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Summary from the Final Week of Camp
Fans and the front office breathed a collective sigh of relief this past week as Dak Prescott returned to practice and steadily increased his workload. On the final day of camp, in joint practices with the Jaguars, Prescott fully opened up and threw aggressively downfield with pinpoint accuracy and velocity. Offensive coordinator Kellen Moore expressed full confidence in his franchise quarterback’s shoulder. “We’re just playing ball at this point,” Moore said. “We’re not looking at anything from a limitation standpoint … From his standpoint, we’re getting ready for the regular season and Tampa Bay.” The backup situation has been tenuous all summer, but Cooper Rush is making a late push for the job. He tore the Texans apart last week (10-of-12 for 97 yards and two touchdowns) and started the final preseason game before giving way to Garett Gilbert.
The preseason ends as it began, with Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard locked into the No. 1 and No. 2 roles, respectively. Elliott was treated with kid gloves all summer by design, but he was a fixture at practices and looks more like the player who led the NFL in rushing than the guy who had difficulty breaking tackles last year. Pollard wasn’t as consistent in practices, but he’s immensely talented and had no viable competition for touches behind Elliott. Rico Dowdle’s stranglehold on the RB3 spot crumbled after his season-ending injury. The question is whether Dallas goes with just two tailbacks for the Week 1 roster or considers adding a veteran from another roster. JaQuan Hardy and Brenden Knox would be the in-house possibilities, but neither had a great summer, nor did they light up the box score in the final preseason game.
The receiving corps is a team strength and fortunately comes into the season healthy. Amari Cooper missed much of the preseason recovering from minor ankle surgery but – as promised – returned to practice in mid-August and played significant snaps in the third preseason game. He’s healthy and ready to live up to his monstrous contract. CeeDee Lamb was the summer star in Cooper’s stead and will push for the top spot. Whether he outperforms Cooper is uncertain, but it’s hard to imagine he won’t have a huge year either way. Michael Gallup may be on a new team in 2022, but he’s shown no frustration with his new role as the No. 3. He’ll play more in the slot this season and is both excited at the prospect and focused on the mismatches it’ll create against opposing linebackers. Cedrick Wilson and Noah Brown are the next receivers up, but they’ll rarely see the field if things go according to plan.
Blake Jarwin is healthy, but so is Dalton Schultz. Both players have shared first-team snaps throughout the summer, and it’s clear the coaches value their interchangeable nature. This isn’t a situation where Jarwin plays on obvious passing downs, and Schultz only plays as an in-line tight end; they’re both going to share every aspect of the position.
Can Dan Quinn turn the team’s Achilles heel into a strength? It’s important to remember how good the defense looked last year during camp and then crumbled in the regular season. But 2021 seems different for several reasons. Quinn’s presence, and his focus on simplifying the scheme, have players abuzz. Two of Quinn’s former Falcons players – Keanu Neal and Damontae Kazee – are healthy and pushing for significant roles. Neal converted to linebacker and potentially frees the front office to trade Jaylon Smith for a draft pick haul. Leighton Vander Esch seems to have recaptured his dynamic rookie form after two injury-riddled seasons. And rookie Micah Parsons immediately stepped in and took control of the defense.
The team intends to keep receiver CeeDee Lamb on punt returns, but he’s so essential to the offense that he could be limited to high-leverage situations. Cedrick Wilson is next in line to field punts. Tony Pollard is entrenched as the kickoff returner.
Summary from Week 3 of Camp
Few NFL insiders carry more weight than Adam Schefter, so when he said, "[Prescott's] not fully back, he may not be back all season long," during the halftime segment of the Chiefs-Cardinals game on ESPN, everyone took notice. It was a stunning declaration given Prescott's importance to Dallas' fortunes, and it's in stark contrast to every other report we've heard from the team and trusted beat reporters. Prescott hasn't participated in team drills since July 28th but has recently participated in one-on-one sessions, including throwing about 50 passes to his receivers (and Ezekiel Elliott) during the Texans' warmup. Head coach McCarthy is pleased with Prescott's progress. "He hit the target for the number of throws," McCarthy said. "I had a chance to watch it. I thought he looked good. The most important thing is how he feels afterwards. I thought he had another good day. The opportunity to go back to back is important, so still continue to build up on the volume of throws." Team owner Jerry Jones was emphatic in his belief Prescott will be 100% for Week 1. "If we were lining up against Tampa tonight," Jones said, "he'd be starting, and we'd feel great about it." The backup situation looks problematic, as Garrett Gilbert, Cooper Rush, and Ben DiNucci have all had discouraging moments. Gilbert was the odds-on favorite for the No. 2 role for most of the preseason, but his struggles and Cooper Rush's bright flashes may have changed the outcome. "I thought Cooper did a really good job managing the game," McCarthy said after the Texans game. "Kept us in clean plays, handled the checks and alerts very well, and obviously led the team on two drives. So I thought Cooper had a nice quarter and a half of work."
Ezekiel Elliott didn't play against the Texans, as expected. Tony Pollard started and reminded everyone why he's considered one of the league's better handcuffs. Pollard ran four times for 20 yards and had two catches for 16 yards and a touchdown against the Texans. Rico Dowdle came in with the backups and acquitted himself well; his roster spot is locked in with two weeks left in the preseason.