This Sunday we get the first look at the 2013 Dallas Cowboys as they face off with the Miami Dolphins in the Hall of Fame Game at 8:00 PM/ET on NBC. The first preseason game creates quite the conundrum for the majority of NFL fans and analysts in the media. Many of these fans and media types have spent their time from February until August complaining about the lack of football games and the withdrawal of not having football to watch. Then the minute the preseason begins the same analysts and fans that have been craving football for six months go on rants about how unimportant and disinterested they are in watching preseason football. They want their cake and eat it too, while railing against the lack of football they want to jump right into the season without giving players and coaches a chance to review their product. You will not find that kind of analysis here from this NFL analyst.
I enjoy the preseason, as a former coach, I believe in the need and productivity of analyzing player performance in game scenarios rather than on the practice field. The preseason gives us a chance to evaluate our team prior to the season and create expectations for the season to come. The preseason allows us to view players that would never see the light of day, and gives the undrafted players a chance to shine and move up the ranks on the depth charts. The preseason also gives us a chance to analyze the current coaching staff and changes in philosophies to see how the new schemes will work on the field. The preseason has so many great things to offer the fans to learn about the future of their team.
Yes, the downside of the preseason is the games do not count and there is always the potential for injury, but as we have seen in just the first short weeks of training camps there have been a plethora of high profile injuries in practice that have cost players their 2013 seasons. Any time you step on a football field, whether it is a game or a practice scenario there is always a risk of injury. Just because the games do not count towards team record does not discount the importance of the evaluation process in making up a 54 man roster.
Now that the thoughts on the preseason are out in the open, lets look at the top points a Cowboys Fan should be looking for in this 2013 preseason.
1) Right Tackle…
The most important player battle for the Cowboys will be at the right tackle position. Doug Free has been in that position in the past and was paid handsomely to be the Tackle of the future. Unfortunately he was an unmitigated disaster on the left side, and his switch to the right side last year did not help make him a stand out at the position. The Cowboys coaching staff got so fed up with Free last year they actually spent time platooning him with Jeremy Parnell during the end of the 2012 season. The battle between Free and Parnell will be an important thing to watch during these preseason games. What we want to see out of these two guys is the ability to slide out on pass rushers and attack a bull rusher with the ability to keep the new high priced quarterback from running for his life.
2) The Defensive Front 7
The Cowboys switch from the 3 – 4 to the new 4 – 3 “Tampa 2″ defense will be interesting to watch. The first thing to watch is how both Anthony Spencer and DeMarcus Ware take to being outside pass rushers with their hands in the ground. The pass rushing ability of both players is not the most important thing to decipher, because their stats and histories show their ability to rush the passer at elite levels, the interesting part will be seeing how both players set the edge
against the run. The second important battle will be how the Cowboys interior tackles handle the new scheme. Jay Rattlif and Jason Hatcher will have to prove they can be dominant in the middle and suck up blocks for the two ends to attack. No one needs games more than Jay Rattlif because of his last season transgressions with injuries, feuds with the upper management and off the field issues including a DUI. The battle for the third defensive tackle in the rotation will be interesting to watch between Sean Lissemore and newly acquired Jeris Pendleton who comes over from Jacksonville. This third defensive tackle is important in the 4 – 3 scheme because a healthy rotation allows the line to stay fresh and attack in various scenarios. The biggest battle for starting positions on the defensive side is in the linebacking corps. Sean Lee’s return from injury solidifies the middle and Bruce Carter has a lock on the weakside linebacker spot, but that third linebacker spot is up for grabs. The Cowboys resigned Ernie Sims who played admirably when called upon last year to fill in for both Lee and Carter when either was injured. The Cowboys also brought in Justin Durant from the Lions to possibly start at strong side linebacker. The Cowboys used a Sixth Round pick on South Carolina linebacker DeVonte Holloman. Holloman was primarily a pass rusher in the South Carolina defense in college so the Cowboys are hoping he can make the transition to an outside linebacker in their system. The play Sims, Durant and Holloman in the preseason will tell us how deep the Cowboys are at a position that has been hit hard by injuries in the past two seasons.
3) 3rd Wide Receiver
Dez Bryant and Miles Austin have a lock on the top wide receiver spots. The question for the Cowboys is who will line up as that third option either in the slot or allowing Austin to move to the slot. I really like Dwayne Harris to grab that third receiver spot as he came on with a furry at the end of the 2012 season, but he will be challenged by a few players for that role in 2013. Cole Beasley was often injured last season but he and quarterback Tony Romo have shown a unique connection when playing together. Beasley’s biggest issue is his 5’8″ frame is not ideal for a wide receiver but we have seen smaller receivers flourish in the slot in recent years in the NFL. The Cowboys used a Third Round pick in the draft to take Terrance Williams from Baylor. Williams at 6’2″ and 200 pounds is primarily an outside receiver with elite speed. Being a rookie we will have to see how he handles the contact from NFL cornerbacks and whether he has the ability to beat people off the line of scrimmage and run precise routes. The last guy in the mix is Danny Coale. Coale is another guy who has suffered injury concerns in his young career, and he has started this 2013 season with a knee issue, so he may be behind the 8-ball with the other receivers. The Cowboys will be hoping that one of these four players has a preseason like rival Victor Cruz did two years ago to become a big target for Tony Romo and the offense in 2013.
4) Back Up Tight End
Jason Witten is in the discussion for best tight end in all of football. No tight end gets more targets and has a better relationship with their
quarterback than Witten does with Tony Romo. The fight will be for that second tight end spot between last year’s preseason standout James Hanna and Second Round Pick Gavin Escobar. Hanna at 6’4″ 250 has been viewed more as an H-Back rather than tight end, but he has hands and route running ability to flourish in that kind of role for the Cowboys. The thing to watch with Hanna is if he can handle the blocking responsibilities for the Cowboys offense. Escobar was a surprise pick by the Cowboys in the 2013 Draft, but at 6’6″ 249 Escobar is the prototypical tight end that the NFL is leaning towards. His pass catching ability and route running was his upside coming out of San Diego State University, but again his blocking is in question and his ability to solidify the second tight end and potential heir to, the Hall of Famer to be, Witten relies on his ability to block.
5) Secondary Issues
The Cowboys have been searching for a secondary for many years now. They have solidified the cornerback positions with Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne, and they
have made Barry Chruch a starting safety. They brought in Will Allen via free agency from Pittsburgh to solidify their back end. The battle will be for the nickel cornerback position between veteran Orlando Scandrick and Fourth Round pick B.W. Webb. Scandrick has the upper hand going into the preseason due to his status as a veteran, but Webb has all of the skills and talent to put pressure on the six year vet. How Webb handles playing receivers in the slot and fits into the defensive scheme will tell us which of these two will grab the third corner spot behind Carr and Claiborne. At safety the Cowboys used a Third Round pick on J.J. Wilcox in the 2013 draft. WIlcox will likely be the back up to Allen at strong safety but he will be battling with Danny McCray to be the next guy in line at either safety position behind the starting two.
6) The Interior Offensive Line
The Cowboys shocked the NFL world by taking Wisconsin center Travis Frederick in the First Round of the 2013 NFL Draft. The preseason will give us our first look at how he handles making all the line calls and his report with quarterback Tony Romo on snaps from center. The Cowboys struggled with snaps from center all year in 2012, and how Frederick handles the shotgun snaps to Tony Romo and the other quarterbacks in the preseason will tell us if this gamble in the Draft paid off. The battles at the guard spots will be under the microscope as well. As of now Nate Livingston has a hold on the left guard slot, and Mackenzy Bernadeau has a hold on the right side. 2012 Fourth Round pick David Arkin and converted center Ryan Cook will be in the battle for the guard positions in the preseason. Another interesting twist to the Dallas offensive line will be what happens with back up center Phil Costa. Costa could be in the mix to make a switch to guard or if Travis Frederick struggles with all the needs of a center Costa could move into the starting center role and move Frederick to a guard position.
7) Running Back Positions
The Cowboys have given the starting running back position to 3rd year back DeMarco Murray. Murray has been a shining light when healthy and given the bulk of the carries. the problem is Murray has been injured for significant periods of time during both of his professional seasons. The Cowboys used a Fifth Round pick on Oklahoma State running back Joseph Randle. Randle is coming off his own injury issues at the end of the college football season that affected his drat status. Both Phillip Tanner and Lance Dunbar performed admirably in the back up role last season when Murray went down with injury, but neither have shown the capabilities to handle the load of the starting running back position should Murray suffer another long term injury during the season.
As you can see, there are plenty of issues for the Cowboys this preseason. The issues will play themselves out over the preseason games. While the majority of fans and media types rail against the purpose of the preseason, these players that get their chance to shine welcome the preseason and the opportunities they have to make a significant impact on the 2013 season. These seven issues should make every Cowboys fan interested in the preseason games as we gear up for game one of the regular season. Fans and analysts have been pining for football to begin and finally on Sunday we should all be thankful that the NFL is back and watching all of the players involved to show us how our team will perform in 2013.