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USATSI

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic isn't expected to push the NFL to the brink of a shutdown as it did in 2020, but that doesn't mean it isn't still impacting what the league would like to do. Things are much more promising in 2021 with the availability of vaccines -- to the point some are predicting full stadiums this fall -- but the NFLPA is still not comfortable with players attending voluntary workouts as they get underway ahead of the 2021 NFL Draft. To that point, players of 19 teams chose to issue statements making it clear they'd remain 100 percent virtual, but the Dallas Cowboys aren't one of them.

Players in North Texas have been showing up at the team's headquarters in Frisco, Texas, for weeks now to ramp up their strength and conditioning work, sources tell CBS Sports, including two-time Pro Bowl quarterback Dak Prescott, who is working to put the finishing touches on his injury rehabilitation

That remains the case as the start of of the voluntary program officially lands on Monday, April 19, with players continuing to file in to get an early start following a disappointing 6-10 finish to last season. Players are not allowed to meet physically with coaches, however, and must do so in virtual sessions that must not last longer than two hours; but strength training can continue for those who've already been doing it, and commence for those who hadn't yet begun theirs inside the team's facility. 

With the firing of defensive coordinator Mike Nolan and others, seeing them replaced by Dan Quinn and newly hired defensive assistant coaches, the Cowboys hope to avoid the debacle of last season that was largely fueled by their inability to successfully install a new coaching regime virtually. In parting ways with longtime head coach Jason Garrett to hire Mike McCarthy, the club was scheduled to begin their offseason program two weeks prior to teams that hadn't made a change at head coach, but instead found themselves without an in-person offseason whatsoever -- a truncated and slimmed down version of training camp notwithstanding.

There's also an element of finances to this as well, with several Cowboys having contract language tied directly to workout bonuses. 

For example, players like DeMarcus Lawrence, Ezekiel Elliott, Amari Cooper and the aforementioned Prescott (who inked his historic four-year deal in early March) all have $500,000 de-escalators in their contract that would trigger if they don't participate in the bulk of offseason workouts. And with the NFL having opened the door for a return to traditional conditioning, teams could penalize players for not showing up. It's undetermined if that will actually take place around the league, given the reason driving the decision by entire rosters and/or small pockets of players to stay virtual, but it remains a possibility. 

As it stands, Cowboys players are neither taking the chance of losing salary nor of again falling behind the eight ball for a second consecutive year. It bears mentioning Dallas was one of several teams that rarely suffered a personnel hit in 2020 due to COVID-19, their most notable COVID/Reserve List addition having been quarterback Andy Dalton. Outside of that, they moved less than a handful of players to the list during the season after Elliott tested positive during the summer -- serving as the wake-up call that helped fuel an impressive adherence to the team's and league's COVID-19 protocol throughout the season.

It's for this reason they feel safe to show up in April, while others opt to stay away from their respective facilities.