IRVING, Texas – One of the Cowboys' undisputed leaders, tight end Jason Witten put it best earlier this summer: Super Bowls aren't won and lost in May and June.
But they kind of are.
Over the last four weeks, the Cowboys and most other teams have conducted their allotment of nine voluntary Organized Team Activity (OTA) practices as well as a three-day minicamp, mandatory for the whole squad. The Cowboys have boasted near-perfect attendance in the workouts, typically held outside in the heat of the Texas sun.
The sessions have been focused primarily on teaching and the installation of the Cowboys' offensive and defensive schemes, but in addition to countless repetitions in individual drills for each position, the workouts have laid the groundwork for the competition to come. Rookies have matched up against veterans. Free agent additions have faced longtime cornerstones of the roster. First-teamers on offense have battled their counterparts on defense.
DallasCowboys.com was in attendance every week, and these are the major impressions formed by writers Nick Eatman, Rob Phillips and Josh Ellis.
Nick: When you're not allowed to make full contact, it's often hard to evaluate any players other than quarterbacks and receivers. But even with no hitting and limited physicality, I really liked what I saw from Jason Hatcher. He always seemed to be in the middle of the action and the linemen had a very hard time keeping him blocked. He also was heard quite a bit, too, often getting a little chippy with the offense. We've talked a lot over the years about having that attitude on defense, and so far we're seeing that some from Hatcher.
Rob: The skill players have the best chance to stand out in no-contact practices. DeMarco Murray was among the most impressive in the six workouts open to the media. Not only did he look full-speed when running in his return from ankle surgery, he looks more and more like a potential receiving threat – a facet of his game he wanted to improve this offseason.
Josh: For me, it's hard to watch any Cowboys practice and not come away most impressed with Dez Bryant. Guys like Jason Witten, DeMarcus Ware and Tony Romo always stand out, but no one makes the phenomenal, highlight play as routinely as Bryant. Even better, though, he appeared to be making the simple plays with greater consistency over the last month, and there seems to be a belief around the Ranch that he has figured something out this offseason.
Nick: You almost want to give some kind of praise to James Hanna and Caleb McSurdy for being the only draft picks not to get hurt. But the best rookie so far, probably, has been SMU wide receiver Cole Beasley. He's elevated himself to a guy in the mix for one of those backup spots. When the pads come on and he can be jammed at the line, it'll be interesting to see how he responds.
Rob: We haven't really seen five of the seven draft picks due to injuries, so I'll take an undrafted guy from just up the road who has turned heads. North Texas' Lance Dunbar isn't big, but man, he's explosive. DeMarco Murray praised his skills for a reason. Let's see what happens when the pads come on, but this is a young guy who will push for a spot on the practice squad, if not the 53-man roster.
Josh: Beasley and Dunbar certainly deserve some kudos, and I think undrafted cornerbacks Lionel Smith from Texas A&M and Isaac Madison from Arkansas should be recognized as well. But the rookie I've watched the most has been guard Ronald Leary from Memphis. I'll admit, it's hard to gauge offensive line play without the pads on, but he still seems to have his way up front most of the time. Coaches have apparently liked what they've seen, too, because he's taken some first-team reps from David Arkin in the absence of veteran Mackenzy Bernadeau.
Most Improved Player:
Nick: Plenty of guys to choose here, but there's something about these younger cornerbacks that I thought really came on strong by the end of camp. Undrafted rookies Lionel Smith (Texas A&M) and Isaac Madison (Arkansas) didn't really stand out much in the rookie minicamp in May, but by the last week of practice, both were competing at a high level. The absence of Mike Jenkins and Morris Claiborne has opened the door for them, and they've definitely taken advantage.
Rob: It's obviously early, but I see a sleeker, more confident Dez Bryant out there. He's running crisp routes, he says he has dropped a few pounds, and he made a catch Thursday I could only laugh about. It's like his gloves have magnets on them. If he becomes a better and more versatile route runner and stays healthy, there's really nothing he can't do.
Josh: There's a 180-degree difference between the Bruce Carter we saw sparingly in games last year and the guy who was flying around the field over the last four weeks in practice. He's just so fast. He can play from sideline to sideline, and I think he and Sean Lee will fix the Cowboys' struggles to cover tight ends from the last four or five years. He appears to be completely over the torn ACL that cut his rookie season in half.
Competition To Watch:
Nick: I'm interested to see how it shakes out at defensive end. With Marcus Spears backing up Kenyon Coleman, you'd think both veterans may not make it on the roster. Clifton Geathers had a nice offseason and was a candidate for the "Most Improved" category. Sean Lissemore is coming on strong and of course Tyrone Crawford will be in the mix.
Rob: No. 3 wide receiver will be interesting throughout the preseason because so many players are involved. Maybe that winds up being a committee position. What about safety? Gerald Sensabaugh is back as a starter, and free agent addition Brodney Pool has experience. But you get the feeling that the Cowboys would like Barry Church and fourth-rounder Matt Johnson to push hard for playing time at the other spot.
Josh: I don't think any of the candidates for No. 3 receiver really did anything to distinguish themselves. If none of the youngsters does anything, Kevin Ogletree probably wins by default, but in that event, the Cowboys might be looking elsewhere. There's a long way to go between now and the season, so it's still wide open. I think the Cowboys would most like to see Andre Holmes step up. He's the most physically impressive of all competitors.
Nick: There are plenty of spots that didn't get resolved this summer. Tight end is one of them. John Phillips did a nice job, but there could be a blocking tight end added there. Can Phillips be a receiver and blocker is the big question. The two quarterbacks are set, but what about No. 3? And will there be a No. 3 at all? Does Rudy Carpenter have what it takes to surpass Stephen McGee for that last spot? And I still wonder if Mackenzy Bernadeau will return and immediately slide into the starting right guard spot or will David Arkin and/or Ronald Leary have something to say about that.
Rob: How does the interior offensive line shake out over the next three months? Mackenzy Bernadeau's hip surgery was unfortunate because he seems the likely choice at right guard. The idea of giving him a look at center may go out the window now that he has missed so much time, though. So, does Phil Costa still have the inside track to retain his job there? And can rookie Ronald Leary push for a job at guard? All are things to watch.
Josh: After this week's disclosure that Mike Jenkins' shoulder injury will likely cause him to miss a significant part of training camp, I'm wondering again just what role he'll have. It wasn't long ago that Rob Ryan was telling us he would compete with Orlando Scandrick to be the slot corner. But if he's out for a significant amount of time, he won't have much of a chance to win that job. Whether or not he can get himself healthy and cooperate with the team is probably still the most interesting storyline to follow.