The Dallas Cowboys have started the preseason 0-2 and that has brought about some mixed feelings. On one hand, the results of preseason games don’t mean squadoosh. But on the other hand, the Cowboys depth has stumbled and made the second half of games excruciating to watch. Should fans be concerned?
Well, here is a tidbit of information that should make you feel a little better.
In the preseason of 2016, the Cowboys starters were really good at getting leads and the reserves were really good at blowing them.— Dan Rogers (@DannyPhantom24) August 20, 2018
They seem to be at it again this preseason.
They went 13-3 in 2016. I hear that's pretty good. pic.twitter.com/IoOgQlycjw
The Cowboys first-team has been really good so far this preseason. Not only has the defense pitched a shut-out, but the offense has scored on three of their four possessions, producing a total of 17 points. If you extrapolate that into a half of football, that’s pretty good. They would be on pace to beat teams 34-0 and would have outstanding offensive and defensive production. Of course, that’s not realistic.
Unfortunately, adversity strikes and as the team experienced first-hand last year - it can really leave a mark if they are not prepared. Last season, they were not prepared. Injuries to Tyron Smith and Sean Lee put a tire-boot on their respective squads and at different points in the year - those squads struggled.
Needless to say, depth is important. So, it’s perfectly understandable if fans are feeling uneasy about certain areas on the team. The good news is there are quite a few position groups that look pretty good, which hasn’t always been the case for these particular areas of the team. Before we get to the real concerns of this Cowboys roster, let’s take a moment to appreciate the good things.
In too deep
It’s easy to get excited about the Cowboys defensive end group. Rod Marinelli is going to have a ball putting together his rotation of pass rushers. The guys on the edge are outstanding led by All-Pro stud DeMarcus Lawrence. But now all of a sudden they got Taco Charlton and Randy Gregory exploding off the edge. Throw in reliable veteran Tyrone Crawford and the surprise play of rookie Dorance Armstrong, and how can you not love this group?
Typically, this group isn’t listed as high because it all hinges on whether or not Sean Lee can stay healthy. But that is no more. While Lee’s health is of absolute importance, this group is filled with playmakers. Starting with a potential breakout player in Jaylon Smith, this team will have a fierce starting duo on the field. And then there is the Cowboys newest first-round pick in Leighton Vander Esch. It will take a little while before he reaches his full potential, but the kid is athletic and should still be able to contribute.
While those three guys have talent, it doesn’t stop there. Damien Wilson is a great reserve player and is playing with a lot more energy this season. Free agent Joe Thomas is also performing well as he had a great first preseason game. Even bottom guy Justin March-Lillard offers the team more playmaking ability than previous depth guys like Kyle Wilber. March Nzeocha, and Andrew Gachkar. They are great at the top and they are pretty good at the bottom.
If this was a “how good of are the starters” piece, then this position group wouldn’t be this high. This is not to suggest that the Cowboys starting WRs are one of the strongest parts of this team, however, when it comes to how well they could handle adversity - this group is up there. The reason for that is because the Cowboys have a lot of guys who are pretty good. The five “locks” of Allen Hurns, Cole Beasley, Terrance Williams, Michael Gallup, and Tavon Austin all have performed well so far. The way each of them fit with Dak Prescott gives the Cowboys young quarterback so many choices. On four drives from the first team, Dak has completed passes for first-downs six times - Gallup (twice), Williams (twice), Hurns, and Rod Smith.
People are going to warm up to this group rather quickly when these new route-running receivers keep the chains moving.
There are some positions where the Cowboys aren’t overloaded with quality players, but might be better off than some realize if they were to endure an injury to a starter. Let’s take a look at some of the position groups where the team has viable replacements on their bench.
Stuck in the middle
Ezekiel Elliott is arguably the best player on the team. We haven’t seen any preseason action from him this season, but that’s okay - we don’t need to. Once he returns to the field, this Cowboys offense becomes even better. And since the team is being extra cautious with their All-Pro running back, it has allowed Rod Smith to get some reps with the first team. Smith is nowhere near as explosive as Zeke, but he is an effective runner. He can catch passes out of the backfield and has exhibited some real growth as a complete back.
We don’t know what backs will fill out the depth chart, but what we do know is this - the Cowboys have a superstar starter and a reliable backup.
This will be a big year for Prescott as he tries to have a year more like his rookie season. Despite some struggles last season, he has played well in 75% of his games, with his only issues coming after Tyron Smith got hurt. When he’s had time, he’s been pretty good for this offense. Fans are hopeful this holds true and that the improvements the team has made to the receiving group can help Dak perform even better.
Backup quarterback Cooper Rush is not having the stellar preseason performance like he did last year, but that’s okay. He’s doing fine. Rush is 21/32 (66%) for 182 yards with one touchdown. Like Dak, he’s yet to throw a pick during his entire preseason career. To be fair, it’s been a challenge for him to have time to work in the pocket as the second-string offensive line is doing him no favors.
When you look around the league and watch all the other backup quarterbacks play, the Cowboys are sitting in decent shape at this position.
This is a group I am pleased to place in this tier group as the Cowboys are in better shape than expected. Maliek Collins has yet to step on the field, but when he does - he’s going to provide some help in the middle. The biggest surprise is 1-tech Antwaun Woods. He continues to put together good reps and might end up being the Cowboys opening day starter alongside Collins.
There is a drop-off after these two. Former first-round pick Datone Jones (Green Bay) and second-round pick Jihad Ward (Oakland) are still not living up to their draft price, but they have had moments in camp where they’ve been solid. The same can be said for Brian Price.
This alone would not be enough to place this group in this tier, but with how well the youngsters are playing along the edge, you could see Tyrone Crawford drawing some assignments inside as well. And while being really conservative with any David Irving expectations, we can’t complete disregard him as part of the equation. The guy can certainly wreak havoc when he’s got it together. Marinelli will put together a rotation that can get the job done.
There is nothing great about the Cowboys starting tight ends, but there is nothing terrible about their reserves. This group flirts with being in the bottom, but there is one important thing to remember when it comes to the Cowboys tight ends and that is how they are used. Blocking is such a key part of their job and the main three guys - Geoff Swaim, Blake Jarwin, and Dalton Schultz, are all doing a good job in that department. In fact, watching the tape, these guys are doing a better job holding their blocks than some of the reserve offensive lineman. People may want to label this group as weak, but that is because the starters are mediocre at best. But they have three guys who are almost interchangeable so their floor isn’t too far behind.
The Cowboys don’t have a super-talented space tight end, but these guys can run bootleg routes, curls underneath, and set the edge in the running game. They are not going to be asked to do things that they are unable to do and this is a group that can play within themselves and handle their assignments. They won’t be flashy, but they’ll be effective.
Speaking of flashy, the one guy who fans can imagine being a star pass catching tight end is the one guy who is on the verge of being cut. Rico Gathers is an incredible athlete, but can he do enough to be the team’s tight end? It’s a fair question and we still have two more preseason games before the answer will be revealed.
So, which groups have been identified as the biggest positions of concern? Well, when you start evaluating the bench guys, there are certain areas that have been dreadful for the Cowboys this preseason.
The bottom line
With three All-Pro’s in this group and the quality play of La’el Collins, it’s a little disappointing to see this squad this low. The team addressed two major deficiencies last year when they signed swing tackle Cameron Fleming and drafted new left guard Connor Williams. But things have not gone so peachy for these two. As expected, Williams has had his rookie moments and that’s going to follow him throughout the year. He will get better, but the Cowboys will have some instances where a bad play will stymie the offense. It goes with the territory.
What becomes more alarming is what happens if starters start getting hurt. The team has already had scares with both Travis Frederick (neck) and Zack Martin (knee) dealing with injuries. Those guys never miss games and all of a sudden, they’re getting hurt. While both are expected to be good to go when the regular season begins, the team will rely on backups Joe Looney (center) and Kadeem Edwards (guard) to fill the void. The good news is both of these players are doing pretty good.
The depth at the tackle position isn’t as positive. Current backup swing tackle Fleming has been a little shaky at the position. And the team’s other backup tackle Chaz Green has been flat-out atrocious. For a team that has seen their All-Pro left tackle miss game action in recent years, this becomes a cause for concern for Cowboys Nation. The coaching staff needs to take action now to help improve this position group. Just as Chief Brody said in the movie Jaws 2 - they better do something about this one because I don’t intend to go through that hell again.
If you were disappointed to see the offensive line in this group, then it’s really got to be painful to see the cornerbacks here. It doesn’t seem like very long ago, this was a group we were excited about. The starters on the outside are living up to the hype as both Byron Jones and Chido Awuzie have been playing extremely well. But the guys behind them aren’t doing so hot.
Anthony Brown is so erratic. On some plays he looks like he did his rookie season, but then on others - he’s getting beat and grabbing receivers like he did last season. He’s been a real hot and cold player over the last few weeks. It’s still early and hopefully he can still grow into a viable nickel corner.
The most disappointing player from this position group is Jourdan Lewis. After being one of the team’s most effective corners last season, he has completely fallen out of the starting unit. And while some fans claim the coaching staff is doing him wrong, his performance on the field is not indicative of such. He’s not playing well.
And if that is not bad enough, there isn’t anyone further down the depth chart making a push for a roster spot. There were reasons to be hopeful for players like Duke Thomas, Marquez White, and Charvarius Ward at different points during training camp, but everyone has gone south all of a sudden. If things don’t improve, this could be a problem for the defense.
The Cowboys have a problem at safety. We’ve been hoping that some player would emerge from the hills and wow us with roster-worthy play, but so far - that hasn’t happened yet. Jeff Heath is playing well and he might the the lone bright spot in the entire safety group. People were high on Xavier Woods, but a hamstring injury has given him a setback. Kavon Frazier is okay, but now he’ll be thrown into starter duty.
The team’s problem at safety doesn’t stop at just a lackluster starting unit. The depth is... well, nothing. They have no depth. They have some undrafted free agents on the roster, but nobody is doing anything to give us fans hope. There is only one thing that would make this all better and it would require a trade with the Seattle Seahawks. Just like that, all our sorrows would go away.
The Earl Thomas trade may never materialize, but the Cowboys need to whip up something to help this safety group. This is a passing league and with some new questions at the corner position, they can’t afford to have problems at safety as well. It’s time to bring someone over.