It begins. The Dallas Cowboys have arrived in California to start their 2019 training camp in Oxnard. As usual, there have been plenty of off-the-field things demanding our attention, such as the contract situations for Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper, and especially the contract related story of Ezekiel Elliott not taking the team plane. But on Saturday, the actual practices begin. That means truly football relevant stuff happening. There are plenty of well-known stories that have been previewed. However, there are some lesser-examined stories that are going on. Here are three that may not seem big, but could be very entertaining to watch.
Jon Kitna and the backup quarterbacks
The new quarterbacks coach came to Dallas with an obvious job one. That was helping Dak Prescott overcome his mechanical and footwork issues. The limited evidence from the OTAs and minicamp were encouraging. Prescott was far more crisp and efficient, with very few errant throws.
Given the stringent restrictions on how much time the coaches have with players in the offseason, working with the starter probably took the bulk of Kitna’s time. Now, he will have considerably more. That is very good, because there is a lot of work to be done with backups Mike White, Cooper Rush, and newly-signed Taryn Christion.
To put it bluntly, White and Rush kinda sucked last preseason. Now that the Cowboys have elected to pass on the extremely limited veteran QB pool to add another undrafted rookie to the mix, they are banking on at least one of these players emerging as the primary backup. Prescott has been the picture of durability, but there has to be someone who can come in and keep things on the rails during a short absence by the starter. Getting the most out of the three contenders will fall mostly on Kitna. Jason Garrett has served as a special mentor to Prescott so far in his young career, and that is unlikely to change.
Fortunately, Kitna is an experienced coach, albeit at the high school level. That actually may be a benefit, since it is so much about teaching and molding raw young talent. It also doesn’t help that the rest of the offense looks to be in much better shape this year. The offensive line has more depth than it did a year ago. That is crucial in preseason, since most of the work will not fall on the starters who will be bubble wrapped on the sidelines for all but a handful of plays. The shaky state of the backup linemen last year played a part in the poor showings by White and Rush. Things look to be a bit easier on them.
The same can be said for wide receiver. Last year’s “by committee” approach fell flat. Now the receivers behind the starters, who will also be protected, appear to have more talent and, in many cases, speed to burn. All that gives the quarterback hopefuls more chances to thrive. With Kitna coaching them up, this situation may just work itself out.
Interesting stat (well, to me): The Cowboys now have a first-, second-, and third-year QB fighting to be the backup(s) to a fourth-year starter.
A dark horse on defense
The front seven for the Cowboys’ defense is loaded. Cornerback looks strong, with the only nagging questions surrounding safety. Most are looking for a heated battle between George Iloka, Kavon Frazier, and rookie Donovan Wilson to make the roster behind Xavier Woods and coaches’ pet Jeff Heath. But there is another name that seldom gets mentioned, and that is at least partly because he is being used as a safety/linebacker hybrid.
Kyle Quiero is in his second year with the organization after signing as a UDFA in 2018. There must be something the team likes about him, because he is still around, and they are trying to find ways to utilize him (much like they have done with Jameill Showers). As a hybrid player, Quiero has that “position flex” the team is so enamored of.
But his best shot at making the 53-man roster is going to be on special teams. With Dallas expected to go deep on the defensive line, they have a bit of a numbers crunch at both linebacker and in the secondary. Those are prime sources for the kick and punt units. The special teams coordinator, Keith O’Quinn, traditionally gets to keep one or two players to bolster his unit. Quiero could be one of those. He could allow the team to reduce the ST load for Heath, which seems reasonable for a presumptive starter, and he can also help provide depth at linebacker, where the Cowboys have good talent but likely limited roster spots. That way, he also keeps Joe Thomas and Justin March-Lillard from having to throw themselves around on teams so much.
If he seems like a bit of a reach, let me confess that I stole the idea from one of the best.
My dark horse would be Kyle Queiro... https://t.co/kRAODB73Jr— BryanBroaddus (@BryanBroaddus) July 20, 2019
Always listen to Bryan.
The backup running backs
Ezekiel Elliott has injected a bit of uncertainty into things by not flying out with the team. Tony Pollard is a lock to make the roster, but the staff may not want to use him as an every down back. That suddenly makes the three way competition between Darius Jackson, rookie Mike Weber, and 2018 UDFA Jordan Chunn a lot more interesting. Add in that even if Elliott should be around for all of camp, he may not play a single down in preseason to conserve him for his 4,396 planned touches in the regular season, and we are going to get a lot of opportunity to see the backups. Again, assuming Elliott is not actually holding out to start the regular season (which is the only sensible path for him to take because of CBA rules), it is likely that these three backups are competing for a single roster spot.
That can make for some exceptional effort, especially in those preseason games. And those things that should help the backup quarterbacks are also going to make for better opportunities for the runners. The offensive line is obvious, but those wide receivers are going to be trying to show something as blockers as well, since the last spot for them could well come down to that.
We all hope the Cowboys don’t have to lean on one of these down-roster backs this season, but you have to have a contingency plan. And it would really be nice to see the coaches actually spell Elliott a bit more, both to have him fresh for the hoped-for playoff run and to maybe extend his career a bit. It wouldn’t be surprising to see one of these running backs have a stellar preseason.