Rookie Notebook: Vander Esch Signs; Schultz on Witten, Juggling & More

FRISCO, Texas – The first day on the job was certainly a productive one for rookie Leighton Vander Esch. 

Not only was he on the field for two practices, had yet another interview with the local media in between, had meetings with his position group early and later in the day, but there was something else in store for the Cowboys’ first-round pick. 

He put a few bucks in his pocket as well. 

While the Cowboys did not make terms of the deal official, it was in the neighborhood of four years, $11.2 million with an option for a fifth year. Last year, tight end O.J. Howard was the 19thpick and signed a four-year, $11.09 million deal.

After seven other rookies signed their deals earlier in the day, it leaves only third-round pick Michael Gallup as the remaining drafted player to sign. That is no unusual considering the unique language that comes with third-round picks, making them a little more difficult to sign. Two years ago, Maliek Collins was the last player to sign, as was cornerback Jourdan Lewis, another third-round pick. 

But before signing his contract, Vander Esch had a good day on the field, although it wasn’t exactly a full-fledged football practice. 

“It was just awesome getting out there with the guys and putting the stuff the coaches are teaching us to good use,” Vander Esch said. “Being here and being part of the program. It’s really special. You have to earn your spot every single day and every minute, and every hour.” - Nick Eatman

Schultz: Its Not Better That He’s Gone

It was a common storyline throughout Jason Witten’s career that it was hard to share playing time with him. The All-Pro tight end was so well rounded that he rarely came off the field. Even last year, during his 15th season, Witten played roughly 97 percent of the Cowboys’ snaps on offense.

Incoming rookie Dalton Schultz was asked about that Friday afternoon, and it was suggested it might actually be a positive that Witten had retired. After all, that’s a lot of snaps that are suddenly available for the Cowboys’ remaining tight ends.

Despite that, Schultz wasn’t hearing it, as he offered some fantastic perspective on what having Witten in the locker room could mean for his development.

“This is my 14th year of playing football, ever – in my life. And he’s had 15 years in the league,” Schultz said. “And so it’s like, when you put it in perspective like that – it’s not better that he’s gone. Having a guy like that around would only be good for everybody.”

Schultz has talked extensively about what he can bring to this offense. Given the Cowboys’ tendency to run the ball, his attention to the role of tight ends as blockers is encouraging for his case to get on the field early.

“Going back to, like, little league, I kind of started as a blocker. So I feel like that’s ingrained in my system, and I feel like that has really benefited me over my years – to kind of have that mental tenacity and capacity to be that inline guy,” he said. :”So I take a lot of pride in that. I don’t think that’s the only thing I can do, but I would say that’s what I always fall back on. Like, no matter what I can always take pride in what I do inline.” - David Helman

Fundamentals First

Interesting sight in Thursday’s first rookie minicamp walkthrough: The new receivers went through the entire 45-minute session without catching a pass.

New receivers coach Sanjay Lal had the group focus on footwork and technique first.

Third-round pick Michael Gallup explained the lesson: “If you are a technician in your routes, the ball will come.”

A highly-regarded assistant around the league, Lal is replacing former receivers coach Derek Dooley, who took the offensive coordinator job at the University of Missouri.

Said Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett: “Something that we want to continue to emphasize is being great route runners. We’ve done that with our veteran players and we’ll do that with our young guys.” - Rob Phillips

Juggling Duties For Wilson 

It’s an annual rite of passage that the rookie class is expected to balance a lot of different challenges. After all, they’ve got to get settled in Dallas, learn the playbook, adjust to their new schedule and everything else that comes along with a major life change.

Fortunately for sixth-round pick Cedrick Wilson, he’s already got a ton of experience juggling things – literally. During his stint at Coffeyville Junior College, before he transferred to Boise State, Wilson said he taught himself how to juggle to help with his hand-eye coordination.

“I saw it in a documentary about A.J. Green,” Wilson said. “I was watching it while I was at junior college in Coffeyville. They were always talking about his ball skills and it showed him learning how to juggle. So I was like ‘I might as well do it with my time,’ because I didn’t have anything to do at JUCO.”

If a young receiver is looking for people to emulate, a seven-time Pro Bowler isn’t a bad way to go. Wilson said he started out by juggling billiard balls in his free time and progressed from there.

“I started with two at first, in one hand, just to get that rhythm down,” he said. “Once I got to three, I could pretty much juggle anything – well, not anything.”

Wilson said he juggles with tennis balls and footballs to improve his coordination. - David Helman

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