No doubt you're as excited as we are for tonight's matchup between the Dallas Cowboys and Denver Broncos. To help whet your appetite, here are five things to watch for in Dallas' 2002 preseason debut.
As was previously announced last Wednesday, the Cowboys' starters will be sitting out tonight. Fans of Dak Prescott, Micah Parsons, and others will have to wait to see their favorite players back on the field.
So tonight is about evaluating the backups and giving young players valuable experience as the team continues building towards the regular season. With that in mind, here are our five key areas of concern:
1. Backup Quarterback
Will Grier has been standing out in training camp, putting pressure on veteran Cooper Rush for that coveted spot on the depth chart behind Prescott. Hopefully both get a chance to show their stuff tonight and give fans a better look.
Grier was held out of the Cowboys' joint practice with Denver on Thursday with a groin injury and his status for tonight has yet to be made official. It would be a tough blow for the fourth-year passer as he tries to catch on in Dallas and claim the QB2 job.
If he can't play, Ben DiNucci could get a lot more playing time. That statement may lead to audible groans for some, but it will be interesting to see how DiNucci has progressed in his third season.
Don't sleep on Cooper Rush, either. We saw his strong play last year in the Vikings game and preseason has often been when Rush really puts on a show. As long as Dallas' backup offense line is solvent, Cooper may quickly remind us why he keeps sticking around.
2. Offensive Line Depth
While our 1st-round pick may be the starting left guard by Week One, Smith is still listed as a backup and is expected to be on the field tonight. It will especially interesting to see if Dallas only plays him at guard or also gives him some looks at left tackle.
One reason that the Cowboys may do the latter is the reported struggle of Josh Ball. The current frontrunner for the swing tackle job, Ball has not been impressive based on camp observations or the most recent reports from practices with the Broncos.
Like many, Ball appears to be much better suited on the right side of the line. But with Tyron Smith's injury history, having a secure backup option at left tackle is a critical issue for the Cowboys. Seeing what Tyler Smith can do in that role is something they'll no doubt be considering in the coming weeks.
3. Wide Receivers
There's been a lot of positive talk about Dallas' receivers so far in camp. CeeDee Lamb's been great, of course, but the buzz around guys like Noah Brown, Jalen Tolbert, Simi Fehoko, T.J. Vasher, and Dennis Houston has been consistent throughout the days in Oxnard.
Dallas listed Tolbert as a starter on its first official depth chart earlier in the week but the rookie may still get some run tonight. You can also expect Brown to be featured as a veteran and also as arguably the most-praised WR of the bunch the last few weeks.
Opportunities for these receivers to shine may be limited depending on the plays of the backups QBs and offensive line. But they will get their moments and need to produce with them.
I can't help but think of Jon'Vea Johnson, a 2019 prospect, who had all of the hype coming out of camp and then couldn't catch a thing in preseason games. Stocks can drop really fast in these games; critical for guys fighting to make the roster.
4. Defensive Prospects
Whether it's Sam Williams, Dante Fowler, John Ridgeway, DaRon Bland, Devin Harper, Markquese Bell, or others there are a lot of new faces on defense to look for tonight. They will get plenty of time on the field with the starters out.
Many times in preseason we see guys have big games but then not make the team. Often this is due to evaluations that they only took advantage of poor play from the opposition's backups, or simply getting caught in a numbers crunch with more established options in front of them.
Some of the players you'll see tonight, like Sam Williams, have no concerns about their roster spot in 2022. But others are truly playing for their jobs and that can lead to some exciting moments even in “fake” games.
5. Kick & Punt Returns
While other guys could get looks the big story here is KaVontae Turpin. The reigning MVP of the USFL was signed by Dallas at the start of camp as a return specialist but could see work on offense as well in preseason games.
Turpin will stand out just for being 5'7″ in the land of giants. But we've already seen practice highlights of his speed and that could make for some exciting moments over the next few weeks.
To keep Turpin healthy and to assess other options, the Cowboys will likely give some other players cracks at the return duties in the preseason. If nothing else, they'll want to know who they can trust should KaVontae get injured or struggle in the spotlight.
But right now it appears to be Turpin's job to lose. Hopefully, he can stand out for the Cowboys as much as he did in his last league.