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Appreciation for Anthony Hitchens should grow with absence

FRISCO, Texas -- The preseason finale between the Dallas Cowboys and Houston Texans has been rightfully cancelled because of the impact of Hurricane Harvey, and there is no sense wondering what that game would have meant to those on the bottom of Dallas' roster.

But there are plenty of things to wonder about with the final roster cuts looming Saturday and the regular-season opener coming Sept. 10 against the New York Giants.

Per our usual routine, here are Five Wonders, to be exact.

Away we go:

* I wonder if there will be greater appreciation for linebacker Anthony Hitchens now that he will likely miss the first five games of the season with a tibial plateau fracture. According to the coaches’ stats, Hitchens posted two 100-tackle seasons in his first three years. He is tough and reliable. People were too quick to push him out of the starting lineup for Jaylon Smith at the start of camp. If Hitchens had remained healthy, there was no chance Smith would have been the starter. Hitchens has long been underappreciated by folks outside the organization. Not so inside the organization -- there have been talks about trying to sign him to an extension at some point this season.

* The Cowboys were one of seven teams to put a waiver claim in on defensive end Kony Ealy when he was cut by the New England Patriots. The New York Jets were awarded Ealy because they had the worst record among the seven teams that put a claim on him. The Cowboys’ 13-3 record last year makes it almost impossible for them to get Ealy if the Jets let him go on the final cuts. Knowing the teams that put a claim on Ealy the first time around, would the Cowboys be willing to trade a late-round conditional pick to the Jets for Ealy now, if he isn’t going to make their roster? I doubt it, but it’s something worth considering. As is this: It takes a thick skin to play for defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli and some aren’t sure if Ealy could stand up to the day-to-day grind Marinelli puts his guys through.

* I know the Cowboys are thankful every day for QB Dak Prescott. I wonder if they were more thankful when they saw Connor Cook playing against them in the fourth quarter in the fourth preseason game against the Oakland Raiders. Cook was a trade-up target of the Cowboys in the 2016 draft, but they were beaten to the punch by the Raiders. It’s not that Cook won’t be a solid player down the road, but Prescott has proven he should have been selected much sooner. And I wonder if the Cowboys are even more thankful that they did not trade back into the first round in 2016 to get Paxton Lynch -- who was unable to beat out Trevor Siemian for the Denver Broncos' starting QB job.

* Making the Cowboys’ 53-man roster appears to be an uphill battle for running back Ronnie Hillman, whether or not the suspension of RB Ezekiel Elliott is upheld. Could the Cowboys keep five or six running backs? I just don’t see it. But here’s the wonder: Could the Cowboys put Hillman on injured reserve with the groin injury that knocked him out of Monday’s practice? If so, he could be back to practice in six weeks and play by Week 8. Or he could spend the year on injured reserve and be part of the running back rotation in 2018, since Darren McFadden and Alfred Morris are set to be unrestricted free agents after this season.

* If you saw my projected 53-man roster that came out earlier this morning and were wondering why I went with this guy or that guy, here’s what I was thinking about the final roster spots. To me, it came down to four players for the final three spots: TE Rico Gathers, LB Mark Nzeocha, WR Noah Brown and CB Marquez White.

I cut Gathers, putting him on injured reserve with his concussion. I kept Nzeocha, while acknowledging the Cowboys might add a different linebacker through a trade, waivers or signing, because Hitchens will be out for a while. The Cowboys need the extra linebacker for special-teams purposes.

Brown can play more special teams than Gathers and would have a game-day role. Considering the injuries to Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis, I went with White because the Cowboys need to protect themselves at cornerback.

I wonder just how wrong I might be.