The Dallas Cowboys open the season against the San Francisco 49ers this Sunday. To help us prepare for what the 49ers are bringing this year, we'll be doing several collaborations with Niners Nation, SB Nation's excellent 49ers blog. We'll open with "Under the Radar" players for each team. These are guys the opposition might not be thinking much about but could have a big impact on the game. So below I gave two Cowboys players who might surprise on Sunday, and NN gave us two 49ers to keep an eye on.
The Cowboys offense is loaded with big names at the skill positions. Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, DeMarco Murray, they are the core that the Cowboys are counting on to put points on the board and keep the team competitive with a shaky defense. One guy that might sneak in and play a very valuable role is second-string running back Lance Dunbar. Dunbar is a small, jitterbug of a back who you want to get into space and turn loose. The Cowboys will pound teams with a heavy dose of DeMarco Murray, but they'll mix that up by giving the ball to Dunbar or better yet, get him out on screens and short passes where they can take advantage of his elusiveness.
New offensive coordinator Scott Linehan has used running backs in similar ways throughout his career, most recently Reggie Bush in Detroit. Dunbar won't see that many touches, but in short bursts he can be a very dynamic player who gives the Cowboys offense a new element of attack. His problem has been staying healthy. In the short time he's actually spent on the field, he's been very dangerous. It's just that he's had trouble staying on the field. Hopefully 2014 will be the season we get to use his talents to the fullest.
The defensive under the radar guy is someone who used to be very much above the radar, but put himself under the radar for his own personal reasons. The Cowboys thought they were set at middle linebacker until Sean Lee tore up his knee during an OTA practice. Suddenly, there was a big void in the middle. The Cowboys tried a few guys that were on the roster to fill the spot, but indications are they are going to go with a guy they got in a cheap trade in early July.
Rolando McClain was a big-time college linebacker from Alabama that was drafted eighth overall by the Raiders in 2010. For a brief time he lived up to his draft position, but things suddenly turned sour. He had multiple brushes with the law, bounced around to a few teams and retired from the NFL a couple of times. So far, McClain seems to want to play football again, and you can still see his talent during his snaps in preseason games. It looks like he's going to get a shot at nailing down the middle linebacker spot this year for Dallas. We'll see how he does against the 49ers.
The 49ers have some new additions on offense, but my choice for underrated is second year tight end Vance McDonald. The 49ers used a second round pick on him in the 2013 NFL Draft, having let Delanie Walker depart in free agency. McDonald focused primarily on blocking as a rookie, and there were concerns about potential drops. He reportedly struggled at times early in training camp, but during the 49ers preseason games, he looked very solid. It was a small sample size, but it has 49ers fans optimistic.
The 49ers have a lot of depth in their passing game, particularly with the addition of Stevie Johnson. Although McDonald could very well be the fourth or fifth option on a given passing play, look to see him active, both in passing and blocking. He is a tight end, but you'll occasionally see him in the fullback role, and other times split out as a wide receiver. You'll see a lot of him on Sunday.
Outside linebacker Aldon Smith is suspended for the first nine games of the 49ers season. In his place, Dan Skuta is listed as the starting outside linebacker on the depth chart, but Corey Lemonier will be the guy to watch. Skuta and Lemonier split time during Smith's rehab stint, with Skuta handling base down work, and Lemonier coming in on the nickel. The 49ers spend enough time in nickel that it results in plenty of playing time for Lemonier.
If the 49ers are going to get to Romo and hurry him up, Lemonier is going to be as important as anybody. Ahmad Brooks and others will be involved, but I sense that Lemonier is the guy who gets the most pressure on Romo. Skuta is a very capable linebacker, but he is not on the team to be a frequent pass rusher. That will be Lemonier's role while Aldon Smith is suspended.