OXNARD, Calif. – No slight intended to the Cowboys' offense, but it's been some time since their defense took top billing in this manner.
Team owner/general manager Jerry Jones spoke to reporters on Sunday following practice, and that's exactly what he did. Asked which part of his team has impressed him the most this summer, Jones had praise in store for his defense.
"I like our numbers in our defensive front, all the way across – both the down guys and the linebackers," he said. "We've got a good group here, and we've got numbers – which means we can play with rotation. I think all of that is good and it's legitimate."
It's hard to argue with that assessment. The Cowboys' pass rush has had a productive training camp led by DeMarcus Lawrence and his cohorts. And just in case they needed a boost of talent, Randy Gregory entered into team drills for this first time on Sunday.
Even more impressive than that might be the Cowboys' linebacker corps, though. Sean Lee entered team drills on Saturday afternoon and Chris Covington returned to practice on Sunday. Those additions give the Cowboys their full complement of linebackers, which gives them quite a bit of talent to work with.
Joe Thomas has stolen headlines in the early going of this camp, capping it off with an interception in the preseason opener against San Francisco. Leighton Vander Esch has also begun to flash his natural ability as he has gotten acclimated.
The real headliner, though, has been Jaylon Smith – who has appeared to take several steps forward in his development during the Cowboys' stay in California.
"What I'm seeing right here in practice, right now – what I've seen so far, what I saw in the offseason – completely justified our drafting him in the second round. Completely," Jones said. "He's really not only got a chance to really help us on the field, he's one of our potential cornerstones in every way – leadership, as well as player."
That's a high standard to set for a third-year player, but Smith has looked the part of a blue-chip talent during training camp. Whether flowing toward the line of scrimmage or dropping in coverage, he hasn't appeared to be limited by the knee injury he suffered back in 2016.
Smith said that's something he began to notice back during the offseason training program, and it's paying dividends to this point in the preseason.
"It was really just when I began training this offseason, not using the brace at all and being able to be explosive," he said. "My bend and my change of direction. I'm just happy to be able to show that."
It's still early in the summer, to be fair. There's three preseason games to play before the Cowboys even get to the games that count. But right now, Smith and the defense are showing plenty.
Quick Hits From Practice
· Back in team drills, linebacker Sean Lee's instincts were on display when he perfectly read an underneath route to tight end Dalton Schultz and made the stop.
· Ezekiel Elliott's change of direction skills are unique. Working against the first-team defense, he ran right, stopped on a dime, and cut back left for what would have been a 10-yard gain.
· Dak Prescott and Terrance Williams connected on two deep catches – first on a go-route in one-on-one drills, where Williams got past Anthony Brown, and again in team drills with Chidobe Awuzie in coverage.
· With Marcus Martin (toe) injured, the Cowboys will look for someone to step up and provide guard depth. Kadeem Edwards did a nice job in "compete" period, appearing to win three straight reps against Kony Ealy in the one-on-one pass rush drill.
· Tavon Austin, Trey Williams, Lance Lenoir Jr. and Duke Thomas fielded punts.
· Enter Rico Gathers' name into the competition for best catch of training camp. Working with the second-team offense, Gathers got behind Leighton Vander Esch on a corner route. Cooper Rush put the ball on a rope, and Gathers had to extend his right hand to haul it in one-handed. It was a picture-perfect of the kind of athletic plays Gathers is capable of making down the field.
· Cole Beasley (groin) did not practice again. He and safety Marqueston Huff (groin) worked off to the side with associate athletic trainer/director of rehabilitation Britt Brown.
· Safety Kavon Frazier returned to practice after sitting out part of Saturday's work with a sore knee. Rookie linebacker Chris Covington was back in pads after missing a few days due to illness.
· Youth football players from the Los Angeles area led the team's traditional jumping jacks routine after stretching.