IRVING, Texas - Things shouldn't be quite as tough on the Cowboys' 2012 draft class, but five of the seven selections are beginning their respective careers in a bit of a hole.
First-round cornerback Morris Claiborne (wrist), third-round defensive end Tyrone Crawford (calf), fourth-round outside linebacker Kyle Wilber (finger) and fifth-round wide receiver Danny Coale (foot) all missed most, if not the entirety, of the four weeks of organized team activity (OTA) and minicamp practices. Fourth-round safety Matt Johnson was out for 11 of the 12 sessions because he was not eligible to participate while his college, Eastern Washington, was still in session.
The team was very careful not to push injured players too much in the no-pads drills, and a number of veterans missed the workouts as well. Still, they're ahead of the rookies, who have some catching up to do in order to contribute this year.
Coaches did what they could to keep the youngsters engaged.
"What we try to do is just make sure they take advantage of the opportunities they do have," head coach Jason Garrett said. "Each of those guys was in meetings, they were in walkthroughs, they were out at practice, in some cases they were working their way into drills by the end of this offseason football phase. So, I think they did a good job handling what their individual situation was, and they made strides in their own way. We're excited to see those guys once we get to training camp, though."
While six of the seven picks were able to practice in the rookie minicamp, held a week after the draft, only sixth-round tight end James Hanna and seventh-round inside linebacker Caleb McSurdy made it through the entire offseason program unscathed.
Despite the effort the top picks made to keep pace, all knew they had been dealt quite a setback, missing some of the initial practices of their professional careers.
"I got as much as I can right now, being out," Crawford said during the minicamp. "But I know I need to be in there getting physical reps and putting myself in position. There's a long ways to go, obviously."
The Cowboys traded up to select Claiborne knowing he would miss the entire offseason while recovering from wrist surgery. A projected starter, he often shadowed the defense's right cornerback during team drills, but admits the last month was frustrating.
"It's very, very tough," Claiborne said. "Anytime you're a competitor and you're always used to being in that fire, and then you're not there, and you've just got to stand on the sideline and watch all your teammates work, it's hard."
The time off may have been toughest on Johnson, who was not even allowed to be with the team until June 14 due to his university's quarters system. He simply kept in contact with coaches, conducted drills on his own, and watched DVDs of the defensive meetings.
"That's the nice thing, you can rewind it and pause it and do what you've got to do," Johnson said. "But it's just not the same as being there and seeing it and that speed. It's better than nothing."
For rookies, the offseason program didn't end at the conclusion of last week's minicamp. They'll be at Valley Ranch for additional strength and conditioning through the end of June, and will return to the facility for an additional three days of on-field work before training camp begins in July. Joining them will be first-year players who have not appeared in games, guys dealing with injuries, and quarterbacks.
The extra work should help all of the young players, not just those five who have missed time, to get a little bit more up to speed.
"It'll probably feel a lot like an OTA practice or a minicamp practice," Garrett said. "The rookies can't see this stuff enough. They just need to go over it and over it and over it. Again, if they approach it the right way and they learn from the experience they've had, both good and bad, they're going to grow. So, it's just another opportunity for them to get a little bit of a preview before we go to training camp."