FRISCO, Texas – Just 16 days until the season opener. Sixteen now. Things are getting serious around here.
A preseason game at AT&T Stadium Saturday night against the Raiders, and then hopefully, ol' Harvey permitting, the final tune-up next Thursday in Houston. That's it, and it will be time to play ball.
And from a practice standpoint, there will be only two practices next week, the game on Thursday, cuts coming down Friday and Saturday, and before we blink it will be game week come Labor Day.
But like probably every other team in the NFL, the Dallas Cowboys have a few issues to solve, or at least to continue working on solving before teeing it up at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 10, at home against the New York Football Giants.
And with the clock ticking away, the Cowboys must balance preparing their starters for the season opener with also making those critical final evaluations on the numerous guys trying to sneak onto the back end of the 53-man roster.
Being realistic, you can probably figure there's right around 40 to 45 players sure to make the squad, leaving roughly like a dozen or so guys on the proverbial bubble. This game and next Thursday's will go a long way toward helping the staff make those decisions.
So thought we'd give you guys some things to pay particular attention to Saturday night, and then come Thursday night.
Left Guard: The competition rages on for the starting job after the offseason departure of Ron Leary to Denver and La'el Collins moving over to take the retired Doug Free's spot at right tackle. Seems to be a two-man race between Chaz Green (No. 79) and Jonathan Cooper (No. 64).
Now, Green played left tackle last week once Tyron Smith departed from the first-team line. But for the second consecutive week in practice, the former third-round draft choice in 2015 has worked at left guard with the first team. He figures to start there Saturday night. Quiet as it's kept, the staff thinks Green needs to be the guy. Only problem continues to be his availability. Can't seem to stay healthy, or as happened in Wednesday's practice, stay hydrated enough to finish practice. Injuries have plagued this young, talented offensive lineman. Sort of the same story with Cooper, who also has worked with the second team at center.
But here is the other dilemma. If Green is the starting left guard, then the Cowboys really don't have an ideal backup swing tackle. The best one they currently have is, well, Chaz Green. Might be asking a guy who has played in only four NFL games to do both. The only other candidates to man the backup tackle job would be veteran Byron Bell (75) and first-year free agent Kadeem Edwards (78). So watch carefully.
Cornerback Depth: With second-year corner Anthony Brown back practicing this week, seems as though the top three are settled: Starters Orlando Scandrick (32) and Nolan Carroll (24), with Brown (30) coming in at right corner on the nickel while Scandrick moves into the slot. But after that?
Well, it's a long story. The next two guys up should have been rookies Chidobe Awuzie (33) and Jourdan Lewis (27). But Awuzie, battling ankle and hamstring problems, hasn't practiced in a couple of weeks. Lewis still hasn't practiced after suffering a bad hamstring injury at the start of camp. Both have progressed to working with the trainers on the resistance cords. But what if neither is ready for the start of the season?
Well, the next guy up had been fourth-year veteran Leon McFadden (23). But he, too, is now out with a hamstring injury. Who knows when he'll be back. Next up is Duke Thomas (26), Sammy Seamster (29) and sixth-round pick Marquez White (39), who also had missed a portion of camp with a hamstring strain. Not sure at the start of camp if Thomas or Seamster had a chance to make the team. Now it seems Thomas does if those other three guys aren't ready for the opener.
Defensive Tackle: One spot is certain, hands down. Maliek Collins (96) is the starting 3-technique up front. Unless our eyes are deceiving us, he could be something else this season. But at the 1-technique? Well, that seems to be debatable. Cedric Thornton (92) has worked there mostly with the first team. But he missed a portion of camp with a leg injury, opening the doors for seventh-year veteran Stephen Paea (55), who continues to nurse a knee that keeps swelling up. He has been impressive, though. Strong like bull, as we used to say. But can he stay healthy?
As for the fourth? Good question. Who knows, might be veteran Tyrone Crawford (98) once he returns from his badly sprained ankle, but that will not be until the first week of the regular season. And who knows, his presence might be required in that defensive end rotation. So that leaves rookie free agent Lewis Neal, listed as Collins' backup on the current depth chart. If you watch closely, No. 66 continues to show up. Makes plays, and certainly has outplayed seventh-round picks Jordan Carrell (69) and Joey Ivie (74).
Again, can't matter how you got here.
Going Long: There has been so much talk about trying to keep a sixth wide receiver, a fourth tight end, a fourth running back and a third quarterback. Well, can't do all that. The numbers won't add up, especially now with the injuries the Cowboys might have to absorb in those first couple of weeks in the secondary.
This is where the decisions become difficult. This is where the Cowboys are darn glad they will have those five preseason games, giving them a longer look at several of these positions.
Top five wide receivers would seem a snap: Dez, T. Dub, Beas, Butler and Ryan Switzer (10), especially since when healthy (hamstring, of course) he figures to be the punt returner. So that means seventh-round pick Noah Brown (85) and first-year free agent Andy Jones (81) are riding the bubble.
Top three tight ends would seem solid: Jason Witten, James Hanna and Geoff Swaim. The Cowboys sorely missed the latter two last year when injuries got in the way. That leaves Rico Gathers No. 4, and unfortunately, he's still trying to recover from the concussion he suffered, causing him to miss last week's preseason game, and likely the next two. Maybe IR if there is not room at the inn? But that means Gathers would not be eligible to play for the first eight weeks. And teams only receive two IR-recalls during the season. Always want to reserve the highly-prized recalls for an injury to a major player if an in-season return is possible. Gathers would not likely qualify as a major player.
Four running backs and a fullback? That seems excessive. The decision becomes easier but not preferable if Ezekiel Elliott begins the season on reserve/suspended. But if for some reason his appeal wipes out the six-game suspension (I can't imagine) then that logically leaves two more spots for running backs, and Darren McFadden (20), Alfred Morris (46), Rod Smith (45) and Ronnie Hillman (34) can't all stay since the Cowboys do value fullback Keith Smith. Stretching to four might be tough.
And finally quarterback: Dak Prescott and … that seems up for grabs between Kellen Moore (17), Cooper Rush (7) and don't discount Luke McCown (3). Might put one on the practice squad, but from what Rush has shown, might have a hard time getting him through waivers. But then do the Cowboys have the nerve to back up a second-year QB with a raw rookie who never has taken a snap in the NFL? Who never has taken a practice snap with the first team? Sure would take a lot of it.
So pay close attention Saturday night and then Thursday night. Objectively informed opinions must be made about these upcoming decisions. Even from you guys.