OXNARD, Calif. – The next time the Cowboys take the field for practice, they'll be going against another team, which made Sunday's session important for cleaning up some things.
Here are my top impressions from the team's last work of the weekend before the joint practices begin:
1) I am honestly surprised that Greg Hardy hasn't had much success as a pass rusher in the one-on-ones, but it hasn't been for lack of trying. Hardy has worked extremely hard on his techniques during these practices against the best that this offensive line has had to offer. During practice on Sunday, he took shots at Zack Martin and then later in the drill took a rep as a nose against Travis Frederick -- which is a spot he normally doesn't line up at. You can see the intensity from guys like Tyron Smith and others when they get these shots against him.
2) Zack Martin received some work at center during the practice on Sunday, but this is nothing new to him. During practices last season, Martin would take reps on the scout team at center and Travis Frederick would line up at guard. It was just his way of being ready in case the line sustained an injury during a game and needed to cope with it in a different manner.
3) Joseph Randle continues to work on his blitz pickups during these practices. I don't believe it's a question for Randle on who he needs to block, but how he manages to finish. During team period, Jasper Brinkley took him to task and Randle was where he needed to be on the pickup, but his technique was a little off in the fact that he didn't hit him square. It allowed Brinkley to drive him back a bit and gain some penetration. Randle's desire is there but work needs to continue to be done.
4) La'el Collins has now taken snaps at both left and right guard in this camp, but in visiting with Jerry Jones after practice, he could also be an option -- and I repeat, an option -- to see some work at tackle, as well. Jones was willing to give Darrion Weems the benefit of the doubt after the San Diego game, but that rope doesn't appear to have much more slack in it. Collins was solid in his work on the right side with no major mental or physical mistakes.
5) I have always respected Jerome Henderson in his willingness to coach whomever is on the field for him in the secondary. You will never hear him make excuses or back down from a challenge, but he can't buy a break with what is happening health-wise to his group. Henderson's bunch took another hit when Byron Jones collided with Morris Claiborne during a play, which left Jones woozy and holding his left shoulder. Jones thankfully will be okay in a few days, but it left a group dangerously thin at corner in even poorer shape with the Rams in town practicing these next two days.
6) Without Dez Bryant in the lineup, it has been interesting to see how Scott Linehan has been working putting together options in the red zone. The featured player in Sunday's practice was Gavin Escobar, who made several nice catches over the top of defensive backs that were in good position to cover. What I noticed in the work with Escobar is that only a week ago he competed in the same drill against Barry Church and wasn't as physical as he needed to be to finish the play. This time around his positioning was better, as were the results.
7) You can see the confidence continue to grow with Devin Street and the manner in which he is finishing plays. It was another quality practice with Street working inside on the slant and carrying his route down the field. Street might not appear to be moving fast, but he does cover some ground and he is able to gain separation to secure the ball. It appears that these quarterbacks are starting to find him more in routes.
8) There was once a time when I thought it was impossible for Ronald Leary to be an outstanding second level blocker just because of his lack of foot quickness -- but he is now proving me way wrong. Leary had two blocks in the run and play action period in space that were outstanding. With a ball coming to his side he completely took J.J. Wilcox out of the play, which allowed Randle to make a cut right behind him for a large gain. Later in the period Leary hooked up with Andrew Gachkar in a similar situation and --once again in space -- rode him out of the play, as well. Leary has worked hard in the offseason to improve his mobility and it has shown.
9) Never thought I would hear the words "Randy Gregory" and "playing strength" together, but that's exactly what Rod Marinelli said about his rookie defensive end post-practice. Marinelli went as far to say that he believes Gregory could be an every down player in this league sooner than later, but for now they are happy to continue to work him as a rusher. What I have noticed the most about his game is his willingness to take coaching and apply it. Whether it has been on his pass rush technique or playing the run, there are things he is doing in these practices that he wasn't doing at Nebraska.
10) Doug Free worked his way back into practice on Sunday during the team run period and appeared to be moving around better. There were a couple of snaps where he had to make a backside cut off block, and he was able to execute that without laboring or putting himself in poor blocking position. When Free was not in the lineup, John Wetzel continued to work in that spot.
11) As much as people have been falling in love with Lucky Whitehead, I have felt that, of the young wide receivers pushing for a spot on this roster, Nick Harwell has at times been better -- and not just by a little bit. Harwell continues to show up in these practices with his ability to make plays. He is a sneaky route runner with deceptive quickness. He has an understanding of how to find separation and take advantage of it. Harwell has shown the ability to work the middle of the field with success but also down it. His vertical "9" route against Brandon Smith was a thing of beauty and it all started with his release off the line.
12) Looking forward to watching these practices against the St. Louis Rams for the next two days. The one-on-one drills are always the highlights for me, and I can't wait to see Zack Martin and Aaron Donald hook up in a battle of two of the young outstanding players in this league.