IRVING, Texas– Back at The Ranch, 31 days, 20 practices and two preseason games later, along with train, plane and bus rides to boot, yet still there is plenty of work to be done.
Camp might be over in tranquil Oxnard, Calif., but the finalization of the Dallas Cowboys' opening 53-man roster, along with preparation for the 2015 season opener against the New York Giants, is far from complete.
We can start with Saturday night's third preseason game vs. the Minnesota Vikings, 6 p.m. at home, sweet home, AT&T Stadium. What everyone likes to call the "dress rehearsal" game where the healthy starters play a good portion of the first half, maybe even more.
And finally the Cowboys will field starting lineups on offense and defense better resembling what they will trot out on Sept. 13 against the Giants. That is if the final practice Thursday morning before the Cowboys surprisingly scampered home later that afternoon is any indication of just who, from a health standpoint, might be available.
Let's start with the offense. At least from the start of practice the Cowboys were missing only one projected starter, that being right guard Zack Martin, still recovering from the stinger he had suffered on Aug. 17, this before Dez Bryant went in after slightly slipping while planting to run a slant route in individual drills. Was told not to read much into his departure, as in aggravating his balky hamstring, but still is unlikely to play Saturday night. But that's it, although backups such as Brandon Weeden (concussion), backup tight end James Hanna (sprained knee) and fourth receiver Devin Street (ankle) also are unlikely to play.
On the other side of the ball, finally this week the defense began to look normal with the return to practice of starting defensive tackles Tyrone Crawford and Nick Hayden, along with backup Terrell McClain, but Orlando Scandrick was lost for the season on Tuesday with the torn ACL and MCL in his right knee. The only other opening-day starter missing is linebacker Anthony Hitchens (sprained ankle).
Beginning to look a lot like the Cowboys we've perceived.
But again, the work is not done. There still are issues, and let's not sweat the little stuff, like fifth receiver, third quarterback (if there is one) or whether it's three tight ends or four.
Let's start with the offensive line. Seems pretty obvious the backup guard is La'el Collins, who has moved from the left side to right in Martin's absence since Ron Leary has returned to practice. Not so obvious is the backup swing tackle. Darrion Weems must show improvement Saturday night when he gets his next shot. His competition for the job, as I see it, is not necessarily against who is currently on the 90-man roster, but with those who might be on the waiver wire when cuts begin Sept. 1 and teams get to 53 on Sept. 5.[embeddedad0]
The preference would be to have that guy, not move Martin to tackle and then Collins into starting guard, and especially now that Martin still is recovering from the stinger. So keep an eye on No. 75.
Then there is running back. At this point, it's Joe Randle starting, Darren McFadden trying to carve out a role and Lance Dunbar the nickel back. Running backs coach Gary Brown is fine with the threesome, but knows McFadden has to stay on the field.
"You've got to prove yourself in some form or fashion," Brown says.
As for Randle, "I always tell him, 'Who are you without the ball?'" Brown says, meaning knowing when to stay in and block and when to release into the flat, plus very importantly, knowing how to pick up the blitz.
"He's taken that challenge and done well with that," Brown says.
More evidence is required.
That's really it offensively from a frontline standpoint, although from a depth standpoint, can Geoff Swaim do enough to force a fourth tight end onto the roster? Which is certainly a possibility if Hanna is not ready to go the first week of the season. If Street can't shake his sprained ankle, do the Cowboys need another outside receiver? Veteran A.J. Jenkins of late is offering food for thought.
Now then, defensively. Certainly losing Scandrick in the slot is an issue, but at least the Cowboys likely were going to keep six cornerbacks on the 53. Now they are down to five seemingly for sure: Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Tyler Patmon, Byron Jones and Corey White. The plan is to go with Carr and Claiborne as the starters, and Jones the backup swing corner. On nickel, Patmon replaces Scandrick in the slot, backed up by White. On dime, Patmon and Jones man the slot positions.
So we get to see that, too, Saturday night.
The most fluid position group, though, is linebacker. Remember, no Rolando McClain the first four games. The idea before the suspension had been McClain in the middle, Sean Lee weak-side and Hitchens strong-side. Then after the suspension it was Hitchens middle, Lee weak-side and open competition for the strong side.
But with Hitchens missing, what you'll see Saturday night is Andrew Gachkar middle, Lee weak and Kyle Wilber strong. Seems as though every week there has been a different combination, the only constant being Lee on the weak side. Gachkar seems to be the wild card, having manned all three linebacker positions at some point during camp, with Wilber working at middle and strong.
So we'll see a little more of that, too.
And if you just happen to be curious about the defensive line, from left to right, here is how they were lining up in base defense Thursday morning: DeMarcus Lawrence, Nick Hayden, Tyrone Crawford and Jeremy Mincey. On nickel, in comes Randy Gregory for Mincey and Hardy for Hayden, but remember, Hardy must serve that opening four-game suspension. On dime, of late it's been Lawrence, Jack Crawford, Hardy and Gregory.
Can't wait to see all that for real.
And, if the Cowboys play Saturday night like they practiced all week, we should see a better indication of just who will be playing front-line special teams, and not just as returners, but also kick coverage and blockers on returns – always a better indications of just who the Cowboys think will be on the initial 53-man roster.
Now just remember, while training camp in Oxnard might be completed, the work will continue here, with two more full practices next week before the fourth preseason game on Thursday vs. Houston usually reserved for the young guys, those who remain after Tuesday's cut to 75.
After that, final cuts to 53 on Saturday, potential waiver claims on Sunday and Monday, then on to the real deal, getting closer and closer.
You know, my mom loved to tell us, "A mother's work is never done." Wonder if she, too, understood neither is the work of putting together a football team.