NFC East: California Wrap

California Wrap: Tim MacMahon

August, 19, 2013
After 21 practices or walkthroughs in Oxnard, Calif., ESPN Dallas’ Calvin Watkins, Todd Archer and Tim MacMahon hand out their training camp awards and disappointments.

Best player, offense: Definitely Dez Bryant. He’s always been a physical freak who can make ridiculously acrobatic catches look easy. There are few receivers in the league who can match Bryant’s hands or explosiveness or ability to go up and fight for the ball. He’s made major strides in the mental aspect of the game, giving him a chance to establish himself among the truly elite. And he sets the tone at practice in terms of intensity.

Best player, offense, not named Dez Bryant: Jason Witten is a perennial Pro Bowl tight end who firmly believes he is still in his prime, and he certainly backed up that contention throughout training camp. Maybe the most interesting thing about Witten’s camp is how involved he was in the red zone. It’s puzzling that Witten hasn’t been utilized more in scoring territory throughout his career (only 44 touchdowns in 10 seasons), and it’s a point of emphasis to get Witten the rock in the red zone this season.

Best player, defense: Rest assured that DeMarcus Ware’s “down year” of only 11.5 sacks will not be the beginning of a trend. He appears to be as good as ever, having consistently dominated left tackle Tyron Smith. Ware has bulked up to about 265 pounds without sacrificing any explosiveness. As frightening as he is as a pass-rusher, the best display of his pure athleticism occurred when he sprinted to the sideline and caught receiver Dwayne Harris from behind to drop him for a loss on an end-around.

Best player, defense, not named DeMarcus Ware: Sean Lee, who should have plenty of Pro Bowl invitations in his future if he can just stay healthy. Lee’s blend of instincts and athleticism make him a great fit to play middle linebacker in a Tampa 2 scheme. The former high school safety slimmed down to 234 pounds to prepare for all the running the scheme requires, and he gets his hands on the ball a bunch.

Best rookie: Travis Frederick. The first-round center is far from overwhelming athletically, but he makes up for his lack of speed with off-the-charts smarts. Third-round safety J.J. Wilcox deserves an honorable mention for his strong start, but he needs much more seasoning and sadly missed the last week of camp due to his mother’s death.

Biggest surprise: Lance Dunbar, undrafted out of North Texas is 2012, has essentially locked up the second running back job. He’s too small to be a workhorse type, but the electrifying Dunbar can be a poor man’s Darren Sproles. He’s an upgrade over former first-rounder Felix Jones in the change-of-pace role.

Biggest disappointment: Injuries wreaked havoc to a defensive line making the transition from the 3-4 to 4-3. End Anthony Spencer practiced once before it was determined that he needed arthroscopic surgery on his knee. Tackle Jay Ratliff is on the physically unable to perform list, still recovering from the sports hernia surgery that ended his 2012 season and adding a hamstring strain to his health issues. And key reserve Tyrone Crawford (torn Achilles tendon) is out for the season.

Biggest question answered: Can Ware make the transition to 4-3 defensive end after spending his whole career as a 3-4 outside linebacker? Ain’t no doubt.

Biggest question that remains: Can the Cowboys’ guard play drastically improve? Ronald Leary and Nate Livings are recovering from knee scopes, although the Cowboys are optimistic that at least Leary will be ready for the season opener. Dallas backed out of talks with Brian Waters, but he’d have been the best guard on the roster if he had signed.

Best moment: Take your pick of highlight-reel catches by Bryant. I’ll go with the deep ball that he caught cleanly with one hand while warding off a cornerback with his other arm before sprinting into the end zone without ever breaking stride.

California Wrap: Calvin Watkins

August, 19, 2013
After 21 practices or walkthroughs in Oxnard, Calif., ESPN Dallas' Calvin Watkins, Todd Archer and Tim MacMahon hand out their training camp awards and disappointments.

Best player, offense: Dez Bryant. Who else? He's been a dominant force from the first day of practice. He's making one-handed, leaping and diving catches. Bryant is not beating the cornerbacks badly -- there are times when Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne apply perfect coverage -- but somehow he's able to make the catch. Bryant is also showing a command of the offense like never before, meaning he's going to be a scary man to cover in 2013.

Best player, offense, not named Dez Bryant: DeMarco Murray is running to contact, displaying speed and finished training camp strong. There will always be questions about Murray's health, but based on what he's been through here -- getting knocked around by the Cowboys' defense -- he should be fine. Murray is showing a burst and a quickness through the holes, which is a positive sign moving forward.

Best player, defense: DeMarcus Ware is an unstoppable force. He's showing no signs of last season's injury, which he played with during the last month of the 2012 season. He had shoulder surgery and has recovered nicely. In his new position at defensive end, Ware doesn't have any problems beating Tyron Smith at left tackle. And the few times he's lined up against Doug Free in one-on-one drills, he's taken charge of him, too.

Best player, defense, not named DeMarcus Ware: This isn't anything against Sean Lee, Bruce Carter, Will Allen or Carr, but Jason Hatcher has been outstanding. Hatcher enters his contract year in need of a big season at a new position. He moved from defensive end in a 3-4 to a 4-3 defensive tackle and has made numerous tackles for loss, sacks and quarterback pressures during camp.

Best rookie: There was considerable debate after the Cowboys traded down in the first round of the NFL draft to select Travis Frederick, who has moved right into the starting center spot. Despite concerns about his speed, Frederick has displayed a quickness to the second level on run blocks and has had only a few bad snaps to quarterback Tony Romo. Frederick has some position flexibility with his abilities to move to guard, but for now he's solidified a role at center.

Biggest surprise: The Cowboys struggled to run the football last season, mostly because of injuries and ineffective play on the offensive line. The Cowboys now have four strong running backs, led by Murray and followed up by the speedy Lance Dunbar and rookie Joseph Randle. Combine that with Phillip Tanner's physical style, and the Cowboys' running backs appear to be a strong unit.

Biggest disappointment: The Cowboys drafted Gavin Escobar in the second round with the goal of moving him into a 12 personnel role with Jason Witten. Escobar is third on the depth chart behind James Hanna and Witten. Escobar needs to pick up more weight to improve with his blocking. Despite being good in the passing game, his development is slowly progressing.

Biggest question answered: Jason Garrett has moved into his new role as a walk-around head coach with ease. He still had command by making veterans speak in front of the team, giving the squad days off when necessary and becoming a force behind the scenes. Garrett kicked entire units to the sideline for mistakes and wasn't afraid to yell at players in public. Garrett might not be calling the plays, but he's still in charge.

Biggest question remains: From the opening moment of training camp, the Cowboys had injury problems with several players along the offensive line. The projected starters at guard were injured, and the backup for the left guard spot (Ronald Leary) suffered a knee injury toward the end of camp. The Cowboys tried to rectify the problem by offering a contract to Brandon Moore, but he decided to retire. Health is the biggest question, and until that gets cleared up, issues remain.

Best moment: The one-on-one battles between Bryant and Carr were outstanding. There was one play in which both men did the right thing, but Bryant's abilities to catch passes from different angles won the duel. Carr had Bryant pinned along the sideline and Romo threw a pass in that direction, but somehow Bryant was able to snag the ball one-handed. The ball landed in the cuff of Bryant's arm for a completion.

California Wrap: Todd Archer

August, 18, 2013
After 21 practices or walkthroughs in Oxnard, Calif., ESPN Dallas’ Calvin Watkins, Todd Archer and Tim MacMahon hand out their training camp awards and disappointments.

Best player, offense: Dez Bryant was dominant from the first day of practice through the end, making a highlight grab just about every session. It was the continuation of what Bryant did to close the 2012 season and whets the appetite for what he could do in 2013.

Best player, offense, not named Dez Bryant: Jason Witten is entering his 11th season and is coming off an NFL record for tight ends with 110 catches. He does not appear to be slowing down. The Cowboys’ move to more of a zone-blocking scheme helps him in the run game, and he showed he will be more of a factor in the red zone as well.

Best player, defense: Like Bryant on offense, DeMarcus Ware was dominant on the defensive side of the ball. Tyron Smith will be glad when the season starts so he does not have to see Ware on a daily basis. The move to defensive end agrees with Ware, and he looks poised for another double-digit sack season.

Best player, defense, not named DeMarcus Ware: Ware is the defense’s best player, but Sean Lee is the conscience. Like Ware, the move to the 4-3 might make Lee more of a playmaker and free him to roam from sideline to sideline. The toe injury that limited him to six games last season is not a worry. It’s time for him to take the Pro Bowl step.

Best rookie: Easy answer here: Travis Frederick. The Cowboys caught some grief for taking Frederick in the first round, but, after a couple of weeks, Jason Garrett said he was as smart a young lineman as he has been around, and Tony Romo said he will be a player for a long time.

As The Cowboys break camp in Oxnard, ESPN's Todd Archer offers his thoughts on the positives and negatives from camp.

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Biggest surprise: Even if Jermey Parnell was healthy during all of training camp, Doug Free would have won the right tackle spot. He has been more solid as a pass-blocker than he was last season and showed the ability to move in space. He looks more like the Free who excelled in 2010 than the one who struggled badly in 2012.

Biggest disappointment: For the second straight summer, Jay Ratliff was been a spectator in Oxnard. He was hurt in the conditioning test and is still recovering from December sports hernia surgery. The Cowboys are banking on him being a key piece in their defensive switch, but being unable to practice is not a positive.

Biggest question answered: I just mentioned Ratliff has not practiced. Anthony Spencer has missed time with knee surgery. Morris Claiborne has a knee injury. Tyrone Crawford is done for the season with an Achilles tear. That’s not good, but the defense looks primed to be a difference-maker under Monte Kiffin. It’s too much to say dominant right now but definitely one that will create takeaways.

Biggest question remaining: This is as easy as the Frederick answer: the offensive line. Free, Smith and Frederick have looked good, but the guard spots are a question. Mackenzy Bernadeau has not earned raves from the coaches and Nate Livings and Ronald Leary are recovering from knee surgeries. Continuity up front looks like an issue again.

Best moment: Bill Callahan will be under pressure as the playcaller this season. Will the Cowboys be more balanced on offense? Maybe. Callahan showed a lot of guts early in training camp in situational work with the offense at the 2-yard line with less than 10 seconds left and trailing 24-20 by calling a DeMarco Murray run. Murray ran his way for a touchdown, and it was a definite tone-setter for how the Cowboys want to run the ball in 2013.