Most years the Dallas Cowboys face some serious questions during the OTAs. They don’t get answered until training camp, or even the regular season. This year feels different, more relaxed. Thanks to a skillfully navigated offseason to date, the roster is in as good a shape at the top as any time in recent memory. We can project starters at all the positions, and there is good confidence in all of them. There is no equivalent to past problems, like the justified worries the team had at wide receiver last year.
That does not mean this will be a boring preseason for Dallas. There are some very interesting things to watch that will definitely impact the success of the team. Here are some of the ones to keep your eye on.
How will the running backs shake out?
We already did an entire post on this, so let’s keep this one brief. They need to figure out just how they use Tony Pollard, because he is not the same kind of runner as Ezekiel Elliott was. The role of big, short-yardage back is up for grabs, if they do go with one. And Deuce Vaughn is going to be one of the most watched players in camp and preseason. With UDFA Hunter Luepke in the mix, this is going to be entertaining.
Who will be the wide receiver depth?
The starting trio of CeeDee Lamb, Brandin Cooks, and a hopefully 100% Michael Gallup is frankly a bit mouth-watering. But you have to have two or three backups to weather the grueling seventeen game schedule, and that is as wide open as anything on the roster.
Let’s throw in a prediction. Jalen Tolbert is going to prove he was worth taking and emerge as WR4. Expect him to have a role similar to the one Cedrick Wilson filled, with significant snaps on offense and special teams. If he continues to develop, he could well become a starter before his rookie contract is up.
Behind that, it’s going to be a preseason party as ten other players will be trying to convince the coaches they deserve a spot on the 53-man roster, or at least a practice squad slot. Simi Fehoko has a leg up as a returning player, but there is always an unheralded receiver or two that gets people excited in preseason. Given that Dak Prescott is not going to see the field much in August’s preseason contests, these contenders would be wise to cozy up to Cooper Rush and work on chemistry with him, because that is the quarterback they will be catching passes from in the preseason games if they want to make it.
How soon does Luke Schoonmaker become TE1?
Make no mistake, that is the plan. Jake Ferguson has legions of fans, and Peyton Hendershot has his stans as well. But Schoonmaker was drafted to replace Dalton Schultz. Frankly, he has better measurables than Schultz and produced in college with a lot of pretty mediocre quarterback talent. This one will mostly be determined in camp.
The key here is how well he works with Prescott. His job is to become the security blanket Schultz was. His hands certainly look better than Schultz’s. Watch his tape, and you see time after time he corralled passes thrown behind him. Prescott should do a much better job with ball placement, and when Schoonmaker gets the ball with some space to work, he is dangerous. You can also be watching to see how many two and even three tight end packages Mike McCarthy and Brian Schottenheimer dial up. With capable receivers in the tight end room, those will create lots of opportunity to cross up the defense by throwing out of what is usually a run.
Can they find adequate offensive line depth?
Their starting five look good, but if you don’t worry about injuries, you haven’t been paying attention. Right now, there are not many clear leaders to fill the three or four backup spots the team will likely go with. Matt Farniok looks like a near lock with his experience, and the team drafted Asim Richards with a clear expectation he would be in the mix. One name to watch as well is Matt Waletzko, who lost his rookie year to injury. This justifies a lot of scrutiny in both camp and the preseason games. Second team reps will be telling.
How will Dan Quinn use all his shiny toys?
It is hard to pick out positions to watch, because most of the defense looks loaded. With the possible exception of WILL linebacker, there are very good starters for every position, and some great depth. But Quinn loves to go into his laboratory and come up with creative ways to use his players. Jayron Kearse is Exhibit 1 for this. He is very effective and valuable as a hybrid safety/linebacker. Third-round pick DeMarvion Overshown could be destined for a similar role. The pushback Quinn gave to the idea that Micah Parsons was going to be exclusively an EDGE rusher is further evidence that he wants to get wild with things. And up front, Quinn is likely to throw players on the field in a dizzying array of combinations. The depth there is outstanding.
With first-round pick Mazi Smith as the anchor of the line on early downs and short yardage, that aspect of the game should be better. And if Smith can show real ability to push the pocket when teams throw with him on the field, then it just gets even better. Retaining Quinn for another year when there were definitely teams that coveted him as a head coach is one offseason development that is sometimes overlooked. The addition of Stephon Gilmore really shores up the secondary as well. Pass defenders feed off a good pass rush, and that is just one more thing that bodes well for the defense.
The really fun part about all this is that the big questions are pretty well solved. The anxiety level is just not there this year. Training camp looms ever closer, and it is nice to have a lot of anticipation without the stress.