FRISCO, Texas – At first blush, this looked bad, really bad during what turned out to be Tuesday’s lone mandatory minicamp practice for the Cowboys.
The receivers unable to practice counted CeeDee Lamb, Michael Gallup, James Washington and Noah Brown, the incumbent top four after trading away Amari Cooper and losing Cedrick Wilson in free agency.
Then there was franchised tight end Dalton Schultz, here physically, but not participating in any of the 7-on-7 or team sessions.
And really, there was no need to wear out 12th-year veteran offensive lineman Tyron Smith or even ninth-year guy Zack Martin.
Then over there on the other side of the ball, not practicing were Jayron Kearse, Malik Hooker, Jabril Cox, Damone Clark and limited was Carlos Watkins, who had missed most of the offseason workouts.
Damn, not good. That’s a boatload of starters and talent unable to participate in this non-contact work in helmets, jerseys and shorts for a team needing to improve on last year’s 12-5 finish, but bowing out in the first round of the playoffs yet again.
But after watching closely, this dawned on me: The Cowboys greatly benefiting from these unintended consequences caused by the number of players merely watching.
As in a whole bunch of young guys, some draft choices, some rookie free agents, some guys on the bottom edge of the roster having been around for a year or two, basically getting more reps than they would have if all these frontline players had been on the field.
“We’re a young team,” Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott pointed out. “Obviously, you look in the draft, look at what we did, and you look at our roster, Year One or Year Two guys are going to be asked to play and there’s definitely a few on both sides of the ball that I’m excited for. Excited for what they’ve just done and how quick they’ve come in and made an impact out there just in practice.”
The Cowboys will need this to continue throughout training camp, the practices against the Broncos and Chargers and during the shortest preseason schedule they’ve ever had, playing just three games this year under the new rules, and unlike last year, not playing that fourth one as they did in the Pro Football Hall of Fame Game.
From 1960 through 1977, the Cowboys were playing the required six preseason games. Then the NFL reduced the preseason schedule to four games from 1978 through 2019, unless playing a fifth in the Hall of Fame Game or internationally like in London or Tokyo or Toronto or Monterrey or Mexico City.
COVID canceled all preseason games in 2020 and the NFL reduced the preseason schedule to three games in 2021, though the Cowboys played that fourth in the Hall of Fame Game.
So fewer preseason games, fewer snaps for young guys to not only improve but prove they belong.
Even though these OTA and minicamp practices are pad-less, coupled with the reduction of preseason game opportunities, these reps become invaluable for young guys trying to prove they belong, especially those rookie free agents the Cowboys have made a habit of unearthing. Guys like Cliff Harris, Everson Walls, Michael Downs, Bill Bates, Mark Tuinei, Nate Newton, Chris Boniol, Dan Bailey, Tony Romo and Barry Church, just to name a few.
Walls, the rookie free agent from Grambling State in 1981, will tell you back then there were no such things as OTAs or quarterback school workouts or minicamps. The first time he officially worked with the Cowboys came during the rookie portion of training camp in Thousand Oaks, Calif. And when it came to reps once the veterans arrived two weeks later, his were few and far between in practice, having to scramble to grab as many as he could.
Never was this opportunity for elevated reps so glaringly beneficial than with the young wide receivers during the final couple of OTA workouts and at Tuesday’s minicamp practice. Again, missing in action were those assumed top four receivers, veterans Lamb, Gallup, Washington and Brown. Enough to make a coach – or quarterback – cringe.
Why, when the first-team offense took the field in a 7-on-7 or team-compete drill, the top three receivers running out with Prescott were third-round draft choice Jalen Tolbert, last year’s fifth-round draft choice Simi Fehoko and rookie free agent Dennis Houston. And after that, it was four more rookie free agents and first-year players TJ Vasher (Reserve/NFI last year) and Brandon Smith (practice squad), both rookie free agents in 2021.
Get the picture? Had those four veteran wideouts been available, these guys would have received the leftover reps.
“Being able to get out there, having so many reps with these young guys, with such a young receiving corps, a young team,” Dak said of his WR kiddie corps. “Just being able to rotate those guys, and me actually getting in there with those reps, being able to explain things to them, those are quality reps for me and for those guys we’re actually going to need in the fall.”
Just take this from Fehoko, while 24 years old, a very inexperienced receiver, considering he did a one-year mission trip before enrolling at Stanford, where he played in just 22 college games, COVID restrictions limiting The Cardinal season to just six games in 2020. He was active for only five games as a rookie with the Cowboys last year but totaled all of seven snaps in two games.
But there he’s been rolling out with the first-team offense, getting snaps with Dak he never would have.
“It’s huge. It’s huge for me,” Fehoko said. “Last year I got sparing reps when the other guys were tired. This is just good for me, for my knowledge of the playbook, to be able to play multiple different positions and obviously a connection with Dak. That’s huge for me.”
Same for Tolbert, demonstrating his versatility to the Cowboys playing inside and outside. Plus, he very skillfully was fielding punts, the Cowboys knowing they need a trusting hand, er hands, back there to share that chore with Lamb. Remember, no Cedrick.
Or take third-year tight end Sean McKeon, competing for second tight end duties. Same for fourth-round draft choice Jake Ferguson. With Schultz sitting out the compete sessions, these guys got an opportunity to work with Dak instead of a steady diet with the backup QBs.
And on defense, with Hooker and Kearse sitting out, working with the first unit at times was Donovan Wilson and rookie free agent Markquese Bell. Invaluable.
As we’ve previously pointed out, if this team is to improve then these young guys must step up. No wonder Cowboys owner Jerry Jones made a point of roaming the sideline Tuesday, keeping a keen eye on the minicamp proceedings.
“We’ve got really young players, not only the draft picks but also more college free agents that have a chance to help us this year than I’ve seen in a long time,” Jones said at Thursday’s World Cup press conference. “They’re important to us. Their lack of success would cripple our hopes this year. Their success would enhance our hopes more than any group than I think we’ve seen. I think they’ve got that kind of appeal.
“I’m not so sure that isn’t pretty common around the league with the emphasis we’ve got and the structure of salaries we’ve got that this happens. But it’s certainly our case right now.”
Sure is. A high developmental priority with these young’uns.