DALLAS — The departure of tight end Jason Witten and receiver Dez Bryant has left quite the leadership void in the Dallas Cowboys locker room, but younger players must rise to the occasion.
The biggest player to replace is no doubt Witten, who third-year quarterback Dak Prescott says was like a coach with the way he conducted himself in the locker room.
"With him being gone, not only me, but it's required of a lot of our young guys who can be leaders," Prescott said Tuesday at his eponymous Pro Camps in Haughton, La. "It's made them step up and it's made them a great young team."
Running back Ezekiel Elliott was more vocal during organized team activities and mini-camp during the spring. The offensive line has a swath of leaders with center Travis Frederick, right guard Zack Martin, and left tackle Tyron Smith. From a defensive standpoint, cornerback Byron Jones has observed the changes on the offensive side and notes that the passage of time moves players in and out. It is about the players who remain taking the leadership spots.
"It's not about just replacing Dez and just replacing Witten," Jones said Wednesday at the 14th annual Gatorade Beat the Heat program at Newman Smith High School in Carrollton. "It's about finding guys who are going to rise to the opportunity. Within football, guys come and go. It's just life. Players come and go. So, somebody is going to fill that spot and kind of bring their own different energy to the football field."
Jones, who used to talk trash with Witten in off-season and training camp practices when he played safety, will quickly discover who has the leadership traits among the new receiving corps as he transitions to full time cornerback. The wideout group features veterans Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley, and Noah Brown along with free agents Allen Hurns and Deonte Thompson. Rookies Michael Gallup and Cedrick Wilson, Jr. may also show some flashes of leadership in training camp in Oxnard, Calif. in late July.
"I've got to pick some receivers out now," said Jones. "I don't guard any tight ends anymore, just receivers. We've got a good group of receivers. It's not ridiculous. We have fun back there with the back and forth. If I'm holding a little too much, they'll let me know. It's all fun in the competition."
Jones says the art to trash-talking with teammates is to never go below the belt, but to stick to what is factual.
Said Jones: "It's tough. You can't go below the belt. You can't do that. If you're a teammate, you don't want to go below the belt and create a grudge and kind of have this friction between the two guys. But when we're on the field, we understand the idea is to compete, and competition, you've got to jaw a little bit. 'Hey, you were strapped on that route.' 'Hey, you're holding me on this one.' But that's just life. That's just ball, and we enjoy the whole thing."
The Cowboys are hoping to enjoy the 2018 season as young leaders step up and fill the leadership void in the locker room.
Do you think the young Cowboys pass catchers will be able to fill the shoes of the departed legends? Share your thoughts with Mark on Twitter @therealmarklane.