OXNARD, Calif. – This might seem obvious, but I just want to share a quick reminder that it's not about the score.
The Cowboys will visit the San Francisco 49ers for their preseason opener on Thursday night. We will likely see some, but certainly not all of their star players for a little bit. And then the game will give way to the back end of the depth chart.
It's probably not going to be a very pretty game of football, and the Cowboys may even lose. But that's not the point. During these preseason exhibitions, the Cowboys' coaching staff is trying to see who they have on this roster and how they might help this team going forward.
Rather than worrying about the score, it's all about evaluation in these settings. Who carries over their practice performances into the game? Who puts his best foot forward? This is the first big test of the preseason, and it will go a long way in shaping our opinions of these players.
With that in mind, here are some notes on what I want to see from this outing:
- For the most part, I expect that we'll see the first offense and defense go at least one series in this game, then turn the game over to the backups. Jason Garrett has gone as far to say that those that have been practicing will play and those that have missed time will not. Ezekiel Elliott falls into the category of those that have practiced but likely not to play at this time.
- We need to remember that this is a preseason game with almost no game planning, so it will be played in a manner of executing basic offensive and defensive schemes they've run in practice. That should at least give the young players a chance to have some success. The Cowboys did face the 49ers last season, so there is some film for familiarity as far as their schemes.
- With three young quarterbacks behind Dak Prescott, how they're evaluated will be important. It all starts up front with the backup offensive line. Having a mix of veteran and young blockers is a must. If your line is too young, then there is a good chance of quarterback struggles. The Cowboys will initially be able to play an offensive line that is capable of providing enough protection to keep these from quarterbacks running for their lives. Joe Looney will be the anchor of this group, along with Cam Fleming and Chaz Green at tackles. Green has looked much better these previous three practices playing on that right side, so hopefully he can carry that confidence with him into the game.
- There hasn't been a set lineup for these receivers in practice. At any given time depending on the group, you will see a different combination. As a unit, there are some guys that have been banged up, fought through some things and are looking to make a mark. I've gone back and forth in my mind with the different combinations, but have yet to determine the likely five or six they carry. What is unique about this group is that, with depth at the position, the quality of the players will be used deep into the game. The drop off from what I have observed in these practices is not that drastic, which will once again help these quarterbacks.
- The way I look at this running back group is that there are four players for one spot. Ezekiel Elliott and Rod Smith are locks with Jamize Olawale playing as the fullback. In years past this front office has carried extra running backs, but I don't think the numbers on the roster will allow them to carry an extra guy. Bo Scarbrough would be the odds-on favorite to win that spot, but he's going to have to prove he's better than Trey Williams, Darius Jackson and Jordan Chunn. It would not surprise me one bit if this battle comes down to the final preseason game in Houston. I expect Scarbrough to get the majority of the snaps in these games, so let's see if he can win this job outright.
- Antwaun Woods has emerged as the starter over Jihad Ward, who was a much better player in the OTAs. Where Woods has shown up is in the power department. When the pads came on, he became difficult to block. As a whole, this group needs some juice and Woods has provided that. What I am keeping an eye on is if Woods can carry his momentum into this game. He has looked solid against some of the best offensive linemen in the league, so it gives me a little hope that he's just not some flash in the pan type of player -- that there is actually some real skill with him for the position.
- Get ready for the Leighton Vander Esch Show against the 49ers. The rookie linebacker has been up to the task when put in various situations. He will likely be working with Joe Thomas and Justin March-Lillard, which hasn't been a bad combination being that all three of them can really run. With Vander Esch, I am always looking at the physical side of his game. His ability to fight blocks while finding the ball will be put to the test and if he can develop more consistency in handling that, the quicker he has a chance to start.
- Give this front office some credit for putting this group of cornerbacks together. It is a deep group that is very talented. I have been impressed with what I have seen, not only from the starters Chidobe Awuzie and Byron Jones, but the backups, as well. Anthony Brown is once again playing at a higher level. Jourdan Lewis might have lost his starting job, but he is still battling to win the nickel job. Rookies Charvarius Ward and Donovan Olumba have been exceptional. Throw in veterans Duke Thomas and Marquez White and you get an idea of how competitive the group really is. I see them keeping six at this spot. The battle will come down to how well Ward, Olumba, Thomas and White play for those final two spots. This is also a position where one of these guys could be used as a piece in a trade to grab another position of need.
- One of the hardest working players on the field this camp has been Dan Bailey. You get the feeling that he's trying to once again find that stroke that's made him one of the most accurate kicker in NFL history over his career. If I am Jason Garrett and Keith O'Quinn I am giving Bailey every opportunity to attempt field goals in the preseason. I have confidence that he'll figure it out and there is no better place than actual game conditions.