Wednesday Insider Observations

IRVING, Tex. - More insider news and notes from mini-camp.

• More players were back on the field Wednesday. NT Jay Ratliff was in attendance but didn't work out, interrupting his own "mental reps" to share his knowledge with his younger teammates, showing moves and drills to young linemen. Other players (DL Sean Lissemore, LB Kyle Wilber, LB Alex Albright, CB Mike Jenkins, DE Tyrone Crawford, etc.) returned on a limited basis, essentially going through conditioning drills.

• The offense spent a lot of time working on plays for the Red Zone and the two-minute offense. The latter features an array of pass plays to the sideline, where receivers can catch the ball and get out of bounds in order to save timeouts, and not surprisingly, WRs Andre Holmes and Dez Bryant seemed to be primary targets. Holmes, who at 6-5 is the tallest wideout on the team, made several catches on balls so high that either he would get them or they'd sail out of bounds. There aren't many defensive backs out there who can even dream of climbing the ladder to get up there with Holmes.

• Through OTAs and the first mini-camp, one player who looks substantially better is WR Dez Bryant. Since the day Dallas drafted him in the first round, nobody has doubted his raw talent. But there have been whispers throughout the beginning of his career about his work habits. Thus far, he shows no indication of relying solely on his physical tools to get by, as he is running much crisper routes than he did at this time last year. He always could run past or through most cornerbacks, but he now is showing an array of moves that are allowing him to create separation without manhandling defenders. His improved ability to create separation repeatedly while taking less of a physical beating would go a long way toward helping Bryant make the leap into the ranks of the league's elite receivers.

• One player whose Wednesday performance was particularly inconsistent was WR Dwayne Harris. In early seven-on-seven drills, he shook a DB with a couple of subtle fakes, only to drop a pass in the end zone from QB Tony Romo that hit him right between the numbers. Later in the session, during "team" (11 on 11) drills, he lost CB Orlando Scandrick. Harris was a good six or eight yards behind Scandrick as he ran under a deep strike from QB Stephen McGee that hit Harris right in the hands … and then fell to the turf. To be fair, he also beat CB C.J. Wilson on a quick out-and-up move to catch a pass from CB Rudy Carpenter on a fade route in the corner of the end zone, and later made a brilliant diving catch of a low pass between two defenders.

TE Jason Witten has been among the league's best players at his position for years, Not only is he huge and immensely talented, but he might be the team's hardest-working player in practice, too. Witten is entering his TKTKTK season, and nobody would say a word if he down-shifted a little on the intensity in OTAs and mini-camps, but that's not his way of doing things, and that's not how he achieved the status he enjoys today. Watching Witten run a simple out route during skeleton (no defense) drills is a little like watching a surgeon. He focuses intently, not just on getting to the right location at the time the ball arrives, but after losing a defender with a sharp cut, he discusses the move with the defender, discussing what made the move work and how it could be improved (and, ever the good teammate, he also discusses with the defender how to defend such plays more effectively). He has caught plenty of passes in his career — and countless more in practice and in exhibition games — yet nobody watches the ball into his hands and until it's tucked under his arm more intently than Witten. When he catches a pass near the sideline, he is not content to simply make the grab, instead pulling in the pass and contorting his body while he regains his balance in order to tightrope down the sideline. The league recently announced that the Pro Bowl will be played again at the end of the 2012 season; don't bet against Witten, assuming good health, getting another invitation to Hawaii.

• Coaches and players often talk about doing "the little things." One was on display during seven-on-seven drills, when TE John Phillips lined up out wide as an extra receiver. Starting on about the 12-yard line, Phillips ran about 10 yards downfield, turned toward the center of the field and caught a pass from QB Stephen McGee. To many, it looked like a simple completion, but McGee got an earful for throwing a hair behind Phillips, who held up slightly to make the catch. Such passes, McGee was told, would "get (Phillips) killed." Maybe, maybe not … but the field gets shorter and therefore more crowded in the red zone, and players who have to stand still or even slow down are sitting ducks for head-hunting linebackers.

• Moments after apparently risking his tight end's life, McGee was the pitcher for the unquestioned catch of the day. In the same seven-on-drven drills, McGee spotted WR Andre Holmes heading up the left side of the field before cutting in across the back of the end zone. McGee whistled a high pass where only the 6-5 Holmes would have a chance at reaching it, and he did … although again, the ball was thrown slightly behind its intended target. It didn't matter in this case, however, as Holmes went high in to the air, telescoped his right arm out behind him and snared the ball with one hand before crumbling to the turf — and holding on to the pass — in the back of the end zone.

• When the team went to 11-on-11 drills, the defense initially had the upper hand, as the offense failed to complete a pass on its first six plays … a fact the defensive players were nice enough to bring to the offense's attention.

• Defensive coaches are trying constantly to shake things up and figure new ways to either generate more pressure on the quarterback or cover receivers more effectively … or ideally, both. In some obvious passing downs, the Dallas defense, which lines up in a 3-4 alignment as its base formation, went to a 2-4 look with an extra defensive back. The two down linemen were DEs Marcus Spears and Jason Hatcher, each of whom has ample size and speed.

LB Anthony Spencer sat out with what was called "a sore knee." No estimated timetable for his return was given.

• It's true that the team is waiting on rookie CB Morris Claiborne to join his teammates on the practice field. But the team's top draft pick has been limited to conditioning drills and mental reps while rehabilitating from wrist surgery, and veteran CB Mike Jenkins is out after offseason shoulder surgery and his decision to skip the team's OTAs while asking to be traded. But it still looked a little unusual during team (11 on 11) drills when slot/nickel CB Orlando Scandrick was joined in the first-team secondary by CBs Brandon Carr and … Teddy Williams. The former UT-San Antonio track star remains a work in progress, and got advice from Scandrick and Carr — as well as from coaches — when he gave up completions.

• Scandrick read QB Tony Romo and jumped a route for what should have been an easy interception during 11-on-11 drills … but failed to hang on, drawing the ire of some of his defensive teammates and coaches.

• With the offseason exit of former Dallas LBs Bradie James and Keith Brooking, ILB Sean Lee has been tabbed by players and coaches as one of the leaders of the defense. That was on display when S 42 TKTK sought the advice of injured S Gerald Sensabaugh between drills. TKTK was getting some coaching from a veteran who knows the defense and had a perfect view of the play, but Lee made it clear TKTK needed to get read for the next snap.

• Veterans Ss Danny McCray and Brodney Pool and rookie Matt Johnson are viewed as being in a three-way race for the starting free safety job next to Sensabaugh. Johnson missed OTAs and this week's mini-camp because Eastern Washington's classes aren't finished and league rules prohibit rookies from taking part until classes are complete at their schools. But despite his absence, Dallas coaches continue to rave about Johnson's ability his intellence.

• Who ends up as the team's third WR behind starters Dez Bryant and Miles Austin remains to be seen, but Kevin Ogletree certainly staked his claim to the job Wednesday with a solid practice, during which he made several catches in heavy traffic, a couple of nice grabs on high passes in the back of the end zone and one on which he spun two defensive backs away from him with a pair of fakes before whirling around to snatch a pass down by his feet on the right sideline.

• Some Cowboys from yesteryear were in attendance at practice Wednesday, as Gil Brandt, Everson Walls and Jay Saldi (for the second straight day) visited the field at Valley Ranch.

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