FRISCO, Texas – Ah, football is in the air.
Or at least in the Ford Center, where the Cowboys held their first two Organized Team Activities practices since this time in 2019, and will stage a third on Thursday, possibly outside if the weather is anything like it is today with a blue-sky rarity of late.
And guarantee you, Mike McCarthy was giving thanks, since the COVID-19 breakout and subsequent league-wide protocols paused any in-person, on-field offseason activity in 2020 during his first season as the Cowboys head coach.
The pace was quick. The enthusiasm was high. So was the optimism, but then why not when you see No. 4 out there in his quarterbacking red hands-off jersey that takes on a higher meaning this time around with Dak Prescott coming back rather nicely from the compound fracture and dislocation to his right ankle.
Hurrah on that, right? Although this is only something new to the rest of the media, seeing Dak working out for the first time since that fateful Oct. 11 day of last year's dreadful season. See him run. See him throw. See him roll out and throw on the run. See him smile.
But as he pointed out, he's been moving like this for "close to a month," though this was the first chance to tell anyone who cared to listen, "I'm pretty much full-go."
While Dak's appearance dominated the 24-hour news cycle, this glimpse of the Cowboys was so much more since this, too, was the first time to see so many others, though take all this with a grain of salt since these workouts are helmets, jerseys, shorts, no contact.
Talk about raining shots.
- Safeties Galore: At the conclusion of the 2020 season the Cowboys had five safeties: Xavier Woods, Donovan Wilson, Reggie Robinson, Steven Parker and Darian Thompson residing on Reserve/COVID-19. And then they lost Woods in free agency. Well, now nine of the 18 defensive backs on the 90-man roster are safeties, with Wilson, Thompson and Parker technically the only holdovers, since 2020 fourth-pound pick Reggie Robinson, moved from corner to safety last year, was back working with the corners during OTAs. And when the Cowboys lined up for their first 7-on7 drills, the first two safeties out were newcomers, veteran free agents Demontae Kazee and Jayron Kearse, while safety/linebacker Keanu Neal was working with the linebackers. Good to see Kazee actually out there playing after suffering a torn Achilles on Oct. 5 while then playing for new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn in Atlanta. Kazee is nearly eight months removed from his surgery, and can tell you firsthand recovering from an Achilles rupture is no joke. It's tough, but as Quinn said at the time of the fifth-year veteran's injury, "He'll be back. He's as tough and as rugged as they come." Joining those two, along with Wilson, Parker, Thompson and now Robinson are sixth-rounder Israel Mukaumu and rookie free agent Tyler Coyle, with Neal always a possibility.
- Center of Attention: There should have been no mystery who the starting center would be, seeing that Tyler Biadasz basically had taken over the starting job last year as a rookie until he suffered that severe calf strain during warmups before Game 9 vs. Pittsburgh. The question should have been, and still is, who is the backup with veteran Joe Looney no longer on the roster? Well, currently the candidates are Conner McGovern, seventh-round pick Matt Farniok (moved from guard), rookie free agent Braylon Jones and starting left guard Connor Williams, all snapping to the quarterbacks during practice.
- On The Corner: Most figure second-rounder Kelvin Joseph will be the walk-in starter at cornerback opposite last year's second-rounder Trevon Diggs. Well, Anthony Brown might have something to say about that. Or at least challenge. He was out first at left corner with Diggs on the ride side, though remember most of these coaches at this time of year give snap deference to veterans. Brown was moving well after injuries cost him six games last year. He did start eight games and finished tied for second on the team with two interceptions. Said McCarthy, "AB looked great." This is the way it should be, making rookies earn their way. Joseph was out their second with third-rounder Nahshon Wright, who by the way had another breakup/near-interception. And so did Robinson on his return to corner.
- No. 9: Maybe Jaylon Smith has a unique idea what to do with his No. 54 jersey inventory he had to purchase in order to switch his number to 9 this year when he could have done so next year at no cost. He says sometimes value out-weighs cost, that most have projected his being six figures, nearly half-a-million. He called getting No. 9, Tony Romo's old number, "a blessing and an honor" since he has been wearing it ever since first playing football as a 9-year-old. Great, and now he needs to play as if blessed. And one good sign: He seemed more engaged with his teammates, seen fist-bumping guys after plays, though he's a tad limited still since offseason wrist surgery. Oh, and same as cornerback, the linebacker order seemed based on experience, with Smith and Neal out first, then Leighton Vander Esch and then Micah Parsons, McCarthy using a No. 2 pencil on his lineup card at this early point.
- On-Guard: With perennial Pro Bowl right guard Zack Martin still cautiously rehabbing last season's problematic calf, taking over for him on the first team O-Line were last year's starting left tackle Brandon Knight and last year's starting guard replacement Connor McGovern, who figures to be vying for Looney's backup swing-guard/center spot.
- Clerical Matters: During virtual NFL Owners meetings on Wednesday, several matters were clarified. The Cowboys can begin training camp on July 21 since they are scheduled to play the extra preseason game, the Hall of Fame contest against Pittsburgh in Canton, Ohio, on Aug. 5. Then the roster. The NFL is continuing with last year's enlarged 90-man roster, with cuts to 85 by Aug. 17, to 80 by Aug. 24 and then to the final 53 on Aug. 31, two days after the Cowboys' final preseason game and 10 days prior to the Cowboys' Sept. 9 season opener at Tampa Bay. Next, the 2022 salary cap ceiling is being set at $208.2 million (no floor designated yet), up from this year's drop for COVID-effected reasons to $182.5 million and nearly $10 million more than what it was in 2019, so getting back closer to normal with an even bigger boost in 2023 coming when the new TV contract money figures in.
- Organized Shorties: During the 11 offensive-7 defensive team session, LVE and Smith were the first linebackers out, with the corners Brown, Diggs and Jourdan Lewis in the slot … Poor offensive lineman Mitch Hyatt, having spent all of last year on IR after suffering a torn ACL during practice on Aug. 27 now is rehabbing a recent knee sprain suffered during conditioning work … Since only one player from an HBCU school has been drafted in the past two seasons – those schools played a spring 2021 schedule for COVID reasons – the NFL has hooked up with the Senior Bowl for a special HBCU Combine set for Jan. 28-29 at the University of South Alabama facilities in Mobile, Ala., for senior-eligible HBCU players, with an HBCU Senior Bowl-type game set for Feb. 5 … Don't go to sleep on the recent free-agent signing of former Ohio State wide receiver Jamie Dixon, who had a very good tryout performance while running routes during quarterback Brett Hundley's workout last Friday. After recovering from lingering tendonitis in both knees his first three years with the Buckeyes, Dixon turned into a stretch-the-field receiver, averaging 17.1 yards a catch over 67 of them in his final two seasons (2017-18).
Last word will go to veteran unrestricted free-agent Keanu Neal, signed by the Cowboys this offseason as a linebacker/safety, a 2016 Atlanta first-round pick out of Florida playing the past five seasons for now Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, who is charged with turning around this struggling 2020 Dallas defense.
So Keanu, you know DQ probably better than the rest:
"He is awesome, man. It really brightens me up thinking about it. But he's an awesome guy, awesome coach. Has a lot of energy. He's very hands on, so he'll get in there and line up and go through everything with you. He's always positive, always active, and it's always good to be around him."
Good to know.