Which Cowboys have stepped up at practice since pads came on?

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OXNARD (105.3 The Fan) - The second week of Cowboys training camp in Oxnard has given us the first look at players in pads, with three padded practices now in the books.

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Talking about how players will look “when the pads come on” has probably become a little bit of white noise for fans. But it’s said so often because it really does make a difference.

Some fans may not realize that after the season ends, the Cowboys have several practices over the spring, but they’re never in pads. So all of the things you see over the spring and the early part of training camp have to be taken with a grain of salt.

Sometimes the pads come on and an offensive lineman that you thought looked powerful in the first part of camp starts ending up on the ground. Sometimes a running back who you thought had game-breaking speed now can’t beat a linebacker to the outside.

But the reverse can also be true. Sometimes players who looked fairly ordinary in shorts and a practice jersey all of a sudden pop on the practice field when you get them in their full uniform.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the guys who have upped their game since padded practices began.

RB Rico Dowdle

One of the more fascinating players here in Oxnard is third-year running back Rico Dowdle.

The Cowboys scooped Dowdle up as part of their undrafted free agent class in 2020, and the South Carolina alum flashed at his very first rookie mini-camp practice. He played sparingly that year, getting just 7 carries for 24 yards, but looked good returning kicks, highlighted by a 64-yard return against the Steelers.

Dowdle was set to serve as the team’s third running back and primary kick returner in 2021 before a hip fracture during training camp robbed him of his season.

Kellen Moore has given Dowdle plenty of work with the first team during training camp, even giving him more carries with the ones than Tony Pollard, but Dowdle really began to flash with Monday’s practice when the pads came on.

Dowdle has shown excellent contact balance during the padded practices, pinballing off of defenders and navigating narrow running lanes. He ran a 4.54 40-yard dash at the combine in 2020, but every year when the pads have come on that 4.54 looks a lot more like 4.34.

The biggest question with Dowdle at this point is his durability. Following the hip fracture last year, Dowdle missed time over the spring following arthroscopic knee surgery. During his time at South Carolina, Dowdle dealt with a sports hernia, a broken leg, a sprained knee, a sprained ankle, and a groin injury.

Dowdle missed Thursday’s practice after testing positive for COVID-19, but if he can remain injury-free, he could provide real juice out of the backfield, especially if Pollard will be used more at the line of scrimmage.

WR Simi Fehoko

The Cowboys know their 2021 fifth round pick Simi Fehoko has the tools to be a good NFL wide receiver.

At almost 6’4, weighing 222 pounds with 10¼ hands, Fehoko posted a 4.44 40-yard dash at the combine in 2021, and clocked in at 6.78 on his 3-cone drill, which are two ridiculous numbers for someone of Fehoko’s size.

In fact, Fehoko’s Relative Athletic Score (a metric created by Kent Lee Platte to measure a player’s athleticism relative to size and position) is the highest of any Cowboys receiver, measuring 9.21 out of 10.

But in order for Fehoko to make a difference this season the Cowboys need him to become more than traits. They need him to be consistent. Fehoko has demonstrated that consistency since pads came on this week.

Fehoko has made several strong contested catches, and he adjusted nicely on the left sideline to an underthrown ball from Cooper Rush during team period on Tuesday, giving the Cowboys their first successful downfield pass of camp. Fehoko shined in one-on-one drills on Thursday, even besting Trevon Diggs on one rep.

Fehoko’s size and strong hands have allowed him to flourish during full practices, something the Cowboys hope will continue into the regular season.

WR CeeDee Lamb

The best individual practice we’ve seen from anyone here at Cowboys camp came from CeeDee Lamb on Monday.

Lamb, who is stepping into the #1 receiver role with the departure of Amari Cooper, had been somewhat quiet during the first week of practice. He wasn’t bad by any stretch, he just wasn’t doing anything of real note.

That changed when padded practices started on Monday, with Lamb winning his match-ups in almost every way imaginable. He caught a pass in traffic over the middle, he high-pointed the ball and dragged his feet in on a pass toward the left sideline, and he came back on an underthrown ball down the right sideline to make a great catch as he was falling down.

Lamb has shown that he has the focus, athleticism, and tracking skills to make acrobatic catches, but there were times in 2021 where he struggled to finish tough catches in congested areas of the field. That hasn’t been an issue for Lamb this week, showing promising signs that he’s polished up his game in preparation for being Dak Prescott’s undisputed top target.

CB Jourdan Lewis

Jourdan Lewis might be the toughest, most physical pound-for-pound player on the Cowboys, so he tends to thrive when padded practices bring out the bruising nature of the game.

Several of the corners have flashed over the course of training camp, most notably Anthony Brown, but Lewis might have had the best practice of any of them on Tuesday. Lewis intercepted Dak Prescott in the flat, and made two pass breakups during 7-on-7 drills. Lewis stayed in the hip pocket of the Cowboys receivers for the entirety of team period, adding another pass breakup to his ledger. On Thursday he provided strong coverage in his reps against CeeDee Lamb,

At times throughout Jourdan Lewis’ career it’s felt like people were writing him off. In 2018 when Kris Richard brought his defensive back size thresholds to the Cowboys, the 5’10 Lewis played fewer than 10 snaps in 12 of his 15 games. Lewis persevered, and eventually earned respect and playing time under Richard. After the 2020 season, there weren’t many who expected Lewis to be retained in free agency, but he was brought back on a three year deal. And following the selections of Kelvin Joseph and Nahshon Wright in 2021, the writing appeared to be on the wall once more, but Lewis has held off the competition and is firmly entrenched as a starter here in year six.

The mental and physical toughness that Lewis has demonstrated throughout his career is why he continues to be a practice standout in pads.

OG Tyler Smith

Cowboys first round pick Tyler Smith was already performing well before padded practices, but the pads coming on have only highlighted just how damn strong he is on the interior.

At the very first padded practice of camp on Monday, Smith was physically dominating just about every player on the defensive line. Smith drove 360-pound defensive tackle Quinton Bohanna off the ball with ease, sealed DeMarcus Lawrence at the edge when pulling right, and pancaked one of the team’s strongest players in Trysten Hill.

We could see Smith’s athleticism before pads, and we saw glimpses of the play strength during spring practices (most notably when he stonewalled Micah Parsons while playing left tackle during an OTA practice), but the amount of power Smith has displayed since the pads came on is almost jarring to watch at times.

Smith had outperformed Connor McGovern during the first week of the left guard competition, but it’s been an absolute blowout since padded practices began.

LB Leighton Vander Esch

Vander Esch’s time in Dallas has been the definition of up and down, collecting 140 tackles and making the Pro Bowl as a rookie, before struggling with injuries and poor play in 2019 and 2020, and then rebounding a bit in 2021, particularly in the second half of the year.

During the first week of training camp Vander Esch appeared to be reading, processing, and reacting at a faster speed than we’ve ever seen, including his sensational rookie season. The question was whether he’d be able to take those intangibles and couple it with the necessary physicality of the position that has led to injury problems for him.

Through the first practices of camp with pads on, the answer has been a resounding “yes.” Vander Esch looks to be seeing the game a second or two earlier than the 21 other players on the field, and his body has been able to hold up while practicing with genuine toughness and physicality.

It’s early in camp, and health will always be a question mark with Vander Esch, but there’s a growing confidence that 2022 could be the best version of Leighton Vander Esch that we’ve seen.