How has a training camp together affected Tony Romo's chemistry with Roy Williams? Is Anthony Spencer up to the task of replacing Greg Ellis in the base defense? Is Martellus Bennett worth all the hype we've been throwing his direction?
All good questions and we won't be anywhere closer to knowing the answers after the first 60 minutes of Cowboys football on Thursday night. All of those guys are starters and/or key players which means they'll be making briefer appearances on the field than Michael Spinks did in his fight with Mike Tyson.
Don't take that as an excuse not to watch the game, though. The 2009 Cowboys will begin taking shape on Thursday night against the Raiders, it will just be from the bottom up. Here's three second-stringers who figure to get a lot of playing time now and could have a big impact on the season going forward.
1. Junior Siavii - Jay Ratliff was a revelation at nose tackle in 2008, and the Cowboys defense will need him to be at his best to be a strong unit in 2009. That means he's going to need a steady backup who can spell him and allow him to rest. Right now that player is Siavii. At 6-foot-5 and 320 pounds, Siavii looks the part but he hasn't played a NFL game since 2005 even though he was a second-round pick in 2004 for the Chiefs. Coaches have praised his toughness, but the proof will be in the pudding especially with Tim Anderson, the only other obvious backup contender, battling injuries in addition to his own on-field rust.
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If Siavii can't do the job, Marcus Spears or Igor Olshansky will have to spell Ratliff which will stretch them at end or the Cowboys will have to sift through other team's refuse for a body to try. The sooner they know which, the easier it will be to plan for the future.
2. Courtney Brown - Like Ratliff, Terrence Newman is a key part of the Cowboys defense. Unlike Ratliff, Newman's proven to be about as durable as a soap bubble. Depth at corner isn't about resting the starter, then, but about being prepared for when there's no starter in the lineup in the first place. It's already playing out, as Newman will miss the game Thursday night and Brown will get a chance to start and show that he's the right man for the fourth cornerback job.
Brown has the inside track on the spot, but seventh rounder Mike Mickens and corner/safety hybrids Alan Ball and DeAngelo Smith aren't far behind him. They could pass him if he doesn't flash the ability to be on the field in meaningful situations, which makes Thursday's extended audition a big one for Brown.
3. Isaiah Stanback - The book on Stanback is a familiar one at this point. Great size and great athleticism caused the Cowboys to convert him from college quarterback to receiver, a project that has bought him a ton of time to put his skills together in a package that can help the offense. The clock is ticking, though, and Stanback has to prove that he can both stay healthy and add something to the passing game to avoid being another talented prospect whose sum never equaled his parts.