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Training Camp | 2022

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Spagnola: Oxnard Becomes Land Of Opportunity


OXNARD, Calif. – There is no statue out front of the Residence Inn here to mark the occasion.

There is no sign making this declaration.

But if there was, the inscription would read thusly:

Welcome To Dallas Cowboys 2022 Training Camp

The Land Of Opportunity

For if we heard this word during Tuesday's opening press conference featuring owner Jerry Jones, COO sidekick Stephen Jones and head coach Mike McCarthy once, we must have heard it roughly two dozen times.


Jerry said it.

Stephen said it.

Mike alluded to it several times.

For if there is a theme to this training camp, if they were to place a banner inside the Cowboys locker room here at the River Ridge complex, these players would be reminded daily of the "opportunity" staring them right in the face.

"It's time to give some of our young players an opportunity to step up," Stephen Jones said during the nearly 65-minute opening to training camp.

That is the medicinal salve being placed on the self-imposed mounting question marks facing a team finishing 12-5 in 2021 and winning the NFC East with an undefeated division record for only the third time in the franchise's previous 62 seasons, first in 1969 and again in 1998.

Why, the Cowboys, without any pressure from external influences, decided to move on from six mainstay veteran starters: WR Amari Cooper, DE Randy Gregory, OT La'el Collins, LG Connor Williams, FS Damontae Kazee and K Greg Zuerlein, players lending a significant helping hand to this team qualifying for the playoffs in McCarthy's second season.

Some of these moves had to do with availability, or as Jerry Jones pointed out early in the hour, "Those decisions we made are more about availability than ability." What he also added in conjuncture with that was their top-10 salary cap hits for 2022.

Those would be the cases for trading Cooper, missing two starts (COVID related and another start); for releasing Collins, missing five games and seven starts; and choosing not to bend their contract standards to re-sign Gregory, missing five games and six starts.

And the Cowboys looked at it this way. Staying with Cooper would have cost them a $20 million base salary. Staying with Collins would have cost them a $10 million base salary. And re-signing Gregory, who reneged on the part about repaying bonus money if suspended, would have needed a $70 million deal over five years with the $20 million guaranteed Denver signed him to.

As Jerry Jones pointed out, when you have three players among your top-10 paid guys, you've got to have availability and production commensurate to those dollars.

And guess what? Gregory and Collins are starting training camp this year on reserve lists, Gregory with Denver on PUP still recovering from shoulder surgery and Collins with Cincinnati on NFI with reoccurring back issues, and this after missing all of 2020 in need of hip surgery and having a sub-par 2021 season.

When it comes to Williams, fair or not, he basically "held" his way into free agency, too many penalties, and Miami signed him to more than the Cowboys would offer. And as for the other two aforementioned, Kazee and Zuerlein, their production was not worthy of bringing back.

About the only other personnel decision made for no other reason than cap ramifications was not retaining WR Cedrick Wilson, who played well enough to earn every penny the Dolphins paid the free agent (two years, $14 million).

So somebodies have to take their place.

"We feel really good about our young group," Stephen Jones says. "We feel like, at the end of the day, they are ready to take the next step."

Therein lies what Jerry Jones was talking about when deciding when to let go of veterans and when young guys are ready and capable of stepping up.

"It's always about projection … it's always about projection," the owner, president and GM says. "That's our game."

Sure is.

That's why this past Friday I maintained the Cowboys are projecting and needing CeeDee Lamb to step up into that No. 1 receiver role. Why Michael Gallup, expected to start the season on PUP, along with probably Jabril Cox and Damone Clark, needs to return to No. 2 receiver status.

Why the Cowboys need Sam Williams and Dorance Armstrong and Dante Fowler to step into larger roles at defensive end, along with DeMarcus Lawrence, now healthy and fit, to return to his No. 1 pass rusher role.

Why offensive linemen Terence Steele at right tackle and first-round draft choice Tyler Smith or fourth-year lineman Connor McGovern must aptly replace Williams at left guard.

And certainly why the Cowboys desperately need either Jonathan Garibay or Lirim Hajrahulla to make an impression at kicker.

But at least, as Stephen Jones points out on this fine 67-degree morning, the Cowboys have salary cap space – roughly $20 million – to spend on potential veteran free agents if they whiff on a few of these decisions. If the said opportunities are too big for some of the young guys to grab.

And don't think the Joneses went willy-nilly on these personnel decisions. They relied on the input of the head coach, of the two coordinators and the scouting department.

"I'm extremely comfortable," McCarthy says of this notion that the Cowboys will depend on some of these young players to step adequately into starting and feature roles.

And as he pointed out, if not for injuries to Tony Romo and Kellen Moore, the Cowboys might never have discovered the unsuspected game in fourth-round draft choice Dak Prescott. If not for Dan Quinn thinking outside the box, the Cowboys might never has realized the hidden talents of safety Jayron Kearse.

They were somewhat forced to find out.

The same with tight end Dalton Schultz, forced to step up for the injured Blake Jarwin over the past two seasons.

Or otherwise …

"The youth on our football team will factor early in our season," McCarthy projects.

So here they go, first practice on Wednesday at 11:30 a.m. out here. Helmets, jerseys and shorts, though, minicamp-ish. No pads until Monday. But we'll start getting more informed glimpses of just what is taking place at these positions clouded with questions marks for now.

And if you are worried about these decisions, the Cowboys projections of just what these young guys are capable of achieving, I asked Stephen Jones how long would the Cowboys stick with some of these young guys if they are struggling, forcing them to start taking shots at some of the veteran free agents still available, though more pricey, since they do have some available cap capital to utilize?

With much confidence, Stephen Jones said of making these decisions to stick with the youngsters, however unproven, "This isn't a blind shot in the dark."

Accompanied by huge knocks on the door of opportunity.

In need of being answered.

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