The Dallas Cowboys play a football game this weekend! It may just be a preseason opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars, with many starters in street clothes on the sidelines of AT&T Stadium, but this is still an exciting point of progress in building to the first meaningful game in September against the Giants.
NFL teams are more deliberate than ever with how they manage the preseason now, and this is especially true for a team like Dallas that’s aiming to be playing their best football in February of 2024 - not this August. The team-vs-team matchups are even less relevant with players focused on translating their training camp work onto the field in live reps, but there’s still some intrigue in the Cowboys starting real competition against an AFC contender that beat them in overtime last season.
As we like to do on the Hidden Yardage podcast, Mark Lane and I did our best to look ahead at what to expect from the Cowboys vs. Jaguars preseason opener on Saturday. You can listen to the full episode right above here or anywhere you get your podcasts by subscribing to the Blogging The Boys podcast network. Apple devices can subscribe here and Spotify users can subscribe here.
For the offense, this game will be an important extension of the ongoing install of Mike McCarthy’s scheme, with a different position group to focus on compared to what draws attention at camp. Mark chose to hone in on the one potential point of concern in Dan Quinn’s defense at linebacker, where the Cowboys will need to build around Leighton Vander Esch, Damone Clark, and rookie DeMarvion Overshown to have enough at the position when Micah Parsons is rushing the quarterback.
Prior to the Cowboys first padded practice in Oxnard, our show covered the position groups that will show tangible signs of progress in the Cowboys new offense, settling on the pass catchers at wide receiver and tight end:
It’s still far too early in camp to make any claims about who has earned a roster spot or any real playing time, but strong buzz for Jalen Tolbert out of OTAs and minicamp has carried over into his second training camp with the team thus far. Veteran acquisition Brandin Cooks has even had praise for the approach Tolbert has taken after all but redshirting his rookie year, and the duo of Tolbert and Cooks hold the keys to if Dallas has finally figured out how to consistently have enough for Dak Prescott out wide.
CeeDee Lamb establishing himself as a top notch WR1 is still one of the best things to come from what ended up being the final year of Moore’s offense, and of course he figures to stay in this role and develop even more in McCarthy’s scheme. Counting on further progression from Michael Gallup another year removed from ACL surgery, Tolbert to keep his upward trajectory going, and Cooks to remain a consistent veteran is as good a plan as the Cowboys have had at WR in a while - but still comes with palpable risk at every spot outside of Lamb.
The Cowboys were linked to first round-tight end prospects heavily in the lead up to ultimately picking Mazi Smith, opting for a position that players can typically contribute earlier than rookie tight ends. Dan Quinn already has big plans for Smith as a key cog in the defense, but the same can’t be said right now about the rookie TE the Cowboys did opt for in Luke Schoonmaker out of Michigan.
Injuries and existing depth have made it a quiet early start to Schoonmaker’s career, but the vision for him to fit in with Jake Ferguson and Peyton Hendershot down the line remains. For now, the pressure to replace Dalton Schultz falls on Ferguson and Hendershot, with Schultz leaving a bigger void in this offense then some may remember.
Now with reps against a defense other than their own upcoming, the focus for preseason week one shifts to running back on offense. Tony Pollard had his second most carries of the season against the Jaguars last year, with Ezekiel Elliott splitting his average share of carries with 16, meaning lining up against Jacksonville without Elliott and potentially no Pollard gives a great opportunity to the backs competing for RB2 and RB3 roles.
Rico Dowdle has established somewhat of an early lead in this competition as the “veteran” with two years of experience, but Malik Davis and Deuce Vaughn have also made plenty of highlight plays. It won’t just be about what these backs do with the ball in their hands against the Jaguars, but also about the ability to pass protect being an important part of evaluating the pass offense as a whole. The Cowboys have also been open about using RBs in the pass game more this season, an area where all three prospects behind Pollard can make splash plays as well.
What about the defense that Dallas has finally embraced as a big part of their identity, and is projected to be among one of the best in the league led by Defensive Player of the Year candidate Micah Parsons? Parsons may not be making the full-time switch to defensive end that was teased earlier in the offseason, but still expects to spend most of his time getting after the quarterback, leaving somewhat of a gap at the linebacker position.
The Cowboys took a major stride in improving their pass defense by pairing Stephon Gilmore with Trevon Diggs at cornerback, and made a similar commitment to the run defense by drafting Mazi Smith in the first round, but need dependability at linebacker to avoid having a weak spot in this defense.
Damone Clark somehow stays under the radar as a name that could really solidify this position group if he stays ahead of schedule in his development, playing with the type of range and instincts that Dallas had in Vander Esch over his rookie contract. The veteran Vander Esch has found this form at times again in Quinn’s scheme, but the Cowboys will still be searching for depth on the second level that can fill all the different alignments Quinn deploys with names like Overshown, Jabril Cox, and Malik Jefferson.
Dallas’ depth at safety has helped ease some of the need for traditional linebackers in the past, with Jayron Kearse and Donovan Wilson making their best plays as hybrid type SAF/LBs, but with the injury bug hitting the safety room early this camp, the Cowboys could use a standout performance from one of these linebackers as early as Saturday against the Jaguars.