NFL preseason games are generally ugly affairs and the Cowboys’ Sunday night tilt against the Arizona Cardinals played true to form. The 27-3 final captured the largely inept play from a makeshift Dallas lineup that had five regulars spend the entire game on the sidelines. Nevertheless, these meaningless games can give help answer some questions about the team and also bring up new ones we maybe hadn’t asked.
Did the Cowboys’ front-office err in not looking for more depth at safety?
Absolutely. The Cowboys’ entered the 2018 offseason with uncertainty at the safety position. Former first-round pick Byron Jones would be entering his fourth season and had not performed as well as hoped at safety in 2017, actually losing his starting spot late in the season. The team (smartly) decided to move him to the outside corner spot, leaving only three players to compete at the safety position:
- Jeff Heath - an adequate starter
- Xavier Woods - a 2017 sixth-round pick who played well in limited time as a rookie, but at the slot position (not safety)
- Kavon Frazier - mostly a special teams ace who looked impressive as a physical strong safety when given an opportunity late in 2017
That’s a thin, low-pedigreed, inexperienced group of players and most expected the Cowboys to do something to improve both the quality and quantity of players competing for playing time at the position. But the first wave of free agency, then the draft, and then the bargain-basement phase of free agency came and went with no action from the Cowboys.
We’re now two weeks from the regular season and the team hasn’t added an experienced player, relying instead on the three holdovers and a group of no-name rookie free agents.
Last night the list of healthy safeties available to the Cowboys was reduced to Jeff Heath, Marqueston Huff, Tyree Robinson, Jeron Johnson and Dominick Sanders. In effect the Cowboys have Jeff Heath and a bunch of undrafted college players at safety.
This despite the fact Eric Reid is still waiting for an NFL team to call. Even when quality veteran George Iloka became a cap casualty of the Cincinnati Bengals last week, the front office showed no interest, instead allowing him to sign with Minnesota for a bargain basement $890,000 deal.
What now? Woods’ availability for the opener is questionable and we’ve seen hamstring injuries linger for months (see Sean Lee or Chidobie Awuzie last year). Kavon Frazier’s shoulder injury supposedly isn’t serious and he’s also expected to play the team’s opener.
But is this how you want to manage your roster? Pass on every single veteran available even when the cost is minimal? Hope that the inexperienced, unproven, low-pedigreed players currently on the roster can both remain healthy and play up to expectations?
It’s really hard to understand the front office’s thinking regarding the safety position. The assumption is they’ll make some kind of move to shore up the depth but we’ve been waiting for that since the end of last season.
Do the Cowboys have a backup quarterback issue?
Yes. This was not a question most of us expected to ask at this point. Cooper Rush, a rookie free agent who came out of nowhere to claim the number two spot last year with an outstanding training camp, was the undisputed incumbent. Then the team invested a fifth-round pick in Mike White.
Neither, however, has looked the part in training camp or preseason game action. Rush has been inaccurate and ineffective and Sunday he looked downright abysmal. His bad overthrow of a wide open Cole Beasley for what should have been a long touchdown pass exemplified his 2018 thus far.
Behind him is fifth-round pick Mike White. He had a meh night against the Cardinals but has not looked like a legitimate NFL quarterback throughout the preseason. He seems to have no pocket awareness, often holding the ball too long and not sensing the rush around him.
Similar to the safety position the Cowboys have inexperienced, unproven, low-pedigreed backups at quarterback. This is nothing new as Dallas has not placed much value in backup quarterbacks for the last seven years. Jon Kitna was the last competent backup QB the team had and that was 2011. This is particularly head-scratching because it was just three years ago when a Cowboys’ team with preseason Super Bowl aspirations completely fell apart when Tony Romo suffered a broken collar bone and Brandon Weeden proved to be wholly inadequate.
Does anyone have confidence that if Dak Prescott goes down that either Cooper Rush or Mike White is going to get the job done? The front office should be scouring other team’s rosters for possible replacements, but history tells us that’s probably not going to happen.
Is the Cowboys’ front-seven on defense really something special?
Yes. Absolutely yes. While the offense stumbled and bumbled around all night, the defense quietly went about dominating for the third consecutive week. Randy Gregory has looked every bit the top-ten draft talent he was coming out of college. Antwaun Woods has been a revelation at the defensive tackle position. Taco Charlton has shown visible improvement from his rookie season. The Cowboys have more high end talent and quality depth across the defensive line than we’ve seen since the DeMarcus Ware/Anthony Spencer/Jay Ratliff days.
Meanwhile, the team seems to have pieced together a linebacker corps that should, for once, hold up for the entire season. The Cowboys have seen injuries sideline starters at the linebacker position seemingly every year and the team’s reserves have proven not to be up to the task. That won’t happen this year. Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith are likely to see the bulk of playing time and could be a dynamic linebacker duo. Perhaps more importantly, Joe Thomas, Leighton Vander Esch, Damien Wilson and Justin March-Lillard provide the best depth the team has enjoyed in years.
In short, the Cowboys have a deep, talented front-seven that might very well be the strength of the team.
This is a typical preseason in many ways. Some questions have been answered and yet more have been raised. We’ll start getting real answers in two weeks.