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DAL 20, ARI 18: Brice Butler, Rico Gathers Shine in Preseason Win

Jess Haynie

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DAL

The preseason isn't about wins and losses but players trying to either make the team or solidify their spot on the depth chart. Even without the best supporting cast around them, Cowboys Brice Butler and Rico Gathers made the most of their opportunities in the team's 20-18 victory over the Arizona Cardinals in the 2017 Hall of Fame Game.

On just two catches, Butler reminded us why he's a potentially dangerous receiving option for the Cowboys offense. Using his pure speed on both plays, Butler got past his man and hauled in two lob passes from Kellen Moore for 46 and 32 yards each. One ball in particular was almost thrown too far ahead but Butler reached out and snagged it for an impressive catch. He might have had a touchdown on the other throw if Moore had put a little more heat on it.

Some, including me, have speculated that Butler might not make the roster if younger guys like Andy Jones and Noah Brown came to play. It's still early, but good reports from training camp and games like this one will keep Brice in Dallas and perhaps even earn him some more opportunities on offense in the regular season.

Rico Gathers

TE Rico Gathers

If you went into the game with Rico Gathers as one of your most interesting players then you were not disappointed. The tight end prospect had three impressive catches for 59 yards and a touchdown. His scoring catch was on a jump ball and the former basketball player looked like he was taking a rebound out of the air over the defender.

Rico's other two catches showed that he has some natural hands as a receiver. Both passes from Cooper Rush were off target but Gathers adjusted and secured the ball. On one player, Gathers had to go to the ground to complete the catch but had the presence of mind to realize that he hadn't been touched. Rico got up and rumbled for a much larger gain, showing good football awareness for such a novice player.

The Cowboys sat both James Hanna and Geoff Swaim tonight so Gathers got to play the entire game. He probably won't get as many snaps in other preseason games, but Rico did his part tonight to maximize the opportunities he had.

Other Notes

  • Alfred Morris had a strong showing with 42 yards on just seven carries. His experience shined through with good reads behind zone blocking, and Morris finished runs with both power and athleticism for big gains. Even if he doesn't make the team, more good preseason play could help Dallas find a trade partner.
  • The reason Morris could be expendable is Rod Smith, who dominated the second half offense and put on a great display of both his power and athletic ability. Smith had 64 yards on 18 carries and also 25 yards on three catches. Where Rod really impressed was with some vision and improvisational running, taking nothing plays and making things happen.
  • Kellen Moore put in a solid outing, playing the entire first half. He rallied back from a disappointing 3-and-out on the first series and moved the offense well the rest of the way. Moore finished with 182 yards on 12-for-17 passing and threw the touchdown pass to Rico Gathers. Kellen's night ended with an interception on an endzone throw to Noah Brown; a jump-ball opportunity that wasn't really on the QB.
  • The second half was Cooper Rush's time at quarterback and the undrafted rookie wasn't bad at all. Under fire from several all-out blitzes, Rush didn't turn it over and made some heads-up plays in some chaotic situations. He threw a touchdown to EZ Nwachukwu and also showed some good wheels with a few big runs to pick up first downs.
  • DE Damontre Moore looked beastly throughout the night, disrupting the pocket numerous times and sending the quarterback scrambling. He never registered a sack but his impact was obvious.
  • FB Keith Smith caught three passes out of the backfield and looked good with the ball in his hands. The Cowboys haven't had an offensive weapon at fullback since the days of Richie Anderson and it's a nice wrinkle for a run-heavy team. If he's developing as a receiver on top of his strong blocking, Keith's roster spot is almost guaranteed.
  • It was not a standout night for the Cowboys defense, who allowed the Cardinals to move the ball easily in the first half. Blaine Gabbert looked like a former 10th-overall pick, and not Blaine Gabbert, during the first half as he carved Dallas up for 185 yards. Things got better in the second half as the Arizona offense stalled, but Damontre Moore was really the only defender who was making his presence felt consistently.
  • Before the game, it was nice to see Orlando Scandrick embrace Jerry Jones when the Cowboys owner was introduced as one of the Hall of Fame inductees. There was a little friction this offseason around Scandrick and trade rumors during the draft. Clearly, there's no lingering animosity like we had a few years back with Mike Jenkins.
  • The Cowboys now return to Oxnard and get a nine-day break before resuming preseason play in Los Angeles against the Rams.



Cowboys fan since 1992, blogger since 2011. Bringing you the objectivity of an outside perspective with the passion of a die-hard fan. I love to talk to my readers, so please comment on any article and I'll be sure to respond!

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3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. George_Johnson

    August 3, 2017 at 11:42 pm

    Jess: Good analysis and comments. I would add I was surprised that the game went as well as it did with few penalties and not too many mistakes instead of being a really sloppy game. It seemed to be an abnormal game in the sense the top players did not play at all which is usually not the case in a preseason game. As you know I am a Kellen Moore fan so was glad to see this abnormal game get behind us and K Moore to play well. I look forward to the next four preseason games.

    • Jess Haynie

      Jess Haynie

      August 4, 2017 at 7:13 am

      Thanks, George. I think the fact that this was an extra preseason game is why you saw the personnel decisions that we did. I imagine they’ll back to the typical use of players in the Week 1 game.

      Kellen definitely had a good night towards solidifying his place as QB2. Any rust he had early was forgivable considering his time away with injury. Obviously, you wish he could put a little more zip on his throws but what really matters is recognition and going to the right spot. Moore does that well.

  2. Russ_Te

    August 4, 2017 at 10:24 pm

    I also thought Cowboy Nation got a lot out of Gathers, a lot more than you could have figured. Unless he’s just awful as a blocker, he probably did enough last night to make the team. Looks like he applied himself during the practice squad year.

    Physically more imposing than Hanna or Swaim, he has to be penciled in as the Witten heir IF he keeps looking like he did last night. You’d like to see defenses deal with that through the 1st 8 games, while Witten gets some downs off and is more fresh for the stretch run.

    For all these bubble guys it comes down to who wants it, who won’t be denied. The way Gathers took that ball away from the defender on the goal line, that was big.

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Dallas Cowboys

Dallas Cowboys 2019 Offseason Preview: Offensive Tackle

Jess Haynie

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La'el Collins

The Dallas Cowboys would seem fairly settled at offensive tackle for 2019, with last year's starters both still under contract and set to return. But the need for a reliable backup has become increasingly important, and Dallas may also want to use this offseason to start planning for the future.

Tyron Smith and La'el Collins return to their starting roles, but not without some concern. Smith has now missed three games in each of the last three seasons, though a few of those have been for veteran rest at the end of the year.

We all remember the Chaz Green debacle in 2017 Atlanta.  That led to the Cowboys paying veteran Cameron Fleming $2.5 million last season to come and play as the swing tackle, and Smith's ongoing issues with health will make his backup an offseason priority once more.

Meanwhile, Collins has started every game since taking over as the right tackle in 2017. He's been solid but not a star, which is a disappointment after his draft year hype and some of the talent he flashed at left guard during his first two seasons.

2019 is a contract year for La'el. He will turn just 27 by the 2020 season, making him an attractive potential free agent. But his play has arguably not lived up to his current salary, which has him as one of the higher-paid right tackles in the NFL already.

Anyone who has the privilege of playing next to Zack Martin has no excuses.

Cowboys Place LT Tyron Smith On IR Before Week 17

Dallas Cowboys LT Tyron Smith

Even with his many trips to the Pro Bowl, Tyron Smith isn't immune to contract talk. The 2020 offseason presents Dallas with about an $8 million cap relief opportunity by releasing Smith. It would only leave them with about $5 million in dead money, which is less than they've had when releasing stars like DeMarcus Ware, Tony Romo, and Dez Bryant in recent years.

While still just 28 years old, Tyron has been getting increasingly bothered by nagging injuries. Bad backs and necks tend to become lifelong issues, and we've already mentioned the games he's missed over the last few seasons.

When healthy, Smith is still about as good as they come at left tackle. But could his health issues spark an early decline in skill? And if it happens as soon as 2019, could Dallas start looking at that cap space more intently?

With Cameron Fleming now a free agent and these 2020 question marks looming on both starters, there's a good argument for the Cowboys to spend their second or third-round pick at offensive tackle.

Ideally, a "Day 2" rookie would be able to take over as the swing tackle this year. Dallas could still sign a veteran insurance policy to compete in camp and the preseason, or even carry both players next season.

But more important aspect would be taking a player now to groom for 2020, when you might need to make a big decision on either Collins or Smith's future. Or, at the very least, have a solid swing tackle in place for the duration of his four-year rookie contract.

Cameron Fleming

Dallas Cowboys OT Cameron Fleming

That said, free agency starts a month-and-a-half before the NFL Draft. The Cowboys can't really afford to wait for the draft to find a swing tackle, or else they may wind up with nothing.

The simplest move would be to just re-sign Cam Fleming. He is an adequate player with plenty of experience, and could likely be retained for about the same salary as last year.

But given Fleming's age (26) and experience, which includes starting in playoff games and even a Super Bowl for the Patriots, he could attract teams looking for even more than just a backup. Thankfully, there a still a number of veterans out there if Dallas has to find a replacement.

One guy to consider, especially for just a one-year deal, is Ty Nsekhe from the Redskins. He's a native of Arlington, TX and has started 14 games over the last three seasons, backing up the oft-injured Trent Williams. On the negative side, Nsekhe turns 34 next October.

As a whole, this 2019 offseason doesn't present any immediate dangers. The Cowboys will need to figure out their swing tackle situation by either re-signing Fleming, adding a different veteran, or drafting a replacement.

But given the contract situations of Tyron Smith and La'el Collins in 2020, Dallas could make a move in the next few months to help prepare for a potential big change a year from now.



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Dallas Cowboys 2019 Offseason Preview: Linebacker

Jess Haynie

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Wolf Hunter: Leighton Vander Esch's Pass Coverage Skills Rising to Occasion

One of the brightest spots on the Dallas Cowboys' projected 2019 roster is linebacker. The young pair of Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch have already emerged as one of the league's best duos. But that doesn't mean that the Cowboys have no work to do at the position this offseason.

Having Jaylon and Leighton does take a lot of pressure off. Most teams utilize their nickel scheme more than any other these days, which generally utilizes just two linebackers, in the increasingly pass-focused NFL. And thankfully, both Smith and Vander Esch have shown great skills in pass defense.

But there's still a semi-starting role to get figured out in the base 4-3 scheme. Damien Wilson has held the strong-side or "SAM" position for the last few years and has an expiring contract.

What's more, Dallas has a big decision to make regarding the contract of Sean Lee, which is ripe for terminating with $7 million in salary cap savings possible.

It's highly unlikely that the Cowboys would keep both Lee and Wilson. If they decide to re-sign Damien, Lee will be cut to help fund that move and others. If Sean is kept on, Wilson will almost surely be looking for a starting role somewhere else in free agency.

Even if the Cowboys do make Lee a cap casualty between now and March 13th, they may still allow Wilson to test free agency and then try to re-sign him later at a discount. He's unlikely to attract the same attention that Anthony Hitchens got last year.

How Does LB Joe Thomas Fit Into Cowboys' 2019 Plans?

Dallas Cowboys LB Joe Thomas (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Another factor in all of this is Joe Thomas, a free agent addition last year who provided good depth and could potentially start in 2019. He is scheduled to count $2.2 million against the cap, which is fine for a primary reserve but a bargain for an occasional starter.

A core of Smith, Thomas, and Vander Esch gives the Cowboys a good foundation to build from. Smith can play the SAM in the base scheme and Thomas can be the primary backup to Jaylon and Leighton in the nickel.

However, going that route would deplete the depth chart. Chris Covington, a sixth-round pick last year, would be the only noteworthy player under contract. Dallas would need to find at least two more guys to fill out the group for 2019.

They could look at re-signing backup Justin March-Lillard, who would at least bring some familiarity and veteran experience. But that might still leave them looking for more of a primary reserve, which would be especially vital if Thomas is promoted to a starting role.

The projected LB free agent pool for 2019 should make it a buyer's market. Dallas may be able to re-sign Damien Wilson or even add an upgrade, like perhaps the Vikings' Anthony Barr, at a relative bargain. There should be ample options for depth as well.

Barring an extremely favorable value opportunity, don't expect the Cowboys to spend a significant draft pick at linebacker. The fourth-round is the earliest I could see one going based on other needs, and even then it would need to be someone they really like.

Good drafting is why Dallas has flexibility and leverage this offseason. The picks they invested in Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch appear to have made LB a strength of the team for the next several years.

There is still business to attend to, but the Cowboys won't have to be too concerned with linebacker in 2019 thanks to their young stars.



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Xavier Woods Versatility Key in Dallas Cowboys FA Safety Pursuit

John Williams

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Cowboys Safety Xavier Woods Is Getting Better By The Week

There has been a debate going on among Cowboys Nation for more than a year now about the prospects of bringing in Seattle Seahawks Safety Earl Thomas. Now with free agency approaching, there are several other names that the Dallas Cowboys could consider when looking to upgrade the safety position. Landon Collins, Tyrann Mathieu, and Tre Boston are several of the many quality and really good safeties that are hitting the free agent market in a few weeks. It's a group with varied skill sets and abilities, which makes the debate even more interesting. The Dallas Cowboys, however, will be able to take a look at all of them when free agency opens March 13th because of one player; Xavier Woods.

Xavier Woods, the Cowboys fifth round draft pick from the 2017 NFL Draft just finished his first full season as a starter for the Cowboys and played really well. In two years he's shown the ability to cover from the slot, play deep, play in the box, be a force over the middle, and make plays on the football. He's one of the more versatile players on the defense with his ability to play all over the field. That versatility allows the Dallas Cowboys' front office an advantage when approaching the names mentioned above.

The Dallas Cowboys don't have to be locked in to one particular type of safety. When people talk about Landon Collins, they label him a "box safety." Earl Thomas is a traditional free safety. Tre Boston is a similar player to Earl Thomas and Tyrann Mathieu is like Collins. The Cowboys can go into free agency with the freedom to explore their options and do their due diligence when it comes to these players.

That's a distinct difference from this offseason to last.

Last offseason, the feeling was that the Dallas Cowboys had to go get Earl Thomas. The safety position was so weak that the Cowboys were going to be playing at a disadvantage in the high-flying, pass-heavy NFL. Xavier Woods proved in his first full season that he can be a productive, play making starter in the NFL and should only continue to improve.

According to Pro Football Focus, Xavier Woods was sixth in the NFL in passer rating against among safeties with at least 352 coverage snaps. His 62.8 passer rating allowed in his coverage was tied with Eric Weddle, better than Derwin James, Reshad Jones, Adrian Amos, and Maliek Hooker. Of the safeties drafted in the 2017 draft class, only Eddie Jackson from the Chicago Bears had a better passer rating against than Xavier Woods.

The Dallas Cowboys got a really good player in Xavier Woods and as they get ready to potentially make a run at a big name safety, they can feel confident that whoever they end up signing will be a good fit with Woods. He can play in the box or cover receivers and tight ends. You can run more two deep safety looks, because he has the range to play it.

This year, as opposed to last, they have more certainty at the safety position because of Xavier Woods and the strides he took in 2018. There's no reason to believe that he can't continue to take a step forward for the Dallas Cowboys. His ability to play all over the field allows the Cowboys to be smart and patient in their pursuit of a safety upgrade this offseason.



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