Every moment of training camp is critical for the Dallas Cowboys. As head coach Mike McCarthy pointed out Saturday via conference call, the team has only 19 practices before the Sept. 13 season opener at the LA Rams.
Factoring in the virtual offseason program and no scheduled preseason games, that's much less evaluation time for the coaching staff. The rookies in particular have fewer chances to acclimate to NFL speed and stand out in competitive situations.
But hesitating to play young players has never been McCarthy's philosophy.
"Let's be honest, there's always a bit of a leap that you take playing rookies early in the season," he said. "It's been that way my entire head coaching career. I think that'll be no different this year. You obviously have to have a lot of trust in your practice environment and you've got to put those guys in there.
"We've always played rookies in my time as a head coach early and often and by design. There's a good chance that the youth of your roster is going to be playing in the most important games of the year in December."
The Cowboys have a highly-regarded rookie class led by first-round receiver CeeDee Lamb and second-round cornerback Trevon Diggs.
Lamb is projected to be a top-three receiver on offense and he's a candidate on punt returns, too. The Cowboys have had only one camp practice so far in shells – the players had the day off Saturday – but
McCarthy said Lamb "has picked it up seamlessly" in the classroom and on the field.
"CeeDee looks very natural out there," McCarthy said. "He had a big play in the team period (Friday). He's definitely shown the ability to play all three spots in the receiver position, and we'll see what goes on with punt return and those types of things. But he looks very, very natural on the football field. Excited about him."
Diggs is joining a cornerback group that includes three returning veterans and an offseason signing with starting experience (Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, Anthony Brown, Daryl Worley. But McCarthy said Diggs is "transitioning very well so far."
"We've only had one practice, but the thing that jumps out to you on the practice field is particularly his ball skills," McCarthy said. "He's a natural. I think he'll adjust very well to the NFL game."
McCarthy's point about needing young players late in the season is probably based on personal experience. When he and the Packers won the Super Bowl in 2010, they did it with a depleted roster. Green Bay had 16 players on injured reserve that year.
Obviously, playing time has to be earned, and this year's camp schedule is shorter. But the Cowboys' rookies will have chances to show what they can do.