By David Helman
FOX Sports Dallas Cowboys Writer
DENVER — Word to the wise: Embrace the weird.
Preseason is always a strange time of year, because it’s advertised as NFL football when that’s not really the case. Given the money at stake and the grueling length of the regular season, more and more clubs are limiting their starters’ reps in these preseason games if not pulling them from the action completely.
The smart money suggests that Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy is going to follow suit Saturday night against the Denver Broncos (game time: 9 p.m. ET). While it might be hard to keep every starter off the field, it’s a good guess you won’t see headliners like Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, CeeDee Lamb or even Micah Parsons.
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When you let go of that, though, preseason gets fun. This is a wacky time of year, when dozens of guys on every NFL roster are trying to do something to stand out — for starting jobs, playing time, roster spots and even practice squad spots. Sometimes this leads to inspired performances, and sometimes it leads to beautiful disaster. Regardless, it’s football, and we’ve been starved for it. It’ll do.
With that in mind, here are five players/things to watch in this Cowboys-Broncos tilt that we might actually see.
We had better see the Cowboys’ first-round draft pick if there’s any justice in the world. After all, the team has refused to name Smith as the starting left guard, continuing to rotate him with Connor McGovern.
These preseason games should be valuable work for Smith, who’s just 21 years of age and played his college career at mid-major Tulsa. He has looked solid, albeit inconsistent, for much of camp. This is a big opportunity at game reps against someone else’s roster.
It seems unlikely the Cowboys would ask Smith to play tackle in this game, as they’ve mainly worked him at guard in camp. But it’s not out of the question. For that reason, it’ll be fun to see how Smith handles whatever gets thrown at him.
Speaking of tackle, maybe the Cowboys should give Smith a crack at what is quickly developing into the most terrifying position on the roster.
After those two, the situation starts to look bleak. Rookie draft pick Matt Waletzko got hurt during the first padded practice. Josh Ball has played a lot of left and right tackle these past two weeks, though he has lost his share of battles. It’s fair to wonder if he’s capable of stepping in should something happen to Smith or Steele.
This has to be a spot where the Cowboys are considering hiring outside help. The way Ball & Co. play could determine whether they choose to do so.
WR To Be Named Later
With so many starters sitting, these preseason games turn into showcases for unheralded players. Every year without fail, there’s at least one receiver who turns everyone’s head with a handful of highlights in the preseason opener.
The funny thing for the Cowboys is that their entire receiver corps fits this description. Lamb is unlikely to play much, if at all. Third-round pick Jalen Tolbert and sixth-year veteran Noah Brown will likely get some playing time, but it might not be much.
That leaves a lot of snaps for the rest of these receivers, all of whom are lacking in NFL experience. More exciting than that, quite a few of these guys have been having nice camps.
T.J. Vasher towers over the rest of the field at 6-foot-6 and still has the sickest catch of training camp. Simi Fehoko has come on strong as a guy who consistently makes plays. Dennis Houston, an undrafted rookie, has gotten more time with the starters than any other young guy.
Games are a different beast from practice, though. You might get two opportunities in a game, as opposed to a dozen chances during a practice script. The guy who does the most with his chances might go a long way toward grabbing a roster spot.
There’s no competition for starting jobs among the Cowboys’ cornerbacks. Let go of that notion.
It’s been evident throughout camp that Trevon Diggs, Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis are here to stay as the Cowboys’ starting trio — and should be, given their strength of play last year and this summer. It’s also evident they won’t play much on Saturday. Diggs has been held out of practice recently with soreness, so it stands to reason he won’t play. If Brown and Lewis play, it won’t be much.
That opens the door for several young draft picks. Kelvin Joseph and Nahshon Wright were both drafted in the top 100 last spring and haven’t had a ton of opportunities for playing time. Rookie DaRon Bland was drafted in the fifth round this year and has flashed at times.
All three guys should see plenty of snaps, offering at least a glimpse of how they’re developing.
Return of the ‘Nooch
A week ago, this would have been a big blurb about Will Grier and the impressive month he has had.
Unfortunately, Grier tweaked his groin this week and isn’t going to play against the Broncos. Hopefully, there’ll be more to say about him in the weeks to come.
For the time being, Grier’s injury means it’s time to do some math. Prescott isn’t going to play in this game, and the coaching staff is unlikely to ask incumbent backup Cooper Rush to play all night.
With Grier unavailable, that means the second half will likely belong to third-year pro Ben DiNucci. You might remember “The Nooch” as the guy who had one ill-fated start in Philadelphia in 2020, when Prescott was out with a broken ankle and Andy Dalton had COVID-19.
DiNucci spent last year on the practice squad, and he hasn’t gotten many chances this summer. With Rush and Grier eating up all the snaps behind Prescott, it’s easy to wonder if his time on the roster is running out.
A solid showing in the preseason has the potential to change that, though. All of a sudden, this could be a big chance for DiNucci to make a statement.
David Helman covers the Dallas Cowboys for FOX Sports, providing insight and analysis on the NFL’s most visible franchise. Prior to joining FOX, David spent nine seasons covering the Cowboys for the team’s official website, DallasCowboys.com. In 2018, he won a regional Emmy for his role in producing “Dak Prescott: A Family Reunion” about the quarterback’s time at Mississippi State.
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