By David Helman
FOX Sports Dallas Cowboys Writer
ARLINGTON, Texas — The last half hour of the road trip always feel like the longest.
I’ve put a lot of miles on my car over the years. In my experience, most of those miles breeze by without so much as a second thought. Maybe you find a new podcast or an audio book. It starts to feel like time traveling.
Still, I’m not sure I’ve ever endured a more agonizing drive than the last 30 minutes on the way back to Dallas, when it feels like that final 30 miles of road stretches into oblivion.
That’s where we find ourselves now. The preseason has ended, and roster cuts must be made by Tuesday. The comforts of regular season football are beckoning to us, like a pristine roadside bathroom in the East Texas wilderness.
It’s a bit of a mirage, though. Week 1 still sits more than two weeks away. The NFL’s shortening of the preseason has provided us an extra week to agonize about the games to come.
The rookie from Tulsa might have played his way into the starting lineup while he was sitting on the bench.
Smith is nursing an ankle injury and didn’t play in the preseason finale, but the drumbeat is getting louder that the No. 24 overall pick is going to get the first crack at filling the open left tackle job.
Cowboys chief operating officer Stephen Jones stopped to chat with reporters outside the locker room Friday night. Officially, he said a decision hasn’t been made about addressing that role — but he gave a very heavy-handed hint, acknowledging Tyler Smith was drafted with the intention of eventually playing left tackle.
“The good news is we addressed it in the draft,” Jones said. “And from the get-go, we said he’s our future left tackle. So just may be the future maybe sooner than later.”
Jones also made the eye brow-raising comparison of likening Tyler Smith to Dak Prescott, who stepped into a similar situation in 2016 and guided the Cowboys to a 13-3 record when Tony Romo was sidelined by a back injury.
“Not unlike for Dak five years ago, six years ago, whatever it was,” Jones said. “He had to step up when Tony got hurt. We didn’t go get a veteran quarterback.”
Stepping in to play left tackle might not be as difficult for a rookie as taking over at quarterback — but still, no pressure, dude. Prescott won NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, guiding the Cowboys to one of their best seasons in modern memory.
Smith doesn’t need to bring home any hardware, but he’ll need a similarly successful rookie season in order to stabilize the Dallas offensive line.
Of all the thousands of words written about the Cowboys’ training camp in this space, few if any have been dedicated to undrafted rookie tight end Peyton Hendershot.
That might have been an oversight, given the final impression Hendershot was able to leave us with against Seattle. He led all Cowboys receivers with 39 yards on three catches, and the highlight of his night was a 14-yard catch-and-run touchdown that saw him drag several tacklers with him into the end zone. The score helped give the Cowboys the game-winning point.
Even better, Hendershot scored the touchdown while wearing fellow rookie Jake Ferguson’s helmet, after his chin strap broke during a violent hit earlier in the possession.
The timing couldn’t have been better for Hendershot. Dalton Schultz and Ferguson are locks to make the roster, but the numbers at tight end aren’t great beyond that. Jeremy Sprinkle was waived with an Achilles injury this week, and Sean McKeon has been held out by a knee issue.
Hendershot is healthy, and he clearly has some juice. That just might be enough to land him a spot on the final roster.
Earlier this month, most would have told you the rookie offensive tackle was likely headed for injured reserve. Waletzko injured his shoulder during the first week of training camp and missed the rest of the Cowboys’ practices on the West Coast.
Waletzko, the fifth-round pick out of North Dakota, first dislocated his shoulder joint back in college, but he re-aggravated the problem during practice.
Fast forward to Friday night, and he was suited up playing in the second half against the Seahawks.
“He’s wired the right way,” Jones said. “I think he understands the game. I don’t think it’s too big for him.”
The time off helped with the injury, though the expectation is Waletzko will eventually need surgery. The hope is he can play through the issue this season, with an eye on fixing it early next year. Though Jones acknowledged it’s a difficult situation to predict.
“Obviously, if that were to come out again, it’s probably a little more problematic — not problematic, just have to fix it,” he said.
For the time being, it’s a bit of good news that the Cowboys might have one of their more important depth pieces back in the fold.
It shouldn’t be a surprise to see Bland’s name if you’ve been following along this month. The rookie out of Fresno State has impressed at every turn this preseason, and he continued that against Seattle. It didn’t even matter that Bland was beaten on a 35-yard Seahawks touchdown pass. He was in good position on that play, and he managed to finish with three pass breakups on the night.
To be fair to Wright, he did intercept Drew Lock. He also was flagged twice, including a 32-yard defensive pass interference penalty.
Joseph suffered a concussion on the first series of the game and was done for the day.
Bland is younger than his two second-year counterparts, and he was also drafted much later. But if we’re going purely off what we’ve seen in the preseason, he should be the first corner off the bench if something happens to one of the Cowboys’ starters.
It’s premature to say the second-year receiver snuck his way onto the roster Friday night. But at the very least, Smith put his best foot forward.
Of the group of young, unheralded receivers working to make this team, Smith is probably the one we’ve talked least about. But he let his play do the talking in this case, as his toe-tapping touchdown catch in the third quarter was one of the highlights of the entire preseason.
The math still isn’t favorable, though.
The Cowboys are expecting to keep Michael Gallup on the active roster, despite his injury. Smith is also competing against other promising talents like Dennis Houston and Simi Fehoko — not to mention Hendershot.
Even if he doesn’t make the roster, though, it shouldn’t be a surprise to see Smith wind up back on the Cowboys’ practice squad, where he was a mainstay in 2021. And that’s assuming his solid preseason doesn’t put him on someone else’s radar.
David Helman covers the Dallas Cowboys for FOX Sports, providing daily insight and analysis on the NFL’s most visible franchise. Prior to joining FOX, David spent nine seasons covering the Cowboys for the team’s official website, DallasCowboys.com. In 2018, he won a regional Emmy for his role in producing “Dak Prescott: A Family Reunion” about the quarterback’s time at Mississippi State.
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