5 players to keep an eye on in the Cowboys' preseason opener

BY foxsports • August 13, 2015

After two weeks of the training camp grind, the Dallas Cowboys will open the preseason on Thursday night against the San Diego Chargers.

With the Cowboys returning 10-of-11 starters on offense, you shouldn't expect to see too much action from the starting offensive unit on Thursday night. This game will feature the newcomers to the Cowboys via free agency and the draft.

Here's a look at five players to keep an eye on in the preseason opener:

Gus Johnson

The Cowboys' running backs have been dropping like flies this offseason. Joseph Randle, Darren McFadden and Lance Dunbar kicked off camp as the top three backs on the depth chart, and they are all injured right now. McFadden and Dunbar won't play Thursday night, and Randle will most likely sit out as well. This means that Gus Johnson is prepared to step in as the starter after taking first team snaps over Lache Seastrunk in practice.

Johnson impressed Romo in practice after taking over with the first team, specifically in the red zone and short yardage situations. At 5-foot-10 and 215 pounds, Johnson has an ideal build for short-yardage situations. His build is also unique to the rest of the Cowboys' depth chart at running back.

The preseason will be huge for Johnson who is competing in an unsettled backfield. If he can prove to be the best option in short yardage and goal-line situations, we can expect him to carve out a role even when Randle proves to be 100 percent healthy.

Greg Hardy

Greg Hardy hasn't played in an NFL game since last September, before his susepnsion, so it will be interesting to see him get back out there on Thursday night. Hardy is suspended for the first four games of the regular season, but he is expected to play a key role when he returns.

In 2013, Hardy was one of the most dominant 4-3 defensive ends in the NFL. He finished as Pro Football Focus' second-best defensive end overall. They charted him with 14 sacks, 25 additional quarterback hits and a whopping 44 quarterback hurries. In addition to those numbers, he earned a very strong grade in run defense. Between the 2012-2013 seasons, Hardy racked up 26 sacks. The Cowboys had just 28 total team sacks in 2014.

Byron Jones

The Cowboys have used rookie defensive back Byron Jones at outside cornerback, at safety and even in the slot for some practice repetitions. Early camp reports are positive when it comes to Jones' production at all three spot. Jones entered the NFL Draft with a tag for being a strong press-man cornerback, and his style fits Rod Marinelli's defensive scheme. In a one-on-one drill earlier in training camp, Jones used textbook technique and showed off his speed to break up a go route to Dez Bryant. You can watch that here.

In the end, Jones will likely compete for the Cowboys' starting outside cornerback spot. If the two veterans ahead of him play anything like they have over the last two seasons, it won't take much for Jones to jump them on the depth chart. Jones can begin to make his case in Thursday's opener.

Dustin Vaughan

The Cowboys have been talking about finding a young backup quarterback who can learn from Tony Romo and eventually take over as the starter for several years now. Instead of investing in a mid-round draft pick, they finally added one via free agency when they signed undrafted free agent Dustin Vaughan in 2014. Vaughan had an impressive first offseason with the team, and the Cowboys are cautiously optimistic that they might have something in Vaughan.

Backup quarterback Brandon Weeden is set to become a free agent this offseason, and he was really disappointing in limited time as the starter in Romo's absence in 2014. Vaughan has an excellent opportunity to establish himself as Romo's backup going forward.

Devin Street

Dez Bryant is likely to sit out the preseason opener with a minor injury and this presents a great opportunity for the receivers behind him. Throughout training camp, Bryan, Terrance Williams and Cole Beasley have been the clear-cut top three wide receivers, but Street has been right behind them.

After a strong offseason where Street had the opportunity to work with Romo and the first team offense, the 2015 preseason will be big for his prospects going forward. Street stands at 6-foot-3 with a 37.5-inch vertical jump, and he has been impressive during red zone drills throughout camp. If he can keep the momentum going through the preseason, he could end up surprising people and earning a role in the Cowboys' red zone package.

For more news and analysis on the Dallas Cowboys and all of the NFC East, follow Dan on Twitter @DanSchneierNFL



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