WHO: Dallas Cowboys
WHERE: Oxnard, Ca.
WHEN: Thursday, Aug. 16
HOW: Drove from Irvine (3 hours, 30 minutes to go 100 miles morning traffic)
Do the Cowboys have a true WR1 on the roster, with Allen Hurns, Cole Beasley, Terrance Williams and Tavon Austin in the running? Probably not. Do they need one? Nope. Not if Ezekiel Elliott is healthy and available. In Oxnard I saw what I expected to see from the first-team offense—a quarterback doing his best with a very average group of receivers and an outstanding running back.
You can win that way, but you have to have defense, and that's what's new in Dallas. Last year's 13th ranked defense in terms of points allowed gave us our first glipse of Jaylon Smith in a Cowboys uniform post-knee surgery and it was underwhelming. In Oxnard he's looked more like the player who likely would have been the top linebacker chosen in the 2016 NFL draft if not for the injury in the Fiesta Bowl. It's August, and people in Oxnard were talking about him as a comeback player of the year candidate. He's that good.
Smith's rise coincides with the return of Randy Gregory, the 2015 second-round pick at defensive end who hasn't played since late 2016 and played only sparingly that season due to a series of failed drug tests. It's easy to see why the Cowboys waited. Gregory in camp looked competitive with one of the best offensive lines in the game, and got the better of two-time all pro Tyron Smith on a handful of occasions. Additionally, Byron Jones transition from safety to corner looks like a smooth one, and he may surprise in a position that looks way more natural for the 2015 first-round pick.
Put it all together, and this Cowboys' defense looks like the perfect storm, and the perfect complement to a potent, clock-killing running game.
OH, I DIDN’T KNOW THAT!: At the conclusion of training camp in Oxnard, the Cowboys did what anybody in SoCal would do if they just spent the better part of a month confined to a suburban hotel; they loaded up in buses and went to the beach!
STORYLINE TO WATCH: Will Geoff Swaim step up at tight end after Jason Witten's retirement? The 11-time Pro Bowler's retirement left as big a void in the locker room as the depth chart. It's Swaim's job to lose, but he didn't wow anybody in Oxnard. With Witten and Bryant out of the fold, there are about 34 red zone targets to divvy up and I didn't see one player ready to bear the load.
TOP POSITION BATTLE: It's not a position battle per se, but keep an eye on first-round pick Leighton Vander Esch's usage early on in the season. I could see him stealing some reps from Jaylon Smith and/or Sean Lee in the nickel, given his ability to run with tight ends. His performance in training camp gave Cowboys brass confidence it might just be able to handle oft-injured linebacker Lee's next absence without skipping a beat.
OFFBEAT OBSERVATION: The Trump fans toting a Make America Great Again banner at Cowboys camp that made the social media rounds a few weeks ago were replaced by a handful of Kaepernick supporters. One woman wore a sign reading "I'm with Kap" on her back while others held up signs supporting players protesting racial injustice during the national anthem.
PARTING THOUGHTS: This team will go as far as Prescott will take them, and Dak's job gets a lot easier when Elliott's around. That's not new. What's new is a defense that figures to cash in on a couple of players who went from promising prospects to long-term plays. I see the Cowboys as sleeper team in the NFC East, pending the performances of Smith, Jones and Gregory. 9-7.
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