CANTON, Ohio – Finally, game day is upon us again.
Sure, it's just the preseason opener – the first of five preseason exhibitions the Cowboys have to play this year. But on a weekend when team owner/general manager Jerry Jones is being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the atmosphere promises to be a special one.
With a lengthy preseason still in front of them, the Cowboys aren't likely to give their starters too much playing time at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium on Thursday night. Instead, it figures to be a youth movement, as the Cowboys' coaching staff gets its first look at this year's rookies and depth players in a game environment.
As is customary, the full staff of DallasCowboys.com have chosen two players each – one on offense, one on defense – to watch as the Cowboys square off against the Cardinals.
Rob PhillipsRB Rod Smith: Smith has been one of the best stories of camp so far. He's back at tailback, his natural position, and he's running with explosion and authority in these training camp practices. He's had a cup of coffee on the active roster before, but his versatility as a special teams player makes him an intriguing candidate to win a backup spot behind Ezekiel Elliott. If the former Buckeye gets a few carries tonight, he'll look to make the most of them.
DE Taco Charlton: The Cowboys' first-round pick has actually played in Canton before as a high-school junior growing up in Ohio. He'll have a lot more eyes on him tonight. The last few days of training camp have been better than the first. He seems to have improved his technique and his balance, and he's winning more in the pass rush. A strong showing in a homecoming of sorts could really boost his confidence entering the second half of camp.
David HelmanFB Keith Smith:I'll take the other Smith currently working in the Cowboys' backfield. It's remarkable to remember that this guy spent his first preseason as a linebacker, then made the switch to fullback with no guarantees that it'd work out. Almost two years later, I consider him a lock to make this team – and with good reason. He's surprisingly natural as a receiver, and I think the coaching staff trusts him to take some work as a runner, as well. Ezekiel Elliott and Darren McFadden are unlikely to play in this game at all, and I wonder if Alfred Morris will get much work, either. I'm not going to be surprised if Keith Smith winds up as the second-leading rusher behind Rod Smith in this game.
S Xavier Woods:The rookie safety hasn't flashed much at training camp – but it's not as though he's had a ton of opportunity. Woods is stuck behind a lot of experienced players, so he's currently running with the third-team at the tail end of practice. Tonight, he'll hopefully get much more playing time than that. I'm hoping Woods will get to play most of, if not the entire second half. Working against the Cardinals' reserves, hopefully we'll get to see some of those playmaking instincts that excited the Cowboys enough to trade up in the draft to get him.
TE Rico Gathers: This is probably the easiest one to watch because I'll have plenty of other Cowboys fans right along with me trying to check him out. Some days he looks like a young prospect who might have a chance to become something great. Other days he looks like he hasn't played football since he was 13 before last year. So this game will be interesting to see how far he's come in one full year. We know Jason Witten won't play this game and I wouldn't expect Geoff Swaim and/or James Hanna to get a ton of reps either, considering they missed all summer with injuries. Gathers will get his chances in this game. I think we need to be just as focused on his blocking as his pass-catching. If he doesn't catch the ball, it's an incomplete pass. If he misses a block, it could be worse.
S Kavon Frazier – He seems like somewhat of a forgotten guy at safety. I don't think the coaches have forgotten him at all, but with Jeff Heath taking over as the starter and the Cowboys drafting Xavier Woods and signing Robert Blanton in free agency, Frazier has slid under the radar. Sometimes, that's a good thing. He looks like he's bulked up considerably in the offseason. He was already a good tackler in space. I think it'll be important to see his range and movement and how well he reacts in the passing game. It certainly wouldn't hurt for him to make a few standout plays on special teams.
WR Andy Jones:He has the experience of what it takes to potentially make this 53-man roster, and he is a better receiver today as opposed to this time last season. You can see it in the way that he now executes his routes – but, more importantly, how he finishes. He has made several head turning plays in camp to this point that no question have caught the eye of the scouts and coaches. The question for him, is can he carry that into the preseason games, where he failed to do so last year? He needs to convince all of these eyes that he's too valuable of a player to put on the street.
DE Lenny Jones: This young pass rusher has been a pleasant surprise at a position where there are clearly more questions than answers. With suspensions looming to David Irving and Damontre' Moore, he's trying to play himself on the roster not just for 2-to-4 weeks but maybe something more permanent. Where Jones has shown up the most during these practices has been as a pass rusher. His ability to win off the edge is what has gotten him noticed. He's one of the few players at the position that has the explosive first step along with the ability to use pass rush moves along the way. There are several young defensive ends that are struggling with that concept now. This a staff that has never been afraid to take a chance on an unknown guy in the rotation if he shows promise. Lenny Jones is working to be that guy.