We’ll be paying close attention to the San Francisco 49ers roster Thursday evening, but there is a whole other team to watch. The 49ers host the Dallas Cowboys in their preseason opener, and in case you didn’t know, half the players on the field will be Cowboys!
During the season we do regular Q&As with opposing bloggers to figure out what we might see each week. During the preseason, teams are not game-planning for the opposing team, but rather continuing installation of their schemes and evaluating their own roster. Only gamblers really care who wins or loses the game.
That being said, it would be helpful to know who to watch on the Dallas side of the field. I took a few minutes to chat with our friends at Blogging The Boys in advance of the game. I talked with BTB about the 49ers to watch and where things are headed this season. I kept things simple in my questions. I asked about offense and defensive reserves to watch, and what they expect of the Cowboys in 2018. A preseason game is not exactly a “rivalry matchup,” but maybe we’ll see the 49ers still stomp a mud hole in Dallas Thursday evening!
NN: Who are the Cowboys offensive reserves to watch on Thursday?
BTB: I would say the receivers, the tight ends and the quarterback Mike White. There’s been a bit of turnover in the receiving group and down-roster guys will get a chance to move up the ladder on Thursday. Lance Lenoir is a 2017 practice squad guy who has had a fantastic camp. If he can play well in the preseason games, he just might make the 53-man roster. We’ll have to see if they give a lot of time to third-round draft pick Michael Gallup at receiver in the game. The tight end position is wide open now that Jason Witten has retired. The Cowboys have four contenders there but only Geoff Swaim has any real experience. Rico Gathers is probably the most polarizing player on the team, some fans love his raw, natural athletic ability but others question why he is even here because of his limited football background and his inability to really grasp things blocking concepts the past couple of years. How he performs in preseason will be huge. Plus tight ends Blake Jarwin and Dalton Shcultz will also be trying to lay their claim to playing time.
QB Mike White is a fifth-round pick who has been inconsistent in camp. People are interested to see what he looks like in games and whether he can really challenge Cooper Rush as the backup QB. Bonus player to watch, running back Bo Scarbrough.
NN: Who are the Cowboys defensive reserves to watch on Thursday?
BTB: Defensive end Dorance Armstrong was a fourth-round pick this year and has really shown up in camp. He’s created some buzz so seeing him in game action will be interesting. Free-agent signee DE Kony Ealy has had a poor camp, so if he wants to make the team he needs to shine in these games. The Cowboys used their first-round pick on linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, so far they’ve been running him with the 2s, but we’re not sure how much time he might get in the game because he’s expected to get big minutes during the season. Antwaun Woods was kind of an afterthought free-agent signing at defensive tackle, but has made the most of his opportunity in camp. If he can translate it to preseason games, he may just force his way onto the 53-man roster. In the secondary, guys like Tyree Robinson, Kam Kelley and Charvarious Ward will be given a chance to shine. They are longshots but that’s what these games are for.
NN: The 3-game losing streak effectively sunk the Cowboys 2017 season. How much was that because of Ezekiel Elliott starting his suspension, and how much was other reasons? What do you expect of the Cowboys in 2018?
BTB: The loss of Elliott was obviously part of the problem. But maybe an even bigger factor was losing Tyron Smith to injury for a few games. The Cowboys were 5-3 heading into the Atlanta game and looking good, then Elliott was suspended and Tyron missed the Falcons game and the season turned. Atlanta beat Smith’s replacement (Chaz Green) like a drum — Adrian Clayborn had six sacks on the day. Overall they had eight sacks and it seemed to make Dak Prescott jumpy for a few games — he had some of his worst performances following that. The Cowboys also lost Sean Lee for a stretch, so everything just came together to sink the season. The coaching was poor during that streak and depth along the offensive line was exposed.
As for 2018, I’m feeling cautiously optimistic. Zeke doesn’t have the suspension hanging over his head, the Cowboys added some offensive line depth, and the coaching staff had a shake up. Kris Richard of Legion of Boom fame is now the secondary coach and passing game coordinator on defense. Sanjay Lal is the new WR coach and has really brought attention to detail in route running to the team. Jason Garret and Scott Linehan realized the offense had gotten a little stale and they are trying new things this training camp. In the end, though, it will all come down to Dak Prescott. Is he is the QB we saw for the first 24 games of his career, or the guy we saw over the last eight of 2017? If he’s the former, the Cowboys should be back in the playoffs.