FRISCO, Texas – It might only be Monday, but it's already Thursday in the Cowboys' world.
With kickoff rapidly approaching against the Minnesota Vikings, here's my breakdown of the three guys I'll be watching closely for the opposition.
With a 2015 playoff appearance under their belts and a 6-5 record right now, this is a team that has compiled some talent in recent years – and the Cowboys will have to be on their game.
Here's my breakdown:
Weapon: S Harrison Smith
Simply put, Harrison Smith can do it all.
He shows the ability to play up or back. He's very physical at the point of attack. He is always around the ball, mixing it up. He beats blockers to the point to make tackles. He fights through trash to get to the ball. He can jam the receiver at the line.
This is a nasty player. Smith does things that makes receivers mad at him. He plays with physical toughness and strength. Like a lot of safeties, he is a much better player when he can come forward. Because when he sees it, he is gone.
If there's a weakness to Smith's game, it's when he's deep -- make him turn and head up the field, that's where he tends to have his struggles. He has outstanding football intelligence. This is a hard guy to fool with movement. He appears to always be in the right place, and he tends to play faster than his timed speed.
I remember Smith coming out of college, and he has improved his range and ability to cover ground since his days at Notre Dame. This is a reactionary football player. Overall, he has good body control and balance, but there are snaps where you see him miss in space when going for a tackle. He can be an explosive hitter and he strikes on the move.
As I mentioned earlier, he plays more underneath zone coverage than deep. His reactions are good when the ball is thrown in his area. There's not much up and down in his overall play -- very steady and consistent. He plays with poise and instincts. The ball tends to come his way, and he creates turnovers with his positioning.
Smith is one of those players that makes those around him better. Can be a factor in defending the running game along with Andrew Sendejo. Expect him and Ezekiel Elliott to get to know each other in this game. Is the leading tackler on the Vikings.
Nemesis: LB Anthony Barr
As you might remember, Barr was one of my favorite players from the 2014 NFL Draft. I entertained some hope that maybe the Cowboys would be able to grab him at No. 16 overall, but it wasn't meant to be. I know that Will McClay did a ton of work on him pre-draft. There were some questions about whether he should play as a defensive end or linebacker, but Mike Zimmer has put him at linebacker and they haven't looked back.
Barr has some power in his game. He can hold the point of attack for a player of his build, and he plays with some snap. Outstanding athlete with flexibility and bend. He gets up the field quickly, and he will take on the blocker and shed. He can close some ground when tackling -- when he sees it, he can get there in a hurry to finish the play. He shows nice awareness to what is going on around him.
Like Harrison Smith, Barr is not often fooled or out of position. He can be a hard guy to run at because of his strength and ability to extend. He plays square, locks out and skates down the line of scrimmage. As a rusher, he is explosive up the field. He can get low to the ground, dip his shoulder and get by the blocker. He is relentless after the ball, and he is both long and rangy – which helps him knock down passes thrown in his direction.
This is an explosive rusher with sudden quickness off the ball on a speed rush. He will make plays all day if left uncounted for. This is the type of player that the offensive staff have to scheme for. He is everything I thought he'd be as a player and a little more. Not surprised he is having the success that he is.
Under the Radar: WR Adam Thielen
Undrafted receiver from the 2013 NFL Draft. Thielen actually went to school where the Minnesota Vikings hold training camp – Mankato State. He can be a pain in the rear player for defenses to deal with. He is tough and gritty, and he plays every play like it's his last one. Because of this, he has become a favorite of Sam Bradford.
In Minnesota's last two games, 16 targets have gone his way and he has come up with 13 catches. He has good initial quickness and explosiveness off the line, which helps him find space. He will adjust to all types of passes, and he catches the ball all over the field – this guy is not afraid to go inside and deliver a catch.
What makes him so dangerous is that he is fearless in the way he plays. He is a hard guy to rattle. Quality route runner – the best on the Vikings' roster in this area. He makes plays down the field at all levels, and the Vikings like to try and get the ball in his hands quickly, then let him run in space. He will catch screens and outs, and he has good sideline awareness and football intelligence. Has an understanding of the situation and how to finish.
You have to respect where he came from and his ability to make plays. He is basically a taller version of Cole Beasley for the Vikings. He makes plays when his club needs them the most. Might not have the name of Stefon Diggs or Cordarrelle Patterson, but he is every bit as good of player. You have to be aware of where he is on the field when Bradford needs a play, because he will deliver.