IRVING, Texas – The Cowboys are done practicing during this 2015 preseason. They held a full practice on Monday at AT&T Stadium, and they went through a light session Tuesday morning here at Valley Ranch.
They'll play one last preseason game on Thursday, and then they'll trim their roster. The next time the Cowboys come together for a practice, it'll be game week – and they'll be prepping for Week 1 against the New York Giants.
While we wait to finish out this last week of preseason, I went back through Monday night's padded practice and came away with no shortage of notes – starting with the return of Dez Bryant.
1)It was nice to once again see Dez Bryant running around on the practice field, but what was even more encouraging was to see Morris Claiborne having success covering him during the team period. Claiborne lined up across from Bryant for four snaps, with only one ball going his direction. On that particular play Bryant tried to shake him, but Claiborne managed to carry him up the field and maintain his position to defend the route as the ball sailed out of bounds.
2)I am starting to get the feeling that, with the suspension of Rolando McClain, his replacement inside is going to be Anthony Hitchens with Andrew Gachkar lining up at Sam. If for some reason Hitchens cannot go -- and there is little concern that will happen – I would expect to see Gachkar line up as the Mike with Kyle Wilber playing the Sam. I wouldn't call Gachkar's versatility a surprise, because his tape from San Diego was productive in the snaps he received. What has been a surprise is how consistent he has been -- no matter where they have played him.
3)We're seeing less of Gavin Escobar as an inline "Y" and more as a big slot. We talk every day about having a fifth receiver on this roster, but in all honesty – that's really Escobar. The way that he is being used, it is becoming clear that these offensive coaches would rather play to his strengths than try and make him do something that he struggles with. His route on third down during the play action period, where he split Cover 2, was textbook.
4)In blitz period – Darren McFadden took more of the snaps than Joseph Randle. Getting the feeling that there is becoming a comfort factor there.
5)If Ronald Leary or Zack Martin could not start or finish a game – the replacement would be Mackenzy Bernadeau over La'el Collins. It has been a learning experience for Collins, who has had his moments where things have gone as planned -- then others where he has struggled with his technique and an occasional assignment.
6)As well as Brandon Carr has played receivers down the field, where he continues to struggle is when he has to deal with a receiver that works across the field. Carr just doesn't have that burst that we see from the other corners and that puts him in some poor positions coverage-wise. Terrance Williams took advantage of this during the team period.
7)Solid plan by these offensive coaches to line Dez Bryant all over the formation in order to keep defenses from doubling him. It is nearly impossible for a defensive back to cover him out of the slot when he starts on a crossing route because he doesn't allow them to close ground on him.
8)Sean Lee continues to cause these offensive linemen trouble when he takes off running to the ball. I have lost track how many times he has beaten blockers to the spot on his way to making the tackle. When Lee has been on the field, he has been one to two steps faster than anyone on this defense.
9)It's a good sign for this offensive line to see Doug Free regain some of the form that we had seen from him in the past. His movement has improved to the point where you see him executing those backside cut off blocks where he has to work hard inside to get his head in front of the defender. There were times in this camp where he didn't look like that same player, and I have to admit there was some concern. His game now looks healthy and confident.
10)With J.J. Wilcox out of practice with issues in his neck, Byron Jones took the majority of the snaps at safety. Jones was getting work both in the back end and down in the box where we normally see Barry Church play. Jones continues to look comfortable wherever they ask him to play, and that includes the work he gets battling Jason Witten in coverage. Where I have been the most impressed with Jones is in his ability to take all the information that they are asking him to learn -- and he doesn't appear to be struggling with the mental side at all.
11)Plan on Lance Dunbar being your nickel running back this season. In the portion of practice where the offense and defense match up to play situational football – Dunbar was on the field regardless of down and distance. During our time in Oxnard, Jerry Jones spoke of getting Dunbar more touches during the season. It appears that he will be getting his wish.
12)Thought it was an interesting move to put Rolando McClain on the active list to start the season. There must be confidence within the front office and coaching staff that McClain will in fact come back to the club in shape and ready to contribute starting October 5. If he remained on the Physically Unable to Perform list, they could have kept a close eye on his progress. By taking this route they do get him back earlier and that no doubt went into their thinking.