IRVING, Texas – It's not surprising that we hype ourselves up for every tiny development during the NFL offseason. What else are we supposed to do during the grueling, eight-month wait for football?
Far be it from me to suggest that the start of the Cowboys' OTAs on Tuesday isn't exciting. It's the first time we'll see this team doing something that resembles football since that Jan. 3 loss to Washington. It's also the first real look we'll get at a whole cast of new characters – headlined, of course, by Ezekiel Elliott.
Having said all of that good stuff, it's hard to deny that OTAs can be a bit of a letdown. It's still May, after all, and the heavy pads and hard hits of training camp are still a decent way off. For the most part, these offseason practices feature a lot of installation, very little hitting and a lot of action performed at half-speed.
There's still some things we can glean from these light practices, though. With OTAs beginning on Tuesday, I wracked my brain and came up with five storylines that should make things interesting – without getting too carried away.
1) No. 9 should be fine –It's been almost three months since Tony Romo had surgery to strengthen his thrice-broken collarbone, and he's expected to be a full participant in on-field activities this spring. That's not exactly news, as Cowboys officials have predicted this throughout the offseason.
It's also not indicative of his future health. If you'll remember, Romo went through OTAs last spring for the first time in three years. It was the healthiest he'd been after two successive years of dealing with back injuries. Ultimately, the collarbone injuries forced him out of 12 games, leading to the team's disastrous results in 2015.
Still, it'll be nice to see the Cowboys' starting quarterback getting work once again. The collarbone has had plenty of time to heal, and it's definitely a silver lining that Romo's limited action last year certainly helped his back. This team clearly relies on Romo, as everyone learned last year, so it's always a positive to have him practicing.
2) Settling in at safety –No, he's not going to be laying the wood on anyone, but these next few weeks will hopefully serve as an early look at Byron Jones in his new role at safety.
Yes, Jones actually played plenty of safety as a rookie, but he did that while also juggling four or five other responsibilities in the Dallas secondary. The plan for Jones' second year is to focus on the safety spot, where he showed early potential. Again, these are limited practices, but so much about good safety play depends on taking proper angles and reading coverages. Working against Romo and the Cowboys receivers (albeit minus Dez Bryant) should provide Jones with an early litmus test for Year 2.
3) Hey, what's up with Chaz Green? –Remember that time the Cowboys spent a top 100 pick on an offense tackle last spring, and we haven't seen him play yet? After going through rookie minicamp last year, Green had hip surgery, and it confined him to the Physically Unable to Perform list for much of his first season.
The Cowboys brought Green back in time to go through several weeks of practice, but he never appeared in a game and he wasn't a factor in the depth chart. Now fully healthy, hopefully Green shows glimpses of the talent that made him a third-round pick out of Florida.
When you consider his draft stock, the ideal scenario for Green is that he can become the Cowboys' swing tackle with an eye on starting at right tackle in the future. Doug Free is 32 and only under contract for two more seasons, and it would be ideal to have Green blossom into a starter-caliber player behind him.
The Cowboys also re-signed Charles Brown to function as their third tackle, but this spring marks the first time Green has truly had his hat in the ring for real playing time.
4) Gathering information –I've already spent a lot of space detailing how hard it is to formulate opinions based on the limited amount of action we'll be seeing during OTAs. But when you're literally starting from scratch, it becomes at least a little bit easier.
Rico Gathers falls into that category, as this week's practices will qualify as some of the first organized football he's played since junior high. The rookie tight end took part in rookie minicamp, but those were non-competitive drills that didn't involve the defense.
Over these next few weeks, we'll get to see Gathers line up and try to cope with defenders – not to mention his own knowledge of the playbook. We should also get to see him compete, hopefully one-on-one, against some linebackers and defensive backs. We know the former basketball player has some serious athleticism, but now he'll have a chance to demonstrate it for us.
These are exactly the type of practices where a guy like Gathers should excel. The limited nature of the practices should keep his head from spinning too much, which will hopefully free him up to display the abilities that made him a sixth-round pick.
5) Keeping them healthy –You'll have to forgive my cynical outlook, but my main concern with offseason practices is to worry about the health of the players taking part in them. It's an understandable concern, given that we're just two years removed from Sean Lee tearing his ACL during the first hour of OTAs.
Whatever we might see during these three weeks of practices, it won't matter half as much as keeping the roster healthy heading into training camp. The last thing this team needs is to lose one of its key pieces before football season has even rounded into view.
To that end, I actually consider it a good thing that guys like Dez Bryant, Orlando Scandrick and DeMarcus Lawrence look likely to be limited during OTAs. The Cowboys have various players still rehabbing their way back from injuries, headlined by the aforementioned trio.[embeddedad0]
Sure, it'd be great to see Bryant square off against Scandrick, or to have Lance Dunbar – still rehabbing his torn leg ligaments – catch some passes out of the backfield. I'm sure some people will specifically note that Bryant's play suffered as a result of missing offseason workouts last year.
Me, personally? I don't care. Bryant, Scandrick, Lawrence and all the others can refine their timing and their technique at training camp. That's what those grueling summer practices are for. We saw what injuries can do to a team last year, so I'm all in favor of limiting the opportunity for more to occur – especially in May, before the pads are even on.