IRVING, Texas – The pads won't come on until training camp in a little over two months, but for the first time this offseason the Cowboys' veterans and rookies will inch closer to a regular practice when voluntary organized team activities (OTAs) get underway Tuesday.
Classified as Phase Three of the offseason program, the OTAs will take place three days a week for the next three weeks, followed by the mandatory June 16-18 minicamp. Live action isn't permitted under the NFL collective bargaining agreement, as the players are only in helmets and shorts, but the offense and defense can work together for the first time.
It's a bit of a balancing act for head coach Jason Garrett. The sessions are an early opportunity to evaluate players and get in solid work (without contact) as a precursor to training camp, but there's also a long road before Oxnard.
"Everyone's excited to get started and do football, but you have to practice smart," Garrett said. "One of the things we talk to our players about all the time is, given the new collective bargaining agreement, you don't have that many full-padded practices. So, the teams that learn how to practice in helmets and jerseys really are the teams that are the best teams in this league. Because this is how we practice many more times than not.
"So, we have to do a great job teaching tempo and convincing our players about the type of tempo we want to practice with. There's a sense of urgency. There's a pace for these types of events."
Among players to watch this offseason is defensive end Greg Hardy, who is eligible to participate in all preseason activities, including OTAs, minicamp, training camp and preseason games, before his 10-game suspension goes into effect Sept. 5. Hardy is a natural right end who can play multiple spots along the defensive line.
The Cowboys will welcome back starting linebacker and team leader Sean Lee, who tore his ACL the first week of OTAs last year and missed the entire 2014 season. Lee is moving to weak side linebacker with Rolando McClain, acquired by trade last July, remaining at middle linebacker where we was highly productive in Lee's place.
The OTAs also mark the first glimpse of newly-signed Darren McFadden and the Cowboys' early running back rotation featuring Ryan Williams, Joseph Randle and Lance Dunbar.
And for the rookies, OTAs are their next acclimation to the NFL against the veterans. So far they've been limited to the teaching sessions allowed in Phase Two of the offseason program.
"For all rookies, I think going into OTA's Coach Garrett does a great job of telling them, 'Create competition,'" tight end Jason Witten said. "A lot of them we're counting on to play and play significant roles, and others are going to be contributors.
"This is the start of it. We've had good offseason workouts so far, but nothing like going to the field and taking those practice reps and getting better."
See photos from day 1 of Cowboys OTAs.
May 26-28 OTAs Week 1
June 2-4 OTAs Week 2
June 8-10 OTAs Week 3
June 16-18 Mandatory Minicamp