Setting Realistic Training Camp Expectations for Dallas Cowboys Rookie Class
For the Dallas Cowboys to improve on their 2013 season, they must get significant contributions from their rookie class.
The Cowboys need their rookies, drafted and undrafted, to get through the inevitable learning curve quickly. The expectations for this rookie class are higher than most, whether it is a player filling the hole left by a legend or a player expected to solidify an entire position group.
However, are these expectations warranted? Can these players realistically meet these expectations, or are they too high?
Also, what about the late-round draft picks and undrafted free agents. What are some realistic expectations of these players?
Throughout the rest of this article we will explore and answer each of these questions.
As the Cowboys first-round pick, Zack Martin probably has the highest expectations entering training camp.
Martin is slated as the starter at right guard even before training camp begins. Because of how high he was picked, Martin will have to learn quickly.
A realistic expectation for Martin is that he further solidifies the Cowboys' offensive line while improving the team's pass blocking from last year. Martin has quick feet, excellent hand usage and utilizes leverage better than any other guard on the roster.
During training camp, expect to see Martin battling prominent free-agent signings Henry Melton and Terrell McClain throughout training. Don't be surprised to see Martin have his fair share of success against both defensive linemen.
An interesting aspect to pay attention to will be how fast Martin, Doug Free and Travis Frederick jell on the offensive line. Look to see how well all three work in picking up blitzes and stunts from the defense.
These will be great indicators as to how comfortable Martin is with the playbook, keys and concepts of the Cowboys' scheme.
Don't be surprised to see the Cowboys experiment with Martin at center or even right tackle. The Cowboys don't have much depth, especially in the interior line, so an injury or two could cause Martin to make a position switch.
Overall, Martin should come right in and upgrade the Cowboys' offensive line while having a lot of success (and some failure) against some of the best Cowboys defensive linemen.
Demarcus Lawrence was a controversial selection for some. The selection itself of Lawrence was not controversial, but what the Cowboys gave up has been debated.
However, the fact remains that Lawrence is being brought in to fill the hole left by DeMarcus Ware. Those types of lofty expectations are unrealistic and unfair to Lawrence. You can't expect a player that hasn't played in the NFL to come in and develop into one of the premier pass rushers of this decade.
Nevertheless, Lawrence can be expected to come in and be a great contributor to the Cowboys' defensive line rotation. Thus far in the offseason, Lawrence has reportedly done well.
During training camp, expect Lawrence to rotate with Jeremy Mincey on the first-team defense. Also, look for how Lawrence holds up against star left tackle Tyron Smith. Smith should help push Lawrence much in the same way that Ware pushed Smith to get better in previous training camps.
Lawrence's youth and upside along with showing good ability to produce early on should be enough for him to beat out Mincey for the starting weak-side defensive end position.
Many fans were up in arms when Hitchens was selected in the fourth round. Hitchens was among those on the pre-draft visitors list. He was not highly regarded by the draft analysts and pundits alike. Furthermore, they drafted Hitchens with the belief that he would be a backup.
Yet everything has changed since the draft. The Cowboys' star linebacker Sean Lee tore his ACL, which left the "Mike" linebacker position in flux.
Hitchens is now in a spot where he is expected to compete for the starting MLB job. It will be interesting to see how Hitchens adjusts to the mental aspect of the NFL, which is especially difficult at MLB.
At MLB, players are supposed to call they plays, get the defense into position and make any checks or audibles that may need to be put into action. That is a great deal of responsibility to put into the hands of any rookie.
During training camp, look at how composed Hitchens is in making his checks and getting players into position. If linebackers coach Matt Eberflus has to pull him to the side or yell at him a lot, it may point to Hitchens not being comfortable with the scheme.
Also, Hitchens' strength at the moment is his ability in run defense. It will be interesting to see how well he adapts to pass coverage and how much he improves in this aspect.
In an interesting move, ESPN's Adam Schefter just reported that the Cowboys traded for the Baltimore Ravens' Rolando McClain, which will add another player for Hitchens to compete with for the MLB position.
Expect Hitchens to compete with McClain, Justin Durant and DeVonte Holloman for the MLB starting role throughout training camp. The Cowboys will likely rotate all four with the first team to see which one will be the best fit.
Devin Street was drafted because he was viewed as a pro-ready wide receiver. Street's size (6'3") gives him the ability to play inside or outside. Street is very polished as a route runner, which is rare for rookie receivers.
Street should be expected to battle for the slot receiver with Cole Beasley. He will likely compete to be the backup to the X- and Y-receiver position, should Dez Bryant or Terrance Williams get hurt.
Street isn't overly fast or quick, which limits his ability to be a deep threat. However, Streets size, route running and savviness allow him to be an excellent possession receiver.
Come training camp, expect to see Street line up at every receiver position and have moderate success. However, you should also expect to see great success against some of the smaller cornerbacks while struggling when matched up against Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne.
It will be interesting to see how the Cowboys line Street up in order to best take advantage of his talents. Street's height makes him a nightmare for the usually short nickel cornerback, and the Cowboys would be smart to exploit that.
Overall, expect to see a lot of ups and downs from Street, and look for him to play a more specialized role early on rather than being the definitive third receiver.
Will Smith seems to be the least talked about Cowboys draft selection. That may be due to the fact that the Cowboys drafted him to play special teams, at least initially.
Smith is not a player that will shine during OTAs or minicamp; his skill set fits better when the pads come on.
In college, Smith seemed to always be around the ball. However, he had problems getting off of blocks and making clean tackles. The good news is Smith will have some time to sharpen up his technique while playing special teams.
During training camp, expect to see Smith playing the "Will" and "Sam" linebacker with the second and third defense. It is unlikely that Smith will break onto the first team without a rash of injuries. However, Smith will have to make his mark on special teams.
Pay attention to what string of special teams Smith is playing on during camp. If he slides to second string he may be in trouble of getting cut. However, if he is cut, Smith will likely find his way onto special teams.
Smith will have to show continued improvement on defense while proving his worth on special teams to warrant a spot on the 53-man roster.
Ben Gardner has a great deal of potential to be a solid defensive lineman for the Cowboys. However, that hinges on his ability to stay healthy. His college career was cut short due to a pectoral injury, and he has been bothered by a quad bruise through much of the offseason.
As I stated in a previous article, Gardner is a relentless pass rusher that can play at any of the positions of the defensive line. Gardner has played mostly at strong-side defensive end thus far, but based on his play in college, he should get playing time at multiple positions.
If Gardner can get healthy, expect him to be one of the pleasant surprises of training camp. Gardner will give the Cowboys' offensive linemen trouble because of his relentless nature. He will be a force against the run while developing his pass-rush techniques.
Gardner will likely find a place on the second-team defensive line and possibly even be a rotational pass rusher from the 3-technique defensive-tackle position.
At training camp, look for which positions the Cowboys line Gardner up at and if they move him inside in the nickel and dime packages.
Don't forget to watch for Gardner's expected great battle with Darrion Weems and Jermey Parnell.
Furthermore, Gardner should find a niche as a quality rotational defensive lineman. He will have his struggles against tackles with long arms like Tyron Smith and maybe even Parnell. However, what Garner lacks in arm length and technique, he will more than make up for with effort and relentlessness.
Ahmad Dixon is a ferocious hitter that should bring a great physical style of football to the Cowboys' special teams.
In one of my recent articles, I noted how Dixon will likely not get much playing time on defense, at least initially. Dixon struggles mightily in coverage and struggles to make sound tackles. Since Dixon is always looking for the knockout hit, he often uses poor technique and misses seemingly easy tackles.
Expect Dixon to struggle a great deal in coverage drills during training camp. Dixon doesn't have the hip flexibility or technique to be able to adequately cover most of the Cowboys' receivers.
However, Dixon should shine while on special teams. Dixon's physical style of play fits in perfectly on special teams and it should lead to him taking the role that Danny McCray filled last season.
At training camp, look for how well Dixon develops his coverage ability. Look at how well he plays in space and how disciplined he is. For him to become an adequate safety in the future, Dixon must learn to better utilize angles.
Dixon will have his struggles in coverage, but look to see if he makes small improvements throughout training camp.
The rookie that turned the most heads at minicamp was probably Terrance Mitchell. He has put himself in prime position heading into training camp.
Mitchell is a corner that is quicker than fast with great anticipation skills. Mitchell's skill set seems to be a great fit with the Cowboys. He has the ability to be a great zone corner because of his anticipation and football intelligence. Mitchell can also thrive as a nickel or slot corner because of how quick he is.
Mitchell has put himself in position to battle B.W. Webb, Tyler Patmon and Sterling Moore for the fourth and fifth cornerback spots. There can even be an argument that Mitchell is the front-runner for the position right now. This would place Mitchell as the "dime" and backup slot cornerback.
During minicamp, Mitchell proved that he can shutdown the Cowboys' reserve receivers. It will be interesting to see how he fares with Terrance Williams and Dez Bryant.
Look to see how Mitchell fares when matched up with the Cowboys' premium receivers.
At training camp, expect Mitchell to do well with the reserve receivers, hold his own with Williams but have a lot of trouble with the physicality of Bryant. It will be interesting to see how Mitchell bounces back from getting beat and how that will affect his confidence.
Overall, expect Mitchell to have a good training camp and firmly cement himself as the No. 4 cornerback on the Cowboys' roster.
The Cowboys' didn't get much disruption or production from any of their players at the 1-technique defensive-tackle position last year. Therefore, in the seventh round, they selected Ken Bishop.
Bishop has prototypical 1-technique size; he is short and squatty with a lot of power. Bishop brings the ability to be a wall against the run but brings little to no pass rush.
As stated in a previous article, Bishop will likely be only a two-down player because of his inability to rush the passer.
In college, Bishop got away with having a high pad level because of his strength and power advantage over college offensive lineman. However, in the NFL he won't have that advantage. Training camp will be interesting to see if Bishop has worked on getting a lower pad level because if not he will run into a lot of problems.
Bishop is expected to battle Nick Hayden for the backup 1-technique spot during this season's training camp. Bishop has an advantage in that he is the cheaper and younger option out of the two. Therefore, if it is close Bishop will likely get the nod over Hayden.
However, he will have to prove he can hold his ground against double teams by utilizing good leverage (low pad level) and great hand usage.
Bishop should not stand out much at training camp. Bishop won't do well in pass rush drills or make a ton of tackles. However, in the run defense period, look for where Bishop gets against the offensive linemen.
Is he getting pushed back one yard and playing on the defensive side of the line of scrimmage, or is he getting a little push and playing on the offensive side of the line of scrimmage? Little nuances like that will determine whether Bishop is on the team or cut and looking for a job.
The best undrafted free agent in this class may end up being Davon Coleman from Arizona State. Coleman had 8.5 sacks and 15 tackles for loss his senior year according to Sports-Reference.com—almost unheard of production for a defensive tackle, let alone an undrafted one.
A major reason why Coleman went undrafted could be because he played on a stacked defensive line. Coleman played next to highly-rated players Will Sutton and Carl Bradford. After thoroughly studying Arizona State game film, it showed that that was truly not the case.
Coleman displayed incredible strength, an adequate first step and a surprisingly developed pass-rush repertoire. Coleman flashed any time you turned on ASU tape. Coleman was at times the most disruptive player on the defensive line.
He is not without his faults, however. Coleman has a tendency, like most college defensive linemen, to play very high. This will not cut it in the NFL. Coleman sometimes has too many wasted movements when attempting to rush the passer.
One of the best aspects of Coleman is that he has the versatility to play the 1- or 3-technique along with strong-side defense end. When you watch film of Coleman, you see him line up at every defensive line position and provide disruption at each of them.
Coleman will likely get most of his snaps at the 3-technique position, where he can utilize his first step and strength the best.
At training camp, expect Coleman to further prove that he should have been drafted and make a serious impact while playing with the second-team defense. Look for Coleman to battle with Travis Frederick and give him all he can handle.
Coleman should cement himself as an important aspect of the Cowboys' defensive line rotation.
Dustin Vaughan was signed to be a camp arm with the hopes he can show enough promise to be a player worthy of the practice squad.
Vaughan has some of the traits that point to him possibly becoming a solid quarterback. He has incredible size (6'5" and 235 pounds) and arm strength. However, his small hands (8.875") may be a cause for concern.
Vaughan's expectations should not be too high entering training camp. He is not going to light the world on fire, and you're not going to see him throwing dimes and perfectly placed passes all the time. However, what you want to see is some potential.
Vaughan should be expected to miss some easy throws but to make some difficult ones as well. His arm strength will allow him to make some passes that not even Tony Romo will make.
One important thing Vaughan must do is master the playbook. He must show that he has the mental capabilities to handle on the new information and use it on the field. If he does, it will indicate that Vaughan has enough of a work ethic to develop in other areas as well.
All in all, Vaughan should show enough promise to warrant a spot on the practice squad.
Cody Mandell was brought in to battle incumbent punter Chris Jones throughout training camp. At Alabama, Mandell averaged 47.1 yards per punt as a senior, according to RollTide.com, while Jones averaged just 45.0 yards per punt, according to NFL.com.
Mandell has been booming punts thus far in the offseason as evidenced by his hitting of the video board at AT&T Stadium three times at minicamp. However, there was some debate the video board was lowered.
Mandell should be expected to be a worthwhile challenger to Jones' spot. The battle could come down to whoever is cheaper of the two, which Mandell is.
Overall, Mandell should be expected to compete and even win the punter position throughout minicamp.
J.C. was signed as an undrafted free agent to compete with Tyler Clutts and hopefully bring stability to the fullback position for the first time in many years.
As I stated in a recent article, Copeland brings a physical style of play that Clutts just can't provide. Copeland makes the type of blocks that put fear in a defense.
However, Copeland's propensity of going for the huge block often leads to him missing easy blocks. He drops his head, which leads to him not being able to make adjustments to whatever movements the defender may make.
At training camp, expect to see Copeland make some jaw-dropping hits that reverberate throughout practice. However, also expect to see him miss some easy blocks that leave you scratching your head.
Look for how Copeland does with catching the ball out of the backfield. If Copeland wants to make the team he must prove to be an adequate receiving threat to keep defenses on their toes.
L'Damian Washington is a very intriguing undrafted free agent brought in by the Cowboys. Washington's size (6'3") and speed (4.46 seconds in the forty yard dash per NFL.com) ratio make him a great developmental player for the Cowboys.
Washington needs to work on his route running so that he can get open in the NFL. Also, Washington has a tendency to be a body-catcher, which is a bit troubling.
However, he can stretch defenses with his speed and quickness and be a true deep threat for the Cowboys.
Washington's offseason has not been very good thus far. Washington injured his AC joint during offseason activities, but hopes to be back for the start of training camp.
If Washington does get back for the start of training camp expect him to be in the mix for the Cowboys' sixth receiver position. It will be interesting to see how Washington's route running develops during training camp.
Washington will likely have a lot of battles with B.W. Webb, Tyler Patmon and Terrance Mitchell in one-on-one passing drills. It will be paramount that Washington wins his fair share of those battles.
Ben Malena could be the dark-horse running back for the Cowboys during training camp. At this point, Malena's ceiling with the Cowboys is likely the practice squad, but with the depth the Cowboys have at RB that would be great.
Malena is a player that flashes incredible quickness and shiftiness on tape. Malena is not overly fast or strong but has a little bit of both.
Malena is also an adequate pass blocker—which could help him standout in the crowded Cowboys' backfield.
In training camp, expect Malena to show flashes of a solid RB with some potential. Malena will have to standout out somewhere amongst the RB's, whether it is blocking, catching or running.
Malena will likely be a practice squad candidate with the potential to get called up during the season—especially with the injury history of DeMarco Murray, Lance Dunbar and Ryan Williams ahead of him.
Brian Clarke is a possible reserve guard option or practice squad candidate for the Cowboys.
Clarke is a nasty player that makes up for his lack of physical gifts with effort and ruthlessness. Clarke will likely be battling with Tyronne Greene for the backup guard position during training camp.
Clarke is the type of player that defenders hate. Not because of his exceptional play but because he doesn't stop blocking and pushing until the whistle blows on every snap.
Expect to see a couple scuffles during training camp with Clarke right in the middle of them. This will be an adequate way for Clarke to get noticed enough to hopefully find his way onto the practice squad.
Also, expect the Cowboys to move Clarke around the interior line to see what kind of versatility he could give them.
Chris Boyd has the best size (6'4" and 206 pounds) out of any of the Cowboys' receivers outside of Dez Bryant. His impressive physical stature makes him a player to watch at training camp.
However, Boyd will have to shake off the rust first. He did not play a down in 2013 due to off the field incidents. However, Boyd was very effective when he did play—evidenced by his 13 receiving touchdowns in just two seasons.
Boyd should be a very valuable red-zone target that could take some pressure and attention off of Bryant. Boyd has excellent hands but needs to improve his route running to help gain separation from cornerbacks.
He will battle undrafted free agent L'Damian Washington for the sixth receiver position and possibly a spot on the practice squad.
Expect Boyd to have trouble getting separation and getting off the line against the press. However, also watch to see Boyd use his large frame to make some incredible catches, especially in the red-zone offense portion of practice.
Boyd likely has the edge over Washington right now because of Washington's injury concerns, but to maintain that lead he will have to make some significant strides during training camp.
The best thing for Boyd may be for him to get stashed on the practice squad for a year so he can develop some of the nuances of playing wide receiver.
Tyler Patmon may be the biggest surprise for the Cowboys this offseason. Going into rookie minicamp, Patmon didn't even have a contract with the Cowboys; he was brought in on a tryout basis. However, Patmon was one of the most impressive players in those practices, which caught the eye of Monte Kiffin.
The Cowboys then made the obvious decision of signing Patmon quickly after the rookie minicamp was over.
Patmon has carried over the momentum from rookie minicamp and has some people thinking he can make the 53-man roster.
Patmon will likely be battling Terrance Mitchell, Sterling Moore and B.W. Webb for the fourth and fifth cornerback positions. Patmon has already been splitting snaps with Webb during practices.
Patmon has the ability to play well in zone and man coverage. He has good anticipation and quickness that make him a candidate to be a nickel cornerback as well. He does not have great size or speed and, therefore, must rely on his technique and instincts to make plays.
Expect Patmon to show an immense amount of potential throughout training camp.
One of the Cowboys' most difficult decisions will be whom they will pick to play the fourth and fifth cornerback positions. Patmon's most likely option will likely be the practice squad, but it may be tough for the Cowboys to sneak him there. However, Patmon may play well enough for the Cowboys to warrant keeping a sixth cornerback just to insure he stays with the team.