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Six Early Observations from Cowboys Camp

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    NEWSLETTERS

    A lot's happened in a short amount of time at Dallas Cowboys training camp.  Here's a quick list of things I think you'll want to know that I've seen:

    1. Lance Dunbar is poised for a huge year... if he stays healthy.  The running back out of North Texas showed flashes last season before a knee surgery shortened his 2013 campaign.  Dunbar told me he was nervous going into the procedure -- "that was the first time I'd ever had surgery!" -- but is really excited to have new Cowboys play caller Scott Linehan around.  Linehan was very good getting the ball to running backs in the passing game in Detroit last season (Reggie Bush, for example).  Dunbar was described to me by Cowboys running backs coach Gary Brown as an unbelievably gifted RB in the passing game -- "He runs routes so well; it's a natural gift.  He just sees things and angles really well."  Linehan told me he really likes what Dunbar can add to the passing game, though he was quick to point out DeMarco Murray is still the main guy.  I've been told the two things Dunbar needs to show are that he can stay healthy, and that he needs to be better in pass-blocking (a trait that has become crucial for running backs in today's NFL).
    2. Zack Martin looks the part. The rookie first round pick was called "safe" when the Cowboys took him with the 16th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft.  Don't tell that to opposing defensive tackles.  In his first action against professional big boys, Martin looked dominant.  Whether that's a sign of a long, successful career for Martin, or a disappointing group of Dallas defensive linemen, we don't know yet.  What I do know: the rookie out of Notre Dame beat the competition in front of him Saturday.
    3. Speaking of Cowboys defensive linemen, new defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli is going to use a lot of them this season.  The Cowboys could carry an unusually high number of D-linemen on their roster this season -- the number being thrown around here in Oxnard is ten -- and Marinelli wants to use all of them so players stay fresh.  Though, in camp, he told me, "I like to get guys tired and then make them execute under duress, because our game is played under duress."  Marinelli did very well coaching the Cowboys defensive line in 2013 considering the team was signing players out of the league.  He has a shiny, new toy in rookie defensive end Demarcus Lawrence out of Boise State who the Cowboys love, and who told me his goal was to record 10 sacks in 2014.
    4. Mo Claiborne is out to (finally) prove he was worth it.  The Cowboys have been waiting for Claiborne to get it.  Championing the 2012 first round pick out of LSU as the highest-rated DB prospect they'd seen since Deion Sanders, Claiborne had a tough time finding a consistent role on a 2013 Cowboys defense that ranked last in the NFL.  Fast forward to Saturday where Claiborne looked like he wanted to send a message.  He was in the face of wide receiver Terrance Williams multiple times, and played with a swagger we haven't seen in his time in Dallas. That was Day 1 in pads.  Can he continue it (and stay healthy) throughout a full season?
     He'll have to if he really wants prove he was worth what the Cowboys spent to get him.
    5. Second year wide receiver Terrance Williams is putting in extra time, and doing the little things that could make a big difference.  As I approached him after practice, Williams was catching footballs being fired at him at about 80-mph by a JUGS machine in the corner of the field... while he was sitting on the ground.  "You never get to run clean in the game, so I want to be good catching balls in every position."  In the fantastic book, Good to Great, author Jim Collins points to people willing to "rinse their cottage cheese" as the ones who will be truly great (a reference to a triathlete they studied who thought, to be the best, it was important and necessary to remove excess fat from his diet, despite burning thousands of calories a day working out).  Dez Bryant has been raving about the progress he's seen from Williams, especially in his route running, while Jason Garrett described Williams as a player that picks things up extremely quickly -- "You tell him to work on something and he does it."
    6. Is Rolando McClain really a changed person?  Who knows.  One thing I do know, McClain looks like he was built to be a football person.  At a legitimate 6-foot-4, McClain was once described by Nick Saban in a conversation with Garrett as the "best player I've ever coached."  The issue with McClain hasn't been football (he was the Raiders leading tackler in 2011).  In an Alabama court Friday, McClain was convicted of 2013 charges of resisting arrest and disorderly conduct.  The 8th pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, he's also already retired from football once.  But Saturday, McClain said he was fully committed to play football again, especially after his oldest son told him he wanted him to play again.  Garrett said McClain's slate "is completely clean" with the Cowboys, and they'll make evaluations of his abilities going forward.  The guy looks the part and the Cowboys gave up almost nothing to get him.  With Dallas needing help at the middle linebacker position "more than the next break," according to Jerry Jones, I don't see the downside for the Cowboys in this experiment.