FRISCO, Texas – Depth. It's one thing to think you have it.
It's another thing to dip into it.
The Cowboys, come high noon Sunday, when facing the 0-2 Miami Dolphins at AT&T Stadium, will be dipping into their depth, sort of like in the not-so-older days when checking your car's engine oil with that dipstick.
Even here, you find out if it's full, half full or add.
See, since midway through training camp we've suggested the Cowboys have a bunch of depth, on offense and on defense. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has insisted this is some of the best depth he's seen on his team quite some time. Points to the offensive line. The defensive line. The secondary. Wide receiver. Running back. Tight end. Linebacker.
Well, now we are about to find out.
Sunday they will be without five starters if we count punt returner, somewhat leveling the playing field against these Dolphins who have been outscored 102-10 in their opening two losses. And no matter the Cowboys have gotten off to a 2-0 start, outscoring their opponents 66-38, with 14 of the points given up having come in the fourth quarter after they were up 25 and 17.
Starters are starters.
Out will be starting wide receiver Michael Gallup two to four weeks following arthroscopic knee surgery. He leads the team with 13 catches for the 226 yards that rank fifth in the NFL.
Out will be starting defensive lineman Tyrone Crawford, whose hip bursitis limited him to just 18 snaps this past Sunday and has kept him out of practice all week.
Out will be nose tackle Antwaun Woods, a starter in 19 of the last 20 games, including playoffs, but his sprained knee had him rehabbing all week.
Out will be starting free safety Xavier Woods, suffering a sprained ankle on the second to last play in the win over the Redskins that's kept him out of practice all week. He's third on the team in total tackles, one stop from being tied for second with Leighton Vander Esch.
Out for a second consecutive game will be No. 1 punt returner/wide receiver Tavon Austin, still in the concussion protocol following the season opener.
That means, as coaches like to say, next men up.
Meet wide receiver Devin Smith, three catches, 74 yards and a touchdown – all last Sunday – his first since the end of the 2016 season.
Meet defensive end Robert Quinn, the projected starter on the right side until fracturing his hand in training camp and subsequently being suspended the first two games of the season. Who knows how many snaps he can handle after his first three practices in five weeks, so also meet Dorance Armstrong, capable of backing up on the right side and behind DeMarcus Lawrence on the left.
Meet nose tackle Christian Covington, a fifth-year veteran. He has played 62 of 101 snaps so far with the Cowboys, totaling three tackles and a QB pressure.
Meet fourth-year veteran safety Darian Thompson, having once started all 16 games in 2017 for the Giants, but so far in 12 games with the Cowboys since last year has been predominately a special teams player.
And meet punt returner/wide receiver Cedrick Wilson, having played in his first NFL game last week against Washington after spending his rookie season last year on injured reserve. He likely will share punt return duties with veteran Randall Cobb, who might have to play more snaps at wide receiver now that Gallup is out.
And when it comes to defensive line rotations, look for rookie defensive tackle Trysten Hill, the Cowboys' second-round pick, to make his NFL debut Sunday after being a game-day inactive for the first two. Look for contributions from veteran Kerry Hyder at defensive end and defensive tackle, and same from rookie defensive end Joe Jackson, who ultimately was retained on the 53-man roster instead of Taco.
That's a whole lot of next guys up.
And, you know, this is where the Cowboys sure could have used some help from third-year defensive end Taco Charlton, yet displayed their level of discontent with their 2017 first-round pick to the point of cutting him on Wednesday to make room on the 53-man roster for Quinn. Should have known the Dolphins would have claimed him, actually doing the Cowboys a favor by picking up his contract and absolving them from his remaining $1.6 million in base salary guarantees over the final two years.
"We're ready, it's next man up," maintains passing game coordinator Kris Richard. "If we've been spending our time not being prepared for our opportunity then we're wrong – not professionalism.
"Everyone is always one play away when you're not the starter, and you never know when it's going to happen, so all of us must be prepared."
Biggest concerns would be at wide receiver and defensive line.
If the Cowboys do not make a move by 3 p.m. Saturday to add a wide receiver, and that seems unlikely, the Cowboys will go into the game with just four wideouts. But look at it this way. They can consider second tight end Blake Jarwin as a viable receiver downfield when they line up in two-tight sets. Also, flanking running back Tony Pollard out into the formation can serve as an extra wideout. Zeke's not a bad receiving option, either.
Also, maybe the Cowboys will use Cobb as the second wideout some in the two-wide sets and then move him inside into his normal position when they go three wide, with Smith coming in to play the X. There are logical ways to work around Gallup's absence, but gosh darn, Dak Prescott and Gallup really had something really special going on.
Then on the D-Line. Versatility will be a necessity with two starters out. Inside, with Antwaun Woods missing, Maliek Collins has the ability to play both the three-technique tackle, along with the nose. Same for Hill, especially in nickel situations. Then at end. Good that Quinn is returning. Good that the veteran Hyder has the ability to play end and tackle. Same with Jackson. And with Dorance Armstrong, he can play either end, and remember, the Cowboys need someone to back up DeMarcus Lawrence so their best pass rusher doesn't get worn out.
Now Jerry Jones will tell you, "We're deep with guys who can play" on the defensive line. "We're in good shape there."
Sure looks that way.
But Sunday we find out for sure, even if it's only the Dolphins, who so far have been offensively challenged, both running and throwing the ball, in two games having scored just one touchdown, having rushed for just 63 yards and averaging just 192 yards total offense.
Struggling so badly after two games Miami already has switched quarterbacks, benching veteran starter Ryan Fitzpatrick for Josh Rosen, Arizona's 10th pick in the 2018 draft traded to the Dolphins this past offseason. That's what happens when averaging just five points a game.
So here the Cowboys go, Game 3, trying to go 3-0 for the first time since 2008 really on those next men up. And like water, you really never know how deep your depth truly is until diving in.