The road to success in the NFL begins each year with the hard work and wide-open possibilities of training camp. As teams around the league gear up for the 2015 campaign, NFL Media reporters will be checking in from all 32 camps around the league. For our next stop, Steve Wyche visits the Dallas Cowboys.
Where is NFL Media?
Dallas is well into training camp in Oxnard, California, and for two days of joint practices between the Cowboys and Rams, the majority of fans were sporting the yellow and blue of the Los Angeles Rams. Not the gold hue of the St. Louis Rams, but the nostalgic, Jim Everett, Lawrence McCutcheon and Jack Youngblood throwback jerseys. And it was more projection than reflection by those fans, as the Rams are one of three teams proposing to build a stadium in the Los Angeles area and relocate.
1) Blocking and tackling -- well, not tackling -- were replaced by haymakers, kicks and tosses, as three fights broke out on Day 2 of the joint practices, leading the coaches to end things early. Some jaw-jacking on Day 1 of drills -- especially from injured Cowboys WR Dez Bryant, who wasn't even participating in team drills due to a hamstring ailment -- set the stage for this, as did some enhanced rhetoric early in the second day of drills. The NFL has warned teams about fighting, sending out a memo last week reinforcing the league's position that tussling won't be tolerated. Warnings are just that, though, when tempers escalate like they did on Tuesday. Several Cowboys players said that when fights break out, they are caught choosing between having teammates' backs and not putting themselves at risk. Having teammates' backs wins out most of the time. Expect the media, at least, to start ratcheting up the conversation about ending joint practices. That won't -- and shouldn't -- happen, though. For the most part, teams get great work during these controlled workouts, which is important, especially for starters who get minimal reps in preseason games.
2)Tony Romo is feeling fine. With his back problems seemingly in the rear-view mirror, the QB has been able to practice for several consecutive days without needing a break. In previous seasons, he's been forced to manage his workload because of injuries. Even though he didn't throw during a walk-through the morning after an initial practice with the Rams, Romo did participate in the afternoon, which featured a fully-padded workout with St. Louis. Romo looked sharp. He is so comfortable with what this offense is doing, regardless of who is playing. Offensive tackles Tyron Smith (biceps) and Doug Free (foot) -- as well as Bryant -- were out, and the running backs continue to cycle through. No biggie for Romo, even against the Rams' blitz-happy defense.
3) Second-year pro DeMarcus Lawrence is getting extended reps at DE with the starting unit on the left side. In his injury-plagued rookie season, Lawrence played exclusively on the right side. But with the additions of veteran DL Greg Hardy (suspended for the first four games) and rookie DE Randy Gregory to generate a pass rush from the right side, this is Lawrence's best shot for playing time. Coach Jason Garrett said Lawrence, being stronger and better adapted to the NFL, has adjusted well to the spot more known for stifling the run -- although LDE's have always been a huge part of the pass rush, despite having their impact downplayed. (For example, reigning Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt makes a ton of plays from the left side.)
Randy Gregory, DE: Gregory, who entered the draft with a lot of question marks, seems to be settling in with his play on the field and his engaging persona when dealing with teammates, fans and media. His quickness and athleticism are easy to identify, but seeing the rookie in person and listening to Garrett talk about him, it seems like Gregory's physicality and coachability are what really could have him trending toward a big season. "What impresses me most is that he is a good learner," Garrett said. Gregory competed hard against Rams LT Greg Robinson, which will only make him better in the long run.
Greg Hardy, DL: The guy who will be lining up next to Gregory -- or, at times, starting ahead of him -- is Hardy, and he is all business on the practice field. The 27-year-old is savvy and just a physical challenge. Hardy was highly productive in Carolina when he was moved inside to defensive tackle. Dallas is using him inside a lot, with Gregory lined up at RDE, pairing the pass rushers to create a pick-your-poison scenario. In some sets, which likely will be used in short-yardage situations, Hardy is the base defensive end, where he is stout against the run but also creates immediate concerns as a pass rusher with inside and outside moves. Hardy was explosive in positional matchups against the Rams. It's obvious that, when he returns from suspension, Hardy will be a huge impact player for the Cowboys.
"You don't carry over toughness from the previous year."
» Sean Lee looks comfortable at the Will (weak-side) linebacker spot, where he has been moved to help protect him from the serious injuries he's sustained through much of his career. His speed does not seem to be affected by multiple knee surgeries. In fact, he was used as a blitzer or coverage linebacker in nickel sets.
» Right guard Zack Martin showed that he is the real deal before sustaining what Cowboys owner Jerry Jones called a "stinger" during Tuesday's practice. Martin is a major technician. The second-year pro had some serious battles against another sophomore sensation, Rams DT Aaron Donald. Donald's leverage and strength are tough to handle. Martin's feet and hand placement were impeccable in pass-rush drills, during which he controlled Donald for the most part. As for the injury, the Cowboys are going to thoroughly examine Martin to make sure it is nothing more significant than a stinger, which is a pinched nerve in the shoulder/neck/back area and is, momentarily, cripplingly painful. Regardless, Martin will be shut down for a while to let things heal.