OTA insider observations

OTA insider observations

IRVING, Tex. - The Dallas Cowboys opened their first OTA (Organized Team Activity) of the offseason Tuesday with a practice at their team facility in Valley Ranch.

The session was held under cloudy skies but concluded less than an hour before heavy rains ripped through the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex.

• In one of the best-kept secrets in recent memory, QB Tony Romo did not practice after undergoing surgery a few weeks ago to remove a cyst from his back. Romo talked afterward about the procedure, which he repeatedly called "minor" (he was released to go home the same day he had the procedure) and said that while he has been cleared to throw the ball, he likely will not take part in next week's OTAs, either. He said he could return to the field for mini-camp in a few weeks, and definitely by the time the team goes to training camp in Oxnard, Calif.

• One of the more entertaining sights Tuesday was when the other QBs in camp — Kyle Orton, one-year veteran Nick Stephens and rookie Dalton Williams — were going through drills and faced a pair of the team's secret weapons on defense, as Romo and TE Jason Witten lined up as mock defensive backs.

• Among the players who did not work out: DL Sean Lissemore, DE DeMarcus Ware (shoulder), free agent Justin Durantand RB DeMarco Murray, who was hampered by a "tweaked hamstring," according to head coach Jason Garrett. WR Danny Coale was limited, doing position drills but joining Lissemore and Murray working with the team's trainers during "team" (11-on-11) drills.

• When the cornerbacks went to position drills — four of them would line up side-by-side and go through a series of moves, including backpedaling and lateral movement, while passes were thrown to each of them — the best catch of the day was turned in by rookie CB B.W. Webb, who slipped a little while backpedaling but was able to reach up and spear a pass thrown slightly behind him with one hand.

• Others who stood out in cornerback drills because of their ability to start and stop quickly, explode quickly for high passes and make repeated catches with sure hands: CBs Sterling Moore and Malik James.

• One player who knows the value of a solid performance in OTAs is S Barry Church, who stood out in OTAs and mini-camp last year before taking over a starting spot until his season was ended prematurely by a torn Achilles tendon. Church looked comfortable, if maybe a little hesitant, during drills, but said after practice that he is 100 percent healthy and ready to reclaim his role with the Cowboys' starting defense. Church said "words can't even describe" his disappointment at the time of his injury. "Just to get the starting job," he said, "and then, after three weeks, it was gone like that."

Church said that if the season opens with him in the starting lineup alongside free agent acquisition S Will Allen, Allen's experience within the defensive system taught by new defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin will be invaluable to Church and the rest of the defense.

"He's been under the system before in Tampa Bay, so he knows all the pros and cons to the system, and how to play it as best as possible. So I'm looking forward to running with him, or Matt Johnson … either or … or Danny McCray … either or. We're going to have a great secondary back there."

• He might be a rookie, but WR Terrance Williams certainly looks the part. At 6-2 and 202 pounds, Williams is the same height as starters Dez Bryant and Miles Austin. He gives up 15 pounds to Austin and 18 to Bryant, but he clearly is thick enough to absorb a hit. (Per NFL rules, the players were working out in shorts and jerseys, with helmets but not pads, but there is some contact, and Williams got hit a few times.) He will get stronger as he matures and takes part in an NFL strength and conditioning program, but what he has now is speed, and lots of it. He probably doesn't have the pure top-end speed of free agent Anthony Armstrong, who probably is the fastest player on the roster, but when he makes a catch, he turns upfield and accelerates very quickly. On several occasions, he made a catch on crossing routes and post patterns with defenders in near proximity, but when he turned upfield and kicked it into overdrive, Williams left several defenders in his wake.

• When Dallas owner Jerry Jones says something is going to happen, it generally happens — such is the power of being the boss. So when Jones said shortly after the Cowboys drafted Travis Frederick with their first-round pick in April's NFL Draft that former Wisconsin Badger would be in the starting lineup as a rookie, there was no reason to doubt the prediction. What was not necessarily expected was that Frederick would be working with the first-team offensive line immediately. But there he was Tuesday, anchoring the middle of the starting line that also included LT Tyron Smith, LG Nate Livings, RG David Arkin and RT Doug Free.

• Sitting out of drills didn't mean Ware was sitting around with nothing to do. When the first-team defense wasn't running in team drills, Ware and fellow DE Anthony Spencer practiced pass-rushing moves on each other, engaging in a series of sparring matches designed to figure better ways to keep opposing offensive linemen from getting a solid grip on them, as well as where to punch and use leverage to gain an advantage against larger blockers.

• One difference between OTAs this year and those held in years past: volume. The sessions are undeniably louder, thanks in large part to two new assistant coaches: DL coach Rod Marinelli and RBs coach Gary Brown, who woke up the dreary morning by shouting "Finish! Finish! Finish! Finish!" on rushing play in team drills. How to finish is something the players are still learning — with no pads, they are not instructed to hit with full force, but while the defenders are instructed to try to strip the ball free on every play, Brown wants the running backs to run hard (with the ball securely wrapped up) and try to wiggle free, even after the play is apparently over, and sprint toward the end zone.

• One of the funnier sights of the morning session: while Brown was imploring his running backs to "Finish!" every run, the defensive coaches were instructing their players to strip the ball on every play. However, logic sometimes takes over, even at the risk of disobeying orders, and when small defensive backs looked up and saw TE Jason Witten (who had an advantage of six or more inches of height and 60-80 pounds of weight) barreling right at them, the diminutive DBs parted like the Red Sea. It's one thing for undersized DBs to throw their bodies in harm's way in an official game, but in the first May practice, some things just aren't worth the risk.

• Witten caught a lot of passes in team drills. It could be that the team wanted the 11th-year youngster from Tennessee to get comfortable in the offense … or maybe it's just that the veteran is one of the best tight ends in the NFL, has the ability to get open against defenses and catches everything thrown his way.

• One of the mantras most repeatedly uttered by coaches is that "competition makes everyone better." If that's the case, the coaches must feel pretty good about K Dan Bailey, who has connected on 61 of 68 career field goals (89.7 percent) in his first two NFL seasons. Bailey is the only placekicker in the team's OTAs. The team could bring in another leg to offer competition during training camp, but at the moment, he is the only player with no competition.

• Two of the anchors of the 2012 defense were LBs Sean Lee and Bruce Carter, each of whom had his season cut short last year by injury. Lee (toe) and Carter (elbow) both were back on the field, running with the first-team defense, and were moving around well and took part in all drills. In the team's new 4-3 defense, Lee and Carter worked with the first team along with OLBs Ernie Sims and DeVonte Holloman.

OL coach Bill Callahan likes big offensive linemen, but he also demands mobility. The rare athleticism of LT Tyron Smith is no secret, but not to be dismissed is LG Nate Livings, who is remarkably quick for a player listed at 6-4 and 320 pounds. On one play, QB Kyle Orton flipped a short screen pass to RB Phillip Tanner. LB Bruce Carter read the play and started closing in, but before he got to Tanner, Livings appeared from the middle of the field, sealed Carter off on the sideline and erased him from the play. Had the drill be full-contact, Carter would have ended up somewhere under the bench.

• One of the more subtle transitions that running backs, wide receivers and tight ends have to make when going from college to the NFL is the rule about getting both feet down for a reception to count. Every player who has watched an NFL game knows the rule, but still, it involves a different thought process than the one used in college. One player who appears unlikely to struggle with the change is TE Gavin Escobar, who led his San Diego State team in catches, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns in 2012. When running sideline routes Tuesday, Escobar regularly stopped inches inside the field's boundary before reaching out to make the catch, often looking down first to make sure of his location.

• One of the keys to the 2013 defense will be how effectively DEs Anthony Spencer and DeMarcus Ware adjust to having their hand down on the ground after previously playing outside linebacker. Playing on the line will mean more of a physical beating that they must endure, but both played defensive end in college and should make the transition fairly smoothly. With Ware serving as an interested observer, Spencer made perhaps the smoothest pass-rush move of the day, using a swim move to slip past RT Jermey Parnell virtually untouched.

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