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Cowboys bubble watch for the Texans preseason game

It’s getting down to the wire for some Cowboys players.

Dallas Cowboys v Arizona Cardinals
Fan favorite Bradlee Anae needs another good game.
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

With the Dallas Cowboys facing the Houston Texans in what is the “dress rehearsal” game, the main focus has been on getting to see some of the projected starting lineup before the regular season. But those starters and also the primary, established backups will not be on the field for long. The remainder of the game after they sit will be the same as the rest of the preseason. It will be time to evaluate the players on the fringes to sort out the final spots on the 53-man roster. Here are some of the most interesting battles to keep an eye on.

Bradlee Anae vs Azur Kamara

Anae made the roster last year, but was given very little chance to ever see the field. This was puzzling and perhaps a symptom of the defensive coaching dysfunction that led to the hiring of Dan Quinn to set things right. He is getting a much better chance to show what he can contribute this preseason, taking 49% of the defensive snaps against the Arizona Cardinals. Right now, the top four defensive ends seem clear: DeMarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory, Tarell Basham, and a somewhat surprisingly good Dorance Armstrong. Quinn and Mike McCarthy both like to carry five DEs, so Anae is working to lock that fifth spot down. However, despite him appearing to be in the backfield a lot, it is a bit concerning that he did not tally any stats in the game. Mostly because of the surprise performance from his biggest challenger, Azur Kamara.

Unlike Anae, Kamara was a standout against the Cards. He wound up being featured on the second episode of HBO’s Hard Knocks. It was deserved. He had three tackles while being on the field for 44% of the plays. He is a rawer player than Anae, and undersized for the position. But this could be a fierce, closely contested battle between the two. The team will likely try to get one on the practice squad. Based on history, it seems Anae is the more likely to make the 53, but if Kamara has another strong preseason game, that may change things.

Malik Turner vs Simi Fehoko

This is the battle for the sixth WR spot. Again, the top five seem obvious in Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, Michael Gallup, Cedrick Wilson, and Noah Brown. Turner was the WR6 last season and has had a strong camp and preseason. But Fehoko may have more upside, and has shown well himself. He seems particularly good at going up for contested balls. That could lead to a role as a red zone or third-down specialist. Whoever makes the roster is not going to get many reps in the regular season. They would mostly be on the team as a special teams contributor and as needed insurance. This one could go down to the wire.

Nick Ralston vs the numbers

This is more a case of how the 53 slots are utilized. With Sewo Olonilua on IR, Ralston is the lone fullback left in camp. It is a position that many teams don’t even have with the emphasis on passing and spreading the offense out. But McCarthy likes to have a fullback. It is also a position that can be a good special teams contributor, as he can be used as a lineman for punts due to his size while still having the athleticism to go down and cover the kick. He also has blocking skills that can be very useful when Dallas is receiving kicks and punts. Given McCarthy’s preferences, he has a decent chance to make the team.

Every offensive line backup except Connor McGovern vs each other

This has got to be the most confused situation on the roster. Connor Williams has struggled mightily trying to be a center. Ty Nsekhe was hurt against Arizona, but was having a good game until then after a rather lackluster camp to that point. The fact he practiced on Wednesday looks like an indicator that he is getting a good grip on the swing tackle job.

That leaves a real muddle to round out the offensive line group. The Cowboys could go with as few as eight or as many as ten on the 53, but nine seems like the best bet. The leading contenders for the remaining two spots, assuming Nsekhe is in, are Terrance Steel, Brandon Knight, and rookie Matt Farniok, with International Pathways player Isaac Alarcon as a dark horse. There is no certainty the staff has given up on Williams as a backup center, either. Take your pick, because this is a complete muddle for now.

Luke Gifford vs Francis Bernard vs the numbers

It’s questionable to even include Bernard since he is battling injury and may already be on the outside. Gifford got a lot of work against the Cardinals, playing 69% of the defensive snaps and 31% on special teams. He also tied for the sixth most tackles in the game with three. The question for him will likely come down to whether the team just sticks with five linebackers overall. Also relevant is this report.

Both Smith and Vander Esch represent far greater investments for the team than former UDFA Gifford. This could be a sign that they are looking to replace his ST contributions with players they cannot afford to release. Gifford’s chances are not looking good.

Maurice Canady vs Nahshon Wright vs the numbers

This battle seems like a pretty marginal one. It looks like the team is going to go deep at corner and find spots for both Canady and Wright, who both have been quite good. Canady has been especially strong, leading the team in interceptions in practice. That hasn’t translated in the first two preseason games, but for both him and Wright, it just looks like a matter of time.

Malik Hooker vs Jayron Kearse vs Israel Mukuamu vs Darian Thompson vs the numbers

With the team probably heavy at corner, safety will have to be lighter, most likely four. The top two spots belong to Donovan Wilson, who showed some surprising leadership in the latest Hard Knocks, and Damontae Kazee. All four of these contenders have something in their favor. Both Hooker and Kearse bring veteran experience, and Hooker has the added advantage of being able to play both in a strong and free safety role. Mukuamu is raw but has great length and a potentially very high upside. Thompson has been a yeoman for the Cowboys. Wild guess at the moment says Hooker and Mukuamu.

Those are the most obvious bubble situations for the Cowboys. Other potential ones, like defensive tackle, have been affected by injuries like that to Neville Gallimore, and at least for the start of the season look pretty clear. It may take some risky waivers. To have a player like Gallimore on IR with the ability to return, they could have to risk waiving Justin Hamilton with the hope he is not claimed, then bring him back once Gallimore is on the 53 and then put on IR. They could also waive a player at a different position with the same risk involved to protect Hamilton. That is just a further complication in setting the roster for the first game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.