FRISCO, Texas – Football's back. Almost, anyway.
The Cowboys began organized team activities Tuesday at The Star in Frisco, and Wednesday's voluntary workout is the media's first look at the veterans and rookies together on the field.
With plenty of change on the roster and Jason Garrett's coaching staff, the DallasCowboys.com staff (Bryan Broaddus, David Helman, Lindsay Draper, Nick Eatman, Rob Phillips and Mickey Spagnola) discusses who and what they'll be watching most as OTAs get underway.
This will be our first chance to see the veteran and rookie players together for the upcoming 2018 season. Something to think about that I said on Talkin' Cowboys this morning. I thought we had the potential of four rookies lining up as starters this season. Connor Williams at left guard, Leighton Vander Esch at middle linebacker, Dalton Schultz at tight end and Michael Gallup at wide receiver all make sense. Williams is a no-brainer due to his talent level and the need at guard. Vander Esch wasn't drafted to sit on the bench, so they'll find a spot for him. Schultz is a complete tight end and should provide a boost to the position from the jump. If the learning curve isn't too steep for Gallup, he'll be pushing for Terrance Williams' spot. OTAs are only the start, but it also gives you a clue to what the front office and coaching staff are likely thinking.
There's only one thing I'm wondering heading into these practices, and that's – to paraphrase Aubrey Graham – whether or not we get hit with the Rico. That was a bad joke, but a good point. For nine months, Rico Gathers has been seen and not heard, as far as tight end is concerned, at least. With Jason Witten heading into retirement, Gathers is the biggest variable on this depth chart. He showcased what his athleticism can bring to the table last preseason, but he's also the least-polished tight end on this team. This could be a big opportunity for him to prove he's worth a look higher up on the depth chart. Obviously, these aren't full contact practices, but it's a chance to do some serious work on the mental side of the game. This will be the first time we've seen Rico on the field since August, and I'm curious to see just what we should expect from him in this new-look offense.
I'm not necessarily looking at a certain player. On the contrary, I'll be looking at the absence of players. We all know there is roster turnover from year to year. But I've spoken with colleagues who have covered the club for decades, and they've collectively noted this offseason as the greatest turnaround they've witnessed to date. I'll be eyeing every position group, every drill order, and every new coach. I want to see who's voice we hear bouncing off the silver walls of The Star. I want to see which jersey all eyes turn toward before a drill. Who commands the huddle? Who is calling for hustle? We all knew when Jason Witten was talking. We heard Dez Bryant's voice before one-on-one drills. Those are now just memories. I'm so intrigued to see who emerges as new leaders of this club, because there are new vacancies in a new era.
For this first minicamp, I'm not sure how I could pick anyone other than Tavon Austin. After all, I've been lobbying for a fast, electric, playmaker-type like Austin, and the Cowboys have gone out and acquired that. I know Austin hasn't been the player the Rams hoped for when they drafted him No. 7 overall a few years back. That's OK. The Cowboys aren't asking for first-round talent right now, but a guy who can be a game-changer and someone the defenses have to be prepared for. All the Cowboys need is the defensive players focusing on something else and that's when Zeke hurts them up the middle for big gains. I'm anxious to see how they line up Austin and what kind of role he will have. But I think the fans should be excited about the Cowboys' willingness to go out and get him, because that means they should be committed to using him.
How about every skill player not named Ezekiel Elliott? We know Zeke is a rock for Dak Prescott and the offense. We know the offensive line, when healthy, is its foundation. But Prescott will be throwing passes to a bunch of new running backs, receivers and tight ends: Tavon Austin (whether you call him a RB or WR), Allen Hurns, Deonte Thompson, rookies Michael Gallup and Dalton Schultz. Cole Beasley is now the longest-tenured receiver on the roster. Geoff Swaim is the only tight end who has caught an NFL pass. There's talent here, but roles and snaps are up for grabs. Terrance Williams has been recovering from offseason foot surgery, so it'll be interesting to see if a young guy like Gallup can take advantage of extra offseason work.
Most everyone seems bent out of shape over the Cowboys' safety position. My guess is Jeff Heath starts at one of the spots. The other? I can't wait to see Xavier Woods. Oh, we got a small glimpse of him back there last year during his rookie season. But mostly Woods was pressed into the slot on the nickel and dime defenses. Now we get a chance to see him back there. And remember, the Cowboys gave Woods, a versatile player at Louisiana Tech, a fourth-round grade. So when he was still sitting there in the sixth – they didn't have a fifth – the Cowboys ran out of patience, giving the New York Jets their 2018 fifth-round pick to move up to the seventh pick in the round to grab Woods. With only four starts in 2017 under his belt, but having played 51.5 percent of the defensive snaps, now is his chance to convince the Cowboys they don't need to trade for a veteran safety.