FRISCO - The Dallas Cowboys on Saturday played their penultimate NFL preseason game, a 20-14 loss to the Houston Texans that serves as the "America's Team'' dress rehearsal.
Of course, Dallas' best player on each side of the ball - QB Dak Prescott and defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence - didn't even dress.
So it's still not the real thing.
It is, though, a chance to gauge and judge "winners and losers'' from the game, in terms of which players' stocks are rising ... or not. To wit:
Keanu Neal - He started camp poorly but has come on, to the point he may be a starter in the oft-used Nickel defense. The conversion from safety to "hybrid linebacker'' is working.
Dak Prescott - He's fine. Better than fine. I watched every single pregame movement, every cord walk, every shoulder stretch, every hip twist, every throw. The medical staff also watched, by the way, meticulously walking the previously sore-shouldered Pro Bowl QB through each of his approximately 45 throws.
“If we were lining up against Tampa tonight,” owner Jerry Jones said on 105.3 The Fan, “he’d be starting, and we’d feel great about it.”
Jerry is is telling the truth.
Leighton Vander Esch - He didn't start. But he had four early tackles. He looks ready.
Bradlee Anae and Dorance Armstrong - Where do they really fit as edge guys? Lawrence and Tarell Basham sat, so they got rotational chances and they performed, as did first-teamer Randy Gregory. Dallas has unusual depth at end, and maybe the toughest position for coaches to have to cut.
The Starting O-Line - It's been forever since they've played together, and really, with center Tyler Biadasz in his second year ... this five had never played together.
Said Biadasz: "It was great. It was awesome. It was great to have Zack [Martin] and Tyron [Smith] back .. It was great to be back and the 1's unit together.''
By the way, once again: Biadasz is the center. Connor Williams is the left guard. Connor McGovern is the "swing interior'' lineman. For all the conversation and argument, that's never really changed.
Malik Hooker - The former Colts standout played safety in the second half. It's not what he did, though, that puts him on this list. It's what Jerry said.
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“He’s an extraordinary player,” Jones said on 105.3 The Fan. “Smart as a whip. He’s what you want back there.”
We've predicted all along that a healthy Hooker will become a starter. Jerry seems to agree. Truth is, the answer will come in next week’s preseason finale: if he doesn’t play, it’ll be a sign that he’s valued.
Carlos Watkins - With Neville Gallimore (elbow) out for more than a month, there is a gigantic vacancy at defensive tackle. Watkins, the free agent vet, is listed as a first-teamer on the depth chart - but was scratched and sent home from the stadium due to COVID caution, as was defensive coordinator Dan Quinn.
Dallas, before these two issues, had a lot of bodies at defensive tackle, if only "bodies.'' Now the Cowboys don't even quite have that. ... meaning they're going to have to hurry up and be right about rookie Osa Odighizuwa.
“Osa has been coming along really strong in probably the last 10 days,” McCarthy said of Osa, likely to be installed as a 4-3 starter (alongside Brent Urban).
He, and fellow rookie tackle Quinton Bohanna,, needs to come on even stronger in the next two weeks.
Simi Fehoko - It's not that the big rookie receiver has done anything wrong. In fact, in this game, he recorded two catches for 24 yards. But Cedrick Wilson never got challenged as the No. 4 receiver. and Noah Brown, with three catches for 35 yards, plus his ability as a blocker and on special teams, might keep him at No. 5.
Garrett Gilbert - He was just mediocre enough that Cooper Rush just caught up with him. Next Sunday's noon preseason finale at AT&T Stadium will be a Gilbert-vs.-Rush showdown for the No. 2 job ... unless the Cowboys wise up and get serious about buying a real QB off another roster.
“Well, we have one more week (to decide),'' McCarthy said. "And we’re gonna need it.''
Jaylon Smith - He's being eased out of the rotation. He's the fourth guy now - and rookie Jabril Cox is giving chase there - a pricy proposition that essentially puts some heat on the coaching staff to find a way to milk some effectiveness from him.
Smith actually performed at a solid level vs. Houston. But he’s still sliding down the depth chart. (By the way: His 2021 salary of $7.2 mil is guaranteed. Cutting him would mean $9.8 mil in dead money. Jaylon’s on the team.)
Kelvin Joseph - The Cowboys would love for him to obviously beat out Anthony Brown. But it didn't happen, not in this camp and not in this game. The second-round pick really hasn't even outplayed journeyman Maurice Canady (who is slipping a bit) or fellow rookie Nahshon Wright. Joseph has "star quality,'' probably needs to be a less-reluctant tackler, (he did have one good open-field takedown), and has a bright future. But he's not as sound as Brown.
Ben DiNucci - This isn't working. There is no particular downside to allowing him back to the practice squad. But with three interceptions in a half?
“I’m sick about the turnovers,'' McCarthy said. "You can’t win that way. You got to take care of the damn football.”
Except for Carthy having to admit to making a mistake in the drafting and development of his "nephew from Pittsburgh,'' there is no particular downside to releasing the No. 4 QB, either.