The injury list heading into tonight's game is disappointing. The team's top three draft picks, Dez Bryant, Sean Lee and Akwasi Owusu-Ansah, are out, as is Martellus Bennett. When Lee, AOA and Bennett play next week, they will be near the top of my list of players to keep an eye on. With those four out, here is who I will be focusing on tonight:
20 - Alan Ball -- He may not play much, since the starters will only get a few series, but he figures to be the only new starter on the defense, and he still has to show that he can be a complete safety.
29 - Teddy Williams -- I don't know how ready he is to play in an NFL game, given his utter lack of experience. If he does see the field, though, his raw size and speed will be interesting to watch. The Cowboys also may not want to showcase him for other teams, since they likely won't want to clog their 53-man roster with someone who isn't ready to contribute in a meaningful game. A good preseason means that he's probably practice squad or IR bound, but there is so much physical ability here that there has to be a little intrigue. He has received nice reviews from Terence Newman and Wade Phillips.
26 - Cletis Gordon -- Gordon has clearly been one of the four best corners in camp, so he's likely to be the guy who's an injury away from playing 20 or so snaps per game.
36 - Mike Hamlin -- Hamlin has a good opportunity to be the third safety and to see a lot of time on the field. He will have to fend off AOA once the latter is up to speed, so now would be a good time to prove himself to Dave Campo, Brett Maxie and Wade Phillips.
42 - Barry Church -- He was the talk of offseason workouts and he is still projected by some to make the roster, though that is largely a function of his special teams potential. Pat Watkins is one of the best special teams players on the roster, so Church may have to show something defensively to beat him out.
57 - Victor Butler, 59 - Brandon Williams, 53 - Steve Octavien -- Williams and Butler have impressed in San Antonio and could turn into real players. I'm looking forward to watching the pair more than anyone else tonight. Octavien hopes to win a roster spot based both on special teams play and overcoming his lack of size defensively.
58 - Jason Williams -- Reviews haven't been too hot for Williams once again this summer. The mental side of the game still hinders him. Once he turns the corner, though, there is still a lot of upside in him. Will he look lost tonight?
78 - Josh Brent -- His chances of making the team as the primary backup at nose tackle have increased in recent days, with good showings in practice. A good game showing would seemingly give him the edge on Junior Siavii and Sean Lissamore (who has missed most of camp with a groin strain)
7 - Stephen McGee -- He's been thoroughly unimpressive when I've seen him in practices. He should have ample opportunity tonight and in the five preseason games in general to show whether he's made progress. He will need better line play in front of him than he's received in camp, however.
15 - Manny Johnson, 86 - Kevin Ogletree -- The receiver depth chart is muddled by Dez Bryant's injury, as the other backup receivers may take a more important role early in the season. For Ogletree to retain his spot, he has to show that he can contribute. The same is true for Johnson, who has to beat out Ogletree and/or Sam Hurd unless Patrick Crayton is released.
23 - Tashard Choice -- He should get some carries, though they may be behind an overmatched offensive line. Many believe that Choice is the best all-around back on the team. He can continue to make that case tonight.
44 - Chris Gronkowski -- The fullback has consistently received plaudits from coaches and observers during camp. He's looking to beat Deon Anderson out, by virtue of a more complete game. Can he excel in the Cowboys' jumbo running formations?
71 - Alex Barron, 60 - Travis Bright, 76 - Sam Young, 79 - Robert Brewster -- As much as the starting offensive line concerns me, I'm petrified of injuries. This group, Montrae Holland (who won't play tonight), and veteran Pat McQuistan could ease my fears a bit by showing something tonight against Mike Zimmer's backups. Bright, Young and Brewster are fighting for the last three OL spots.
68 - Doug Free -- He shouldn't play much tonight, but he has a lot to prove. All eyes will be on him when he's on the field. He has excelled in camp, but he's been able to go against smaller, more athletic rushers - the type of defender that he should match up well against. Tonight he will face two physical veteran ends - more the kind of test that he needs to face.
89 - John Phillips -- Another good camp has him legitimately vying for the number two tight end spot. Bennett won't play tonight, so Phillips has an opportunity to create some separation.
18 - David Buehler -- Buehler has more pressure on him tonight than anyone else on the team. He is extremely inexperienced as a field goal kicker and has to show that he can handle the pressure. His work with Chris Boniol has improved his technique, but games are different creatures.
Some of these guys - Hamlin, Church, Octavien, Williams, Johnson, Ogletree, Gronkowski and Hurd in particular - can help their chances of making the roster and seeing time on the field as much through their special teams play as their offensive or defensive performance. I will generally be watching for any standouts on coverage teams, since these players are often surprises and can come in many shapes and sizes.