FRISCO, Texas – The peak of the offseason is here.
Tuesday marks the start of OTAs across the NFL, including for the Dallas Cowboys. Starting now, they'll go through nine practices followed by a three-day minicamp. It'll be the only time during the offseason the offense and defense can go against each other, and it's the closest anyone will come to real football until training camp begins in late July.
The obvious caveat is that access will be severely limited. Over the course of these nine OTA practices, only three will be open to media. Not to mention, the non-contact nature of the practices will make things tougher to evaluate.
Still, this is the closest we'll get to watching Cowboys football until training camp begins, and with the shuffling that's taken place since January, there's a lot to watch for. With a month's worth of offseason practices taking place, here are the top 5 storylines for what to watch for on the Cowboys' practice fields.
1. The Kellen Moore Era Begins – Regardless of whether it's real football or not, this will be the first time the Cowboys run plays of any kind since Kellen Moore took over as offensive coordinator.
To be clear: it's only OTAs, and it's probably optimistic to think we'll see much of Moore's playbook. But this is still his first opportunity to run the show on the offensive side of the ball. The criticism for much of the last year is that the Cowboys' offense had become stale and predictable, so there will be plenty of eyeballs on how things look under Moore's supervision.
It's not likely the Cowboys will unveil their full offensive game plan in May, but it could still be fun to see which formations and personnel packages are focused on in the coming weeks. With additions like Randall Cobb and Tony Pollard, not to mention the play makers already on hand, Moore should have plenty to work with.
2. Injuries Create Opportunities – For all the star power on this roster, don't be surprised if it isn't fully showcased at OTAs.
The offseason is time for recuperation, and that's definitely been the case in Dallas this year. Players across the roster have had surgeries on various ailments, and many of them are still in the recovery process.
In the grand scheme it's not a big deal, as most of them are on track for the start training camp. But it should create some interesting lineup shuffles during OTAs.
The defensive line is one spot that stands out among others. DeMarcus Lawrence is still recovering from the shoulder surgery he underwent after signing his contract extension, while Taco Charlton just had a procedure on his ankle. Antwaun Woods underwent shoulder surgery in January.
Suffice to say, there should be plenty of snaps available for Rod Marinelli to mix and match. The Cowboys drafted three defensive linemen, and while Trystan Hill is the biggest name among them, it'll be interesting to see if injuries create opportunities for guys like Joe Jackson and Jalen Jelks. This will also serve as a first look at Dorance Armstrong since his rookie season ended.
The D-Line combinations we see this spring likely won't look anything like the group that gets the start on Sept. 8, but hopefully it'll serve as an interesting first-look at some young talents.
3. WR Pecking Order? – This time a year ago, no one had a clue of what to expect from the receiver corps. The Cowboys famously tried to go it without a No. 1 wide receiver, and we all know how that worked out.
Fast forward 12 months, and there are a few more known commodities. Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and Randall Cobb look like a clear-cut starting trio – and a pretty good one, at that.
What about everyone else? Behind those three, it feels like anyone's guess what the rest of the receiver room will look like.
Allen Hurns and Tavon Austin are still here, though it feels presumptuous to write them onto the 53-man roster. Hurns is coming back from the dislocated ankle he suffered in the playoffs, while Austin was limited by a severe groin injury last year. The Cowboys also brought in potential competition in the return game by drafting Tony Pollard.
Noah Brown and Lance Lenoir are also still around, and this spring will be the first time we get to see Cedrick Wilson since he was put on injured reserve last summer. The Cowboys signed former top-40 draft pick Devin Smith to a futures contract back in January, as he tries to overcome the injuries that have limited his career to this point.
There are also two promising undrafted free agents in Jalen Guyton and Jon'Vea Johnson. The Cowboys were high on both prospects coming out of the draft, and both players possess top-end speed.
That's a lot of names and not a lot of roster spots. Nothing is going to get decided during OTAs, but it should be a fun story to watch in the coming weeks and months.
4. The O-Line Shuffle – There aren't as many questions about the Cowboys' offensive line – not on the front end, at least. It's the back end of the depth chart that prompts some speculation.
From top to bottom, there might not be a more loaded position group on this entire team. The starting five is well-known, and it should get better this year with Travis Frederick returning – albeit, like many others, he figures to be a limited participant at OTAs.
What's interesting is how the coaching staff will manage their depth. The trio of Joe Looney, Cam Fleming and Xavier Su'a-Filo have combined to make 101 NFL starts in their careers. Adam Redmond doesn't have any starting experience, but he has played in 14 games, but he has played in 14 games during his two-year career.
The Cowboys also drafted Connor McGovern last month, and it's widely believed he could be a plug-and-play starter at either guard or center.
That's an absurd amount of depth, and only the Cowboys know how they'll use it all. La'el Collins is recovering from a surgery of his own, so this might be a good time to try some other options at right tackle. With Frederick being limited, perhaps they'll also give McGovern some work at center.
It's a good problem to have, but it might not be easy for the Cowboys' coaches to find snaps for all these guys.
5. The Return of Witten – At this point, Jason Witten has been back at The Star so long that it almost feels like he never left. Within days of announcing his return from retirement, Witten was back at the team facility and prepping himself for a return to action.
Well, that day is now here. Again, it might not be real football, but this week will serve as the first time Witten is back on the field in a full-team situation since December 2017. It's easy to assume Witten will fit right back in like he never left, but there's still a big difference between workouts and practice reps.
At the very least, it'll be fun to see the future Hall of Famer back on a football field – especially on such a young team. Witten said last week that he still intends to approach things the way he always has, but he acknowledged that this team now belongs to younger veterans like Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott.
That dynamic will be fun to watch, and it will be made even better if he can resume his familiar role as a reliable safety net over the middle of the field.