Dallas Cowboys: What to Watch in Preseason Matchup vs. Chargers
It seems like training camp just started, but the Dallas Cowboys are set to take on the San Diego Chargers in the teams’ first preseason game on Thursday night. We already know that the majority of the first-team units will see limited action, but this will be a great opportunity to watch the second and third teams in action.
With the way the Cowboys roster is configured, a lot of the current backups will either 1) become starters before the regular season or 2) see a significant number of snaps. I’m talking about players like running back Lance Dunbar and defensive lineman Tyrone Crawford.
Even with the backups seeing the majority of Thursday night’s snaps, it will also be interesting to see how new coordinators Scott Linehan and Rod Marinelli call plays. We’ll likely see very “vanilla” play calls, but the general alignments and play types could be telling.
Here are five specific things I’ll be watching as the Cowboys take on the Chargers this Thursday.
Who Will Generate Pressure on the Quarterback?
I don’t think we’ll see too many blitzes from the Cowboys on Thursday, which means we’ll get to see some nice one-on-one battles with the team rushing four linemen.
The Cowboys desperately need someone to step up, whether it’s Crawford, George Selvie or someone else. The team’s pass rush was already suspect before losing rookie DeMarcus Lawrence, so we’re going to need to see someone overachieve if the Cowboys are going to get consistent pressure on the quarterback this year.
One player who really intrigues me is Martez Wilson. He’s a 6’4”, 260-pounder with ridiculously long 34.6" arms and 4.49 speed, according to NFL.com. The 25-year old started his NFL career at linebacker, so he’s still learning the nuances of the defensive end position. In my opinion, he’s George Selvie circa 2013 but with a whole lot more upside.
Can the Linebacker Corps Survive the Loss of Sean Lee?
The Cowboys are weak at linebacker (we all kind of know that), but they also have some upside at the position. Bruce Carter is a natural fit outside in a 4-3, Rolando McClain is a former first-rounder, DeVonte Holloman could be a beast in coverage and Kyle Wilber offers versatility as a pass-rusher. Throw in veteran Justin Durant and rookie Anthony Hitchens, and you have a fairly deep position, even after the Lee injury.
This is a spot at which I think the Cowboys are going to be fine this year, despite the question marks. They don’t have any standout performers at linebacker, but they have power in numbers. We might not bet on a breakout year from any of them in isolation, but the probability of one or two players really outperforming expectations is pretty high.
Which Rookie Receiver Looks the Best?
The early reports out of training camp have been really positive for two of the Cowboys’ rookie receivers. Fifth-round pick Devin Street has been catching on fast, according to Todd Archer of ESPN Dallas. Said head coach Jason Garrett:
Devin’s a mature guy. That’s one of the things that’s easy to see when you watched him work out, when you saw him at the combine, when you saw his college tape. And really throughout the minicamps in the spring and throughout training camp he’s shown that. He’s a really aware guy. He’s mature as a route runner. He’s quarterback-friendly.
Meanwhile, undrafted rookie Chris Boyd has been impressing, too. DallasCowboys.com recently moved him up in its wide receiver power rankings, just behind Street. I personally believe Boyd has more long-term upside than Street as a scorer, so it will be fun to watch them battle it out this preseason.
Is Brandon Weeden a Capable Backup?
Both Street and Boyd will likely be catching a lot of passes from backup quarterback Brandon Weeden on Thursday. Weeden’s progression as a quarterback is important for Dallas because we still don’t know how healthy Tony Romo is. According to Todd Archer of ESPN Dallas, Romo is still tentative on deep throws.
There’s probably at least a decent chance that Romo isn’t 100 percent and the Cowboys are downplaying his issues. At this point, you could argue Romo is likely to miss at least some playing time this season. If that happens, the Cowboys need someone who can come in and at least go .500 or so over the course of maybe a month just to keep the team in contention.
How Will Gavin Escobar and James Hanna Be Utilized?
If there’s one simple tactic I think the Cowboys could employ to immediately get better offensively, it would be to utilize both Gavin Escobar and James Hanna way more frequently. That is, they shouldn't take over in place of starting tight end Jason Witten—they should line up next to him.
Three-tight end sets are common near the goal line, but I’d love to see the Cowboys use some heavy personnel groupings elsewhere on the field, too. If they can force defenses into heavy personnel, there’s a chance for all three tight ends to do some damage in the passing game.
Escobar has lined up out wide during practices, according to Jon Machota of Dallas Morning News. It will be exciting to see how both he and Hanna are utilized on Thursday and beyond.