It didn't matter that Arizona Cardinals quarterback Blaine Gabbert was facing second-, third- and fourth-string Dallas Cowboys defenders Thursday night. Gabbert had an impressive first half while displaying arm strength and zip with a touch that allowed him to complete an array of tough passes. He finished 11-of-14 for 185 yards, completing his first eight passes. Gabbert made a case for the Cardinals to open the backup quarterback job to a competition.
Here's a closer look at the Cardinals' 20-18 loss to the Cowboys in the Hall of Fame Game at Canton, Ohio:
QB depth chart: Without starter Carson Palmer or backup Drew Stanton playing Thursday, Gabbert made a case to kick off a legitimate competition with Stanton to be Palmer's backup. Fourth-stringer Trevor Knight finished 5-of-14 for 68 yards.
When it was starters vs. starters, the Cardinals looked ... Consistent. The Cardinals' offense marched down the field on its first two drives efficiently and seamlessly, scoring touchdowns on both possessions. Arizona used a balance of runs and passes, finding a rhythm in the running game behind both Kerwynn Williams and Andre Ellington. Defensively, the Cardinals pressured the Cowboys up front consistently, especially defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche.
One reason to be concerned: Arizona's backup cornerbacks did not capitalize on the opportunity to play significant snaps Thursday. Both Brandon Williams and Harlan Miller, who started opposite Williams, could have helped themselves move up the depth chart with solid performances against the Cowboys. But neither showed enough to impress their coaches. Williams was inconsistent, making an impressive pass breakup on one play and then getting called for pass interference on the next. He also had an interception but gave up a deep ball as well. On the other side, Miller, a cornerback-turned-safety, was beat early. Neither helped his case Thursday night.
That guy could start: Rookie wide receiver Chad Williams could be one of the Cardinals’ top three receivers with his performance Thursday night. He had one catch on which he stopped on a dime, then spun, causing a Cowboys defensive back to slide off him. He has the size, speed and elusiveness to be a primary option for Palmer this year.
Rookie watch: In all, the Cardinals' drafted rookies performed well. Their first-round pick, linebacker Haason Reddick, played most of the first half. Williams was impressive. T.J. Logan turned heads with his speed. But the most impressive rookie was safety Budda Baker. He played most of the game, getting much-needed snaps to make up for lost time from missing OTAs and minicamp.
A powerful Nkemdiche: Second-year defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche looked like the type of player the Cardinals expected him to be last year. He was powerful off the line, pushing back the Cowboys offensive line, and he got into the backfield with regularity. As long as he can stay healthy, that type of performance will be expected out of Nkemdiche all season.
Budda is budding: Rookie safety Baker was given significant playing time Thursday and showed glimpses of why the Cardinals are excited about their second-round pick. He looked like another Tyrann Mathieu on the field -- blitzing off the edge, getting involved in the box and defending the run. He had a nice pass breakup and was active around the field. It's even more impressive when you consider he has been on the field in the Cardinals' defense for less than two weeks.
Good thing for Phil: The Cardinals' experiment of trying their two punters -- Richie Leone and Matt Wile -- at kicker may end up being just that, an experiment. Each missed a field goal -- Leone from 51 yards and Wile from 32. Their performance left little doubt that Phil Dawson will be the Cardinals' kicker this season.