The dog days of summer still linger in the thick summer air. We momentarily quelled our covetous thirst for exuberant sport spectacle with a different version of futbal, but on Thursday, the NFL season starts in earnest, with six games on the slate for pigskin junkies and gambling aficionados to sink their greedy claws into.
The Dallas Cowboys will travel to Qualcomm Stadium to begin their 26th season under Jerry Jones, returning to San Diego (NFL Network: 7PM EST/10PM PDT) for a rematch of last season’s week four contest that saw Philip Rivers expose a laughable Cowboys defense to the tune of 401 yards and three touchdowns. The 30-21 defeat was a quintessential Dallas meltdown, complete with the agonizing fourth quarter meltdown.
The two veteran gunslingers from that battle will largely be absent from this meeting. Tony Romo will be on the sidelines outfitted in his standard Cowboys baseball cap and swaggering smirk, not yet ready to risk his freshly rebuilt back against hungry 300-plus pound giants who really want to hurt him, and Rivers will likely play just the first series before ceding his duties over to former New York Jet and St. Louis Ram, Kellen Clemens.
Preseason games aren’t exactly measured in the final score or even the statistics in the box score. Coaches and management are looking for rookies, newly-signed free agents and final cut question marks to show that they not only belong on the field, but that they deserve to wear the Star.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at several positional question marks and particular players who should expect to have a great deal of attention on themselves, as if they were being scouted by one of those seemingly innocuous paintings from a Scooby-Doo cartoon that follows every single move the characters make, waiting to pounce on even the slightest of mistakes.
Weeden isn’t battling for a starting role or even a spot on the team like some of the other men listed here. His position is defined, regardless of his performance on the field. However, being the backup to a 34-year-old quarterback with a (twice) surgically-repaired back isn’t exactly like being the backup to Tom Brady.
There’s a legitimate likelihood that the 30-year-old 2012 first-round pick has to fill in at some point for Romo this season. Jason Garrett and his staff need to know Weeden understands the offense while displaying a heightened ability to avoid pressure (27 sacks taken in eight games last season.) and make the right throw.
Weeden connected on only 55.9% of his passes during his first two seasons in the NFL. While some of that comes with the territory of being a former Cleveland Browns quarterback, the most cursed position this side of the Madden NFL cover, his decision-making must improve. Garrett needs to know he can trust Weeden to take over the reigns, even for just a series or two, if the Romocoaster happens to derail at some point this season.
2. Defensive Line: Henry Melton
Two former Pro Bowlers who found themselves relegated to NFL Sunday Ticket spectators last season, Melton and Anthony Spencer could be key to any hope the Cowboys hold of revamping a defense that seemed unable to stop even the Little Giants in 2013, let alone the authentic ones.
Unfortunately, new Defensive Coordinator Rod Marinelli, already dealing with a depleted defensive line, may have to place a great deal of faith in a defensive lineman returning from a torn ACL and a 30-year-old defensive end hoping he can fully recover from microfracture surgery on his left knee.
DeMarcus Ware is off in Denver, smiling down from atop his new mile high home. Demarcus Lawrence, the Cowboys 2014 second round draft pick, is out for at least eight-to-ten weeks with a fractured foot. Just two seasons ago Melton (playing under Marinelli as a Chicago Bear) and Spencer combined for 17 sacks, 86 tackles and four forced fumbles. Don’t expect a replication of those numbers, especially considering Spencer may being the season on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list, but if both men can regain a modicum of their past self, Marinelli’s daunting task will be made a bit less taxing.
With Spencer likely to miss all four preseason games and Melton expected to be brought on somewhat slowly, it would behoove Martez Wilson and Terrell McClain, who by all accounts have been tremendous during practice and scrimmages, to continue their upward trends.
It speaks to the comical nature of the Cowboy D last year that they are relying on so many question marks for this upcoming season. Rolando McClain is 25 years old, was the eighth overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft out of Alabama and is currently on pace to break Brett Favre’s dubious record of “most faux retirements.” McClain “retired” from pro football in 2013, but became a member of the Cowboys this season after Dallas traded a 2016 sixth round pick to to Ravens for his services.
The issues surrounding McClain have never revolved around talent, rather, they have gravitated around his work ethic, desire and commitment to the game. McClain led the Raiders with 79 tackles and was second on the team with 11 pass deflections in 2012. He has slotted at middle linebacker for some first-team snaps recently, but thigh and hamstring injuries have kept him from completing the past few practices. It will be interesting to see if they push him into playing against the Chargers, which could go a long way in telling us where he is in his return to game shape.
Hitchens, the weak-side linebacker out of Iowa, was expected to play a much larger part this season after the unfortunate loss of Sean Lee (again). However, the former Hawkeyes’ ability to absorb some of Lee’s reps has been put in question after a pedestrian training camp.
Hitchens is expected to be a key contributor to the Cowboys special teams units, but the team certainly envisioned a bit more from their fourth round pick after he piled up 236 tackles over his last two seasons at Iowa. It will be interesting to see how the 22-year-old handles his first bit of on the job pressure. Bruce Carter is the unquestioned heart of the Dallas linebacking corps, but he’s going to need someone else to step up and help him and Justin Durant this season.
4. Does the secondary have any hope?
Morris Claiborne is out with tendinitis, Brandon Carr will not be in attendance due to the death of his mother and Barry Church will take some time off to rest his sprained ankle.
The Dallas secondary was a treat for every offense it faced last season, offering a brief respite from jarring hits, diving interceptions and complex schemes, instead providing a seemingly effortless weekend of resume padding for the opposing offensive skill players.
Second-year strong safety J.J. Wilcox, fresh off his scuffle with Dez Bryant, will look to prove his worth as a starter. At the corner slots, either 2014 7th round pick Terrance Mitchell or B.W. Webb must separate himself from the competition. The secondary is going to be sketchy, at best, this season. Marinelli will be looking for one of these young defenders to emerge early on.
5. Who will step into the fifth and sixth Cowboys’ receiving slots?
As of now, it looks like 2014 fifth round pick Devin Street has a firm hold on the fifth wide receiver slot after spending most of his time at practice showing off the moves that made him the University of Pittsburgh’s all-time leading receiver, including three spectacular touchdowns in the Cowboy’s Blue-White scrimmage. Chris Boyd, LaRon Byrd, Dezmon Briscoe and Jamar Newsome are all fighting it out for the final wide receiver slot. Boyd, an undrafted rookie from Vanderbilt who can be penciled in to make at least one eye-popping grab each practice that has coaches questioning their eyesight, has gained a great deal of support in recent days.