For the first time, we will get to see the 2023 Dallas Cowboys take the field against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Saturday night. It’s their first game. Of a sort. Preseason games don’t count, of course. And they are evolving as the rules change and teams invest more and more money into their top players.
For a long time, preseason games were both a way to get players ready for the regular season and a competition to make rosters. What seems a bit amazing now is that many of the players came into training camp very out of shape and used that time to reestablish their physical conditioning. That meant camps and preseason were much longer, while the regular season was a good bit shorter.
All that has changed. Players now participate in year-round conditioning and show up fully ready to play games, or nearly so. They make much more money, turning the ones with the biggest contracts into assets that must be protected. Starters are seeing less and less time on the field in preseason. There are only three preseason games now, and most franchises, including the Cowboys, focus more on evaluating rookies and down-roster players to figure out who make the 53-man roster, something that the changes to the cutdown facilitate. No longer do teams have to make multiple reductions, which means the fringe players have all three games to try and prove themselves.
We discussed this overall idea on the latest episode of Ryled Up on the Blogging The Boys podcast network. Make sure to subscribe to our network so you do not miss any of our shows! Apple devices can subscribe here and Spotify users can subscribe here.
These games are also the only time full contact happens before the regular season, especially for the quarterback position. That is valuable in the evaluation process, but just adds to the injury concerns. That’s why it is not uncommon to see some starters not play a down in preseason, or only a limited number of snaps in what used to be called the dress rehearsal. That too has changed, as some teams are not really doing one of those, leaning even more to just evaluating the back end of the preseason roster - which are the least expensive players and therefore more expendable. That’s a harsh thing, but the reality we find ourselves in.
So what should we expect to see when the Cowboys and Jaguars start hitting for real?
Most of the starters are not going to suit up. That could be 20 or more of the Dallas players. While we might be surprised, it would be highly unusual for the staff to want to see any of their key players out there.
That does not mean there is nothing to watch for.
One thing to pay attention to is how the snaps are allocated. A good example is quarterback. A bit unexpectedly, there seems to be a real competition between Cooper Rush and Will Grier for the QB2 job. With only three quarterbacks on the roster, and Dak Prescott not likely to be involved, we might see their usage split up by halves. On the initial, unofficial depth chart, Rush is listed ahead of Grier, and could be expected to play the first half with the second string. If there is a true competition going on, that could change. If instead the two alternate by quarters, it would confirm that the staff is considering making Grier QB2. And if he starts, it is even more certain he has a real chance to unseat Rush.
Another big thing to examine in the game is the performance of the offensive line. Depth is a real issue for this group. Not only will who lines up to start the game give us an indication of who is impressing the staff the most, their snap counts might be telling. If a player comes out of the game early, it might mean he is in good shape to make the roster and is also being afforded some protection.
However, offensive line play is often the most ragged part of teams in preseason. It is the hardest group of positions to get working together smoothly. That can really limit what the backup quarterbacks are able to do as they may have less protection. It is a common issue for preseason games. It just gets worse in the second half as the third stringers get involved. That is a good argument to give both Rush and Grier some work in the first half. The protection as well as the run blocking should be better then, allowing the coaches to get a better read on how the QBs might perform in an emergency situation during the season.
This year, it might also be a test of the new elements of the offense under Mike McCarthy and Brian Schottenheimer. Getting the ball out quicker has been a big part of the install process in camp. That is a good way to overcome some poor pass blocking, making this game a good opportunity to see if that is coming together.
In many other position groups, the depth has looked good in camp. Some, such as running back, have wide open competitions going on. This game will provide valuable data on choosing the primary backup for Tony Pollard. It also might give us some stronger clues on how Deuce Vaughn will be utilized by the coaches, as well as giving us some hints about whether fullback Hunter Luepke might have a place on the team.
One of the best competitions is for the backup wide receiver jobs. So far, Jalen Tolbert, KaVontae Turpin, Simi Fehoko, and rookie Jalen Brooks have been in a heated battle to claim what looks like three backup jobs. Fehoko has had the most bad moments so far with a couple of obvious drops. A good showing is important for him, but if he doesn’t see the field much, it is a bad omen for him. Another complication here is that Prescott has been very good in camp practices (don’t pay too much attention to the picks on Tuesday), but the WRs in the game are going to be getting passes from the backups, which could make them look bad if the throws are inaccurate or the timing is off. Pay attention to how that might affect things.
Defensively, there is not a lot of suspense. It is hard to say how much work first-round pick Mazi Smith will get, both because he isn’t exactly in a camp battle with Johnathan Hankins and he had an MRI on Tuesday. The team said it was precautionary and everything is just fine, but the Cowboys aren’t exactly renowned for their forthrightness on such things. We may see a heavy dose of Dante Fowler, as the defensive end group looks very crowded and he might need to stake his claim. Rookies DeMarvion Overshown and Eric Scott have both looked good in camp. Hopefully we’ll see that continue. Otherwise, it is the usual suspects like Kelvin Joseph and Jabril Cox trying to demonstrate some personal progress to the coaches. Kicker Brandon Aubrey, at least momentarily the only kicker on the roster, needs to make the best use of any opportunities he gets, both to solidify his position and to comfort a lot of nerves among fans.
We shouldn’t see much in the way of new or different plays from either side of the ball. The preseason is a time of basic, vanilla plays. In light of that, the players on the field need to focus on getting the basics right and knowing their assignments. Preseason games allow the staff to peer beyond physical talent and see how sharp their team is.
Also, never forget the best outcome for any preseason game is no injuries.
For those who love to look at the details and dig for clues, preseason games can be very entertaining, but always remember that the score doesn’t matter. This is all about preparation and evaluation, not beating the other team. Admittedly, that is always fun, but it should never become a priority.