Sixty minutes of Dallas Cowboys football is in the books, and it was as perfectly flawed as we all expected from the brand new Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium on Thursday between the Cowboys and Cardinals in the HOF game.
The Cowboys did manage to rally to a 20-18 win thanks to touchdowns by TE Rico Gathers and WR Uzoma Nwachukwu, more importantly escaping without any serious injuries – although CB Anthony Brown exited with a hamstring injury and did not return.
I know that I was not alone in intently watching just about every snap of this first of five preseason contests for Dallas, taking some notes on what caught my eye throughout the night, which is what makes Cowboys Nation so special. Here are my takes on what we'll all be discussing between now and the team's next preseason game in eight days against the Rams.
- Damontre Moore had earned the trust of the Cowboys' coaching staff through the offseason program and into OTAs, making plays at his natural position at DE along with at SAM LB and on special teams. A two game suspension to start 2017 slowed down some of the hype on Moore, but he still flashed the potential to really push other depth players at DE or LB by filling both roles admirably. On the first drive of the game for Arizona, Moore made a play as a stand up LB that required him to shoot a tight gap and quickly discard a low blocker. Not only was he able to do this all with great balance and quick hands, but Moore finished the play with the stopping power you love to see. This play was actually more impressive than some of Damontre's reps at DE, where he was washed out with poor pad level as a WDE on the Cardinals' first touchdown.
- It would be fair to both players to wait and see much more from them, but I'll say that I was actually more impressed with rookie Taco Charlton than fan-favorite Charles Tapper on the edge early on. Taco settled in to his natural LDE position, and although he didn't remain in the game long enough to make an impact, I was happy with his ability to fight against his blocker and hold the point of attack. Playing the run is still a priority at that position, something Charlton will need to excel at. As a pass rusher, the 28th overall picked looked clunky and unpolished at times, but there were glimpses of a long-arm, swim, and spin move around the corner from him that he has time to continue improving with. Patience will be key for a player that certainly looked the part out of Michigan. As for Charles Tapper, his first step to capture the corner jumped off the page as we have simply not seen any explosive ability from a right-side pass rusher on this team recently. Despite this, Tapper did not appear comfortable with his rush moves and was too easily steered behind the pocket or sealed away from the quarterback thanks to his pad level. Transitioning to a 4-3 front is still new for him, and I expect the bend and block shedding ability to come along for him over the coming weeks.
- One of my go to lines when discussing the Cowboys' 2017 draft class, specifically with people skeptical of the Charlton pick, is that the noticeable impact second round pick Chidobe Awuzie will make will trump any struggles from Taco at DE. Towards the end of the half, Awuzie nearly ended a Cardinals' drive with an interception on the sideline. The Cowboys played a ton of this game defensively in their “Dime” package, loading the field with these young DBs, making the knockdown from Chido even more impressive. With his first assignment in this situation to protect the sideline throw, Awuzie accelerated to the right depth better than he had all night before effortlessly flipping his hips and driving to the football to knock it away through contact cleanly.
- With no Anthony Hitchens, Sean Lee, or Jaylon Smith, the Cowboys had to piece together this game at linebacker – where there were flashes from UDFA Lucas Wacha. Out of Wyoming, Wacha was given reps at SAM in this game, but I'm intrigued by his skill set as a WILL. The movement ability and closing speed was not an issue for Wacha, who handled clutter in front of him well to consistently find the football. Wacha, like John Lotulelei, will also get plenty of opportunities to stick to this roster with special teams contributions.
- On the offensive side of the ball, the highlight of the night was undoubtedly Rico Gathers' 26 yard touchdown reception from Kellen Moore. The play was impressive for a lot of reasons for Gathers, who made the most of being out there as a starter. Having to patiently navigate through the second and third levels of a Cardinals' zone defense, Gathers ran his crossing route with excellent awareness and timing to get the depth needed. Once he had the angle on an out-of-position safety, Gathers squared his body to “box out” at the goal line and snag the ball above his head for a signature moment in the end zone. The Cowboys' commitment for two seasons now to get Rico Gathers the football has been clear, as he's flashed with these preseason reps on plays coming across the formation and turning up field.
- Jonathan Cooper looked like the player he did in Cleveland a year ago, with the strengths and weaknesses we'll all have to live with should he start at LG on display here. One thing you absolutely needed to see from Cooper was the fluidity in movement that Dallas will ask of him in the run game, but Cooper struggled to finish with any power both on the move or in his pass sets at the point of attack. Rod Smith and Alfred Morris stole the show at running back, but I truly felt a few of Darren McFadden's negative runs were a result of Cooper getting beat across the face and forcing McFadden to quickly change directions – something he'll struggle with at this point in his career.
- Andy Jones should be ahead of Noah Brown thanks to his experience from last season during the preseason and on the practice squad, and while that proved to be the case in this game I thought both players did things to help themselves. Jones played with better overall awareness and sharpness in his routes, leading to three receptions for 39 yards. Noah Brown's struggle is always going to be creating separation at this level, but on his end zone target he was able to compensate for a lack of speed by using his length to put his defender on his heels before he recovered. Depending on where else the Cowboys feel the need to keep more numbers on the roster, Brown and Jones could both be competing for a spot at WR that simply does not exist, but for now both young players are worth watching more through the rest of a preseason that will certainly present them with tons of snaps.
- It is strange not having a fresh face at RB for everyone to get excited about this preseason, as is tradition with the Cowboys, but the results can be much better with Rod Smith and Alfred Morris getting these meaningful reps. Morris was given the first chance to prove himself once again, and did just that as a straight-line runner. However, this is obviously something we already knew Morris could do – although it was nice to see him play with some burst and get skinny through the hole. Rod Smith, who's been ahead of Morris in training camp, did all of this and much more as the most comfortable zone runner Dallas had on the field last night. Exploding around the corner, putting his head down in tight spaces, and catching the ball all looked natural for Rod Smith. His preseason buzz is only going to grow.
The Cowboys will remain in Canton, Ohio through Saturday as Jerry Jones will be officially inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame then. After that, it is back to Oxnard to build on an overall positive performance and win in the Hall of Fame game – particularly with some young guys on the defensive side of the ball.