching sessions that preceded the OTAs were about individual and group technique.

The OTAs allow for 11-on-11 work, albeit without full pads. Those don't come on until training camp.

"Everything comes alive," tight end Jason Witten said. "You're down in a stance. You're going to get tired. You're going to get tested a little bit. You can't let it be any other way than to go out there and play. So it will be good for our football team. I think Jason has made it clear, his expectations, talk less and just go to work. And I think the team has really adapted that mindset this offseason."

So what will we see on the field?

As always, it starts with the quarterback, Tony Romo.

How does Romo look?

From coaches to players to the front office, the feeling is that Romo is in the best shape he has been in the last few years. He had collarbone surgery in March that only temporarily laid him up. He has been throwing for the better part of a month, but his work off the field after breaking his collarbone for the second time on Thanksgiving has paid off. When the season ended, he felt he was ahead of the game because he was able to train harder. He has more strength in his surgically repaired back and can move more freely.

The Cowboys will continue to be smart with Romo, who turned 36 in April, but the early word from the offseason program is encouraging.

What is the running back rotation?

The Cowboys made it clear they did not draft Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth overall pick for him to be a spectator. Do they make the rookie work for the job, or is he running with the first team from the get-go? Darren McFadden ran for 1,089 yards last season, largely doing it in 10 games. Alfred Morris has three 1,000-yard seasons to his credit and joined the Cowboys as a free agent.

The Cowboys put their other first-round picks in recent years -- offensive linemen Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin -- with the starters from the jump, but the line did not have a lot of competition when they were selected. In 2010, Dez Bryant was behind Roy Williams and Miles Austin at receiver. Maybe they will make Elliott wait his turn, too.

The new defensive linemen

Learning about line play is difficult in the OTAs because the players don't have pads, but the Cowboys have high hopes for Cedric Thornton and Benson Mayowa. Thornton signed a four-year, $17-million deal and the Cowboys believe he will boost their run defense and make things easier for Tyrone Crawford to rush the passer. Mayowa has just two career sacks, but the Cowboys are banking on him being an ascending player. They'll need him right away with Randy Gregory's suspension and the looming penalty for DeMarcus Lawrence.

The injured players

Last week Garrett said the team will take it slowly with players who had offseason surgery, with Romo possibly being an exception. Bryant had a second bone graft on his right foot in January and the team wants to make sure he's 100 percent right for training camp. Orlando Scandrick's recovery from a torn anterior cruciate ligament that kept him out last season has gone well, but his eyes are also on training camp. Sean Lee had his knee scoped in late April and the team wants to limit his work until camp as well.

Crawford had surgery on a shoulder injury that prevented him from lifting more than 225 pounds last year. Lance Dunbar (knee) and Gavin Escobar (Achilles) are in the middle of their rehabs and likely to open training camp on the physically unable to perform list.