There is so much anticipation about the Dallas Cowboys. They enter their first game of the season against the Los Angeles Rams Sunday night with a bevy of new talent, plus some dynamic returning stars. We can’t wait to see Dak Prescott throwing to CeeDee Lamb, or Trevon Diggs going after a pass tipped by Aldon Smith.
Depth, however, is often the factor that lifts a team to the playoffs in the NFL, where injuries are just a part of the game. Normally, we get a pretty good idea of how deep the roster is from training camp coverage and preseason games. But, you know. So we have a real paucity of information on some of those backups, and the season-opener is really the first opportunity to begin filling things in. There are certain ones that should be interesting to see - if they are even active, and get snaps. Of course, if they don’t, we can infer a thing or two anyway.
Here are six players to watch, and why.
TE Dalton Schultz
Let’s start with one who should actually see a lot of work. Based on what was reported, Schultz emerged as the number two pass receiving tight end in camp. That is an important distinction, because in-line blocking tight ends seem far less important under Mike McCarthy than they were during the previous head coach’s tenure.
How he is used will be instructive. If he just spells Blake Jarwin, then the Cowboys will probably be leaning even more on 11 personnel. Hopefully Schultz can also make the seam his feeding ground in that case. A lot of people assume that is where things are headed anyway, with two tight end sets largely abandoned since they signal an intent to run. That may not be the case, however. If Kellen Moore sends two TEs out there for several plays and then calls for a pass on a good number of them, it will strengthen that needed element of unpredictability. If not, then we might worry about whether the changes this year are sufficient, although down and distance should be considered. Schultz is one player whose performance will speak to his own development as well as that of his offensive coordinator.
This is his fourth year with the team, but he missed all of 2019 with injury issues. He was healthy for this camp and McCarthy made the point that he seemed to have a big play every practice. He may not be a big part of the passing game, but will likely see plenty of action on special teams, where he has been a big contributor, sometimes being on the field for 70% of the special teams plays in the past.
That’s great for his job security, but can be a part of the WR rotation? There were high hopes when the team originally drafted him, although about 98% of it was based on one catch.
He never got many chances to display his pass-catching skills. Typecast as a run-blocking wide receiver in the previous administration, he always seemed underutilized. Now there is real hope that he will be part of the rotation at WR. When and if the starting three get a break, of course.
If there is a true unknown in this bunch, it’s Dowdle. Preseason is where backups backs get to display what they have. Moreover, Dowdle also wins the “most likely to be inactive” trophy this week, judging by the pre-cutdown speculation that Dallas might only carry Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard into the season.
Should he be active, seeing Dowdle get carries could be a very good thing, since it could occur due to the Cowboys having a big lead and wanting to burn clock without risking the big two backs.
One interesting note about him is that Dowdle is listed at the mothership as being the same height as both Elliott and Pollard, 6-0. It makes them very similar as pass targets for Prescott. I’m just saying.
He is still the forgotten man of the defensive line. As an ERFA, he was in limbo right up until camp. There has been little mention of him from the media as Trysten Hill sucked up the attention with his surprisingly impressive performance. The reporters were also more interested in seeing what Neville Gallimore brought to the table.
Woods may wind up as a frequent game day inactive. However, he is also the second heaviest defensive lineman behind the massive Dontari Poe. He’s also the shortest, so Woods might be Poe’s primary backup at 1-tech. If he gets on the field, it will be interesting to see where he lines up, and who is around him on the line.
There also may be a bit of a chip riding on his large shoulder arising from being so consistently overlooked. If he gets a chance, he may just put some hurt on the Rams. Which would be a good thing for us.
Camp for Worley might best be described as quietly effective. He won a roster spot, and may be quite important with Jourdan Lewis ruled out for the game with his injury. Given the multiple concerns about the secondary, Worley might well get a chance to shine.
Whether he is a starter or not may also serve as a quick indicator of just how much faith the staff has in the other corners, especially rookie Diggs. Additionally, snap counts could be informative about how the coaching philosophy has changed. The past couple of seasons, two corners have been on the field for 100% of the defensive plays, or close to it, with the slot corner out there about 70% of the time, depending on how the opponent deployed their personnel. If the talent levels of Worley, Diggs, Chidobe Awuzie, and Anthony Brown are seen as reasonably close, there might be more rotation now to keep from wearing the starters to a nub. So Worley getting a fair amount of snaps could be a good thing.
The attempt to upgrade safety with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix ended with a whimper, not a bang. The Cowboys are now rolling into the season with Xavier Woods as one starter and, for now, Darian Thompson as the other. Wilson and converted cornerback Reggie Robinson II back them up. Wilson had some moments in camp, but apparently not enough to move ahead of Thompson, unless the unofficial depth chart is just wrong.
There’s also Brandon Carr, lurking on the practice squad. He is thought to have been signed to primarily help at safety, something he did a good bit last season with the Baltimore Ravens. The new practice squad rules make it very likely Carr will be on the game day roster Sunday night, especially with Lewis out. That could lead the team to make a decision about whether both Wilson and Robinson would be active, which might be more informative than what Wilson does if he gets on the field outside of special teams.
Unfortunately, Wilson might also be the guy waived to make room for Carr when he is promoted from the PS, which seems inevitable. So if he does get a chance to play, he needs to make the most of it.
Those are the six players that create some curiosity. None of them will likely have much influence on winning the game or not, but what happens could tell us a lot about their future in Dallas, both short- and long-term.