This preseason, the Dallas Cowboys are still searching for a lot of answers. Most of the focus has been on backup quarterback Dak Prescott, who has been making a nearly unassailable case to become the QB2 in his rookie season. But there are lots of other players that the team is looking at as the roster cuts draw ever closer. And when certain players get a lot of time on the field in preseason games, that is an indication that the staff wants to see what they have in each one. For some, it may be about seeing if they prove themselves. For others, a heavy workload can indicate that the staff is trying to find a spot for them. And the extra time on the field can also be used to try and give players more time to develop.
The situation is complicated by who is not available for a game. A player might get a long, hard look mainly because too many ahead of him on the depth chart are on the bench nursing an injury. But with that in mind, here are some of the players who have to fight for a chance that got a lot of work against the Miami Dolphins. (All numbers from the NFL’s stat sheet for the game.)
OT Chaz Green - 74% of offensive plays, 27% of special teams plays
Green has been forced into a lot of work with the absence of Tyron Smith, but there is little doubt that the team is using this as an opportunity to force-feed his training. He is the leading candidate to become the swing tackle on the current roster. Based on several reports, including one from Bryan Broaddus, he has already shown noticeable improvement from the first preseason game to the second. Although he had a lot of penalties, he had some good plays in the running game and, most importantly, he did not allow significant hits on any of the quarterbacks due to a blown assignment.
OT Bryan Witzmann - 69% of offensive plays, 17% of special teams plays
Witzmann is apparently the next best of the current options for Dallas if Green does not pan out. His workload is also driven by the team giving Doug Free very limited work. He may be more of a practice squad candidate, but he was second only to Green in snaps for the entire roster.
TE Austin Traylor - 32% of offensive plays, 47% of special teams plays
Here the number that sparks some interest for Traylor is the ST one. That is one of the highest numbers on the roster (only three players were on the field for 50% or more of the ST opportunities). Rich Bisaccia will get a few players for his ST units, and that can make the difference for guys on the bubble. He also was the most used tight end on offense for the game, and reportedly is showing better blocking skills than any other. With James Hanna out for an undetermined time, Traylor may suddenly be a dark horse to watch for the final 53-man roster.
WR Andy Jones - 32% of offensive plays, 43% of special teams plays
Jones redeemed himself somewhat as a receiver, catching the only ball thrown to him, but the opportunities on special teams may be much more important. The staff may be trying to carve out a role for him.
TE Geoff Swaim - 29% of offensive plays, 50% of special teams plays
Like Jones, Swaim also put a bad first game behind him, catching both his targets in the game despite being used a bit less than Traylor in the offense. And he was one of the two players to see the field on exactly half of the ST plays. With Hanna’s situation, Swaim may be getting very close to being a lock to make the team.
FB Keith Smith - 23% of offensive plays, 53% of special teams plays
Rod Smith missed the game due to a minor injury issue, and that may cost him dearly. Keith Smith got all the fullback plays and acquitted himself well, but more importantly, he played more special teams snaps than anyone else. That kind of utility could be the tipping point in whether the team carries a fullback or not, and he is doing a lot to move things in his direction.
DL Shaneil Jenkins - 64% of defensive plays, 7% of special teams plays
For big guys like Jenkins, special teams are not much of a factor. The main thing is that he saw more defensive snaps than any other player, and was used both inside and outside. He came up with another sack, his second of the preseason. Given how badly the team needs to find players who can get to the quarterback, he is taking full advantage of the opportunity he has while the team is short-handed on the D line.
DE Mike McAdoo - 58% of defensive plays, 3% of special teams plays
DE Ryan Russell - 56% of defensive plays, 7% of special teams plays
I list McAdoo and Russell together because their numbers are so close, only one play separating them defensively. This may be a direct battle between the two of them for a roster spot this year.
LB James Morris - 45% of defensive plays, 50% of special teams plays
Morris was tied with Derek Akunne for the most snaps by a linebacker, and has a 10% edge on him on ST. There is a real battle for the last linebacker spot or two, and it really looks like the team is trying to get him into one of them.
Those are the most obvious players that were being given a lot of chances to prove themselves. Next week is the “dress rehearsal” game against the Seattle Seahawks, and the play percentages then may be even more indicative of who is gaining some ground for one of the last few spots on the roster. We will try and revisit these numbers after that game to see how things are stacking up.