FRISCO, Texas — Things have officially wrapped from OTAs for the Dallas Cowboys, the two-week offseason program having revealed more than enough to get an early indication of what the team is thinking in all three phases of football, with position battles getting underway as coaches and players head into a short break before their three-day mandatory minicamp begins on June 6.
From the addition of Stephon Gilmore to the defense and Brandin Cooks to the offense, there's no shortage of headlines to keep an eye on, but while taking notes on the progress of those headline veterans, it's also key to tune into what's going on at positions that have many more questions to answer this summer.
Of course, that includes running back, linebacker, kicker and left guard.
The final practice of OTAs didn't disappoint in my journey to identify what player(s) is (are) taking the lead in their respective position battle, and my top-10 takeaways are worth filing away in your mental rolodex.
- Luke Schoonmaker was seen this week in a walking boot as he deals with minor inflammation in his foot, but the Cowboys are not concerned and the rookie second-round pick did participate off to the side of OTAs doing catch drills with the coaching staff. He'll have plenty of time to heal before the Cowboys take their charter flight to Southern California for training camp in late July, and his absence means more reps in OTAs and mandatory minicamp for Jake Ferguson, Peyton Hendershot, Sean McKeon and Seth Green.
- The Cowboys are making it clear they're on the hunt for a veteran kicker to create a camp competition with Tristan Vizcaino, on the heels of waving goodbye to Brett Maher [again] and one year after what became a three-man competition at the position in 2022 training camp. Vizcaino is off to a solid start in OTAs, nailing eight of his attempts to close out OTAs; his only misses being from 44 and 55 yards out, respectively.
- In the first week of OTAs, Deuce Vaughn didn't see much, if any, reps as a returner but that clearly changed in Week 2. While there is no open competition between the rookie sixth-round pick and Pro Bowl returner KaVontae Turpin, Vaughn will be looked upon as insurance for that role in the event of injury to Turpin. The two split reps on Thursday after Turpin took nearly the entirety of the reps at returner a week ago (Malik Davis getting a taste as well).
- Jalen Tolbert is already making some waves in the war for WR4, and that's a good sign that he's mentally ready to challenge who appears to be the frontrunner at the moment: Simi Fehoko. As head coach Mike McCarthy noted on Thursday ahead of practice, Tolbert has already made several plays in two-minute drills and, from what I've seen, he's playing more freely and isn't thinking as much. That should help him channel the South Alabama version of himself sooner than later.
- Ah, Simi Fehoko, he's at it again. For a second consecutive week, he was out there making plays and he also got a ton of burn with Dak Prescott and the first team. The highlight of the day also belonged to him, on a tasty red-zone catch from Prescott to end the final practice of OTAs — sticky hands having been on display in most practices. Fehoko has been running some of the best routes I've seen and his speed is deceptive for those who simply see a big receiver. He and Tolbert will be a battle to watch with both eyes peeled, and there are even sets being called that see Tolbert and Fehoko lining up opposite each other … on the first team.
- The more I look at the nickel corner spot looking for DaRon Bland, the more I realize he's not been there, at least not as often as you'd think when considering he had a breakout season in Year 1 from that position. But now is the time to figure out who can do what, and that's why Bland has seen a good bit of work outside of the hashes and that means lining up against some of the better wideouts on the roster. For the record, he looks just as insanely good on the outside as he does on the inside.
- It's impossible to know what the offensive line setup will be for the Cowboys in 2023, though there is a logical front five that, in my opinion, sees Tyron Smith at left tackle, Tyler Smith at left guard and Terence Steele at right tackle with Tyler Biadasz and Zack Martin manning their base positions at center and right guard, respectively. That said, as Steele continues to recover (he tells me he's ahead of schedule and feels great), his absence allows experimentation and that has included Matt Waletzko working on trying to become the definitive swing tackle. He's not favoring his healed shoulder in reps, and held his own ahead of the start of OTAs.
- Plenty of eyes are on Jabril Cox to see if he can be what the Cowboys saw when they selected him out of LSU and, not unlike Michael Gallup, more time removed from having suffered a torn ACL should put him in a good space mentally to just play freely and to trust his skill set. The team desperately needs to identify LB3 behind Leighton Vander Esch and Damone Clark, and Jabril Cox looks very fluid and decisive in his movements and reads/reactions. His cuts are crisp, his focus is locked in and he's covering well both horizontally and vertically. It's clear he understands what's at stake in 2023.
- Things will get very interesting when it comes to the interior defensive line, because Johnathan Hankins is back on a one-year deal and Mazi Smith is in the building as the 2023 first-round pick. What that means for players like Neville Gallimore and Quinton Bohanna is obvious, because the competition for reps is going to be heated. Bohanna was seen taking reps with the first team to end OTAs, and showed some signs of what interested the Cowboys in him initially. The true tale will be told when things start going full speed in training camp, though.
- Not to be forgotten in the fight for RB3 is Rico Dowdle, who had the throne in 2022 before injury sent him to IR and opened the door for Malik Davis. Now healthy, Dowdle was taking reps on Thursday with the first team and while Davis looked good in his work, Dowdle looked distinctively quicker and more explosive through the running lanes. This isn't to say Davis can't or won't challenge him again (Davis was doing some special things in 2022 training camp), but it is to say when talking about the RB3 spot, it's fair to look at Davis, Vaughn and Hunter Luepke, but Dowdle didn't re-sign on a one-year deal to be overshadowed. On Thursday, he was on that field trying to prove a point.