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What we learned from Cowboys-Cardinals

*Football made its triumphant return on Thursday night, culminating in a 20-18 Cowboys win in the Hall of Fame Game. While the matchup was not rich with regular starters, there were still plenty of takeaways and a few highly anticipated NFL debuts. *

Here's what we learned:

  1. Cardinals first-round pick Haason Reddick seemed to get better by the snap, which is natural for a dynamic player switching positions. He looked over-eager at first, launching into the backfield only to get washed out of an inside running play, but the Cardinals would much rather over-excitement from a rookie than the opposite. Defensive coordinator James Bettcher's vision for the defense came into focus for me on a second-and-9 in the second quarter. While it was a rather vanilla all-out blitz call (no team is throwing the organic stuff out there with the second string), it became pretty apparent how easy it's going to be to get someone like Reddick a one-on-one with a running back en route to the quarterback.

This is still an uphill climb from Reddick's days at Temple, though the Cardinals seemed like the perfect home. Reddick joins fellow rookie Budda Baker (who also played quite well in limited action Thursday) in making up one of the league's more versatile defenses. Almost Patriot-esque in its makeup, this team will be able to create pressure from any spot on the field and still be anchored by arguably the league's best cover corner in Patrick Peterson. Part of the design depends on the continued maturity of Reddick.

  1. Not surprisingly, 2016 Cardinals first-round pick Robert Nkemdiche did not get the veteran treatment. A disappointment last year who struggled to get on the field, Nkemdiche played well into the second quarter on Thursday but did make his presence felt early on. There were multiple blown up plays to his credit, giving us the chance to finally see the speedy defensive tackle's disruptive capabilities. According to Cardinals sideline reporter Paul Calvisi, Nkemdiche was singled out by head coach Bruce Arians during his halftime interview. This is a good sign.
  1. Unlike Reddick, I felt Cowboys first-round pick Taco Charlton played his best early. I counted two incredibly quick jumps Charlton got off the ball during the first drive, though he pinballed a bit throughout the rest of his snaps. Pro Football Focus counted 16 total snaps with zero pressures, though I might be able to make an argument for one. Charlton played much better in the run, appearing to have a pretty obvious nose for the ball. His development will be crucial for the pass rusher-starved Cowboys, a team that will not have a choice but to play Charlton significantly right away.
  1. Blaine Gabbert took extended snaps for the Cardinals Thursday, posting an impressive 11-14 outing for 185 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions. While conversation in the NBC broadcast booth dovetailed into Gabbert potentially being part of the platoon (alongside fellow backup Drew Stanton) to succeed Carson Palmer whenever he retires, I would not take it there just yet. Gabbert was quicker on the draw though admittedly against a bland Cowboys scheme featuring almost none of its firepower. Gabbert does continue to make himself an intriguing option to be a long-term backup in the league, though, and with serious quarterback injuries already popping up during camp, this may not be the last we hear of him.
  1. Cowboys tackle La'El Collins got his first live reps at right tackle on Thursday to pretty sound reviews. It's his job to lose. He's not going to have the luxury of playing next to guard Zack Martin perhaps for another week or two but in his independent audition he fared well. The Cardinals defense was bringing a decent amount of heat for a preseason game, so starting Collins ended up being a worthwhile exercise.
  1. Converted basketball player and Cowboys tight end Rico Gathers is starting to look the part. The 6-foot-6, 290-pound tight end hauled in a beautiful fingertip touchdown catch in the first quarter from Kellen Moore and ended up leading the Cowboys in receiving on the night (three total catches for 59 yards). While it's clear Gathers still has a way to go, once the stiffness clears out there might be a viable red-zone threat underneath the former forward.
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