For the hardiest of die hard fans, tonight's preseason opener for the Dallas Cowboys probably feel like Christmas morning. We haven't seen the Cowboys play football since December 20th, 2017. Tonight, we'll finally see The Star back on the field as they visit the San Francisco 49ers.
Of course, the first thing you want from any preseason game is for everyone to make it out healthy. That's a given.
But beyond that, there are some specific things I'm excited and hoping to see tonight. Whether it's new arrivals, players in new roles, or just seeing how certain guys are developing, there's plenty to take in even if the score doesn't matter.
One guy I'm excited to see again is backup Running Back Rod Smith (pictured above). Last season, Smith took the backup role away from veteran Alfred Morris with more effective and explosive running. He also showed his versatility with 19 catches on the season, one of which was an 81-yard touchdown.
Smith's become a bit of an afterthought after Dallas drafted Alabama's Bo Scarbrough and then brought in Tavon Austin as a gadget player. And yes, there won't be a lot of carries for Rod or any other RB if Ezekiel Elliott is doing his thing.
But all it takes is one play for Rod Smith to suddenly become a very important part of the Cowboys' offense. If something were to befall Zeke, it's good to have confidence in the next man up. I look forward to seeing Rod get the rock again tonight.
It's not often that a first-round pick isn't the most anticipated guy at his position, but Leighton Vander Esch is up against Jaylon Smith for the most intriguing linebacker in tonight's game. Cowboys fans are very excited to see both in action.
Jaylon likely won't play much tonight, perhaps no more than a single series, but any glimpse of him playing full-speed football is fun. Reports that Smith is at "100%" health have us all salivating at his potential; the chance that one of the elite talents of the 2016 draft class is about to unleash that upside on the NFL.
We should see more of the rookie tonight, and Leighton is plenty interesting on his own. Dallas made him the 19th overall pick in April's draft and all signs point to him being the starting middle linebacker this year.
Seeing Smith and Vander Esch on the field together will be especially intriguing. Sean Lee's remaining time in Dallas isn't long, perhaps not beyond this season, and these youngsters are the hoped-for future of the LB position.
While we're talking linebackers, the depth at the position will also be worth watching this preseason. Free agent signing Joe Thomas, the returning Justin March-Lillard, and veteran Damien Wilson will almost certainly be needed at some point this year. It will be nice to see them in action during preseason to know what security Dallas has behind its young prospects.
Speaking of security, perhaps no position on the team right now feels more vulnerable than receiver. Hopefully, some of the things we'll see tonight will help boost our confidence.
Third-round rookie Michael Gallup is one guy everybody is anxious to see tonight. From the day he was drafted, Gallup has been hyped up as having potential to immediately contribute, perhaps even being one of the team's top three receivers right away.
We won't get to see Gallup catching many balls from Dak Prescott tonight, but we should get a decent dose of him in the first half. He should look good against second string defensive backs, and hopefully get plenty of good passes from Cooper Rush to put his skills on display.
But the rookie isn't the only receiver to watch tonight. Veteran Deonte Thompson will make his Dallas debut and hopefully get similar opportunities to shine. We'll also get to see favorite bubble guys like Noah Brown and Lance Lenoir. Hopefully we'll even get to see some of Lenoir's work as a return man.
While Tavon Austin is another guy we're excited to see, we probably won't see much of how he'll be used in the regular season. The offense will be very vanilla in the preseason, and Tavon was brought in to add flavor. We could see him in some basic plays but those probably won't be indicative of his true role.
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We could go on and on, couldn't we? Fresh faces at tight end, backup quarterbacks, new defensive linemen, the young safeties; there is so much we've been waiting all these months to finally see on the field rather than on paper.
The first preseason game may not let us get much of the starters, so guys like Xavier Woods or Taco Charlton probably won't get to show you how much they've developed this offseason. We may have to wait for the third game for that.
But tonight will have plenty of its own intrigue and storylines. We'll be looking for things going in, and we'll have some unexpected things to discuss once it's done.
One thing we know for sure, though, is that football is back!
Takeaway Tuesday: Randy Gregory is a Big Time Player
It was a dramatic win for the Dallas Cowboys but a win nonetheless. The Philadelphia Eagles gave the Cowboys one hell of a fight at AT&T Stadium in a great rivalry game. It was undoubtedly one of the most exciting games this season has seen as it ended with a walk-off touchdown that gave the home team the victory.
Here is this week's Takeaway Tuesday on what we learned from such a thrilling match!
Amari Cooper Trade Shouldn't Even Be a Discussion
Once a complicated debate, the Amari Cooper trade has a clear winner. It's simple, really. If it wasn't for Amari Cooper, the Cowboys would not be 8-5 en route to the NFC East title. Cooper has literally saved the 2018 season for the once 3-5 Cowboys team.
Since becoming a part of the Cowboys, the former Oakland Raider has accounted for 40 catches, 642 yards and six touchdowns. Last Sunday alone, he was responsible for 217 yards and three scores. Not to mention the amount of times he's moved the chains for this offense. The 24-year old can seriously play football. Despite struggles, this offense is very promising with that caliber of a WR1 and an elite RB such as Ezekiel Elliott.
What was it again? A first rounder? Should've asked for more, Raiders.
Randy Gregory is a Big Time Player
Gregory's journey to be back on a football field was a difficult one. But it was worth it. Versus the Eagles, his presence was constantly felt by Carson Wentz. He was able to get in five pressures, one of which resulted in a sack.
The last couple of games, Gregory has drawn a few costly flags, but his play is still amazing. He's one of the fastest defensive ends in the league and he continues to improve in bending around the corner. He has five sacks in the last eight games. If you weren't convinced #94 should be our starting right defensive end, you should be by now.
Tight Ends Rise
The lack of a tight end did not stand out this past Sunday. But Dalton Schultz and Blake Jarwin did. With Geoff Swaim out with an injury, this couple of young rotational players had their best games of their careers. Both were targeted in key moments of the game. Blake Jarwin had 56 yards in seven catches and a big third down conversion and Dalton Schultz finished the night with 37 yards.
A promising sign for the Cowboys moving forward. The offense is clicking at wide receiver with Amari Cooper, having a tight end (or a couple) stand up will only make this unit better.
Garrett Deserves a Round of Applause
Whether or not you think Jason Garrett is a good head coach, the guy deserves an applause. I get why you might not like him. In fact, I still question if he should be in Dallas in 2019 if the Cowboys fail to have success in the playoffs. But the way this team has come back from such a terrible start can't be ignored.
The players on this team fight for this guy. The Dallas Cowboys went from a team everyone had written off from playoff contention to legit Super Bowl contenders since they fired Paul Alexander and got Amari Cooper.
Dak Prescott is One of the Best Facing Adversity
Dak Prescott's career continues to cause a great debate among Cowboys' fans. You see, in the NFL, things are not white or black. When judging a player, there are a lot of gray areas. Take last night's performance from Dak Prescott. He threw two interceptions and fumbled the ball once and pretty much played bad football for three quarters. But his night ended with 455 yards and three touchdowns and a 78% completion percentage in 54 attempts.
In the NFL, not any quarterback comes back from turning the ball three times. With the help of his tremendous defense, Dak did. In the fourth quarter, he completed 17 out of 20 passes for 243 yards and three touchdowns. His performance was clutch.
This isn't a one thing either. Since 2016, Dak is tied for the most game-winning drives in the NFL. Prescott might be inconsistent and can have some pretty bad plays. But he's one resilient quarterback. As T.O. would've said: "that's my quarterback."
In Swaim’s Absence And Among Witten Rumors, Jarwin And Schultz Shine
"Starting tight end for the Dallas Cowboys" has been about as stable a position as there is in sports over the last decade. It's been Jason Witten. End of story.
Beginning in 2018, however, that stability went out the window with Witten's retirement. The starting role was left in the hands of Geoff Swaim, with even younger and more inexperienced players filling out the depth chart behind him. There was clearly reason for concern, and once Swaim went down during the Cowboys' win in Atlanta, those concerns only grew.
Swaim's absence has brought with it rumors of a Jason Witten return, with reports last weekend even suggesting that Jason Garrett reached out to Witten to see if he's looking to end his retirement and rejoin the Cowboys.
His absence has also brought about the emergence of two young tight ends, however, who are each succeeding in their own ways and showcasing why the Cowboys felt confident in allowing them to take the bulk of the tight end snaps while Swaim is injured. Those tight ends, of course, are Blake Jarwin and Dalton Schultz.
Last Sunday during the Cowboys big overtime victory over the Philadelphia Eagles, both Jarwin and Schultz had impressive days. Blake Jarwin has become one of the go-to third down options for quarterback Dak Prescott, extending drives and getting open over the middle of the field. Jarwin had a career best 7 catches for 56 yards on Sunday, including a spectacular third down grab to make up for Prescott's poor ball placement on his crossing route.
Blake Jarwin looks like the big, athletic, middle of the field threat that many fans wished Rico Gathers could be. The next step in unlocking his potential would be to get him more involved in the red zone. Dallas is struggling to convert and-goal situations into touchdowns, and logic would say a big target like Jarwin should be able to help in those moments.
Fourth round rookie Dalton Schultz had a good day as well, catching 3 balls for 37 yards including a 16 yard reception down the seam. Where Schultz really shines, however, is with his run blocking, as he did at Stanford. The move to more of a zone blocking scheme has benefited Schultz as a run blocker, just as it has the entire Cowboys rushing offense.
Schultz looks to be improving as a pass catcher by the week, and a year in a professional offseason program should do him wonders in terms of play strength, in turn helping him as a run blocker. He may not ever turn into a top 5 or 10 tight end in football the way Witten once was, but he is clearly already a functional and valuable player on this roster.
The Cowboys are insanely young throughout most of their roster, and tight end is one of those young spots. Tight end is also a spot you typically don't want (or need) to address within the first round of the NFL Draft. Dallas is secretly in a good spot moving forward at tight end, with Blake Jarwin and Dalton Schultz emerging as solid players.
This doesn't mean the Cowboys shouldn't look around in the offseason to see what's available, but they should also feel comfortable with what's on their roster at the moment.
Sean’s Scout: Resilient Prescott Inches Cowboys Closer to NFC East Title
If an overtime win over the defending Super Bowl champions that ends their dreams of repeating while increasing your own playoff odds can be both ugly and beautiful, then the Dallas Cowboys 29-23 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles was certainly that - and a whole lot more.
Extending their winning streak to five didn't come without the Cowboys toying with a total collapse, as Quarterback Dak Prescott turned the ball over three times. Fresh off a win against the New Orleans Saints where the Cowboys managed just 13 points, the Eagles pushed this defense to the edge thanks to continued struggles on offense.
In overtime, Prescott made sure Carson Wentz and the Eagles would never see the ball, putting four indescribable quarters behind him to lead a game-winning touchdown drive. The Cowboys are a win away from claiming the NFC East. The full scope of how this season has turned on its head goes well beyond this most recent Cowboys win, at least back to their first win at the Eagles five weeks ago.
For now, my first attempt at sorting out what we saw at AT&T Stadium on Sunday will have to do, with another post game edition of Sean's Scout.
- With both Tight Ends Blake Jarwin and Dalton Schultz setting new career highs in receptions, I was waiting for the Cowboys patience on offense to pay off with a big play on the outside, finally provided twice by Wide Receiver Amari Cooper.
In the Cowboys previous win over the Eagles, their receivers had their way with a depleted Philadelphia secondary. Dealing with injuries at cornerback mid-game that are still effecting this group, the Eagles were in no position to line up against Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and Cole Beasley.
The counter for the Cowboys offense this week was to use heavier formations, pound Ezekiel Elliott, and get their tight ends involved more than they've been all season. Perhaps the only normal thing to come out of this game was Elliott's 40 touches.
Despite it being a career high, there's no reason Elliott shouldn't be this involved in the Cowboys offense. The Cowboys patience with Elliott was eventually rewarded when Cooper scored from 28 yards out to break a 6-6 tie, and again from 75 yards to put Dallas ahead 23-16 in the fourth quarter.
If not for a few missed shots to Michael Gallup and a missed Brett Maher field goal, the Cowboys efforts on offense could have kept this game out of overtime, though their execution on the winning drive is hard to dispute.
- The Cowboys are last in the league at scoring touchdowns in the red zone over their last three wins, something that has to change quickly in preparation for the playoffs.
The Cowboys were 3 of 5 in the red zone in the win that started this streak in Philly, and 2 of 3 the following week at the Falcons. Their decline on offense has been a recent trend that must come back up over the last three weeks of the regular season.
Only six of Elliott's 40 touches came in the red zone, which feels inexcusable from Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan, considering also it was an adjusted play call by Cooper and Prescott that created their long touchdown to force overtime.
Perhaps the trust the Cowboys showed in Schultz and Jarwin will lead to more red zone opportunities for tight ends, of which the Cowboys have no true middle-of-field threat.
- There is no reason for Prescott to be falling away on his first interception in the end zone, targeting an open Cooper to the back corner.
Prescott never saw Rasul Douglas break off his man and end up under a throw to Cooper that was placed in a horrible spot. Cooper was open, but thrown into coverage on a ball he never really came close to.
After another look at the play, it's even more disturbing to see Prescott's mechanics. Sliding in a clean pocket, Prescott was falling away slightly when he released the ball. The Cowboys defense would bail out Prescott after probably his most egregious turnover, forcing a three and out.
This was not the case after Prescott's second interception that turned into the Eagles first touchdown, or fumble that lead to a tying field goal.
- For as good a pass rushing duo as DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory are, Defensive Tackles Maliek Collins and Tyrone Crawford don't get enough credit for their all-around game.
Before kickoff, I wrote about the Cowboys not needing David Irving, who missed his sixth straight game. This is a compliment to not only Collins and Crawford, but Antwaun Woods as well. All three played their part in keeping the Eagles offense in check once again.
Crawford may be playing the best football of his seven-year career. No longer struggling to fit in as either a defensive end or tackle, Crawford is simply a leader by example for the Cowboys defense wherever he lines up.
Carson Wentz is a quarterback you have to make reset his feet defensively, and Crawford was able to force this a number of times. His speed rush ability paired with the power of Collins and Woods on the inside is incredibly disruptive for Dallas.
Following Maher's missed field goal, Crawford turned in one of the hustle plays of the season for the Cowboys to strip Wentz. Beating the left guard off the snap, Crawford dipped Jason Peters at left tackle on his way to a forced fumble that produced another field goal before the half.
This game was that close to having a first half all about the Cowboys taking advantage of Eagles mistakes, instead leaving points on the field and letting the Eagles punish second half mistakes on the way to overtime.
✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭
With a win at the Colts, vs. the Buccaneers, or at the Giants the Cowboys will have gone from 3-5 to NFC East champions for 2018. The merits of just how good this division is will be worth discussing prior to the playoffs, but with two wins over the Eagles and one over the Redskins within an ongoing five game win streak, the Cowboys are objectively one of the hottest teams in the league right now.
Amari Cooper has probably made six or seven plays "better" than his miraculous overtime touchdown, proving his worth more and more each week, though his winning score will surely be a lasting moment from the Cowboys week 14 win.
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