Training camp is one of the most crucial periods for the development of the Dallas Cowboys' 2014 draft class. The bulk of their knowledge in the Cowboys' scheme comes from the meetings, walkthroughs and practices during training camp.
Before training camp, there were very high expectations for the 2014 draft class, especially Zack Martin and DeMarcus Lawrence.
For the Cowboys defense to improve, it needs production from the rookie class.
Now that we are a little over a week into training camp, let's take a look at how the draft class has done thus far.
When the Cowboys drafted Martin, he was expected to come in and immediately upgrade the offensive line.
Thus far in camp, he has done nothing to hinder those expectations. Former Cowboys scout Bryan Broaddus was impressed by how good Martin has been in camp:
One week into this camp, I like what I have seen from Zack Martin and how he has fit in with Doug Free and Travis Frederick. You hear me talk about the rookie learning curve in regard to a guy like DeMarcus Lawrence, but Martin appears to be very seasoned and comfortable in how he has picked up techniques and his assignments. One of the hardest situations for a rookie to deal with is breaking the huddle, coming to the line, then having to make an adjustment on the blocking scheme. Martin has been flawless in this regard from what I have been able to observe. He has shown the ability to adjust in space, play with lateral agility and maintain nice contact balance. There have been some snaps where I thought that he was going to be badly out of position, but he has been able to hang in there to rally to finish the block. His communication and awareness have been outstanding as well.
Martin's biggest test in terms of one-on-one blocks would come when he was matched up with highly touted Henry Melton. This matchup would test how Martin handles elite-level quickness and explosion from an interior defensive lineman.
However, it appears that Martin has more than held his own against Melton:
Martin has proved worthy of the first-round pick the Cowboys used on him through the beginning of training camp. He has the sound technique, balance and strength, which has led to him being one of the most impressive players for the Cowboys.
Through the first couple of practices, Lawrence was very impressive. ESPN Dallas' Jean-Jacques Taylor reported:
DeMarcus Lawrence showed moves on consecutive plays in a pass rush drill that had to get the coaching staff just a tad excited -- even though each play occurred against backup Darrion Weems.
On the first play, Lawrence burst off the line, dipped his shoulder low and blew past Weems for what would've been a sack. On the next play, he faked outside, used a rip move and burst inside past Weems.
The confidence to use an inside move was impressive. Most young pass-rushers get so enamored by the outside move, they forego the inside ones.
The fact that Lawrence has been productive with a variety of pass-rushing moves is very impressive. While Lawrence has had a great deal of success against the second- and third-team tackles, he has not had much success against All-Pro Tyron Smith:
This is not a slight to Lawrence because Tyron Smith dominates some of the best pass-rushers in the NFL. It would be foolish to believe that Lawrence could just walk in and beat Smith in his rookie year.
The optimism surrounding Lawrence quickly turned to pessimism when he fractured his foot:
This was a major loss for the Cowboys because Lawrence was expected to play a huge role in their pass rush. The worst part is that it severely limits the progress Lawrence has made in the offseason. Now the Cowboys are really thin at weak-side defensive end and are scrambling to find a replacement.
Lawrence would have had a grade of B+ before the injury, but since he will be out for so long, it is hard to give him a passing grade.
Grade: D (Because of the injury)
Anthony Hitchens has had a quiet start to training camp. While there haven't been many reports of him getting burned, there haven't been many reports of him making plays either.
However, Broaddus believes that Hitchens has done well thus far:
It appears that rookie Anthony Hitchens is getting more snaps in his natural linebacker position on the outside. Where I have been impressed with Hitchens is with the range that he has been able to play with. There is an extended burst to his game and he has that ability to once he sees it, he is gone. He is a fluid moving player that can extend his hands, work down the line and get to the ball. He is playing with a great deal of awareness in the running game. His body control has been very good along with his contact balance. He has a real knack for being able to play on his feet and the more of an opportunity that he has to handle situations on the move, the better he has played. He looks more comfortable playing now than he did while he was lined up as the Mike linebacker. Been a good start for him.
Hitchens is likely a year or two from getting significant playing time on defense; however, these are very good indicators to the progress he is making throughout training camp. When Sean Lee was injured, Hitchens was believed to be one of the players in the running to replace him.
However, the acquisition of Rolando McClain has allowed Hitchens to go back to his role of reserve linebacker and not have to worry about taking over the huge responsibilities of starting "Mike" linebacker.
This has taken an immense amount of pressure off Hitchens and has allowed him to develop at his own pace.
Devin Street was drafted because of his height and his incredible route-running ability. Thus far in camp, he hasn't disappointed. Broaddus has been impressed with how well Street has acquitted himself:
I thought Devin Street had a strong start in his work against the defensive backs. This club is looking for a guy that can step into that fourth position if the plan continues to be Bryant, Williams and Beasley manning the top three spots. In the one-on-one drills, Street was able to show initial quickness and a burst off the line to gain separation. I like what I observed from his stem speed and the top of the routes mechanics. He wasn’t all over the place in his routes. You could see that he had a plan and he was doing a nice job of executing it. He protected the ball with his body, but if I did have a concern, I would have liked to have seen him extended better for the ball on his vertical route. By not doing so, it allowed the corner to knock the ball away from him where he could have made the catch.
One of the biggest reasons why Street was drafted was because of how pro-ready he was. Street hasn't done enough to take over the third receiver position from Cole Beasley, but he has done enough to probably warrant significant playing time during the season.
It will be interesting to see how the Cowboys use Street when the season rolls around. Street has the ability to play in the slot and outside. In the slot, Street would be a mismatch against the much smaller nickel cornerbacks, and on the outside, he has the route-running ability to damage the defense as well.
Going into training camp, Ben Gardner was one of the more intriguing players in the Cowboys' draft class. Gardner is a versatile player who could contribute at the strong-side defensive end position or even the 3-technique defensive tackle position if need be.
However, he has not been able to show much of that versatility because of a strained shoulder injury suffered on the first day of padded practice:
The injury has kept Gardner out of practice ever since, even though he is close to returning, per DallasCowboys.com's David Helman.
Hopefully, Gardner will return in time to get ready for the first preseason game against the San Diego Chargers on Aug. 7.
Grade: D (Because of the injury)
Another player that has been hit by the injury bug is seventh-round pick Will Smith.
Smith is one of the players who is better when the pads come on. However, he has not been able to prove it because of his groin injury. Although it was unlikely that he would get any meaningful playing time on defense, he could have been a great addition to the special teams.
Smith's chances of making the 53-man roster become slimmer every day he is out of practice. Now the practice squad seems like a much better option for Smith.
Grade: D (Because of the injury)
Ahmad Dixon has probably had the quietest camp out of the entire Cowboys' draft class. This is disappointing because his physical nature of play was supposed to be on display when the Cowboys started padded practice.
The one positive of this is that Dixon hasn't made any particularly bad plays to get on the radar of those in attendance. However, this also means that he hasn't made any significant plays either.
Dixon has been getting time with the third-team defense, per The Dallas Morning News' Jon Machota. Dixon is going to have to pick up his play if he has any shot of making the final roster.
The true test for Dixon will be when the Cowboys play the Chargers in the first preseason game.
Ken Bishop has stood out a ton during the training camp practices. He has been one of the most impressive rookies thus far in camp.
Bishop is an extremely strong player who excelled in defending the run during college. It seems as though that has carried over to the padded practices.
If Bishop keeps up his impressive play, he could beat Nick Hayden for the first- or second-team 1-technique defensive tackle, depending on where the Cowboys decide to play Terrell McClain when he returns from injury.
Bishop has put himself in a great position to push for a good deal of playing time when the regular season rolls around.
The most impressive rookie, given where he was drafted, has been cornerback Terrance Mitchell.
Helman reported that Mitchell has been one of the notable standouts so far:
The young cornerback continues to show up in practice, for good and bad reasons. There’s no denying Mitchell’s tenacity, as he jumped the line to get as much work as possible in one-on-one drills against wide receivers. Mitchell held his own against everyone – he was the only defensive back to hold Dez Bryant without a catch in one-on-one drills.
Holding Bryant catchless is fantastic for any defensive back, especially a rookie one. Mitchell might be the steal of the draft for the Cowboys. He is extremely quick to go along with his fantastic instincts.
Coming into training camp, Mitchell was battling B.W. Webb for the fourth cornerback position, and it seems as though he has firmly outplayed Webb during the first week of practices.
He has proven to be very effective in the practice situation, but the question now is if he can keep up his great play while in a game situation.
The emergence of Mitchell may result in the cornerback position going from a position of weakness last year to a position of strength this year.