By David Helman
FOX Sports Dallas Cowboys Writer
OXNARD, Calif. – Well, that went by quickly.
No, training camp isn’t over — not by a long shot. But in the blink of an eye, the bulk of the Cowboys‘ work out here on the West Coast is over. Tuesday’s practice was the last fully padded effort for this year’s stint in Oxnard. When the Cowboys return from Denver next week after playing the Broncos in their preseason opener on Saturday, they’ll have one light practice at their hotel before they head down the road to work with the Los Angeles Chargers.
After that, it’s back to Texas for the last two weeks of camp and the countdown to the regular season.
Dak Prescott on Cowboys’ young receivers
When asked about the Cowboys’ unproven receiver corps, Dak Prescott said the group needs to “step in and take on bigger roles.” Emmanuel Acho, Joy Taylor and Bucky Brooks determine if Prescott can elevate his inexperienced WRs.
With that in mind, the timing feels right to review these two weeks in Oxnard and what we’ve learned. It’s only one part of training camp, but it’s also the foundation for everything that comes next. So let’s hand out some fake awards, because who doesn’t love that?
He has been Public Enemy No. 1 among Cowboys fans for a while now, but check your pre-conceived biases at the door. Cornerback Anthony Brown has been one of the most consistent bright spots at this camp.
It started on the very first day of practice, when Brown picked off Dak Prescott and returned it for a touchdown, and he’s built on it every day since. Losing is an inevitable part of playing cornerback, but you’d be hard-pressed to find many L’s in Brown’s repertoire this month. Whether it be in one-on-one reps or full-team work, his coverage has been solid, and he has gotten his hands on a lot of footballs.
“I think he’s someone that should get more love from you guys,” said Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy.
True, Brown might be benefiting from facing a depleted receiver corps. Michael Gallup isn’t practicing, and James Washington broke his foot on the first day in pads. Even still, Brown has had his fair share of wins against the likes of CeeDee Lamb and Jalen Tolbert. All you can do is beat the guy in front of you, and he’s done that often and consistently throughout these two weeks.
Actual Best Player In Camp
All due credit to my buddy Clarence Hill of The Fort Worth Star-Telegram. I tweeted Monday morning that Brown was the best player at this Cowboys’ camp, and he called me on it.
Through two weeks, it’s fair to give that nod to Micah Parsons, who looks like a guy who’s about to pick up where he left off last year.
It’s hard to judge big guys at training camp, because the play is never blown dead when the pass rush gets home. The quarterback always gets a chance to extend the play and find a receiver, which makes it hard to judge just how effectively the defense is disrupting the passing game.
Despite that, Parsons’ impact is impossible to miss. Wherever he decides to rush, he makes life miserable on the blockers in front of him. They’d never tell us, but I’m guessing the Cowboys’ coaches have him charted somewhere north of 10 sacks in the past two weeks. Factor that in with the strides he seems to have made in coverage, and you’ve got a guy who looks every bit like the All-Pro he was last year, if not better.
Mr. Rise To The Occasion
It’s so easy to evaluate receiver play, it’s really not fair to the other 80 players on the roster. If you can get open and catch the ball consistently, you’re going to stand out.
But it also wouldn’t be fair to ignore the work that Noah Brown has done out here. As per usual, Brown arrived to camp as the unsung depth guy, easily overlooked in favor of the younger, more exciting receivers on the team.
No matter. With Gallup and Washington sitting out, Brown has made the most of the opportunity. Whether he’s working with the starters or the third team, the guy makes at least one attention-grabbing catch per practice. The last two times out, he has managed to come down with a long ball, showcasing an ability to make plays downfield that we haven’t always seen from him.
To be blunt, fans and media have been trying to fire Brown for a couple years at this point. Every time training camp rolls around, there’s an expectation that the expensive veteran will lose his place on the roster.
It hasn’t happened yet, and it’s unlikely to happen this year. Given the chance, Brown is putting together his best camp as a pro.
Mr. Welcome Back
It’s been four long years since Brett Maher shocked the Cowboys’ world by taking the kicker job from Dan Bailey, and now he’s back. Such were the extent of the team’s kicker woes that they waived rookie Jonathan Garibay and signed Maher in his place.
Maher was cut by the Cowboys during a disastrous 2019 season that saw him miss 10 kicks. The tipping point came late in the season, when he missed three kicks across back-to-back losses to Buffalo and Chicago. He resurfaced in 2021 when the New Orleans Saints signed him to replace an injured Wil Lutz.
Cowboys fans won’t want to hear it about a kicker who caused them such anguish in the past, but Maher did a serviceable job in Lutz’s place. In seven appearances, he connected on 16 of 18 kicks, with one of those misses coming from 56 yards. To be fair, he did miss two extra points, so any concerns are valid.
Most Fun Competition
I didn’t spend a ton of time thinking about the backup quarterback competition when I first got here, and all of a sudden I find myself fascinated. Sounds a lot like what happened last year, when Cooper Rush took the job from Garrett Gilbert at the 11th hour.
This time around, it’s Rush who would do well to watch his back. That’s not to say he’s had a bad camp, but it’s hard not to notice Will Grier. The 2019 third-round pick by the Panthers signed with the Cowboys at the end of preseason last year, so we honestly hadn’t seen a lot of him. The early evaluation is that he has a live arm, and he’s not afraid to use it. The ball just seems to fly downfield when Grier is on the field, and that has helped him make several big-time plays.
Now, it’s worth remembering that Rush stepped in when Prescott injured his calf last year and led this team to a road win in Minnesota. He certainly shouldn’t be written off just because his game might not be as flashy.
At the very least, let’s just say Grier has added some spice to these practices, and it’ll be fun to see who has the more productive preseason.
Most Terrifying Competition
I just said some nice stuff about Brett Maher, but you’d still have to be a crazy person to feel good about the Cowboys’ kicking situation.
On one hand there’s Maher, who is a career 77% kicker and who has already been cut by this organization for failing to do the job. On the other hand there’s Hajrullahu, who has attempted five NFL field goals.
It’s worth pointing out that Hajrullahu has rounded into better form the past few days. On Tuesday, after news broke that Garibay was being waived to make room for Maher, Hajrullahu delivered his best performance of camp, hitting 12 of 13 kicks with a long of 45.
Having now said some nice stuff about him, it’s still understandable if you don’t feel great about the situation.
Here’s guessing the Cowboys’ coaches do what they can to give both of these guys chances to separate themselves during the three preseason games.
Strongest Position Group(s)
I’ll cheat, whatever. These awards are made up, anyway. Take your pick between the Cowboys’ defensive line and secondary. They’ve both been pretty damn impressive.
Go down the list and it’s hard to keep track of all the good pass rushers. DeMarcus Lawrence and Dante Fowler have looked strong. Even the rookie, Sam Williams, has brought a surprisingly three-dimensional game to Oxnard. We knew the Ole Miss standout was a quality pass rusher, but Williams has flashed as a run defender as well.
Then you’ve got the defensive tackles. The front-line guys like Neville Gallimore and Osa Odighizuwa have had their moments. The two big nose tackles, Quinton Bohanna and John Ridgeway, have made the most of their opportunities. Perhaps noteworthy is the way that Trysten Hill, entering an all-important fourth year, looks like he’s ready to force his way onto the roster.
The secondary speaks for itself. Jayron Kearse is right up there with Anthony Brown when you’re talking about guys having impressive camps. Trevon Diggs and Jourdan Lewis have both been solid. The young talent deserves mention, too, because guys like Markquese Bell, Tyler Coyle and Israel Mukuamu are going to make this a tough decision.
Struggling Position Group(s)
Let’s not waste a ton of words on the receivers. CeeDee Lamb and Noah Brown are this team’s only healthy receivers with NFL experience. Simi Fehoko, Dennis Houston and T.J. Vasher have all had strong starts to camp, but is that enough?
That’s really the bottom line. The Cowboys’ young receivers have played well to this point. It’s just a matter of whether you believe that’s good enough to get the job done in the regular season. At the risk of sounding cynical, it seems unlikely.
For similar reasons, the back end of the offensive line depth chart — specifically the offensive tackle spot — seems concerning. It’s not really a knock on Josh Ball. He has spent the past two weeks flipping back and forth between left and right tackle, and he’s done a nice job.
The problem is that rookie Matt Waletzko hurt his shoulder at the outset of camp, and he doesn’t look likely to be back soon. That leaves Ball as the only viable backup at tackle, and the Cowboys have had their fair share of injuries at that position the past few years.
There’s good depth on the interior. There are plenty of bodies at guard, and both Matt Farniok and the undrafted rookies present depth options at center. It just seems like Ball is currently the only option if something happens to Tyron Smith or Terence Steele.
Feel good about that? Yeah, didn’t think so.
Through two weeks, it certainly looks like this team is going to get some contributions from its big-ticket rookies.
There’s plenty to be said about all the new guys in camp. But for the purpose of immediate impact, it feels important to highlight the three Big-time Guys: Tyler Smith, Sam Williams and Jalen Tolbert.
Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones raised some eyebrows in the spring when he said these guys could make the same type of impact that Parsons did last season. And while it’s way, way too soon to assume he’s correct about that, all three of these guys look like players.
Smith is currently fighting with Connor McGovern for the left guard spot. It’s fine if the coaches want to foster competition, but from the outside looking in, it feels like a matter of time until the rookie wins out. Smith isn’t perfect, as he has taken his share of lumps at practice, but he brings noticeable power and edge to the position.
Speaking of edge, Williams certainly has some. The rookie pass rusher spent a solid chunk of Tuesday mixing it up with everyone on the Dallas offensive line, making sure he got his point across. Edge rusher is a tough place for a rookie to excel quickly, but Williams’ burst and pass-rush moves are as advertised. He has had his share of wins against NFL competition. He might not be a Day 1 starter, but defensive coordinator Dan Quinn should be able to find early uses for his skill set.
Then there’s Tolbert, the receiver out of South Alabama who was thrust even further into the spotlight when Washington broke his foot. There was already an expectation that Tolbert would have to start right away as a rookie, but now it feels like a necessity.
He looks like he’s up to it so far. It might not be the flashiest effort, but Tolbert has consistently made the plays asked of him. His route-running looks crisp from multiple different positions, and he has good hands.
It’s too soon to say what the Cowboys have found in these three rookies, but the lights don’t seem too bright for any of them.
David Helman covers the Dallas Cowboys for FOX Sports, providing insight and analysis on the NFL’s most visible franchise. Prior to joining FOX, David spent nine seasons covering the Cowboys for the team’s official website, DallasCowboys.com. In 2018, he won a regional Emmy for his role in producing “Dak Prescott: A Family Reunion” about the quarterback’s time at Mississippi State.
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