Monday OTA insider news & notes

IRVING, Tex. - The Dallas Cowboys convened for the first time as a complete squad — or nearly complete, anyway — when the team opened its first OTA (Organized Team Activity) Monday at Valley Ranch.

Notable by their absence were wide receiver Patrick Crayton, who has stopped working out with the team altogether and has asked for a trade, and defensive end Marcus Spears, who missed Monday's session because of a scheduling conflict. Head coach Wade Phillips said he expects Spears back on the practice field Tuesday.

Also missing were four rookies, including seventh-round draft pick and nose tackle Sean Lissemore (William & Mary) and three free agents: tight end Scott Sicko (Dartmouth), running back Lonyae Miller (Fresno State) and wide receiver Terrell Hudgins (Elon). NFL rules stipulate that no unsigned rookies may take part in team activities until their university concludes its spring semester.

Two veterans sat out because of medical issues: linebacker Keith Brooking (knee) and nose tackle Jay Ratliff (elbows).

Notable by their presence were wide receiver Miles Austin and safety Gerald Sensabaugh, neither of whom has signed his contract tender. Each player signed an injury waiver, which basically states that if the player sustains a significant injury and can't play this season, he will be placed on injured reserve and will be paid. Austin and Sensabaugh both took part in all drills.

Also in attendance was quarterback Tony Romo, who had hoped to spend part of Monday trying to qualify for the U.S. Open Championship (he might get another chance to qualify later this week). Head coach Wade Phillips said after practice that football is "always first" for Romo, and added that Romo has not missed anything — including the option "teaching sessions" the team runs twice a week in the weeks leading up to mini-camps and OTAs — in Phillips' three years with the team. Phillips said he wouldn't have minded if Romo had begged out of Monday's session to try to qualify, but said the fact that he chose to work out with his teammates speaks to Romo's character and leadership ability.

Defensive play of the day: Cornerback Mike Jenkins turned what could have been the offensive play of the day into the defensive play of the day. Early in the session, receivers and defensive backs went one-on-one running (and covering) pass routes. Rookie free agent Verran Tucker ran a deep route down the left sideline and jumped for the ball just as he got to the goal line. He tipped the ball in the air, and as he and Jenkins fell to the ground, Tucker reached out and caught it … only to have Jenkins, who at this point was lying flat on his back, reach up and knock the ball out of Tucker's hands.

Stick with it: Moments after Jenkins' prone breakup, fellow cornerback Terence Newman showed that a wily veteran can make plays simply by having a little patience. Newman lined up against wideout Manuel Johnson, who ran a quick out route and leaped for a high pass. Newman didn't leave his feet, instead watching as Johnson slowed the ball down with his fingertips and deflecting it right into Newman's waiting arms.

Getting there: During the team's rookie mini-camp two weeks ago, top draft pick Dez Bryant's fitness — or apparent lack thereof — was scrutinized by the media, who watched the receiver from Oklahoma State as he tried not to throw up on the side of the practice field and frequently tried to catch his breath after running routes. Bryant looked like he has put in considerable work over the last two weeks, showing increased acceleration and appearing to be far less fatigued. He also continued to make outstanding catches, including several that he snagged with one hand.

Just drop it: Several players looked like they were involved in their first practice of the season (which was the case for all of the veterans) as a lot of passes ended up hitting the turf. Cornerback Cletis Gordon and linebacker Sean Lee dropped sure interceptions, while several receivers, including Tucker, Titus Ryan and Roy Williams dropped catchable passes. A few of Williams' drops came when he reached out one hand to grab passes that like would have been caught had he extended both hands.

Double-barrel weapon? It was just skeleton (seven-on-seven) drills, but the offense tried a new alignment when it went to a two-tight end set. John Phillips lined up at the line of scrimmage, while Jason Witten got set about a yard behind Phillips and a yard to one side or the other. When the ball was snapped, Witten was able to use Phillips sort of like a moving screen and base his route on how the defense reacted to Phillips. Witten sometimes stayed right behind Phillips before turning inside or outside at the last minute, and at other times, streaked past him on deeper routes. It's early, it was seven-on-seven, and it often game against a defense laden with rookies, but there were times when the defense looked baffled by the alignment.

Back in line: With the veteran Brooking out, Lee and Jason Williams alternated in Brooking's spot. Three groups of linebackers rotated in and out of drills, so while Williams took the first snaps with the first-team unit, there was no conclusive starter between the two. The other three linebackers in the first unit, of course, were Bradie James, DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer (who now is sporting something that looks vaguely like an NHL playoff beard, or maybe a hedgehog held up by sideburns); the "other three" on the second unit were Leon Williams, Victor Butler and Brandon Williams (so yes, there were times with three linebackers named Williams on the field at the same time); rounding out the third unit were Steve Octavien, Donovan Woods and Curtis Johnson.

Center of attention: With the release of Cory Proctor and Duke Preston, the Cowboys did a little shuffling on their offensive line. Kyle Kosier, the team's starting left guard, worked with the second-team offensive line at center. Phillips said after practice that Kosier has some experience at center, having started some games there with the San Francisco 49ers early in his career, and that his ability to play center would allow the Cowboys to carry backup guard Montrae Holland on its active roster. Holland was inactive every week last season.

That's just offensive: When the team went to 11-on-11 drills, the starting offensive line was what everyone expected: left tackle Doug Free, Kosier at left guard, Andre Gurode at center, Leonard Davis at right guard and Marc Colombo at right tackle. The second unit consisted of newly-acquired Alex Barron at left tackle, Holland at left guard, Kosier at center, Pat McQuistan at right guard and Robert Brewster at right tackle. The third line had Will Baker at left tackle, Mike Tepper at left guard, Travis Bright at center, Chet Teofilo at right guard and Sam Young at right tackle.

Nice hangtime: Coaches generally seek velocity and accuracy more than hangtime on deep passes, but scoring sometimes are the result of quarterbacks who have a sense of timing and can put a lot of touch on a deep pass. One of the nicest throws of the day was turned by … Stephen McGee, who took a snap, reared back and fired a ball straight down the middle of the field that was so high it looked like a weak punt. But it stayed in the air long enough that receiver Titus Ryan, who had been tangled at the line of scrimmage with Terence Newman, still had time to run under it for the catch at the goal line.

No substitute for familiarity: When talking about the development of young quarterbacks, coaches often talk about the timing that must grow between a passer and his receivers. Many feel a quarterback is coming of age when he has such trust with his receivers that he can throw a pass before the receiver makes a cut in his route and still hit his target. Romo and Witten, who have been teammates and close friends since they arrived in Dallas together in 2003, obviously have that down. At least twice Monday, they toyed with young defenders, as Romo threw intermediate passes with such accuracy that Witten actually was able to make two separate moves after the ball was thrown … and still have the pass hit him right in the hands. That timing is something that is a result of time and endless practice together.

Return to sender: Four players took turns fielding punts at the end of practice: Bryant, Ryan, Gordon and cornerback Bryan McCann. The quartet fielded punts for about 15 minutes, and they fielded the ball cleanly. Only Gordon muffed a punt.

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