5 Players to Watch: Bengals @ Cowboys
The Cowboys’ first home preseason game is Saturday night hosting the Bengals. First things first, it’s a 6pm central kickoff, so be aware of the unusual start time. Second, this is a big game for contested roster spots. Because several players are nursing injuries and will be held out of the game as a precaution, we’re going to see more second-and-third teamers who are fighting for playing time and roster spots.
Here are 5 Players/Positions to Watch:
James D. Smith via AP
Joe Looney (#73) & Dustin Stanton (#67), Backup Centers
I know, I know. Why are we listing “backup centers” when we have Travis Frederick as our starting center? Well, Frederick traveled to Los Angeles on Wednesday morning to get his neck/shoulder checked-out because he’s been suffering from ‘stingers’. Frederick returned to Oxnard by Wednesday afternoon and said his neck should be good with rest, but this is an issue that could continue throughout the season. So now it’s worth paying attention to the depth chart behind Frederick.
Joe Looney is “Jumbo Joe”, the jovial backup center/guard who you may remember as the guy who dressed-up in practice last year as Zeke Elliott. He is getting first-team reps when Frederick rests. Looney is a veteran who plays both guard and center. He was competing for the role of primary backup with Marcus Martin at the start of camp. But Martin suffered a season-ending toe injury in the preseason opener. Looney has solidified his role on the team, and now he gets a chance to show that he’s more-than-capable to step-in for Frederick during the season if Frederick’s issue with stingers lingers throughout the regular season.
Dustin Stanton signed with the Cowboys earlier this offseason as a free agent. He spent last summer with Cincinnati where new Cowboys offensive line coach, Paul Alexander, was the line coach for the Bengals. Stanton has been third-team center during camp, and now he’s getting more chances with Frederick’s injury. To be honest, Stanton has skipped some shotgun snaps during practice. If Stanton has any hope of making the Cowboys’ roster, he must play well in these final three games. He’s competing, like Looney, to be a backup guard/center even though he played offensive tackle and tight end in college at Oregon State.
Lance Lenoir (#14), Wide Receiver
Yes, Lenoir was first on our list for last week’s preseason game at the 49ers. But we’re putting him on the list again this week because he’s having such a good camp and good preseason that he is going to force the personnel department to make a hard decision as to how many wide receivers they will keep on the roster.
And, yes, it was Lenoir who made the awesome toe-tapping 2-yard touchdown catch from Cooper Rush in last week’s game at the 49ers. It was a terrific job of keeping his feet inbounds as he fell to the boundary of the end zone.
Tony Avelar via AP
Lenoir will continue to get a ton of preseason reps because other wide receivers are not going to play as they nurse injuries, including: Cole Beasley (groin), Tavon Austin (hamstring), and Deonte Thompson (Achilles). Second-year receiver Noah Brown probably won’t play because of a sore hamstring. Lenoir has a good rapport with both Dak Prescott and Cooper Rush because Lenoir was on the practice squad for 15 weeks last season. He is well-liked by the coaching staff and teammates, and I really think this kid is going to make the 53-man squad. But he needs to continue his strong showings in preseason games.
James D. Smith
Charles Tapper (#99), Defensive End
I would put Randy Gregory in this spot, but we’re still not sure if he is going to play this weekend. Gregory has only practiced in pads since last Saturday, so the staff may want to hold him out of preseason action until next week. I’m hoping he plays, but if Gregory doesn’t, that’s more opportunities for a pass rusher like Tapper who is fighting for a spot in the defensive end rotation. Believe it or not, it’s getting crowded along the Cowboys’ defensive line.
Tapper, who has played only two games in his first two NFL seasons because of foot and back injuries, is a guy we’re rooting for to make the squad. He’s overcome a lot of off-field adversity, not just injuries, but also the death of his mother earlier this offseason. He can get to the quarterback. He has already recorded a sack in one of his two regular season games. Now he just needs to show that he can stay on the field and play consistently.
Can he beat out guys like veteran free agent addition Kony Ealy and returning players like Lewis Neal and Richard Ash for a roster spot? Rookie fourth-round pick Dorance Armstrong has played really well this summer and in the preseason opener and looks good for one of the spots at backup defensive end.
James D. Smith
Darius Jackson (#44) & Bo Scarbrough (#36), Backup Running Backs
Zeke is the starter, Rod Smith is his primary backup. Jamize Olawale is the fullback. Can Jackson and Scarbrough play well enough in the final three preseason games to convince the Cowboys to keep four running backs, plus a fullback, on the final 53-man roster? Trey Williams and Jordan Chunn are also competing at running back, but Jackson and Scarbrough are ahead of those two players.
Scarbrough scored on a 1-yard touchdown run in the preseason opener last week at the 49ers. He ended up leading the team with 9 rushes for 33 yards, including a long run of 28 yards. Jackson got 6 carries and gained 21 yards. Jackson, who made the Cowboys’ 53-man roster in 2016, will get a chance to compete on special teams. Scarbrough will, too. Backup running backs must be contributors on special teams, so it will be interesting to see if they get equal amounts of reps on coverage and return units. I know the topic of third/fourth string running backs isn’t top-of-mind for most fans, but its an area that is being evaluated in Saturday night’s game. These guys are fighting for jobs.
Tyree Robinson (#23), Safety
Don’t worry if this is the first time you’re reading this name. Robinson is an undrafted rookie from University of Oregon who has been playing third-team. But with starter Jeff Heath (ankle) leaving practice earlier this week, and backup Marqueston Huff missing a week of practice with a groin strain, rookies like Robinson, Donovan Olumba, Kam Kelly (from nearby Wylie, Texas) are getting extra work along with veteran Jameill Showers.
James D. Smith
The Cowboys usually keep 4 safeties on the squad, and Heath, Xavier Woods, and Kavon Frazier are locks. Who will be #4?
*Saturday’s Bengals-Cowboys game at AT&T Stadium kicks off at 6pm central.