FRISCO, Texas – Minicamp is in the books, and the next time we'll see the Cowboys back in practice is training camp in Oxnard, Calif., just under 40 days from now.
Here are my takeaways from the Cowboys' final offseason work this week:
Best Defensive Rookie
I was impressed with what they were able to get out of Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis during these practices. If you asked me to select one over the other right now, I'd go with Awuzie and that's no slam on Lewis. I liked the way that the coaching staff used him during these practices. He played outside, inside and even some dime linebacker without struggle. Depending on how things go with Jeff Heath at safety, we might see him take some more snaps there during training camp. As for Lewis, he has those rare feet and quickness to handle things inside. Would not be one bit surprised to see him, along with Anthony Brown, push Nolan Carroll for his starting spot as well.
Best Offensive Rookie
You don't have to be a NFL scout to see what Ryan Switzer was able to do during these practices. With the injuries to Cole Beasley and Lucky Whitehead, he got plenty of opportunity to shine and he did not disappoint. Love the new friendship with him and Dez Bryant because Bryant will teach him how to play 'mean and nasty.' Switzer has plenty of talent, but don't overlook his ability to play down the field, which is a trait that most shorter players struggle with.
With the summer practices now complete, let's rank the 10 best rookies on this Cowboys roster as the team gets prepared for training camp.
Best Defensive Veteran
This was a tough call. I was impressed with three guys: Anthony Hitchens, Jeff Heath and Anthony Brown. I would include Sean Lee in this group, but the fact that he was practicing on and off, I took him out of the mix. I am going to go with Hitchens for the simple fact that he was all over the field during the majority of the snaps he played. Last season, I don't believe he was ready to start at the "Mike" with Rolando McClain still in the picture. This year is a different story. He looks healthy, in shape and mentally sharp. Even if Jaylon Smith shows promise during camp, I don't see Hitchens giving up that job easily.
Best Offensive Veteran
Tyron Smith was dealing with back issues the majority of the season last year but still managed to play at a high level. During the practices, he looked healthy and back to his old self. It didn't matter who rushed to his side, he was up to the task. The technique, movement and power were all there. Even with a new guard next to him each practice, he didn't miss a beat or show any signs of struggle.
Best Free Agent Pickup
If the season started this weekend, Damontre Moore would likely be your starter at right end. There were questions about his work ethic and attitude but he has come in and worked extremely hard to earn a spot on this roster. The majority of Moore's work has come against Tyron Smith, which is never easy, but he's been more than up to the challenge. He's even accepted a role on the special teams and lined up as a standup linebacker/pass rusher.
Don't Throw Dirt On This Guy
When fans were trying to put together their 53-man roster after the draft, the name that kept coming up was Brice Butler. With the addition of Ryan Switzer and Noah Brown, it was widely believed that Butler is going to be shown the door. After going through these practices, I would be surprised if Butler is not on the roster when we get to that final cut-down day in September.
Jaylon Smith Outlook
Something to think about in regards to Jaylon Smith. If you worry about his lack of change of direction, which tends to show up in pass coverage as the "Mike" linebacker, you could sub him off the field in nickel situations. Initially he might have to be just a two-down player until he adapts to playing with the brace and more healing. This could be their plan to get him on the field as soon as possible.
I believe the front office and coaching staff have found their right tackle: La'el Collins. I don't see anyone currently on the roster that's going to take that job from him. The focus now will be on who lines up at left guard. It appears they would like Chaz Green to step up and compete with Joe Looney or Jonathan Cooper for the job. My guess is that Cooper would win the spot and Looney returns to his role of swing center/guard. A position to keep an eye on is the swing tackle, where Emmett Cleary would be the odds-on favorite after spending last season in that role. Green could factor into that role as well or a slimmer Byron Bell, who has lined up on both sides during his career. Practice squad is a likely destination for Dan Skipper and Nate Theaker if both were to clear waivers after the final roster cut.
Charles Tapper or Taco Charlton?
I really do consider both of these guys as rookies and I am interested to see if they both shine or one is clearly better. Tapper coming off the back injury has a chance to give this defense a little juice off the edge. He's a more explosive player off the snap than Charlton, but he isn't as strong. Tapper has been practicing on and off in order to get him ready for training camp. Charlton has been going since he was drafted and has been thrown into the fire working against Tyron Smith. Charlton has also had some opportunities against some down-the-line guys which has given him some confidence. In an ideal world, they both would play a major role in the rotation, but they also need to prove they belong.
Status At Tight End
I know this team has invested a lot of resources in Rico Gathers, but I would be careful to say that he's a lock for the roster. If numbers force them to carry only three, Jason Witten, James Hanna and Geoff Swaim would be my lineup. If they carry an extra one, Gathers would have some competition with Connor Hamlett for that spot. I like what I've seen from Hamlett's receiving, route running and blocking. He makes no mental mistakes, and when he was paired with Jason Witten during these practices he didn't look one bit out of place. The year on the practice squad really helped Gathers and working with Tony Romo helped him, but he still needs to develop as a route runner and in the mental side of the game. The scout side of me wonders if things don't work out as a tight end, do they bulk him up 20 or so pounds and make him a tackle because his blocking is the least of his problems.