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5 Sleepers for Cowboys 2017 Training Camp

Jess Haynie

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The Dallas Cowboys 2017 Training Camp opens two weeks from tomorrow, meaning you’re about to get bombarded with various “season preview” articles from this site and many others. Various players will be spotlighted as key figures in this year’s camp, be it for their star status or for being part of an intriguing position battle.

Today, I thought we’d look at a few guys who seem to be flying under the radar as camp approaches. Despite this, I think any of these five guys could wind up with spots on the 53-man roster and perhaps even significant roles on this year’s team.

Emmett Cleary

OT Emmett Cleary

Emmett Cleary, OT

Signed last September to replace an injured Chaz Green, Cleary was the swing tackle for 13 games and then started in the Week 17 finale. He had to come in for Tyron Smith during the Week 16 game against the Detroit Lions, playing very well in an important game against a playoff team.

Cleary is a massive 6’7″ and has been floating around the NFL for four seasons. He went undrafted in 2013 and was with five different teams before finally landing in Dallas. Now, with real game experience and plenty of moving parts on the Cowboys offensive line, Cleary shouldn’t be ignored as a contender for a roster spot.

As it stands, Cleary should be very competitive for the swing tackle role. Many are focusing on Chaz Green or veteran Byron Bell, but Cleary didn’t look at all like a liability in the snaps he played last season. That alone should keep him in the conversation through final cuts, if not beyond.

Brice Butler

WR Brice Butler

Brice Butler, WR

Some are projecting that Butler won’t even make the team, losing his roster spot to seventh-round rookie Noah Brown or some other younger player. However, Butler’s experience, 6’3″ frame, and exceptional top seed will make him hard to beat if he has a strong camp and preseason.

The one-year, $1.1 million contract that Butler got from the Cowboys last March speaks to his tenuous status with the team and why people think he could be expendable. At age 27, Brice is certainly in danger if younger players make noise. But with Dez Bryant missing 10 games over the last two seasons, Dallas won’t be quick to cast aside veteran depth.

What’s more, Butler’s role in the offense could be enhanced by the development of Dak Prescott. If the playbook gets opened up and Prescott is willing to take more shots down the field, Butler’s speed could be put to better use. He could provide a vertical threat that compliments the work of Bryant, Jason Witten, and Cole Beasley in the short and mid-range passing game.

Cedric Thornton

DT Cedric Thornton

Cedric Thornton, DT

Last year, Dallas gave Thornton a four-year, $17 million contract to join the defensive line. His playing time was cut short because of the unexpected rise of Maliek Collins and the sudden health of Terrell McClain. With McClain now in Washington, Thornton could finally have the larger role that the Cowboys anticipated when they signed him.

As always with Rod Marinelli’s defense, Thornton will be rotating with other players. One will be free-agent signing Stephen Paea, a former Marinelli pupil in Chicago. Money talks, though, and Paea only got a one-year deal for $2 million to become a Cowboy. That may not mean much depending on how camp unfolds, but it at least shows what Dallas was willing to pay to acquire both players.

Terrell McClain played 500 total snaps last year, leaving plenty of work for new guys to take on. Thornton has the size to play the one-tech role and the athleticism to stay on in the nickel, meaning he could form a nice partnership with Maliek Collins. The Cowboys thought enough of Thornton last year to pay him well, and he should be a major factor in the 2017 plans.

Mark Nzeocha

LB Mark Nzeocha (James D. Smith via AP)

Mark Nzeocha, LB

Held back the last two years with injuries, Nzeocha is a big and athletic player who could be called on for significant duties in 2017. The recent news about Damien Wilson’s legal troubles only increases the potential need.

Last preseason, Nzeocha was looking a dominant player against the Rams’ second-team offense. He followed the ball everywhere and even had an interception. He reminded you of Sean Lee, and there’s no greater praise for a linebacker.

If Nzeocha can finally stay healthy, he could compete for the starting job SAM linebacker. If nothing else, he should be a primary reserve at other positions and appears to have the ability to play any LB spot. With the departures of Justin Durant and Andrew Gachkar, there is less veteran depth to contend with. Now in his third year, Nzeocha will hopefully be ready to become a contributor.

Kavon Frazier

S Kavon Frazier

 

Kavon Frazier, S

It feel like Frazier has become an afterthought at safety, with many enamored over sixth-round rookie Xavier Woods.  While Woods may be the shiny new toy, we’re only a year removed from Frazier being a similarly-hyped rookie and inspiring hope of a late-round steal.

Along with cornerback Anthony Brown, Frazier was praised by Stephen Jones as being a player that the team had a fourth-round grade on in 2016. We saw what happened with Brown; injuries thrust him into significant playing time right away and Brown performed about as well as the veterans he was replacing. Frazier didn’t those same opportunities with a loaded depth chart at safety.

If Frazier has the same talent and upside as Brown, and now a year of experience, he should be a real factor at the safety position. Dallas signed veteran Robert Blanton for insurance, but he could be the odd man out if Frazier and Woods both live up to their early expectations.

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Cowboys fan since 1992, blogger since 2011. Bringing you the objectivity of an outside perspective with the passion of a die-hard fan. I love to talk to my readers, so please comment on any article and I’ll be sure to respond!

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13 Comments
  • Randy Martin

    It is my sincere hope that if Butler fails to meet expectations yet again (yes I said again) that we readers of all things Cowboy never have to read another written word about him. He has a 48% catch rate since joining the Cowboys and didn’t come here with much better other than his prowess as a speedster. It doesn’t matter how fast you are if you don’t catch the football! So, regardless of what you hear in OTA’s or even camp, he has to do it on Sunday….and if he does, then I will update my position on every board I have written a similar rebuttal on Butler. Four consecutive seasons with no development has already shown me who Brice Butler is.

    • Jess Haynie

      Can’t argue with anything you said, Randy. It’s definitely “now or never” for Brice, not just with Dallas but perhaps for his NFL career.

  • John Williams

    I thnk Thornton slept on himself in 2016. Didn’t live up to the contract or expectations.

    I don’t think it’s realistic to expect a whole lot out of Butler. He has some uspide, but his position on the depth chart and his status with the team, will hinder his ability unless there is an injury to Williams or Dez.

    Sean and now you have me all aboard the Cleary Hype train. I could see him being a final roster cut or the swing tackle. That will all be determined by how he plays and who wins the guard job. If it’s Cooper at guard, then I think Green is the swing tackle and Bell is the backup guard. If Green wins the Guard job, I could see Bell, Cooper, and Cleary on the roster. I bet they carry as many as 9 offensive lineman on the 53 while taking 8 to game day.

    • John Williams

      Nzeocha and Frazier just need to play so we can see what they have to offer.

      • Kevin Black

        Nzoecha’s health is what is holding him back now. He gets on a roll and gets the coaches thinking about him, then he gets injured and disappears for a stretch.

        • John Williams

          Totally agree. You can’t be counted on if you aren’t playing. He may have the talent to be the starting SAM, I hope so, cause I’m not wild about Wilber having all those snaps.

          • Kevin Black

            Wilber is serviceable. Nzoecha would be an upgrade athletically, but Wilber does give you some protection position wise with his flexibility. I’m kinda sad that Marinelli came up with any blitz packages with Wilber. I kinda felt that would be pretty natural for Wilber.

          • John Williams

            He’ servicable, but what might have been a strength on the team before Wilson’s arrest is now a weakness in my opinion.

          • Kevin Black

            Not sure how much of a strength the position is until we know about Jaylon Smith, but the arrest did severely weaken the group. Wilson’s decision making ability during the layover to training camp has to be seriously taken into question. First paint ball and now this.

          • John Williams

            At the moment it’s a weakness.

    • Jess Haynie

      I disagree on Thornton. It’s not his fault that Collins and McClain were simply better, or that Dallas paid him what they did You’re talking about two third-round picks versus a guy who went undrafted. He can only do so much against superior talent. There are only so many snaps to go around.

      • John Williams

        But he came in with a lot of noise after having a productive career in Philly. He came in with the reputation of being a good player who was going to help the Dallas run game and was expected to start. He disappointed last year. Needs a big 2017 to prevent being a roster cut in 2018.

  • Don

    Randy I think you’re spot on about Butler. His first season he pulled the Miles Austin and had everyone excited thinking he was going to give Williams a push out,but that wasn’t and hasn’t been the case. I guess when he shows up ever so often and does something to spark the coaches interests they want to hang on. I was done with him last year and they can dump him and Lucky Whitehead too for all I care. As far as the past with Austin I was a big fan, had met him and talked with him ,but when you can’t stay on the field you have to go.

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Sean’s Scout: RB Rod Smith Proving Valuable Offensive Threat

Sean Martin

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Sean's Scout: RB Rod Smith Proving Valuable Offensive Threat

The Cowboys have just one more game to get through without their star running back Ezekiel Elliott, but Alfred Morris and Rod Smith deserve a ton of credit for the way they’ve been able to fill in out of the backfield for Zeke Elliott. Throughout the time Elliott has missed though, the Cowboys have lacked the explosive plays on offense that he can provide – until Rod Smith was given an opportunity last week at the Giants.

Smith complimented Morris exceptionally well, running with quickness and power to prove his case for more of a role on offense behind Elliott moving forward. It was the Ohio State product’s consecutive touchdowns of 81 yards through the air and 15 yards on the ground that sealed the game for the Cowboys in week 14.

Here is a closer look at Rod Smith’s performance from last week in this latest Sean’s Scout.

Smith3 – Streamable

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The Cowboys offensive line was dominant as always against a tough New York defensive front, and this first play is a great look at their execution in space and on the move. Rod Smith’s decisiveness when hitting the hole with speed and balance was the first thing I noticed on the game tape.

The best thing Smith does on this play comes at the second level, where running backs can truly make a difference in Dallas. As RG Zack Martin rides his man out of the play entirely, he gets in front of Smith who is seeing the play develop straight ahead. With his long strides, Smith is able to smoothly get through traffic and continue accelerating up field through arm tackles for a big gain.

Smith2 – Streamable

Check out this video on Streamable using your phone, tablet or desktop.

 

These same traits are seen with Rod Smith as a pass catcher – something he does effortlessly to also help fill the void left by Elliott. Watch how quickly Smith commits to his angle up the field after catching this dump pass from Dak Prescott, attacking a defender that has the angle on him after the catch.

Rod subtly leans to the right just enough to make the defender hesitate long enough to allow his burst to evade him and gain extra yards falling forward.

Smith4 – Streamable

Check out this video on Streamable using your phone, tablet or desktop.

 

Smith essentially does the same thing without the ball in his hands here, on his 81 yard catch and run for a touchdown. Setting up the safety out of the slot to be beat across his face, Smith separates from him at the stem and then does a great job getting depth on his route into the vacated middle of the field. With blockers to help him reach the end zone, Smith turns this busted coverage by the Giants into the game’s biggest play.

Smith1 – Streamable

Check out this video on Streamable using your phone, tablet or desktop.

 

This last play I chose to show is probably the least well-blocked attempt for Smith out of the ones in this Sean’s Scout, but there is still a lot to like about what Rod does here with the ball in his hands.

The Giants might be a two-win football team, but they still have marquee players up front, particularly DE Olivier Vernon. Smith does well here to keep his feet moving as he cuts this play to the backside. Vernon does well to limit the potential gain on this play by staying away from the block of Jason Witten, as Smith is taken down by Darian Thompson.

The numbers the Giants had to commit to stopping the run was still a huge reason why Prescott had a career day throwing the football, and Rod Smith’s readiness to step in at RB was a deciding factor in getting Dallas to 7-6.

✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭

Proving to be one of the Dallas Cowboys most valuable players, considering his cost (under contract through 2018), and ability to contribute on special teams and offense, Rod Smith is the perfect RB3 for this team.

Smith is not elite in any one area, and is not a prototypical RB from a physical standpoint, but his contributions as a runner, pass catcher, and blocker could remain critical to the Cowboys’ hopes of reaching the playoffs behind this offense – even when Ezekiel Elliott is back in the fold.

Tell us what you think about “Sean’s Scout: RB Rod Smith Proving Valuable Offensive Threat” in the comments below. You can also email me at Sean.Martin@InsideTheStar.com, or Tweet to me at @SeanMartinNFL!

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Dallas Cowboys

Rod Smith Vs Alfred Morris: Who’s The Cowboys Real RB1?

Brian Martin

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Rod Smith Vs Alfred Morris: Who's Cowboys' Real RB1?

The Dallas Cowboys are less than a week away from welcoming back their talented Pro Bowl running back Ezekiel Elliott, but until then they still have a game to play against the Oakland Raiders. That means we will have one more week of Alfred Morris and Rod Smith handling the workload, but which RB is sitting at the top of the Cowboys depth chart?

Unfortunately, this is exactly the type of decision that can end up winning or losing a game. Both Alfred Morris and Rod Smith have had their moments during Ezekiel Elliott’s absence, but neither one of them have really distanced themselves from the other. So, should Rod Smith or Alfred Morris receive the majority of the workload against the Raiders Sunday?

A Case for Rod Smith

RB Rod Smith and QB Dak PrescottRod Smith might just have had is coming out party last week against the New York Giants. Against their divisional rival, in what was a must win game for the Cowboys, Smith rushed for 47 yards on six carries and added another 113 yards through the air on five catches. He also found himself in the end zone twice, once on a rushing touchdown and the other on a receiving touchdown.

You may or may not agree, but I believe that “Lightning” Rod Smith was largely responsible for igniting the Cowboys offense and helping them pull away from the Giants last Sunday. He accounted for over 160 total yards and two touchdowns by himself and didn’t receive the majority of his playing time until later in the game.

Rod Smith certainly has traits that make him a more desirable RB over Alfred Morris. First off, he is a more complete back. He is better in pass protection and at catching the ball out of the backfield. But, he is also starting to show up in the running game and is averaging 4.5 yards a carry this season. His size (6’3″, 235) also makes him a better short yardage back, although I wish he would deliver more of a blow at the end of his runs.

A Case for Alfred Morris

RB Alfred MorrisAlthough there’s nothing particularly special that stands out about Alfred Morris, he has proven time and time again he is more than capable of carrying the workload. He has received the majority of the workload during Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension and has performed pretty well. In fact, he is averaging 5 yards a carry this season, which is better than any other RB on the Cowboys roster, including Elliott.

Alfred Morris has looked pretty good this season and is playing with more of a spring in his step than I have seen from him in probably his entire career. Last Sunday against the Giants he received the the majority of the workload and finished the game with 19 carries for 62 yards. Not particularly spectacular, but the week prior he did rush for 127 yards on 27 carries in the victory over the Washington Redskins.

Like I mentioned earlier, Morris is a tried-and-true RB in the NFL and is at his best when he can continue to pound the rock and wear down opposing defenses. That is what he did against the Redskins, but he has his limitations as well. Despite his years in the league, he still struggles in pass protection and is limited in what he can do in the passing game. But, he does seem to have the trust of the Cowboys coaching staff.

✭✭✭✭✭

Personally, I would like to see more of Rod Smith this coming Sunday against the Oakland Raiders. I really like what I’ve seen from him in both the running game and in the passing game. I just think he is a more dangerous and versatile weapon then Alfred Morris. His presence on the field really opens up what the Cowboys can do offensively.

I don’t mean any disrespect to Alfred Morris at all. I just think that Rod Smith has proven he is a more dangerous offensive weapon of the two. I don’t know if the Dallas Cowboys coaching staff will agree or not, but I truly believe Rod Smith could once again be the X factor against the Oakland Raiders.

Of course, both Rod Smith and Alfred Morris will have to take the back seat once Ezekiel Elliott returns. So, this discussion really only has any credibility for this week in yet another must win situation against the Oakland Raiders.

Who do you like better… Rod Smith or Alfred Morris?

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La’el Collins’ Toughness And Availability Earning High Praise

Brian Martin

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La'el Collins' Toughness And Availability Earning High Praise 1

The decision by the Dallas Cowboys to move La’el Collins from left guard to right tackle was met by some skepticism by quite a few members of Cowboys Nation during the off-season. I’m not ashamed to admit that I was one of those skeptical of the move, but I’m not afraid to admit he has exceeded my expectations.

In all honesty, I always believed that La’el Collins’ best position in the NFL is on the interior of the offense of line as a guard. I thought he could use his strength and athleticism to his advantage when working in a phone booth against slower and less athletic defensive tackles. That’s not to say I didn’t think he would make a good right tackle, I just thought he had Pro Bowl potential as a guard.

Strangely enough, Collins has probably put together a Pro Bowl caliber season in his first season starting at the right tackle position for the Cowboys. He has become an upgrade over the previous starter Doug Free, and is really starting to earn high praise from the brass. Stephen Jones in particular has been impressed with Collins, especially considering how he has played after missing two full weeks of practice.

Mark Lane on Twitter

DallasCowboys COO Stephen Jones told @1053thefan La’el Collins has answered the bell after his contract extension.

I personally agree with everything Stephen Jones said about La’el Collins. I’ve really enjoyed watching his progression this season, but I have been really impressed how he played the last two weeks after missing so much practice.

You might not of known, but Collins has missed two full weeks of practice due to a herniated disc in his back. This is put his availability to play against the Washington Redskins and New York Giants in jeopardy, but somehow he has toughened up and played considerably well.

This unfortunately will be something he has to continue to battle through the rest of the season, but I’m not going to bet against him playing. He absolutely makes this offensive line better and I would hate to see Chaz Green or Byron Bell back on the field after the way they played as feel-ins.

La’el Collins has without a doubt earned my respect and I think it’s about time we all recognize the player he is turning into. I know the Dallas Cowboys appreciate all that he does and believe that his recent contract extension is money well spent.

What do you think about La’el Collins?

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