OXNARD, Calif. – In my previous seven training camps covering the team, around this same time, I predict a breakout player, a sleeper who is going to ridiculously exceed expectations, and in the process, make it appear as if I have a clue.
Honestly, I probably should have retired this concept after hitting on Miles Austin my first go-around in 2009. He went from 13 to 81 catches, which in terms of breaking out is a combination of a high school freshman with oily skin and the old-school Kool-Aid dude. (Am hopeful someone got that.)
Since, my selections – Sam Hurd, Orlando Scandrick, Sean Lissemore, Jason Hatcher, Tyrone Crawford and Gavin Escobar – have had varying degrees of success, or lack thereof.
Still, even coming off the Escobar and his eight catches, we are going to forge ahead, with my pick for the 2016 campaign being defensive end David Irving. Think he's the starting left end for the first four games, plays a ton of snaps throughout and ends up with 48 quarterback pressures, 43 tackles and 7.5 sacks. At 6-7 and stunningly athletic for his 285 pounds, let's throw in a pair of blocked field goals as well. Keep in mind that Irving finished last season with 14 quarterback pressures in 199 snaps, so give him 600 or so and factor in what coaches and teammates describe as significant improvement, and 48 certainly isn't as far-fetched as it might sound.
Look, he's not going to signal-handedly fix the team's glaring pass-rush problem, but when fellow defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence returns from his four-game suspension, it could be stronger than just about anyone believes it can be. Tyrone Crawford seems poised for a career-best season as well.
Irving was signed by the Cowboys off the Kansas City Chiefs practice squad on Sept. 29, 2015 and ended up playing in 12 games. He blocked a field goal against Seattle and finished with 14 tackles, two for loss and 0.5 sacks with Dallas.
"I came in the middle of last season and was able to get a feel for the system and the coaches," Irving said. "This year, they are counting on me to play a bigger role, and I'm just here to take full advantage of that opportunity. I feel like the coaches believe in me, my teammates believe in me and I believe in myself, so I just have to take all the coaching I can every single day and that improvement is going to show."
The scouting report on Irving starts with quickness, slippery quickness, not to mention a nearly 40-inch vertical leap, and while he's still raw at 22 years young, he has taken significant steps since the conclusion of last season. No less an authority than defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli compared him this past spring to current Cowboys defensive tackles coach Leon Lett, who was a three-time Super Bowl winner and two-time Pro Bowl selection over his 10-year career with Dallas.
Luckily for Irving, he's used to the style of coaching and tough love Marinelli provides, which more times than not includes magnified levels of communication.
"I respond to the yelling, I do. You have no choice," Irving said. "I'm used to it. My mom yelled a lot, so I think it makes me feel like this is home.
"I feel like there's a pretty significant upside to my potential, and Coach Marinelli hammers that home to me every day and I just roll with it. They always tell me to focus on the now, and I am, but I feel I have already improved so much from last year. I feel like I'm improving every day out here, so let's just keep working and see how far it takes me."
When asked what he has improved on the most since arriving in Dallas, Irving chuckled and said, "Pass rushing, pass rushing, pass rushing. I wasn't very good at it. Well, I'm still not very good at it, but you know, Coach Marinelli has been on me every single day and he's encouraging, sometimes in a tough way. It's a long camp, and I have a lot more improving to do."
After the first few practices, Irving has signed more autographs than any of his teammates, even wide receiver Terrance Williams, who is the three-time defending champion of inking his John Hancock in Oxnard. And Irving signs with a smile, and when thanked, his response is always, "Yes, sir," or "Yes, ma'am," even when it's a kid, which would make his father, a retired Marine master sergeant, proud.
"It's a great opportunity to play for the Dallas Cowboys and represent the star, and the fans. You've got to love the fans coming out and supporting us like this, whether it be training camp, home games, away games," Irving said. "I mean, everywhere we go there are fans waiting to support us. That makes you want to work that much harder. There is no doubt this is the best team to play for in the NFL.
"This is football season now, training camp. It's time to grind, every day just grind. Work until you drop, and then work harder the next day. I'm just trying to improve and listen to Coach Marinelli. I never knew if this opportunity would happen, for me to play in the NFL, and I'm sure going to give everything in my power to take advantage."