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Cowboys @ 49ers: The things you need to look for as a Dallas fan

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Thursday night will open the preseason, so we’re taking notice!

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at San Francisco 49ers
Expect to see a lot of Cooper Rush and the other backups.
Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

It’s finally happening on Thursday night. After half a year of waiting we finally are going to see the Dallas Cowboys take the field against the San Francisco 49ers and play real football.

Well, sort of.

This is a preseason game, which rather limits what we will actually have to watch. It is the first preseason game for both teams, which limits things even more. Do not expect to see the starters play much, if at all. They will suit up and go through the warm-ups, but starters like Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, DeMarcus Lawrence, Sean Lee, and the entire offensive line will probably not be risked on the field. This should be a battle of the backups. Further, expect the play calling to be very “vanilla”. Combine those two, and we are not likely to see a very crisp or exciting game. Besides, the final score doesn’t mean much at all.

So why even watch?

Glad you asked. There are actually lots of things to pay attention to.

One thing that this game can help tip is how the down-roster players are shaping up. The general rule of thumb is that the earlier a player shows up on the field in these things, the more the coaches think of him. That is not hard and fast, but you can pretty much expect to see the current second-stringers out to start the game, with the third (and fourth) guys on the roster coming in as things progress.

That opens up a bunch of different things to look for. Here is a position by position guide to who you can keep an eye on.

Quarterback

So far in camp, Cooper Rush has just strengthened his claim to the QB2 job. He is probably going to be your starter, so watch to see if he carries his strong performance over.

Mike White has not done as well as he tries to adapt to the pro game. He should go in to start the third quarter. What may be most telling is when and if Dalton Sturm gets on the field. If he and White split time fairly evenly, then the Cowboys may not be as committed to White making the 53-man roster as a lot of us think. But if White gets into the fourth quarter and Sturm just gets a series or two late, then you can assume the team is still trying to foster a competition for Prescott’s backup.

Also, when you are trying to gauge the performance of each QB, pay attention to who was blocking and catching for them. Rush will probably have better players on the field with him, so take that into account.

Running backs

Rod Smith may get some carries with Rush to help the offense click, but the team may also want to protect him. Most of the game should see the rest of the backups getting the carries. This is Bo Scarbrough’s chance to put some distance between him and the other contenders. Darius Jackson was ahead of him on the depth chart, so the battle is on.

From another point of view, it will be interesting to see just how many snaps fullback Jamize Olawale gets. The staff has been trying to get him involved in the passing game a bit, so that might be something we get a taste of.

That could carry over to the entire offense. This is different offensive plan than we have seen in recent years. And the coaches need some work with that as well. Look to see if they put some different formations and personnel packages out than we are used to. While the “vanilla” aspect might limit that, hopefully we will get our first taste of how much things could change.

Wide receivers

With so many questions to answer, this is one position where we may see some of the projected starters get some playing time - mostly because the starting jobs are not really nailed down. But it is still likely that Cole Beasley, Allen Hurns, Terrance Williams, and perhaps Tavon Austin are going to be protected. In their stead, look for heavy doses of Michael Gallup, Lance Lenoir, Noah Brown, and Deonte Thompson (if the latter two are healthy enough to go). There is a lot of competition for the last spot or two in the WR platoon, so these players will be bringing their best effort. The second half may be less fun, as that is when the guys further down the chart will be going out for White and/or Sturm to throw to.

Tight ends

Dallas only has five TEs to work with, and while Geoff Swaim is considered the default starter, the coaches may want to see some work from him to help sort out the pecking order. We should see all five get some work. One thing to pay special attention to is whether Rico Gathers is sent in during red zone opportunities (if there are any of those - they can be hard to come by in preseason affairs). That may be his real path to getting onto the roster.

Offensive line

The team may want to give Rush a series behind the starters, or they may just put them on ice. Whenever they roll out the twos, look to see where they line up. The battle between Cameron Fleming and Chaz Green has been closer than expected. Likewise, it will be instructive to see how Joe Looney, Marcus Martin, and Kadeem Edwards line up. And there may be different combinations tried. For O line aficionados, this is a big indicator of how the staff is thinking.

When the threes come out, though, get the lipstick ready, cause that could get ugly. It usually does.

Defensive ends

Don’t expect DLaw or Tyrone Crawford to see the field. But that leaves Taco Charlton, Dorance Armstrong, Charles Tapper, and Kony Ealy. This is where we are going to find out if the pass rush is as good as camp is leading us to think, or if there is a bit of a mirage. This may be big for Ealy, who is perceived to have fallen a bit behind even though he is second string on the depth chart.

Defensive tackles

Maliek Collins, still recovering from his foot problem, will be out. Right now Jihad Ward and Datone Jones top the depth chart. Antwuan Woods is a player everyone wants to see, he’s on the third-string but should see plenty of time. Brian Price is another player to watch here.

Linebackers

Don’t expect Lee at all, given how cautious they are being with him. Jaylon Smith is hard to call. They could protect him, but they also might want to see how he is doing in live action. In any case, a large dose of Leighton Vander Esch seems in the offing. But we will also see lots of backups, which could lead to some shaky play.

Defensive backs

The secondary could well turn into a UDFApalooza, with a good dose of Marquez White and Kavon Frazier mixed in. There really is no reason to put the likely starters out for this contest, but those UDFAs have been making quite a bit of noise in practice. The secondary could play very well or be a total mess, or anything in between. Of course, they will likely be up against similar backup-quality QBs and receivers, so it may all even itself out.

So there are a lot of things to take in, particularly early when the better backups are getting their reps. That’s not all. As mentioned, watch for how the offense is called to see what new stuff is tried out. We will see how Sanjay Lal has impacted the wide receivers, and most of us are eager to see how Kris Richard’s approach to coverage affects things.

It doesn’t count for much. Don’t fret over the score, but focus on who is making progress and who might stumble. And preseason or not, this is a football game. Enjoy that, knowing better games are on the horizon.