Fri, 24 Sep 2021

Battlegrounds: Questions at Quarterback

Dallas Cowboys
30 Jul 2021, 20:24 GMT+10

Kyle Youmans

Straight from the campgrounds in Oxnard, don't miss any developments surrounding the Cowboys' preseason and training camp position battles.

July 29 - Quarterback

Garrett Gilbert, Ben DiNucci, and Cooper Rush received more snaps than any other practice this offseason after losing Dak Prescott midway through Wednesday's practice in Oxnard. All three filled in for Prescott during the one-on-one period along with the team portion of practice each of the last two days.

"It's part of being a backup quarterback," Gilbert said. "You have to be ready to step in at any point. That's all it was today."

Conversations throughout the offseason had centered around the potential need for outside help at the quarterback spot. Should the front office entertain or investigate other veterans on the open market like Blake Bortles, Robert Griffin III, or others? Until this point, the answer to that question had been "no," that Dallas was comfortable filling in the holes with the three quarterbacks in house.

However, that conversation could heat back up as Gilbert was arguably the only gunslinger to have any resemblance of success during the team drills on Wednesday. All three quarterbacks threw at least one interception and DiNucci tossed multiple picks during his least impressive outing of camp thus far.

Gilbert had his fair share of struggles in practice Wednesday but rebounded with a nice practice Thursday that included three touchdown passes. He was easily the most comfortable of the trio when thrust into repetitions with the first team following Prescott's departure. Outside of a late-practice interception thrown to Anthony Brown Wednesday, Gilbert looked in command of the offense and was able to lead notable drives down the field without receivers like Michael Gallup and Amari Cooper.

"Obviously last year I got thrust in there a little bit, so I'm comfortable with a lot of those guys," Gilbert said. "The game moves a little bit faster with those guys, especially on the defensive side of the football. You've got to be sharp mentally."

At the moment, it seems as if the Prescott shoulder injury is not a long-term problem. But if a longer timetable is anticipated for his recovery, the upcoming practices may have a larger than anticipated impact on who the Cowboys' backup quarterback really is, and where he comes from.

July 27 - Safety

There has officially been an added piece to the position battle puzzle as the Cowboys signed veteran safety Malik Hooker on Tuesday. While it took a couple days to become official due to Covid-19 protocols, there seemed to be an understanding that this deal was likely to happen this week.

However, the Dallas secondary seemed to avoid the rumors initially, and waited until Hooker was officially on the roster to finally turn it up a notch. Because whether it was a direct response or not, the defense put together their best all-around practice of the summer thus far. Additionally, some of the top contributors on Tuesday were players thought to be either in a position battle with Hooker or could clear space for him on the roster.

Demontae Kazee had caught some slack throughout the first week in Oxnard due to multiple miscommunications and his overall uncertainty at the free safety spot. Each of which potentially contributing to the need for a signing like Hooker. There was no such problems on Tuesday as Kazee made the play of the day, a clean interception of Dak Prescott that would've been returned for a score. One where Kazee was in the right spot, read Prescott's eyes and made a quick break to the ball for the turnover.

The secondary also vastly improved their communications on the back end. There were very few breaks in coverage and multiple batted balls and notable interceptions. A few of those plays came from Maurice Canady, who had a relatively slow start to camp and needed to have a big day to keep up in the crowded cornerback room.

One of the big reasons for the initial interest in bringing in a veteran like Hooker, was for the competition aspect it could add to the back of the defense with guys like Kazee, Canady, and Jayron Kearse. Safe to say an impact has already been felt, even without Hooker being suited up just yet.

July 26 - Final WR Spots

While Monday is another day off for the Cowboys, the team has plenty of good tape to evaluate from Sunday, especially the young receivers. Sunday was a big day for a handful of young wide receivers that are further down the depth chart and currently fighting for a roster spot. Osirus Mitchell, Simi Fehoko, Malik Turner, and Brandon Smith all took positive steps forward with some memorable moments during practice number three in Oxnard.

"Shoot, today they were going crazy," fellow receiver Michael Gallup said. "I was just sitting there observing. I was like, 'you get a touchdown, you get a touchdown,' it was a fun day today. They're all competitive."

Outside of the top three wide receivers on the roster, Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and Ceedee Lamb, there is a lot of room for opportunity. Many believe that Cedrick Wilson and Noah Brown are the next two on the depth chart despite a conservative effort to add length to the receiver position with multiple additions this offseason.

Turner and Mitchell arguably had the best days out of the wide receivers with multiple catches as reliable targets throughout the 'two-minute' and 'pass under pressure' drills. Fehoko added what would've been another nice catch and potential touchdown to his early camp highlight reel. The next three weeks will be crucial for roster hopefuls with the preseason on the horizon along with a legitimate chance for receivers to stick to a roster in the NFL, even if it's not in Dallas.

July 24 - Linebacker

A destined topic of conversation throughout the preseason and into the 2021 campaign, the rotation at linebacker looks to be a crucial part of the defensive turnaround. Returning starters Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch each enter critical years in their career, while rookie Micah Parsons has brought an added element to the rotation all together.

Through the first two practices of training camp, there arguably has not been a player that has toed the line between starter and non-starter more than Parsons. The first rounder saw four snaps with the first team and five snaps with the second during the normal fraction of the 11-on-11 period Saturday.

While most of his snaps are still with the second team, this is good news for those who believe Parsons is the most talented of the group. Dan Quinn mentioned on Friday that they used him too much in the first practice to try and see what he could do, and it in-turn kept him on the field for longer periods of time.

Parsons saw less of an overall workload Saturday but still had more snaps than any other linebackers during the regular team period. The plan is to use Parsons to many of his strengths and rotate him where needed, which right now looks to be in cohesion with Vander Esch and Smith instead of behind them. When asked about the rotation, Smith was excited about the potential of the group.

"We got a gang of guys," Smith said. "And all of us can play. It's interesting to see how they'll use us, but for us it's just about any time each of us step on the field we're dominating, we're contributing to our team win."

July 23 - Backup QB

Mike McCarthy said Friday that second-year quarterback Ben DiNucci has put together an impressive offseason and may have closed the gap in the backup competition.

"I thought definitely he was one of the top guys in the offseason program as far as weight gain and strength gains in that particular area," McCarthy said. "We've just got to get him playing with a little more patience and a little more confidence."

McCarthy also said that all three quarterbacks are currently on a strict rotation and that they'll continue seeing similar amounts of repetition throughout the remainder of the preseason. But just when he was being counted out, DiNucci's skillset and potential for a second-year jump has certainly caught the attention of the coaching staff and could put him over the top of Garrett Gilbert and Cooper Rush.

"His skillset is definitely what we're looking for," McCarthy added. "He needs to take that second-year jump that we talk about with our second-year players. Up until this point he has done that."

If there was a position group in 2020 that would've benefited tremendously from a normal preseason, it would've been the backup quarterback spot. Andy Dalton was the true backup for much of the season, but the position was tested in a major way when he was sidelined Week 7 against Washington.

DiNucci was first thrown into action the following week against Philadelphia and responded with an underwhelming performance of 21-for-40 passing, 180 yards, and a fumble. Since then, it has been thought that Gilbert, who had a more impressive start one week after DiNucci's, held the advantage as the backup to Dak Prescott.

July 22 - Punter

Prior to the first practice of camp, Head Coach Mike McCarthy provided updates surrounding the PUP (physically unable to perform) list and those not participating in practice. One of those names is Greg Zuerlein who underwent offseason surgery on his back and will not be handling the kicking duties, at least for now, in Oxnard.

While this doesn't tell us a whole lot surrounding a kicking position battle, and the absence is not of long-term concern for Zuerlein, the coinciding moves may allude to how the punting position battle is going. Hunter Niswander, who took over for Chris Jones as the starting punter midway through las season, has been chosen to add the kicking duties to his plate along with his punting responsibilities in Oxnard.

"Niswander will be handling all the kicking and punting so this is a great opportunity for him," McCarthy said.

That could make it challenging to fully compete for the punter position veteran Bryan Anger, who was signed in the offseason.

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