Last night, the NFL season was launched in all its preseason glory. The Cowboys basically moved their Blue-White scrimmage to Canton, Ohio, to take on what amounts to the Arizona Cardinals, and emerged with a 20-18 win in the Hall of Fame Game. Very little that can happen on Aug. 3 should be labeled as "memorable" or "earth-shaking," but there were definitely a few items we can discuss this morning in a smaller-than-regular-season-sized "Morning After" column.
The key to the rare fifth preseason game is similar to the fourth. Do not expose any players to injury if you can avoid it. With that in mind, the Cowboys and Cardinals wisely kept pretty much any and all starters far away from this game. That doesn't mean some players of significance who needed to play a little didn't get out there, because La'el Collins and Byron Jones did just that. But, for the most part, the Cowboys were able to survive this game with all sorts of healthy scratches. As the daily news wire shows, massive injuries in the NFL happen and key players on large salaries are lost for the entire season. You simply hope the bad news is going to avoid your team.
But that doesn't mean there aren't a few talking points, so let's run through those:
-- One key to being a proper media guy is to remain cynical in the face of fans' optimism about every player who shows a flash of ability, or starts to build some chatter around the facility with regards to his position in the organization and the depth chart. I do think, though, given his moments last night, I should begin to adjust my position on Rico Gathers a bit. You should forgive someone for thinking that we have seen some "basketball guys" play tight end who may have not played college football. We have also seen some guys who did not play high school football. But have we ever seen anyone skip high school AND college football, and then do something noteworthy in the NFL? Antonio Gates is used as the template for Rico Gathers and he was an exceptional high school football player before skipping college. Jimmy Graham at least played a little bit in college. But Gathers had not played since eighth grade, when he was 13 years old. The idea that he would then become an NFL regular seems extremely far-fetched.
Yet, watching him last night would simply verify some of the flashes at camp and chatter from insiders. When he caught that wonderful touchdown throw from Kellen Moore by outsizing and outpowering the poor defensive back who was trying to deal with him, it became obvious that I need to drop some cynicism on his future and hop on the wagon that indicates the Cowboys may have something here. Furthermore, I don't see his blocking as a massive issue, though when we talk about "matchup problem" tight ends in this league, blocking is often such a low priority, anyway. Gathers may have a chance to be that "Joker" tight end who is really an issue in the red zone, where you need a linebacker on him so he doesn't win just on size, but also a defensive back because he runs past your bigger defenders. In other words, in adding Gathers and Ryan Switzer, it sure looks like the Cowboys are going to be an even more difficult team to match up with when they choose to spread out the defense and isolate the weak links. Am I sure Gathers can make the team? No. Because the numbers crunch is a real thing. But now, he has graduated, in my mind, from a "long-shot project" to a guy who is in range of the final 53. Another showing or two like that, and they will need to make room and strongly consider carrying four tight ends again. I am not close to suggesting he is able to replace Jason Witten (I have heard some of you throw that around), but he is now properly on the radar for the 2017 team photo. He was very, very impressive in many regards last night.
-- Next, let's talk about early impressions of Taco Charlton. The first impression I have is that in watching Charles Tapper and Charlton, and considering them in the same bin of "promising youngsters" who are roughly 18 months apart in age, I would say Tapper appears to be a more polished player at the moment. Neither seems ready to generate pressures and sacks on a regular basis at the NFL level yet, but I think they have two very usable pieces who are going to come in handy while they have so many defensive ends with suspension issues. Charlton is going to need some time, and as I discussed during the draft season, he was never that prototypical "edge" guy who we have been looking for at Michigan under Jim Harbaugh. Frankly, he looked like a 3-4 defensive end 5-technique to me then, and he still sort of looks like a less-lethal version of David Irving during camp. But he is here, and now it is up to Rod Marinelli to give him a role that he can be good at. He seems eager to figure things out, but his pass-rush moves have not been an issue for any counterparts so far. He switches to a spin quickly when his get-off is stopped and he just isn't that quick at this level to make it work. We shall see, but of the two, I think I am more likely to get Tapper snaps early. But, again, we have over a month of preseason games to go. Let's keep following this story. I just remain pretty sure that Charlton is not the 8-10 sacks guy early in his career you are looking for from a first-rounder after two weeks of camp.
-- Brice Butler showed some real ability last night, too. The Cowboys were prepared to lose Terrance Williams and Brice Butler last March, and the market was kind enough to the team (not so much the players, that is) that they didn't lose either. That allowed them to keep both around and have some real injury cover for the wide receiver position which, to be honest, is one of the best reasons to be bullish on the Cowboys this year. They are pretty fortified at the offensive skill positions, should a reasonable injury hit. Butler is certainly not a kid anymore, but at 27, he looks like a fine depth guy at wide receiver who has a real deep component to run past corners and spring a big play on occasion.
-- Finally, I can't wait to really study Collins settling in at right tackle. This is a new spot for him and will take a lot of time, and he will be given lots of snaps in preseason. He has great ability, but most see his best fit being at guard. The problem, of course, is that they need a tackle right now and he is the best candidate to achieve at least a reasonable facsimile of Doug Free's performance. Free was no Tyron Smith, so we shouldn't expect Collins to be that, either. But the Cowboys have so much confidence in him figuring it out that they have "burned the bridges" by giving him a deal that suggests he already has proven he can do it. Playing tackle in the NFL means dealing with amazingly quick speed rushers who make a big man demonstrate elite foot quickness, so we won't truly know until Von Miller is standing over him, but I think there is reason to believe he will be OK. But Doug Free, the target of many fans for many years, may be one who is appreciated more this season than he had been for years as part of the "don't know what you got until its gone" theory.
There were certainly others who we can discuss, and will, as the days count down until their game next Saturday against the Rams at the LA Coliseum, but that will do for now. No major injuries in Canton, so induct Jerry Jones and get back to Oxnard, Calif.