The Dallas Cowboys first preseason game is finally here. As usual, the team will be staying in California and making the trip from Oxnard to San Francisco for an exhibition against the 49ers. The reality of these preseason openers is that they're often disappointing. A sensory overload at the start, with the Cowboys kicking off against one of their historic rivals, is sure to be met by some teaching moments later in the game with roster long shots fighting for their lives.
This being just the first of four chances these players will get to earn a spot on the Cowboys 53-man roster, measuring the sustained success that goes a long way with coaches is not yet possible.
With that said, here are eight players that have the most to gain from a strong showing tonight.
Wide Receiver Lance Lenoir
Another strong training camp showing from Lenoir puts further pressure on the second-year UDFA receiver to perform in the preseason. It was Lenoir's struggles on special teams in live action last year that kept him off the roster, but he did show enough to develop on the practice squad.
Lenoir is everything the Cowboys are looking for in their revamped wide receivers room. Few players across the entire 90-man roster have the competitive fire that Lenoir brings on every snap, a lanky receiver that plays with some violence in his routes.
Tonight's game will serve as a benchmark for who Lenoir has to beat out if he wants to make the team in 2018. The Cowboys quarterbacks have had no problem getting him the ball in practice, but this doesn't mean receivers like Hurns, Beasley, Gallup, and Thompson won't do enough to push him past the cut line.
Regardless of who is throwing him the ball, look for Lenoir to create separation downfield and hopefully win at the catch point with a few flash plays against the 49ers.
Tight End Rico Gathers
Geoff Swaim, Blake Jarwin, and rookie Dalton Schultz all feel like roster locks for the Cowboys at tight end. All three bring the overall game this team desires at TE, willing to block against the run and develop as pass catchers.
Then there's Rico Gathers, perhaps the most natural receiver on the depth chart. It remains to be seen if a strong preseason performance will even be enough for Gathers to make the roster. In week one of the preseason, the Cowboys projected “starters” will likely see limited snaps, meaning Gathers will have a chance to stand out.
The 6'8″ converted basketball player does so naturally, and it will be key for him to avoid pressing too much when he sees the field. Quarterbacks Cooper Rush and Mike White are in a competition of their own, and targeting Gathers as a mismatch in the middle of the field could be an easy way for both QBs to settle into this game.
Cornerback Charvarius Ward
The Cowboys have a surplus of depth at cornerback, and a good idea of who will be starting in Kris Richard's secondary already. It's going to be difficult for undrafted players to make the roster this season.
Given Richard's emphasis on length at the cornerback position, Charvarius Ward is in better position than fellow UDFAs Kam Kelly and Donovan Olumba. Listed at 6'1″, the Middle Tennessee product plays with ideal strength and consistent man coverage technique.
Making plays on the ball would be a great start for Ward in this game, but having it go quietly as he blankets opposing receivers is more than enough to warrant further looks in camp.
Running Back Bo Scarbrough
The Cowboys latest running back to be hyped up for the preseason is seventh round draft pick Bo Scarbrough. Constantly playing in the spotlight at Alabama, Scarbrough should be used to the expectations some fans are placing on him in Dallas.
The Cowboys likely see Scarbrough a bit differently. There's no denying his strengths as a physical, downhill runner fit this offense well. Needing Scarbrough to be an all-around back with Rod Smith and Darius Jackson both behind Ezekiel Elliott is where the rookie will understandably lose ground.
Just like Lenoir, it will be important for Scarbrough to stay within himself against the 49ers. It's easy to envision him running at tired defenses in the regular season should he make it that far, with his only chance of doing so being a strong preseason showing.
If this means holding onto the ball and moving the chains in short yardage situations, it's going to be enough for the Cowboys to protect their depth at RB and continue running Scarbrough through the remainder of the preseason.
Guard Kadeem Edwards
When the Cowboys signed Cam Fleming and Marcus Martin as depth on the offensive line, before drafting starting Left Guard Connor Williams, it was widely accepted that their issues in pass protection were fixed from a year ago.
There are other viable players looking to have a say on the league's best OL. Kadeem Edwards has been with the Cowboys since 2016. Stringing together strong practice performances at guard, Edwards' competition for a swing position on the interior comes down to Martin and Damien Mama.
All three players should see playing time tonight. Setting the tone for the down roster battle in the trenches, Edwards needs to outperform Martin. A similar player physically to first-year Cowboy Damien Mama, Edwards should begin the preseason with an advantage here, but loses out to Martin on starting experience for now.
Defensive Tackle Antwaun Woods
The Cowboys are in a precarious position at defensive tackle. Dealing with another four game suspension to David Irving, the Cowboys don't even know what they'll be getting from Irving once he's eligible to return. Irving has been absent from Oxnard and Cowboys training camp.
Finding an interior pass rusher as athletic as Irving is a lost cause for not only Dallas but most teams around the league. Instead, the Cowboys are seeing players like Antwaun Woods rise to the occasion.
Providing depth behind Brian Price and the injured Maliek Collins, Woods has been hard to move at the 1T position. Add in Datone Jones, and it's not hard to imagine the Cowboys having a stout run defense thanks to this size at defensive tackle.
Woods will have to bring more than just size to continue earning snaps for the Cowboys. Look for the UDFA out of USC to play with the range and recognition that's made him a standout at camp in the game.
Defensive End Dorance Armstrong
The rookie pass rusher out of Kansas has caught the eye of Jason Garrett, which is a great sign for one of the few players on the roster that fit the right defensive end mold. Randy Gregory is getting closer to reclaiming his starting job here, as the Cowboys have unsurprisingly put Tyrone Crawford in this spot again to start camp.
Also firmly in the rotation is Armstrong, a position he can easily lose in the preseason. All first year players hit a wall at some point, and it can be hard to miss with defensive ends. Coming off a sub par final season in college, Armstrong is looking to regain his 2016 form where he had ten sacks.
Rushing against Tyron Smith and La'el Collins should have Armstrong prepared for his first live action, where the Cowboys should simply be looking for pressures and flashes of the athlete Armstrong was in college.
Cornerback Anthony Brown
This isn't nearly the last chapter of Anthony Brown's ongoing battle with Jourdan Lewis for the starting slot cornerback position. I wrote yesterday here at Inside The Star that Brown's strong camp performance is a great sign for the entire Cowboys defense.
Kris Richard sees it that way too, as he's made it clear that both Brown and Lewis are doing what they need to in preparing for this season. This makes what both players need to do tonight night pretty clear.
Coming off of a rookie season marked by stunning consistency as a smaller boundary CB, Lewis should be expected to perform as he always has against the 49ers. For Brown, matching this consistency in his technique will be vital.
Whenever Brown is technically off in this area, the ball always seems to find him. A lasting image of a big play happening over Brown could be all Lewis needs to run with more of Brown's snaps back in Oxnard.
Coming off of consecutive days with interceptions this week at practice though, it's also just as likely that Brown creates a big play for the Cowboys defense and shows off his veteran status over a charging field of young cornerbacks.
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The Cowboys kick off their preseason at 9 PM CT in San Francisco. Taking in a game that will serve as a glorified scrimmage and extension of both teams' training camps can be difficult.
Focusing in on these eight players provides context to multiple roster decisions the Cowboys will be facing in the coming weeks. The added bonus of seeing any of the Cowboys projected starters on the field should make for an entertaining preseason debut for two teams with high expectations in 2018.