We know that preseason is a terrible time to evaluate team vs team matchups. We've also learned that preseason is, instead, a chance to watch the lesser-known, down-roster and less experienced players compete for roster spots. It serves as an evaluation game, for both the hardcore fans and coaching staffs alike.
OCC has already primed us for the glory that is preseason with this post on how to enjoy the preseason games.
Like all things, however, watching the preseason properly is not the result of simply flipping a binary switch (in this case, watching the football vs. not watching the football) and everything else correcting itself. No, preseason football is more complex than that.
So we know that we're supposed to be watching individuals and position groups. What now?
If we see Eric Rogers create separation on an 'in' cut, then break a tackle on the way to the end zone, do we get on the phone immediately to start cooking up Miles Austin trade scenarios? (No, Miles won't be traded this year. This is an example.)
The obvious answer is 'no; you don't.' Eric Rogers created separation at one point in the past, or he wouldn't be in the NFL. The same can be said for every receiver to ever schedule a tryout with an NFL team. Breaking a tackle on the way to the endzone is also very likely to be on their resumés, at some point in their careers.
The missing component, that tells you whether or not a play by Eric Rogers is something to get excited about, is the play of those around Eric Rogers, those supporting him and those opposing him. If Miami's 10th cornerback - a converted shoe salesman on loan from a Lithuanian farm team - is the one he's separating against, and the broken tackle comes against an overzealous ball boy, then the play likely doesn't force the Cowboys' hands when it comes time to cut or keep the man. (And by the way, the Dolphins only have nine cornerbacks.)
With this in mind, it seems necessary to know a bit about the opposing team - particularly the players opposing the players we want to evaluate.
The positions most in need of evaluation, in my opinion, are the Dallas offensive line, safety corps, and tight ends.
Cowboys Offensive Line vs Dolphins Defensive Line
The Cowboys' offensive line needs little introduction, so suffice it to say that this unit needed help this offseason. Our goal throughout the preseason will be to assess whether or not we've received that help. In assessing this group, we'll have to take a look at the Miami Dolphins' defensive line in order to see what level of competition we'll have in the trenches.
The Miami DLine is by all accounts a tough unit. Their two interior starters add up to at least 650 pounds. While Larry Allen might be able to bench press the two of them for a few reps, the Cowboys current interior line is an entirely different story. David Arkin has been said, in the past, to be lacking NFL strength. Phil Costa has been known to struggle against the bull rush. Paul Soliai should be an adequate test for the two of them, should they have the chance to compete with him.
Jared Odrick is a young player in the prime of his career that's worth looking at, as well. The Miami line has recently converted, like ours, from a 3-4 to a 4-3 alignment. Unlike our line, however, the Miami unit was not of the 'undersized' variety, in any sense, and thus has a full stable of 300+-pound guys to throw at our interior offensive line. Camp reports suggest that Leary and Frederick have good anchor strength, and this will be a chance for them to show it.
On the outside, this Miami unit is a mixed bag. According to the Ourlads.com depth chart, the Miami defensive ends range from 245 pounds on up to 297 pounds. My advice is to keep that depth chart handy in order to reference jersey numbers during the game, allowing you to more readily know what types of players we're blocking on the edge. For starters, #91 (Cameron Wake) just might be able to generate some pressure against our second-string tackles, while #95 (Dion Jordan, profiled here by Archie Barberio) should provide for some interesting matchups.
Cowboys Safeties vs Dolphins Tight Ends
If you tried to defend the Cowboys' offensive line this offseason with arguments about upside, continuity, and other valid points, any competent naysayer would counter with 'but what about the safety position?'
The Cowboys are starting the season with a 3-game starter, an aged journeyman, and what amounts to a pair of rookies at the position. So far, reports from camp have been positive regarding the safeties' progress, but now we'll be looking for confirmation of that progress on the field.
The Dolphins will be providing a decent test in Dustin Keller, a tight end who performed admirably despite being forced to rely on 'the Sanchize.' Charles Clay, a converted fullback, is in the mix at tight end (but one would think it more likely that he's an H-Back at best), and Michael Egnew rounds out the top three.
Without Clay, the pair of Keller and Egnew are capable of stretching defenses down the seam (both ran 4.5 at the combine) and, while Keller is only 6'2, Egnew stands a respectable 6'5. It will be interesting to see if our young safeties can carry these size-speed-mass combinations down the field and compete for the ball; it'll be more interesting to see whether our young safeties can punish these size-speed-mass combinations by de-cleating them in the open field.
On one final note, it can be said that Ryan Tannehill is not one of the top, say, ten quarterbacks in the league. His passes might provide the opportunity for our safeties to showcase their newfound focus on takeaways.
Cowboys Tight Ends vs Dolphins Safeties
The Cowboys are switching to a tight end-heavy scheme this season, so the play throughout the position should warrant evaluation.
he Dolphins have a safety who believes he should be known as 'elite' in Reshad Jones. Jones should make for an interesting matchup against Dallas' top tight ends due to his athletic characteristics. His numbers range from the safety prototype (6'1" tall, 4.51 forty, 39.5" vertical, 24 bench reps) in length and explosiveness to simply bad (4.54 short shuttle, 7.43 three-cone) in the agility department. How will he match up with Gavin Escobar, or James Hanna, or even Jason Witten? It's a matchup I'm excited to see. Jones wears #20.
Chris Clemons, on the other side, is a more balanced athlete, with blazing speed (4.33 forty) and acceptable agility. This particular safety might overmatch our young tight ends, so keep your eyes out for Miami's #30 when Escobar and Hanna see the field. I'll be very excited if they win this battle.
Miami's primary safety backups, Jimmy Wilson (27) and Kelcie McCray (37), are both great athletic specimens that may be on the rise.