FRISCO, Texas – Last of three preseason games set for 7 p.m. Saturday at AT&T Stadium against the Raiders.
Yep, the final audition for many a player prior to the mandatory NFL roster cuts by 3 p.m. this coming Tuesday, the Cowboys having to go from 87 down to 53, then the next day able to add 16 players to the practice squad.
Then another full week of practice before kicking into full gear prep on Labor Day for the season opener, 7:20 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 10, against the New York Football Giants at MetLife Stadium.
So look, it's been 33 days since the Cowboys flew to Oxnard, Calif., for the start of training camp, two preseason games and roughly a dozen padded practices under their chin straps, ample time to examine the concerns they left with here at The Star on July 24.
Er, sorry, in head coach Mike McCarthy's coaching vernacular that doesn't include the word "concerns," his preference instead is "focus," meaning a higher priority of attention. So there's been enough time to assuage many a "focus."
Let's start with Terence Steele. The question has been will the starting right offensive tackle return from his torn ACL suffered early December in time to start the 2023 season. The answer: A resounding yes. Steele was ready when the pads came on, and from what we've seen in practice so far, the starting right tackle is ready to go. And as McCarthy said, "I'll just say this about Terence, it's amazing. … He hasn't had any setbacks … he looks good. I've been extremely impressed."
Then there is Tony Pollard, having suffered the ankle injury and fractured bone in his lower leg in the playoff game against San Francisco. Would he ever be the same guy again or back in time to replace the exiled Ezekiel Elliott in the season opener? The Cowboys slowly worked Pollard back into training camp practices, knowing they weren't going to win a Super Bowl in July. But over these past two weeks, Pollard seems to have more than hit his stride. The franchised running back ($10.09 million) has not lost a step of speed, nor his ability to make cuts on a dime at top speed. No more "focus" here.
Next, Michael Gallup. Would the wide receiver now nearly 20 months removed from his torn ACL suffered Jan. 4, 2022, be fully recovered and the Michael Gallup of old for the start of the 2023 season after struggling for the majority of last season? Check. Michael Gallup is the Michael Gallup of the 2020 season when he caught 59 passes for 843 yards and five touchdowns as the third receiver behind Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb. Not only physically the same, but mentally, too, just full of confidence again.
There also was "focus" on Tyron Smith. Would the perennial Pro Bowl left tackle be able to play up to his previous ability after suffering the muscle tear away from his lower leg bone late in training camp last summer, causing him to miss the first 12 games of the season? He then returned to play right tackle instead of left at the end of the 2022 campaign with some difficulty. So far, so good. And he's healthy at age 32, heading into his 13th year. Good thing here is if he struggles and isn't the same ol' Tyron, the Cowboys have the ability of moving Tyler Smith from left guard to left tackle for the long term, and you'd rather try to find a capable backup guard than one at left tackle.
There would have been "focus" on wide receiver and cornerback had the Cowboys not swung those pre-draft trades for Brandin Cooks and Stephon Gilmore. Check, check here.
Now tight end, after Dalton Schultz decided he wasn't interested in the Cowboys' three-year offer, instead signing a one year, $6 million guaranteed deal with the Texans, $4.5 million of that up front. After all, he did catch 57 passes for 577 yards and five touchdowns this past season. What would the Cowboys ever do without him? Well, step right up Jake Ferguson in your second year. You, too, Peyton Hendershot. And the Cowboys used a preemptive strike to select Luke Schoonmaker in the second round. And let's not forget the Cowboys still have Sean McKeon, the jack of all tight end trades, which includes inline and H-back blocking.
To me, this group immediately becomes a better blocking one, especially with Ferguson on the field. And just the other day in the padded practice, Ferguson turned into a viable goal-line threat, catching two touchdown passes from Dak Prescott from six and one yard out. And too bad rookie free agent John Stephens Jr. tore his ACL in the Seattle game this past Saturday. Otherwise, this would have been an even deeper group to lessen this "focus," which projects to be the necessary threat by committee.
Major check mark here.
And then, of course, binocular "focus" on kicker after last year's star, Brett Maher, flamed out in the first playoff game in Tampa, Fla., missing those four extra points on that ridiculously lumpy field. What would the Cowboys do while trying to replace their kicker who made 90 percent of his regular-season field goals, including nine of 11 from 50-plus yards?
Well, at this point they are all in on rookie Brandon Aubrey, the former soccer player turned kicker in the USFL the past two seasons, where over those only two years kicking a football made 32 of 37 field goals and 37 of 39 extra points. And let's clarify "all in" as of going into this final preseason game. But understand, the Cowboys are really sold on his talent and potential to kick in the NFL, yet must exhibit a measure of patience to hang with the 28-year-old. He must ace the two Cs of kicking: consistency and composure.
Keep hearing folks talk about veteran how Robbie Gould would be a reasonable alternative if the Cowboys need to pivot, but understand whoever signs Gould also must find an accompanying kickoff specialist since not only does Gould struggle with that aspect of the kicking game, but he's been quoted as saying he doesn't want to kick off.
These are the majority of the appeased "focuses" heading into this final preseason game, with only two more potentially to address or satisfy. One would be the backup offensive linemen, specifically tackle and guard since it seems they have settled on Matt Farniok at backup center. The candidates would include Josh Ball, Matt Waletzko, T.J. Bass, Brock Hoffman and Asim Richards, all NFL inexperienced, while veteran free agent Chuma Edoga deals with the bone bruise caused by his hyperextended knee. We'll see here.
Then also linebacker now after losing DeMarvion Overshown to last Saturday's torn ACL. With Micah Parsons playing so much defensive end, after the two main starters, Leighton Vander Esch and Damone Clark, there really isn't much experience now behind them. We're talking just Jabril Cox, Malik Jefferson, Devin Harper, Isaiah Land and Tyrus Wheat, when not considering those safeties like Jayron Kearse and Marquese Bell playing sort of that big nickel linebacker spot. Land and Wheat are undrafted rookie free agents. Jefferson did not play a game last year. Harper played in seven as a rookie, but all special teams and not a down of defense. And Cox, he got in nine games last year, mostly on special teams with 36 defensive snaps.
That's pretty darn thin, wouldn't you agree? Though, if there is a viable long-term need, Parsons could turn into a fulltime linebacker.
But you know what, that's about all the "focuses" the Cowboys must be, uh, concerned with heading toward the two-week ramp-up for the Giants opener. Not a bad way to head into the 2023 season, especially since McCarthy, COO Stephen Jones and owner Jerry Jones already have pointed out the depth on this roster will make the cut to 53 on Tuesday one of the toughest in years.
So there, "focuses" appeased. Enough to exhale a few sighs of relief around here.