After two days of no contact, the Dallas Cowboys had their first fully padded practice of training camp. The first days of practice consisted of individual drills aimed at improving each player's technique. ESPN Dallas' Todd Archer reported the first two practices put an emphasis on fundamentals for the players, as well.
Saturday was also the first day the offense and defense were pitted against each other in a competitive environment.
One of the biggest stories at the beginning of training camp was the absence of Rolando McClain due to a court case, per Archer. McClain finally made his debut with the second-string defense for the Cowboys on Saturday.
McClain may be the greatest wild card on the Cowboys roster. It is impossible to count on him because of the myriad of issues he has had in the past. However, if he becomes more focused on football, he could be a key contributor to the Cowboys defense.
McClain has everything you want in a "Mike" linebacker; he has natural instincts, great tackling ability and is decent in coverage. With the monumental loss of Sean Lee, the Cowboys need someone to step up and win the job. McClain has the talent to do that and even more.
One of the most exciting parts of training camp each year is the one-on-one drills between the wide receivers and defensive backs.
In this drill, defensive backs are matched up in man coverage with a wide receiver. This tests the defensive back's man-coverage ability, and it tests the wide receiver's ability to get open while make contested catches.
On Saturday, the highlight of this drill was Morris Claiborne battling with No. 2 receiver Terrance Williams.
This type of intensity is great for the Cowboys and especially Claiborne. A common theme you see among the top cornerbacks in the NFL is that they play with a certain confidence, which has been missing from Claiborne since he came into the NFL. However, it appears to have resurfaced in a big way.
Since the Cowboys drafted Claiborne with the sixth overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft, there have been very high expectations for him. During the past two years, Claiborne has yet to produce at a level that would warrant that high of a draft selection.
However, this is Claiborne's first healthy offseason, and it seems to be paying dividends early. If Claiborne can continue playing at a high level, then the secondary may move from a position of weakness to a position of strength for the Cowboys.
Another big question entering the first day of pads was how well Romo would do in his first full-speed passing drills since his back surgery. It seems as though he proved that his back is doing just fine.
For the Cowboys to have a chance to make the playoffs, it is necessary that Romo is fully recovered coming off his back surgery. He is the Cowboys' most irreplaceable player and the leader of the team. The fact that Romo has been accurate thus far is a great sign for the Cowboys.
One of the biggest storylines heading into camp was how Cowboys offensive coordinator Scott Linehan was going to move around the key weapons on offense to get better matchups.
Cole Beasley has played almost exclusively at the slot receiver position since he entered the NFL. However, moving him outside and bringing Dez Bryant down into the slot next to Jason Witten will create matchup nightmares for the defense. Bryant against any nickel cornerback is a huge mismatch in favor of the Cowboys.
Zack Martin was very impressive in his first padded practice in the NFL.
Martin seems to be acquitting himself well in his first full-contact practice. He is a great addition to the Cowboys offensive line, and if he plays up to his potential in his rookie year, he can help that unit become one of the best in the NFL.
Also, it wouldn't be a Cowboys practice if Bryant weren't putting on a show.
It is no surprise that Bryant is showing his elite playmaking skills during training camp. He is an elite talent who works hard to improve every year. This should be the year he is considered as one of the best receivers in the NFL.
While the Cowboys are doing their best to prevent injuries thus far in camp, that didn't stop rookie defensive end Ben Gardner from hurting his shoulder during practice.
Gardner has the ability to develop into an impact player for the Cowboys defensive line. However, he did come into the league with injury concerns. He tore his pectoral muscle while at Stanford, which likely caused him to drop to the seventh round in the draft.
This injury is a huge blow to a guy who was fighting to make the bottom part of the Cowboys roster. Every day Gardner misses, he gets closer and closer to become more of a practice squad candidate rather than a candidate of the 53-man roster.
Overall, it was an eventful yet productive day for the Cowboys. Martin and Claiborne proved to be two of the biggest standouts of the first day of pads, while players like Gardner and Williams didn't have the best of days. It is imperative for the Cowboys players to keep up the intensity throughout the rest of training camp. This is the time when championship teams are made, and the Cowboys must get the most out of every practice.
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