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10 things we learned from ‘Back Together Saturday’

5) The Cowboys might be headed toward a running back reckoning. Ezekiel Elliott has not produced according to his contract, and Tony Pollard continues to linger in the shadows, waiting for his next occasional chance to produce. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones knows both carry value, but he also isn’t directing a good chunk of change toward Elliott just for fun.

“Zeke’s gotta be our feature, and he is our feature,” Jones said during an interview on NFL Network. “We can feature him in a lot of different ways. We all recognize what he does in the passing game because of his protection ability. Don’t ever underestimate that especially with Zeke. Zeke takes some tolls when he’s out there as a back blocking So it’s critical that we make Zeke — because he’s capable of being that — really the focus of what we’re doing.”

It’s an interesting scenario, because while Elliott does carry pass-protecting value, Pollard has proven to be a weapon in such scenarios as a pass catcher. Pollard has also shown flashes of being a slashing running back capable of shredding a defense. It’s nice to have both back there, but with Elliott’s hefty salary considered, it doesn’t feel like it’s tenable forever.

That would set up a prove-it year for Elliott, a back who still inched past the 1,000-yard mark last season as part of the NFL’s No. 1 offense, but still wasn’t the Pro Bowl-caliber back the Cowboys thought they were securing back in 2019. Opportunity exists once again for Pollard, even if the chances aren’t frequent. The latter should at least feel good knowing he’s on the owner’s radar. He’s certainly on mine.

6) The Cardinals aren’t leaving any stone unturned with Isaiah Simmons. Simmons’ leading attribute since his days at Clemson has been his freakish athleticism, so it was no surprise to see tweets flow from Glendale raving over Simmons’ ability to keep up with speedy receiver Andy Isabella. We know Simmons is fast. We know he can move. But what Simmons hasn’t come to the football world is whether he can turn that into becoming an effective defender.

Arizona seems to have recognized this, working Simmons into a hybrid role in camp that is described with a familiar position title: star. It’s not the same star manned by Jalen Ramsey in Los Angeles, but it is one that requires versatility. Simmons would fill the job of a linebacker and safety in nickel packages, capable of covering pass catchers while also stopping the run in the box. I see it more as a Rams Mark Barron gig than one that will ask Simmons to drop in pass coverage 50 times a game.

Most importantly, the Cardinals need to get legitimate production out of Simmons in Year 3. They can’t afford to spend consecutive first-rounders on two linebackers and fail to get quality return on either (the other being Zaven Collins, who started just six games last year). The league is moving toward an era in which we’ll see nickel and other sub packages more than traditional base defenses, so the box safety/hybrid linebacker is only going to become more prevalent. It sounds as if Arizona hopes Simmons can be that guy for them for a long time, starting with this camp.

7) The Bengals’ path back to the Super Bowl has encountered a detour. Joe Burrow underwent an appendectomy Wednesday and doesn’t have a set timetable for a return to camp. Zac Taylor did not have any updates on Burrow’s status Saturday, but he did say the quarterback has not returned to the facility since then.

“You want to leave him alone to an extent,” Taylor said, via The Athletic’s Paul Dehner Jr..

The appendix is ​​essentially a useless organ, so it doesn’t seem like a worrisome issue. The greater hurdle for Burrow might be the recovery from being operated on than anything. Still, the timing couldn’t be much worse for a quarterback entering Year 3 with the goal of getting his team back to the Super Bowl. The Bengals will have to make do without him for now.

8) Malik Willis’ adjustment from Liberty to the NFL isn’t going to happen overnight. Willis learned about the intensity of the NFL’s spotlight before he’d even reached training camp, and folks aren’t ignoring him as he takes his first practice reps in the NFL. It sounds as if his coaching staff is n’t, either.

Willis seemed to be slow to process and react during camp on Saturday, especially in non-contact (seven-on-seven) drills in which he held onto the ball longer than usual, by’s Terry McCormick. Coach Mike Vrabel didn’t shy from this afterward, telling reporters they’re working on Willis’ timing as he adjusts to the pro game.

Those eager to replace Ryan Tannehill with Willis might have to learn to be patient. It sounds like this will be more of a project than a quick succession, which shouldn’t surprise anyone, considering where the Titans selected him (the third round) in April.

9) Philadelphia is no longer waiting around for Jalen Reagor to prove he was worth the first-round pick. The Eagles went out and acquired AJ Brown in the offseason to pair with 2021 first-rounder DeVonta Smith, and it sounds as if they aren’t looking back to see if Reagor is keeping up.

“Yeah, we have great depth at the wide receiver position. He’s battling. He’s battling for a spot, and he is working with the twos right now,” Eagles coach Nick Sirianni said of Reagor on Saturday. “He’s gotten a lot of balls over the last two days out here, so he’s done a nice job and he is battling for a spot, he’s battling for his return spot. He’s worked hard in the offseason to come back in great shape. That’s something that we all noticed in the conditioning test, how good of shape Jalen (Hurts) was in. Yeah, he’s just battling for a spot.”

Battling for a spot. Got it. That battle is going to come against some stiff competition now that Brown is occupying a roster spot. Philadelphia remains high on the big-play potential of Quez Watkins, while Zach Pascal came over from the Colts to add another option for quarterback Jalen Hurts. There just aren’t as many spots to go around these days; This isn’t your 2020 bargain-bin Eagles receiving corps anymore.

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