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Taking A Look Forward At Cowboys' Regular Season Prospects

For the Dallas starters, the preseason is over. Now we can see the outlines of how this team is going to roll into real football.

Sacks. Are. Coming.
Sacks. Are. Coming.
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Although the Dallas Cowboys have one final preseason game to play against the Houston Texans, it is basically over for most of the starters. That final game is going to be all about evaluating the bottom of the roster players to see who will make the first version of the 53-man roster pending any signings from the waiver wire. We now have enough data to have at least a preliminary idea of what this team is and what it might be able to do this season.

One thing that is almost certain is that this team is going to come out of the gate a lot faster than it did in 2014. The Cowboys were just not up to speed for the opening kickoff against the San Francisco 49ers last year. The first quarter of that game was basically a trainwreck. That does not look like it is going to happen this year. What we saw in that dismal start was largely taken care of in the "dress rehearsal" against the Minnesota Vikings. The offensive line needed a good part of the first quarter to get everything working together, and once they did, the offense started to roll. The defense was pretty stout from the beginning while still seeming to mesh more as the game progressed. Hopefully the team is going to hit the field with that same cohesion and agressiveness that we saw before the starters started to go to the safety of the sidelines against Minnesota. They will need a fast start this season with the early schedule they face.

Tony Romo was especially sharp, a far cry from where he was after missing so much practice time. His back is also holding up very well and he explained the difference that makes in his game.

He showed his classic form in the touchdown play to Lucky Whitehead. While the coaches would probably have preferred he not put himself at risk that way in the preseason, it was a thing of beauty to watch. His improvisational skills looked as sharp as ever. If he can stay healthy, the ceiling for him this season is incredibly high.

The running back situation may look a bit murky still, but the results so far in preseason may indicate that the team will be best served by keeping the workloads for Joseph Randle and Darren McFadden split fairly evenly. Although the sample size is very small, it does hint that the second back to see much action may actually have an advantage, since that has been the way it went in the second and third games. It may be that Randle and McFadden may see their work split out mostly by quarter, and whoever gets the ball in the second and fourth stanzas will benefit from the pounding the defense is taking from that offensive line.

Meanwhile, it is almost impossible not to feel almost giddy about what we are seeing from the pass rush and the defense in general. If you haven't noticed, there have been no touchdowns scored when the first and second teamers are in, and that has been with very limited time for many of the top linebackers and defensive backs. What we have been seeing is a strong and relentless push from the top eight or ten defensive linemen. Rod Marinelli has already been mixing the groupings up with mad scientist glee, and the wealth of position flexibility has already started to pay off. Randy Gregory has been the statistical star with three sacks and one that was cancelled by a penalty, but they are coming because the front four is collapsing the pocket as a unit. Gregory has just been the one to be closest to the quarterback when he goes down. Sacks are coming. And the run defense looked much better against the Vikings as well. It is hard to overstate the impact of having Sean Lee back. He looked very good in his limited action, and seems a natural fit at the weakside spot.

Special teams were the one big negative from the Minnesota game, but it appears that the failures were due to bad lane discipline and missed assignments. Those at least are correctable. For whatever reason, Dallas has a recent history of looking very bad on teams in preseason. While this does bear close watching, there is reason to believe that this will be righted in the regular season.

One other lingering negative is the weakness of the backup quarterbacks. It is starting to look like the Dustin Vaughan experiment may be all but over. He has just not looked at all comfortable since the first preseason game. Jameill Showers, while not dazzling as a quarterback, has at least looked like he is more comfortable as a passer and shows some ability to make reads and work through progressions, while also having more ability to keep a play alive with his legs. His unique skills as a special teams contributor give the team an option most franchises don't have of keeping Showers as a special teams player who also serves as the disaster quarterback. Even if the team decides to go with just Romo and Brandon Weeden on the 53, Showers is probably more attractive as a practice squad member if he can make it through waivers.

Every year, there seems to be a surprise find or two for the Cowboys. Last year two players who fell into that category were Jeremy Mincey and Anthony Hitchens. Mincey was an unheralded free agent acquisition who went on to lead the team in sacks while becoming one of the few reliable, quality defensive linemen the team had from game to game. And Hitchens completely exceeded expectations by starting games at all three linebacker positions and acquitting himself quite well. This year, two candidates for that kind of consideration are Corey White and Andrew Gachkar, free agents whose signings were completely overshadowed by the Greg Hardy furor. White has been very solid so far and like first-round pick Byron Jones is being used as both a cornerback and safety. Gachkar saw work at middle linebacker, and was surprisingly competent there. With Rolando McClain out for at least four weeks and now being talked about for PUP to start the season, Gachkar may be  more valuable on defense than in his originally envisioned role as a special teams ace - which may factor into the Showers decision.

There are still a lot of moving parts to fit into place, but they involve the bottom of the roster. The overall outlook for the Cowboys is shaping up to be pretty good. They have a challenging first half of the season, so we will quickly find out what this team is really made of. But don't be afraid to have some optimism. There are many reasons for it in 2015.

Follow me @TomRyleBTB

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