The NFL reduced the number of preseason games from four to three starting last year. Teams are taking different approaches to this. For the Dallas Cowboys, it has meant eliminating the so called “dress rehearsal” normally done in the third game entirely. Instead they have used joint practices to hone the skills of the starters and then kept them off the field entirely in the preseason. That has made the preseason games an opportunity to evaluate the depth players and rookies. The victory over the Seattle Seahawks was their last chance to do so before the initial cutdown to 53. That will be followed by some maneuvering to come up with the roster for the season opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but all of it will be informed by what they saw in that final exhibition.
One thing that can tell us something about how the coaches and staff in Dallas are thinking is the snap counts. Some are fairly obvious, such as the heavy use of Will Grier at quarterback. He took 61% of the offensive snaps once Cooper Rush sat down and before Ben DiNucci came in for cleanup at the end. That is being interpreted to mean that Rush was the favorite for the QB2 job, with the game being Grier’s last chance to change some minds. Grier probably didn’t do much to help his case, although his performance, including three sacks, was hampered by the turmoil on the offensive line.
Here are some other notes on participation Friday night, by position group.
The biggest thing here was who wasn’t playing. Rico Dowdle got the night off, which signals he has the RB3 job sewn up. Malik Davis and Aaron Shampklin split the reps 50-50, and were at best making a case for the team to carry four RBs on the roster. Shampklin unfortunately had to be helped off the field with just five snaps left in the game. That probably means his chances are over, and he may even be eliminated from a shot at the practice squad. Davis is still strongly in the running for a PS shot as it seems unlikely the team will roster three for the regular season with so many other places they can use spots.
When the quarterbacks are having difficulties, it directly impacts the wide receivers. There were plenty of off target or mistimed throws. Still the snap counts can tell us something. One is that it looks like Simi Fehoko is on the roster, as he was out there for 70% of the offensive downs and was targeted five times. He only had two catches, partly due to the quarterbacking issues, but one was for a touchdown.
Camp standout Dennis Houston came in second in snaps, with 53%. He had a better catch rate, hauling in two of the three balls sent his way. It must be remembered that there is a visible chemistry between him and Dak Prescott. But he is facing the numbers game. With Michael Gallup likely to be taking up one WR spot while missing some games to start the season, the team has to figure out how many it can carry. CeeDee Lamb and Noah Brown have been held out during the preseason, a reliable indicator of their status as likely starters. Jalen Tolbert has been up and down, but like Houston he also does better when Prescott is throwing the ball. His draft status should assure him a spot, if not necessarily starting on day 1. KaVontae Turpin will eat up another WR spot even if his main role is to return kicks and punts. Including Fehoko, that is six. Houston’s role as part of the 53 or the practice squad will hinge on how many the team is willing to carry.
For these bottom of the depth chart jobs, special team usage is also important. Both Fehoko and Houston were in on about a third of the ST plays. It is more evidence that the staff is taking a hard look at what they need to do.
One other player who might have done himself a lot of good was Brandon Smith. He was tied for most receptions on the night with three, on just four targets. He had the best catch of the night with that toe-tapping touchdown pictured above. He was almost certainly fighting for a PS bid, but that seems much more likely now. Dontario Drummond and T.J. Vasher were the only other WRs to see targets. They will be Smith’s competition for PS jobs, and the team might want to carry more than one there.
With Jeremy Sprinkle no longer with the team, the Cowboys only have three tight ends to vie for backup jobs behind Dalton Schultz. Sean McKeon was held out of the game, but what that means is muddied by an ankle injury he has been dealing with. Jake Ferguson can be counted as a lock now. That leaves UDFA Peyton Hendershot who is both a possible challenger to McKeon and could be making an argument that the team should carry four at the position. That latter becomes more pertinent with the uncertainty about offensive tackle. The team may have to go with more two tight end sets to help with blocking up front to protect Prescott.
Ferguson (34) and Hendershot (36) were basically tied for snaps. While the lack of options makes it hard to figure out what this means, it hints that they are trying to figure out what Hendershot might give them. He saw more targets than any other receiver at any position, and tied for the team lead in catches, including what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown. Once again, this may all come down to how many they carry.
Let’s take a lot of uncertainty, and mix in some interesting decisions on where to play some of the linemen. The result is continuing uncertainty about what the staff is going to do to try and adjust for Tyron Smith’s absence. According to Stephen Jones, the big step is going to be moving Tyler Smith back to his college position at tackle, instead of using him at guard where he has practiced all camp. He is still dealing with an ankle issue, so the opportunity to get him some reps there was lost.
The rest was a bit of a hot mess. The team opened the game with LT Josh Ball, LG Isaac Alarcón, C Connor McGovern, RG Braylon Jones, and RT Aviante Collins. It was not pretty, with Cowboys legend Nate Newton flatly saying Ball was not ready for the big time during the local broadcast. McGovern only saw seven snaps, which is another indication that he will have to fill the starting LG slot as Tyler Smith kicks out to LT. The center snaps after that went to Jones, who led all linemen with 95% of the snaps on the night, and rookie Alec Lindstrom. Next was Ball, who saw 70% of the plays. He did seem to do better as the game went along and the Seahawks pulled their starters, but was still shaky on some reps. If there was a bright spot, it was that Matt Waletzko finally got on the field after his injury early in camp. He saw 46% of the snaps, and our Dan Rogers liked what he saw.
One thing I love about Matt Waletzko besides his orangutan long arms is his football smarts. He recognizes stunts well and positions himself where he needs to be. Good debut by the rook. pic.twitter.com/N04zReJow2— Dan Rogers (@DannyPhantom24) August 27, 2022
Trying to figure out who will provide depth for the offensive line is just as big a mess as that starting lineup. Matt Farniok seems to be part of that equations, logging half the offensive snaps. Jones may have inserted himself into that conversation with his heavy usage, but will that be enough to claim a backup role over Lindstrom? Waletzko at least offers a ray of hope for swing tackle, but it still seems the best way forward here is to bring someone in from outside the current roster. That is primarily in the hands of Stephen Jones. Who knows if he can be convinced to use some of that dry powder, or dive into trade possibilities?
At least we don’t have long to wait until we start finding out what the staff is up to. Those cuts will have to be completed on Tuesday afternoon, and we are likely going to see some trickle out before then. Come here and we will keep you up to date on all the latest developments.