The Dallas Cowboys will host the Arizona Cardinals tonight (NBC) in what is expected to be the “dress rehearsal” game. It will be our best chance to get a look at the starters before the regular season. It’s been a rough week for the Cowboys in terms of health as the team will be without two All-Pro offensive linemen, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin. Not only will the interior of the offensive line be missing, but the interior of the defense is still without Maliek Collins and David Irving. Second-year safety Xavier Woods suffered a hamstring injury last week and he will be out of action for the next few weeks. Outside of those five starters being out, we should get a glimpse of everyone else. Which players will you be keeping an eye on? Here is a position-by-position breakdown on what to watch during the Cardinals game.
QUARTERBACK - Cooper Rush
There has been some talk about holding out some of the really important offensive star players due to the shape of the Cowboys offensive line. Stephen Jones said that’s something they will definitely talk about.
“We will make decisions based on that. If we don’t’ have Travis and Zack out there, then obviously that exposes you a little more.”
But then, things went from bad to worse when two more starting offensive linemen were sitting out of practice on Friday.
The Cowboys held out LT Tyron Smith on Thursday because he had a sore hamstring. And RT La'el Collins has a sore ankle and calf and is sick, so he's not expected to do much in practice today either. So, don't look for Dak Prescott on Sunday vs. Arizona.— Brandon George (@DMN_George) August 24, 2018
This definitely changes things. Any time the team decides to roll Chaz Green out on the field, it makes the quarterback a sitting duck. The last time Green made a start at tackle, Dak Prescott was sacked eight times. I think fans would prefer to not see their franchise quarterback running for his life in a meaningless preseason game.
There has been no definitive word on whether Dak is sitting out or not, but prepare yourself for a healthy dose of Cooper Rush. For Rush, it will be business as usual as this is the offensive line he’s used to playing with. He could get a little more time with some of the team’s starting receivers which is new for him. How would he do with Cole Beasley as a target? Or Terrance Williams? This could be a chance for him to help restore some faith as the team’s no. 2 quarterback if he can help move the offense.
Dak Prescott is still a young quarterback and any rep he gets is going to be helpful to him, but it becomes even more important in a year where the team has overhauled their wide receiver group. Adding more experience to the Dak to Michael Gallup connection is big. Same goes for free agents Allen Hurns and Deonte Thompson. In order to get good chemistry, you have to mix up your elements, but you also have to be smart about it. If the team throws four backup offensive linemen out there with a rookie starter, that is a recipe for disaster for the quarterback.
RUNNING BACK - Ezekiel Elliott
If there are starters that you could make a case for not needing football reps, two players jump out at you - Sean Lee and Ezekiel Elliott. The veteran linebacker is one of the game’s most prepared individuals to step on a football field. He’s about as good as it gets when it comes to being able to just insert and go. He doesn’t need the extra practice. Get him a few plays and call it good.
The same can be said for Elliott. While Zeke doesn’t have anywhere near the experience as Lee, he’s been playing the running back position all his life. What he’s able to gain from extra reps isn’t that meaningful compared to other positions. Furthermore, running back is one of the most wearing positions in the league so anytime you can limit his exposure, that’s a positive.
The team wants Elliott to hit the ground running once the regular season starts so it would be good to let him smash around a little bit, but keep him on a limited snap count. Rod Smith has been doing a solid job filling in for Zeke as the team’s starter this preseason, but it would be nice to see what Elliott can do when he gets in space. One of those 16-yard Smith runs could turn into something bigger and it would be a nice reminder that those types of big plays are still alive and well in this offense.
If Dak’s too important to risk playing, why would you play Zeke? Well, there are a couple reasons I feel differently about this situation. First, if a quarterback get hurts, it’s highly likely that it’s going to come in the backfield. A porous offensive line makes him more vulnerable to contact, especially to blind-side hits. For a running back, it’s not as worrisome for them to get hit near the line of scrimmage, but rather in the open field. A lot of the more serious running back injuries happen toward the end of runs where players are running at full speed and make an abrupt cut or endure the additional force from the momentum of a defender when they are tackled.
This risk to Zeke is there, but I don’t really see it being much different based on which offensive line is playing.
WIDE RECEIVER - Deonte Thompson
It’s still unclear how many wide receivers the Cowboys will keep, but Lance Lenoir is making a case to be one of them. Injuries to Deonte Thompson and Noah Brown have allowed the second-year UDFA to jump them on the depth chart. With Thompson returning to action this week after resting his Achilles, we should get our first look at what he can do in a game. So far, all the Cowboys new receiver acquisitions (Hurns, Gallup, and Tavon Austin) have performed well, instilling belief that new receiver’s coach Sanjal Lal knows what to look for in his recruits. Who’s to say the same isn’t true with Thompson?
The veteran receiver is healthy and should get some action Sunday night. If he can showcase some of that speed, it could help him get back in the race at the wide receiver position battle.
TIGHT END - Rico Gathers
Gathers makes this list for the second-straight week, but this time we mean it! We keep expecting the the team to unleash him and let him do his thing like he did in the preseason last year, but unfortunately we’re left disappointed. If Gathers is the team’s fourth tight end, then it’s possible that he doesn’t get a heavy dose of action until the team’s fourth preseason game against the Houston Texans. But who wants that? Let’s see some Rico right now!
Rico got a little bit of first-team action this week and the team could be gearing him up to have a larger role this weekend. He has been showing improvement with his blocking, being able to stick his man more consistently and that’s going to be his ticket to getting on the field. Of course, once he’s on the field, we all know what he could add to the team’s passing game. I’m setting the over/under on a Rico touchdown at 0.5 this Sunday - which side are you taking?
OFFENSIVE LINE - Connor Williams
While this preseason game will feature a lot of playing time from the reserves who are filling in for injured players, the team will still have one starter out there getting plenty of reps - Connor Williams. It’s been an up-and-down training camp for the rookie left guard. Sometimes he’s windshield, sometimes he’s the bug.
Antwaun Woods bull rushing Connor WIlliams and dominating him sends #Cowboys practice into a fervor. Williams answers in the next rep, standing him up and stonewalling him, getting the offense fired up.— Mike Leslie (@MikeLeslieWFAA) August 23, 2018
It’s certainly not surprising to see a rookie go through growing pains, and it’s promising to see him regroup and make plays, but with the recent injuries to the Cowboys offensive line, the team really needs to be able to count on him. Being stuck in between Travis Frederick and Tyron Smith is a nice luxury for any young offensive linemen to have, but that won’t be the case on Sunday night. It’s trial by fire and the rookie needs to show everyone what made him such a great value pick for the Cowboys.
DEFENSIVE END - Randy Gregory
It’s been a nice bonus to have the Cowboys second-round draft pick of 2015 back on the field playing football. It’s been an even nicer bonus to see him progress as quickly as he has as a pass rusher. Gregory got his feet wet last week with his first live action since December of 2016, but look for more from the team’s new edge rushing weapon.
Gregory has gotten plenty of first-team reps at right defensive end this week and he could end up being the starter when the season begins. The team will do what they can to get him more action so he is ready. Last week against Cincinnati, he looked good as he got off the snap quickly and was getting pressure on the quarterback. Can he build on this game and notch his first sack of the 2018 preseason? The Cowboys defensive line looks revamped and Gregory could be a big part of it. The sooner we see him taking down quarterbacks, the sooner the Gregory hype begins.
DEFENSIVE TACKLE - Tyrone Crawford
The Cowboys will have some tough decisions to make when it comes to rounding out their depth at defensive tackle. Will Datone Jones’ injury cost him a spot on the roster? Does the emergence of Antwaun Woods make fellow 1-tech Brian Price expendable now? Can former second-round pick from the Raiders, Jihad Ward, do enough to earn a spot? Or can free agent Kony Ealy find a new home inside after being squeezed out of the depth chart at defensive end?
These are all questions the team hopes will be answered over the next two games, but figuring out the reserves isn’t the only thing the coaching staff has to do. The starting unit is in limbo as well. With both Maliek Collins and David Irving unavailable, the team has played musical chairs on the interior defensive line. The latest arrangement has Tyrone Crawford starting at the 3-tech spot. This puts Crawford at his old stomping ground as he had his best performance of his career after he moved from DE to DT in 2014. The team has constantly moved him around based on need as he’s become the swiss army knife of defensive linemen, but it’s hard to look past his success at the 3T DT spot.
It should be interesting to watch Crawford play inside and see how the group as a whole performs.
LINEBACKER - Damien Wilson
Something has come alive with the Cowboys linebacker group this season. Everyone is stepping it up. Jaylon Smith has gained our attention with some relentless ball pursuit and excellent coverage ability. Joe Thomas has played well making fans feel good about that free agent signing. But the show will have to wait when it comes to getting good dose of rookie Leighton Vander Esch as he’s been held out with a groin injury.
But one linebacker that is getting overlooked is veteran Damien Wilson who is in the last year of his rookie deal. Wilson has struggled with consistency over the years as he’ll start to bait you into thinking he’s moving to the next level, but then fall off again. Right now, he’s looking good as he’s exploding to the ball. Don’t be surprised if he’s the no. 3 linebacker on the Cowboys until the rookie gets himself back on the field.
Keep an eye on the other rookie Chris Covington. After missing precious practice time from a battle with bronchitis, he’s back now. He’s on the outside looking in right now as Justin March-Lillard hold that sixth LB roster spot, but there’s still time for the rookie to jump him. He should get more chances in the fourth and final preseason game on Thursday.
CORNERBACK - Anthony Brown
It has been a rough camp for the Cowboys two slot corners, Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis. After a strong rookie campaign, Lewis is struggling in year two. It’s almost like he’s going through the same second-year curse that Brown went through last season. You may remember that the team handed the starting outside corner job to Brown last year after a good rookie season, only to watch him fail repeatedly throughout the season. He eventually was benched.
With Lewis, his benching has come early as not only is he not starting on the outside, but his slot corner position has been taken from him as well. Strangely, it’s Brown who currently holds the spot.
While Brown has had his down moments, he’s also shown the ability to make plays. This week he could draw a tough matchup with the Cardinals slot receiver and future Hall of Famer, Larry Fitzgerald. Can Brown show up a bit or will the veteran work him over good? More reps at the slot will help him refine his skills and give the team a reliable third corner. A rebound season for Brown would certainly help strengthen this team’s cornerback depth and help defend some tough opposing quarterbacks on the schedule this season.
SAFETY - Jeron Johnson and Dominick Sanders
The Cowboys safety position is in all sorts of disarray as they are lacking talented players, as well as just players in general. The team has three locks for the position in Jeff Heath, Xavier Woods, and Kavon Frazier, but after that - nobody else has made a real push. And with the recent hamstring injury to Woods, the team now finds themselves in dire need of finding some help.
But don’t sweat it because Cowboys fans may finally get their chance to watch a former Seattle Seahawks player roam around in the secondary. That’s right, I’m talking about no. 29 himself.....Jeron Johnson. You’re excited, right?
The team signed both Johnson and Dominick Sanders this week to help give them bodies. Johnson is a 30-year old veteran who played under Kris Richard in Seattle, while Sanders is an UDFA out of Georgia. Most of the attention this week should be put on the depth guys the team already has on the roster in Tyree Robinson and Kam Kelly, but we are so thirsty for any player to make plays that anything positive these new guys do will generate some excitement.
Which players will you be watching closely on Sunday night?