Preseason Primer: Cowboys vs. 49ers

Cowboys linebacker Leighton Vander Esch (55) reacts on the sidelines during minicamp at Dallas Cowboys headquarters at The Star.Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

First-round draft pick Leighton Vander Esch, rebuilt passing game get first live-action test tonight.

The reward for following training camp to this point comes tonight when the Cowboys lineup for live action versus 49ers at Levi Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.

We all know NFL preseason games are about the progress of certain players rather than wins and losses. With that in mind, here are a few keys I’ll be watching for in tonight’s contest.

* Linebackers – The Cowboys selected Leighton Vander Esch with the 19th pick of the NFL Draft in April. This will be his first chance to show what he’s got against pro football players. But it will be equally interesting to see if Jaylon Smith is on full display. The third-year linebacker is healthy and has been one of the stars of training camp so far.

* Coach Kris Richard’s charges – The Cowboys’ new secondary coach has made the biggest impact on the team to this point of any member of the organization. I have a feeling we’ll see a difference against the 49ers.

* Passing game – We’re likely to see Cooper Rush and Mike White throwing passes instead of Dak Prescott, but more important will be the targets. This will be Game 1 in the post Jason Witten and Dez Bryant era, so who will step up and make plays? How will the Cowboys use their tight ends? Also, there’s competition among Lance Lenoir, K.D. Cannon, Mekale McKay and others to make the team, so time is precious for them.

* Dan Bailey – Don’t be surprised if the Cowboys play for field goals at times. Bailey struggled with his accuracy due to his groin injury last season and the Cowboys need him to get back to his usual automatic status.