One of the best things about the NFL preseason outside of it ending is the opportunity to make wide-sweeping judgments on players we’ve barely seen. That said, there’s something to be gained from watching how certain players react when competing against top-flight players. The Dallas Cowboys enjoyed their competition with the San Diego Chargers so much Saturday night they decided to stay in town for a couple more days of practice.
But as the Cowboys prepare to return home Wednesday, let’s look at some of the hits and misses from training camp. Let’s start with the positives:
** Starting inside linebacker Sean Lee and running back DeMarco Murray have emerged as leaders on this team. Lee was one of the best players on defense last season, but he appears to have become much more vocal as he gains confidence in the scheme. He sets the tone in practice for that side of the ball, and that’s something that head coach Jason Garrett really seems to appreciate. Murray has been a beast in practices and he took some of that to the field against the Chargers. He’s gained more separation from his backup Felix Jones than most of us could have anticipated. He has a punishing style that this team has missed over the past few years. Cowboys running backs coach Skip Peete told me that Murray is doing a much better job of focusing on catching the ball out of the backfield. He dropped a few passes last season, so he doubled his efforts in that area. Jones had a bad drop in Saturday’s game.
** Dez Bryant put aside his legal issues and had a tremendous camp. Against the Chargers, he made one of the most athletic catches you’ll ever see in the league. He was ruled out of bounds on the play (and there was a penalty on the Cowboys), but the one-handed grab still left quite an impression. He also made a great play on a crossing route in a fourth-and-short situation against the Chargers. He used his strength and size to beat first-string cornerback Quentin Jammer on the play. Of course, none of this will matter if Bryant can’t be more consistent in the regular-season. But he’s spent the last few weeks reminding everyone of his immense talent. And it feels like he’s ready to take the next step. And if you did a Google search, I probably wrote a similar sentence at this time last year. Unfortunately, Bryant suffered a knee injury in Monday’s practice and will have to undergo an MRI. Hold your breath on this one.
** The overall injury situation has been the biggest miss. And Jason Witten’s spleen injury could last into the regular-season. A longtime member of the Cowboys’ medical staff told me last week that the Cowboys haven’t had this many injuries during camp in the past 20 years. There was a belief that strength and conditioning guru Mike Wocik would be able to help prevent a lot of these injuries. But the Cowboys have at least seven players who have had hamstring injuries in this camp. Because of poor drafts, the Cowboys don’t have as much depth as teams such as the Giants, Patriots and Packers. If they can’t get healthy, it could undermine the entire season.
** This has gone somewhat underneath-the-radar, but the competition between Bruce Carter and Dan Connor for an inside linebacker spot hasn’t gone that well. Connor was exposed in coverage by aging tight end Randy McMichael in Saturday’s game. And Carter isn’t making a lot of plays, either. I’d been told that Carter would be excellent in coverage, but he just doesn’t look like an instinctive player at this point in his career.
** I haven’t seen anything to make me think this pass-rush is going to be a lot better this season. Victor Butler sacked Philip Rivers on Saturday, but he always plays well in the preseason. It just doesn’t seem like Rob Ryan trusts Butler enough to give him extended playing time in the regular-season. But it’s a good sign that he’s improved on special teams.