Getty Images

I get it. You haven't seen a single snap of NFL football since early February, and none from the Dallas Cowboys since their disappointing 6-10 season concluded on Jan. 3 against the New York Giants. So after months of waiting, it's finally time to see them back on the field when they take on the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Hall of Fame Game on Thursday night in Canton, Ohio, and there's no shortage of storylines swirling about the team's roster heading into 2021. So of course you'll want to glue your eyes to every single player that takes the field, and rightfully so, because the Cowboys coaching staff sure will.

But when it comes to some of the more notable names to train your gaze upon, there are quite a few. On one hand, you can point at the emergence of tight end Sean McKeon as a candidate to make life hard for newly-signed veteran Jeremy Sprinkle, considering it's unlikely you'll see either Blake Jarwin or Dalton Schultz in the first preseason game (possible for Schultz, but not entirely likely as there are several other new additions whom the Cowboys need game film on). 

On the other hand, you could look to the situation at kicker/punter and the fact you'll see plenty of work for Hunter Niswander with Greg Zuerlein on the PUP list, turning the punter into a placekicker while Bryan Anger -- who was signed to compete with Niswander at punter -- focuses primarily on doing just that. 

Excited for the new Cowboys season? We are too! Follow along on the CBS Sports app and get the latest insights from Patrik Walker, who's on the ground in Dallas. Plus, get the latest Dak Prescott news, Ezekiel Elliott predictions, and much more from our team of experts. If you already have the app, you need to set the Cowboys as your favorite team for up-to-the-second news and analysis.

Can rookie speedster Simi Fehoko make the Cowboys reconsider allowing CeeDee Lamb and Tony Pollard as returners? Will a promising talent in running back Rico Dowdle or Sewo Olonilua make life hard for rookie Nick Ralston, who could steal a roster spot as a fullback?? So many questions and so little time to answer them, even with the added preseason game in their pocket.

How far will Dallas go this season?

And as you tune in on Thursday night, while you're watching for the aforementioned, along with plenty I've spoken about in previous insider camp notes for Dallas, be sure the following are those you go all-in on getting an eyeful of. By the way, no, you're not going to see cornerstone players take the field. 

It's evaluation time for Dallas, and this isn't the dress rehearsal.


Micah Parsons, LB

Ah yes, the main attraction. All eyes will be on the Cowboys first-round pick in his first snaps on an NFL field, and especially after he's become one of the shining stars in training camp. Parsons will be asked to do a lot for the Cowboys over the next several seasons, and it begins here and now, because while the battle against the Steelers doesn't count on the record books -- it certainly counts toward Dallas having a better look at what Parson's chops might look like against professional competition. It's unknown how long he'll play against the Steelers, so every snap is critical. 

Jabril Cox, LB

While Parsons is stealing the show at the position in camp -- along with headlines fueled by Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith -- Cox has mostly flown under the radar. He'll step into the light on Thursday night though, with the rookie fourth-rounder hoping to get a hefty bit of reps to begin carving out a nice role for himself by the time the regular season rolls around; and that'll be key in what's become a Royal Rumble at linebacker in Oxnard.

Anthony Hines III, LB

Now here's a guy -- sorry, I had to do it. Jokes aside, Hines is absolutely a sleeper in a LB corps headlined by those mentioned above as well as veteran convert Keanu Neal. Don't be surprised if Hines makes a play or two against the Steelers, especially considering the absence of Francis Bernard due to a hamstring injury. Hines has the talent to make some waves on the depth chart, so keep your eyes on the undrafted free agent as he competes with the two more notable rookie linebackers. 


Garrett Gilbert, QB

The Cowboys worked out several potential backups for Prescott earlier this offseason but signed none of them, instead opting to toss the keys to Gilbert as the presumptive QB2. The job isn't yet guaranteed to be his though, and that means he won't have a ton of rope in his preseason (and camp) battles with second-year talent Ben DiNucci and a familiar face in Cooper Rush. But, as it stands, the job is Gilbert's to lose, so how he handles this version of the Steelers defense -- after nearly upsetting them in jaw-dropping fashion last season -- will tell a lot about his progress or lack thereof.

Ben DiNucci, QB

Expect Gilbert to get the start against Pittsburgh, but he'll be pulled eventually to give DiNucci (and Rush) reps as well. After a very poor showing in his rookie season, one he said simply "wasn't me out there," Thursday night marks the first chance he'll get against an opponent to prove he can be what Mike McCarthy hopes he can be. There's potential in DiNucci, but he has to start showing it on the bigger stages, and not simply with a good practice here and there.

Defensive backs

Kelvin Joseph, CB

The Cowboys took a risk using their second-round pick on Joseph, and not because of his talent. On the field, he's a game wrecker at cornerback, and that's why they opted to roll the dice, but things got off to a rocky start when he missed OTAs/minicamp and showed up out of shape, before ultimately getting himself together and now quickly showing Dan Quinn why they took the chance they did -- Joseph having entered the league with off-the-field red flags. The faster Joseph can acclimate to the NFL, the harder he'll make the decision for who gets the nod at CB2 in Week 1.

Nahshon Wright, CB

One of Joseph's biggest in-house opponents is fellow rookie cornerback Nahshon Wright, who hit the ground running in OTAs/minicamp in the absence of Joseph. But with Joseph gaining ground in Oxnard, Wright needs to have a good initial showing to apply pressure to Joseph as well as others like veteran cornerback Anthony Brown and second-year talent Reggie Robinson -- the latter having been moved back to CB after a failed safety experiment in Year 1. The Cowboys were hammered for using a fifth-rounder on Wright, so he has all the motivation he needs to pass out some early preseason crow.

Reggie Robinson, CB

Speaking of Robinson, who got off to a great start in OTAs/minicamp but cooled a bit in camp, the defensive back depth chart has gone from bare to robust this offseason, and so he'll need to show his chops at CB in order to avoid being a casualty of roster warfare. For not only is he up against Joseph and Wright, but also Brown and a resurgent Maurice Canady (who opted out in 2020 but is doing great things in camp thus far), along with special teams favorite C.J. Goodwin. It's unfair that he must quickly right the wrongs of Mike Nolan's experiment, but no one ever said the NFL was a fair place.

Israel Mukuamu, S

With Malik Hooker having now joined the fold, it's incumbent for Mukuamu to polish his name on the safety depth chart. Hooker is currently going head-to-head with Damontae Kazee, but numbers are numbers and when it comes time to cut down to 53 men in a few weeks, it'll be about a guy like Mukuamu, a rookie sixth-round pick having both established himself as a solid backup with starter potential on defense, along with a quality special teams piece. So expect him to get a ton of work as a gunner against the Steelers, in addition to defensive duties.

Defensive line

Osa Odighizuwa, DL

You've probably noticed a pattern by now, and it's the fact the Cowboys have several rookies on defense who will not only play on Thursday as they work to "earn the Star,'' but who must also play well right out of the gate. Odighizuwa is no exception, a high-ceiling first-year guy who initially got drowned out by another rookie defensive lineman -- Chauncey Golston -- in the spring. That was then and this is now, however, because Golston started camp on the PUP list and Odighizuwa isn't letting the opportunity to overtake him (and potentially others) slip between his fingers. 

Quinton Bohanna, NT

Bohannon was selected to be a definitive nose tackle to replace Antwaun Woods even before Woods was released, and he's competing against veteran interior lineman Brent Urban (signed in free agency) for game reps in 2021. Urban has already proven what he can be at the pro level as a run stopper -- the Cowboys biggest defensive shortcoming to this point -- but Bohanna still needs to. Considering it's expected that the Steelers will play rookie first-round pick Najee Harris on Thursday night, Bohanna has a chance to show just how effective he can be against a dynamic halfback.

Ron'Dell Carter, DL

Quiet as it's kept, Carter is having a very solid camp, to the point he's been mentioned on more than one occasion by head coach Mike McCarthy in both a defensive and special teams capacity. That means the second-year talent, who was protected by the Cowboys last season before being poached by the Indianapolis Colts and then returning to Dallas, is building value for himself. Even better is his ability to flex to multiple positions, something you'll likely see a good bit of in the Hall of Fame Game, as Carter works to insert his name into the final roster for 2021.

Offensive line 

Connor McGovern, iOL

McGovern opened a lot of eyes in McCarthy's offensive coaching staff when he stepped in last season and played like a starter, even after the team went on to also lose All-Pro guard Zack Martin (who slid out to right tackle in December) went down with injury. His play was impressive enough to warrant the Cowboys trying to figure out additional ways to get him on the field, now locked in an experimental O-line rotation with Connor Williams, with Williams taking reps at center in camp and McGovern popping over to left guard where Williams is currently the starter. It'll be interesting to see if Dallas deploys McGovern as LG1 or RG1 on Thursday, and if it's the latter, can he begin nudging Williams out of that role?

Isaac Alarcon, iOL

Things get that much more intriguing behind McGovern and Williams (and Tyler Biadasz as starting center), when you factor in the progress of Alarcon as a swing interior lineman. The IPP prospect is doing all he can to find his way to the active roster after being relegated to the practice squad as a mandatory roster exemption in Year 1. In Year 2, he has a very real chance to break into the final 53 on a Cowboys team that cringes at flashbacks of their ineptitude last season when they lost several starters to injury. The pride of Monterrey, Alarcon is carrying a country on his shoulder pads, evidenced by the flag of Mexico you'll see glued to his helmet.

Ty Nsecke, T

There have been peaks for Nsecke in camp, but also valleys that make you wonder if the Cowboys have finally resolved their issues at backup swing tackle or if they're still a thing in 2021. They'll need Nsecke to make an impact on his one-year deal, and especially with Mitch Hyatt now on season-ending injured reserve. Considering how much McCarthy loves the progression of Terence Steele and a solid backup tackle in Brandon Knight; and with rookie Josh Ball also in the mix, Nsecke better start passing out some pancakes as early as Thursday night -- to the point IHOP tries to sponsor him.