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Cowboys practices at The Star finally give some insight on starters, but depth concerns loom

The Cowboys won’t play their starters against the Seahawks, but they’ve been working in front of fans at The Star.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys Minicamp Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

With the Cowboys back at The Star in preparation for their final preseason game on Friday night, it’s starting to feel more like a real game week for a Dallas team that opens the regular season in primetime from AT&T Stadium. Instead of getting scrimmage reps against their first two preseason opponents the Broncos and Chargers, the Cowboys are working against each other on their own concepts before hosting the Seahawks.

The Cowboys have been content working their starters in these controlled practice environments and using the exhibition games for backups, and this includes some intense practices in front of fans this week. The Cowboys starters aren’t expected to play against the Seahawks, but just who the team is keeping on ice until the regular season is yet to be settled. The team has shown different looks on both sides of the ball throughout camp and the preseason, with some recurring depth issues along the offensive line and at receiver creating the possibility of a late roster move before final cuts.

Here a few takeaways from the last two Cowboys practices that could help figure out who will be taking the field against Tom Brady and the Bucs on September 11th:

Offensive Line

The most noteworthy takeaway from these Cowboys practices at The Star is undoubtedly going to be the loss of Tyron Smith to injury. The team hasn’t shown any sound backup plan for an injury that’s felt inevitable up front, but losing Smith before the season starts is a massive blow.

Tyler Smith may be in the plans at left tackle now, but the Cowboys are making their rookie earn any starting role. Smith is also dealing with his own ankle injury, and has barely worked at tackle in his first offseason with Dallas. The state of the offensive line is in flux with time running out to fix it. Connor McGovern has taken reps away from Smith all offseason at left guard, but will reportedly be starting the next preseason game at center.

None of the depth the Cowboys have on the interior helps the dire situation at tackle, but they still plan on looking internally to fill Smith’s spot before considering veteran free agents or a trade.

Tyler Biadasz’s position as a starter was challenged all offseason, but the Cowboys ultimately had too many other roster holes to fill. This didn’t stop them from creating additional roster needs by releasing La’el Collins and not re-signing Connor Williams, which made the Smith pick more of a need come draft day.

If McGovern can prove a valuable backup interior player, it gives the Cowboys added depth on the final roster, but they’ve also seen Matt Farniok make the most of his reps this preseason at center.

This is yet another spot they could use Tyler Smith right now, but not having their first-round pick available at either guard or tackle currently is concerning. The Cowboys offensive line was one of the biggest reasons their offense faded in meaningful games last season, and with more real games right around the corner the situation up front feels like a low point for the Cowboys under Mike McCarthy.

Cornerback

The Cowboys knew before returning to Frisco that Jourdan Lewis would be missing time with a minor hamstring injury, and have seen young players rise to the occasion in place of the veteran nickel corner.

Israel Mukuamu and rookie DaRon Bland have the most to gain from added reps, and it’s increasingly noteworthy that Bland is getting looks with Anthony Brown and Trevon Diggs as the starters. Bland has looked like a fifth-round steal since Oxnard, pushing Nahshon Wright and Kelvin Joseph for snaps.

Both Wright and Joseph could be on the bubble as the Cowboys expect Lewis back for the opener, with Mukuamu’s versatility to play either safety spot or cornerback giving them added depth here. Special teams coordinator John Fassel is going to have a big say in how the Cowboys depth chart at corner shakes out, but Dan Quinn has made it clear who he trusts the most in coverage this offseason, and Bland has quickly become both a fan and coach’s favorite.

Tight End

Franchise-tagged tight end Dalton Schultz has caught everything in sight this training camp, and the Cowboys are clearly valuing receiving ability behind him on the depth chart as well. By cutting Jeremy Sprinkle, the Cowboys currently have rookie Jake Ferguson, Sean McKeon, and UDFA Peyton Hendershot behind Schultz.

Ferguson has filled in nicely for Schultz in the preseason games, with the Cowboys very optimistic about his potential. The Cowboys struggled to run the ball against light boxes last year, and using blocking tight ends on the line only invites more defenders into the box. Kellen Moore may be trying to create space for Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard a bit differently this season, as well as create matchups for these tight ends in the pass game.

Ferguson and Hendershot will have to continue to make plays with Cooper Rush, Will Grier, and Ben DiNucci throwing them the ball against the Seahawks to show they can take any time away from the budding connection between Schultz and Dak Prescott.

Running Back

It may have taken longer than usual, but Cowboys fans have found their down-the-roster player to get attached to this offseason in Malik Davis. In a perfect world, the Cowboys don’t have many touches available for running backs not named Elliott or Pollard, but the competition for the third spot is fiery.

A UDFA out of Florida, Davis has run with the physicality and vision Dallas is looking for this preseason, but now faces a real uphill battle to make the final roster. Instead of the live reps that Davis has thrived on so far, this week of practice is about the Cowboys working on their own game prep, something Rico Dowdle has experience with. Davis also doesn’t have the advantage of running behind a full strength offensive line right now, with some of his best runs being sparked by Tyler Smith this preseason.

The Cowboys saw enough in Davis to bring him in as a pre-draft 30 visit, and would love to keep him on the practice squad or stashed on injured reserve, but Dowdle’s all-around ability makes him the leading candidate for RB3 in Dallas currently.

Linebacker

Dan Quinn has turned water into wine at the linebacker position since arriving in Dallas. The Cowboys don’t have a lot of depth here on paper, but have held up on the second level thanks to players like Mukuamu, Jayron Kearse, and more recently Anthony Barr stepping up here.

With Barr finally working into practices with his new team, the Cowboys have yet another way to use their most versatile defender - Micah Parsons - as a pass rusher. It feels like a foregone conclusion that every practice report mentions how many would-be sacks Parsons had, and going after the quarterback is a huge part of how the Cowboys plan on using him in year two. They’ll need linebackers they can trust to play snaps though, and Barr has the experience to get ready quickly after signing with the Cowboys at the beginning of August.

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