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.
What We May Have Learned From the Cowboys Week 1 Preseason Loss
The Dallas Cowboys unfortunately came out on the losing end of the battle in their first preseason contest against the San Francisco 49ers, despite pretty much dominating the majority of the game. The good news is it was just an exhibition game and means relatively nothing in regards to the upcoming 2018 season.
Last week was the first chance for a lot of us to see what this years Dallas Cowboys team could possibly look like. There was a lot of roster turnover this offseason, which means there were quite a few new faces on the field for the Cowboys Thursday night. But, I can't say that I was disappointed in what I saw, at least so far.
Now that I've had time to study and evaluate the Dallas Cowboys game against the 49ers, I wanted to share with all of you some of the things we may have learned. Up until this point we were left speculating about certain things, but I think the picture is much clearer now.
To keep myself from going overboard here, I decided to narrow it down to just five things I think we may have learned about the 2018 Dallas Cowboys last Thursday night. Continue to read below to see what they are.
✭ Rookie WR Michael Gallup the Real Deal✭
With so much unknown surrounding the Dallas Cowboys wide receiver position, it was really good to see rookie WR Michael Gallup play well against the San Francisco 49ers Thursday night. Despite being a rookie, Gallup looked like the best WR on the field for either team. I don't believe I'm exaggerating the slightest either.
The highlight of the game might have been when he and Quarterback Dak Prescott were able to hook up on a 30 yard touchdown pass to close out the Cowboys first offensive series. Gallup might have scored a second TD later in the game if QB Cooper Rush's pass wouldn't have been under thrown. But, that's neither here nor there now. If Gallup continues to play like he did Thursday night, he could easily be the Cowboys top WR in 2018.
✭ Blake Jarwin Favorite to Replace Jason Witten✭
Geoff Swaim may have gotten the start and provided some good blocking Thursday night against the 49ers, but it was Blake Jarwin who may have ended up becoming the favorite to replace Jason Witten this season. Out of all of the options in the receiving game for the Dallas Cowboys, it was Jarwin who was on the receiving end of Dak Prescott's first pass of the game. And, if he hadn't had stepped out of bounds later in the game he would've found himself in the end zone.
Now, it's a little early in the process to claim Jarwin as the victor in the Cowboys TE competition, but he was able to carry over what he's been doing in practice into the game. That's no small feat to accomplish. I'm sure we'll see some of the other TEs on the roster receive opportunities to prove themselves, but for now, it's looking as if it could be Blake Jarwin's job to lose.
✭ Tavon Austin More Than a "Gadget" Player✭
When the Dallas Cowboys traded for Tavon Austin earlier in the offseason no one really knew exactly what kind of offensive role they had in mind for him. Since arriving in Dallas, Austin has been described as a "web-back", but that made things even more confusing because it sounded like a made up position. The only thing anybody really knew is that Austin has been mostly a "gadget" player since entering the NFL.
I know it was just Week 1 of the preseason, but if Thursday night was any indication of how the Cowboys plan to use Austin, then he will be more than a "gadget" player this season. Austin didn't line up in the backfield or receive any handoffs. He didn't even return any punts or kickoffs against the 49ers. The only thing he did do was lineup at WR and run routes. His role could change and expand later, but it looks as if he will be more involved offensively than we had originally thought.
✭ DE Taco Charlton Looks Much Improved in Year 2✭
The Dallas Cowboys defense may not have recorded a single quarterback sack Thursday night against the San Francisco 49ers, but they did put consistent pressure on the opposing QBs. One of those pass rushers to consistently pressure the QB was the Cowboys second-year Defensive End Taco Charlton, who looks like an entirely different player this year. He was getting after the QB, making tackles, and deflecting passes.
Charlton is starting to look more and more like the first-round draft pick the Cowboys were hoping he would be last year. He looks bigger, stronger, faster, and more technique sound than he did a season ago, which should be good news for the pass rush this season. He also showed that his knowledge of the game has improved. Last season he would've been fooled by some of those bootlegs, but it doesn't look to be the case now.
✭LB Depth No Longer a Concern✭
The Dallas Cowboys played the entire game against the 49ers Thursday night without Sean Lee, their best defensive player. Unfortunately, it may have provided a glimpse of what we could see at some point during the 2018 season since #50 has a problem of remaining healthy. The good news is, it looks like the Cowboys have covered themselves for such scenario.
Yes, all eyes were on Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch against the 49ers Thursday night, and rightfully so. Both players didn't do anything to disappoint, but it was the Cowboys free agent addition, Joe Thomas, who stole the show. Thomas was filling in for Sean Lee and did an outstanding job doing so. He was all over the field and even ended up getting an interception off a Kavon Frazier deflection. The way all the Cowboys LBs played should ease any concerns with the depth of the position heading into the 2018 season.
What stood out for you in the Dallas Cowboys game against the 49ers?
LB Joe Thomas Steals The Show In San Francisco
Heading into last night's preseason opener Cowboys fans had their minds on three linebackers: Sean Lee, Jaylon Smith, and Leighton Vander Esch. Of course, they were right to focus on those three. They are the three most talented linebackers on the roster, and each were taken within the first two rounds of their respective drafts.
During the game against the San Francisco 49ers, however, an under-the-radar linebacker stole the show for the Dallas Cowboys. If you were watching you know that linebacker is Joe Thomas. With Sean Lee out Joe Thomas got a chance to play with the first team defense, and boy did he take advantage of that opportunity.
Joe Thomas finished his night with five tackles, one TFL, and an interception on the play below. Thomas was relentless in pursuit, flying all over the field and keeping himself near the ball at all times. This relentlessness put him in position to capitalize on Kavon Frazier's pass deflection, and come away with the pick.
Multiple times during the first half Joe Thomas made everyone in Cowboys Nation ask "who is that!?" And in the preseason, that's at the top of the to-do list of every lesser-known player.
On the very next play... PICKED. #DALvsSF https://t.co/X62FGTNpKV
Over the last few seasons the Cowboys have severely lacked depth at the linebacker position. When starting WILL Sean Lee is out, which happens quite frequently, the entire unit seems to fall apart. Their attempts at bargain shopping at linebacker, or snagging mid-round depth in the draft, hasn't necessarily worked all that well.
Adding Leighton Vander Esch during the 2018 draft was a step towards building the linebackers as a complete unit, but Joe Thomas' performance last night adds even more stability.
No, Thomas isn't going to take a starting role from Sean Lee, but he does add quality depth behind what are high profile linebackers. Jaylon Smith looked better and healthier last night than he has during his entire time as a Dallas Cowboy, Vander Esch looked like an athletic freak at times, and Sean Lee is still Sean Lee.
If Joe Thomas is going to show up like he did against the 49ers on a nightly basis, the Cowboys suddenly possess one of the deeper front sevens in all of football.
Sean’s Scout: Offense, TE Usage, Defensive Line Rotation Stand Out at 49ers
The Dallas Cowboys first game of 2018 is in the books. Although it goes as a loss on the scoreboard, last night was a win for the Cowboys in the important areas. Above all else, the team avoided any major injuries, and navigated Quarterback Dak Prescott through his first scoring drive.
There's plenty for the Cowboys to like about what they left on the field in San Francisco before returning to Oxnard, as well as plenty of room for improvement. Here is my first official Sean's Scout of the season, on some takeaways from the Cowboys performance against the 49ers.
- Great block from Tight End Dalton Schultz to seal the corner for Rod Smith's first run of 15 yards.
The rookie was able to come off the ball with good explosiveness, using his quick hands to sustain the block downfield. This relentless blocking ability is Schultz's best trait, and if he can continue to show it off on the second and third level of the defense, he's going to earn snaps in this offense.
- Dak Prescott continues to be a "gamer", finding rookie Wide Receiver Michael Gallup for a 30-yard touchdown on the Cowboys first drive.
Prescott had been struggling to connect on deep passes like this one in practice. As we know about the Cowboys third-year starter though, Prescott continues to be better in real game situations. The protection was perfect for Prescott to deliver this ball to Gallup, but his small window of opportunity to do so didn't allow Dak to step up in the pocket.
The throw was still perfect to Gallup, who uncovered right as he ran under the scoring pass -- his first of what the Cowboys can expect to be many more receptions this season.
- Jaylon Smith's first signature "swipe play" of the game was really set up by Linebackers Joe Thomas and Damien Wilson.
Take nothing away from Smith, who looked fantastic running around last night, but the Cowboys got everything they could ask for out of their veteran linebackers in this game too.
As a defense, the Cowboys excelled at containing the edge all night long. On this play it was Wilson motioning down from his SAM position before the snap to do just that. Joe Thomas also stayed home to meet the runner in the hole and Smith was there to finish off the play.
Later in the same drive, on a third and long, Smith carried a 49ers tight end down the seam to force the ball underneath. The Cowboys got off the field, and it was an even better sign seeing Smith plant and flip his hips in coverage.
- I really wish we got to see Defensive End Taco Charlton at LDE since the start of his rookie season.
The Michigan product always projected best as a left end. Drafting for need at 19th overall though, the Cowboys felt the need to try Charlton at right end at the start of 2017. This was a less than ideal position for him to begin his career, and it made his strong push at the end of the season from the left side even more impressive.
Above all else, Charlton looked like he had a plan for every rush off the strong side in this game. With Taco off one edge and Tyrone Crawford on the other, the Cowboys deep defensive line has a chance to be great against the run.
Charlton looked much more comfortable turning the corner and avoiding blocks with quick change of direction ability, which led to him being in the quarterback's face multiple times.
- That's a perfect angle from Kavon Frazier on the blitz to tip a pass that was intercepted by Joe Thomas.
I already mentioned the Cowboys ability to play contain defense very well, and this was an area that Frazier brought some juice to. Reading the eyes of the QB on this pass play, Frazier avoided a low block to time his run and leap for the ball.
If Beathard held onto the ball for another second, he likely would have been sacked by rookie Defensive End Dorance Armstrong, who also did a nice job collapsing on the play. Instead, his pass resulted in one of two turnovers Dallas came up with last night -- both on deflected balls.
- Nice job by Blake Jarwin to look back for the ball as he converted a third down in the red zone to set up a Bo Scarbrough touchdown.
Jarwin ran wide open on the wheel route underneath. It would have been easy for him to continue the route up the field into the end zone. With Cooper Rush needing to throw the ball under pressure, Jarwin turned back at the perfect time and presented his quarterback with a big target.
Jarwin's athleticism and size really stands out at TE, catching this pass easily and turning up field to move the chains.
This drive ended with Bo Scarbrough crossing the goal line from one yard out, pushing behind rookie Left Guard Connor Williams. Though it was nice to see Scarbrough score in a short yardage situation, I thought Rod Smith had the much better overall game, and is nearly a lock to be this team's second running back.
I don't know how far Scarbrough has to rise up the depth chart to make the Cowboys roster, but spots behind Ezekiel Elliott and Smith should be at a premium given both backs completeness.
- Defensive Coordinator Rod Marinelli has to absolutely love Defensive Tackle Brian Price running down a screen pass to knock Ricky James out of bounds.
The Cowboys play caller on defense is all about effort from his defensive line, and there's no better example of this than Price's effort here. Playing without a true 3T in David Irving's absence to start the season, the Cowboys are more than prepared to still hold up at defensive tackle thanks to their depth at 1T.
Collectively, this group has the size and range to hold up on the interior for Dallas. Brian Price -- whose first season was cut short due to injury last year -- deserves a chance to start at 1T over Richard Ash and Antwaun Woods.
Ash did push the pocket with a spin move that put him in position to tip a pass that was intercepted by Cornerback Duke Thomas in the fourth quarter.
Not only is Price hard to move off the spot, but he is freakish in his pursuit of the football once disengaging. As the 49ers failed to get a seal on Price for this screen play, the 318 pound DT flew to the sideline and made the play 21 yards downfield.
San Francisco would score their first points of the game on this drive, but that shouldn't matter when the team reviews the tape to see Price's effort.
- Lance Lenoir's awareness in a tight space set up his touchdown reception from Rush.
We've said all along that a talented wide receiver is going to miss the Cowboys final cut, and Lance Lenoir continues to do everything he can to assure it won't be him. Not on the active roster in 2017, Lenoir did show enough as an undrafted rookie to stick around on the practice squad, and has shown significant improvement this year.
Lenoir is the type of route running technician that Sanjay Lal is looking for. With his defender planted in the back of the end zone at the stem of his route, Lenoir knew he would have little room to work with in selling the route to the inside before breaking out.
It was a violent and quick move from Lenoir that gave him some separation towards the sideline, gathering himself to tap both feet in bounds and score. It's hard not to be impressed with the way Lenoir shows up and competes every day at training camp, and it was great for the whole Cowboys offense to see his efforts rewarded with a touchdown.
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The Cowboys will return to Oxnard to prepare for the second week of the preseason now. A home game at AT&T Stadium against the Cincinnati Bengals awaits them - another opportunity for the players fighting to make this team to prove themselves.
The Cowboys should be impressed by their depth at OL, TE, and DL based on this performance against the 49ers. Having depth in the trenches has gone a long way for this team before, as competitions for playing time are sure to heat up this week.
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