The Dallas Cowboys have had a lot of turnover this offseason both on the roster and the coaching staff. Today I thought we’d do a brief overview of the turnover that’s occurred with the on-field talent by ranking the positions by the degree, or amount, of changes they’ve seen in 2020.
Keep in mind that this isn’t about assessing the positive or negative effect of the changes. We can project those but the truth won’t be told until the season comes and we see how these new players, especially with new coaches, manifest through performance.
What we do know for sure, as of today, is how much change there’s been on the offensive line as compared to the linebackers. Is it good change or bad; only time can tell.
We’re going to start with the most stable, unchanged positions on the roster and work our way to where there’s been the most upheaval.
13. Running Back
There’s only spot on the roster that is likely to return the exact same cast as in 2019. Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard are still your clear top two and were the only backs on last year’s team.
Unless Jordan Chunn or some undrafted rookie is able to claim a special teams role, Dallas could easily go with just Zeke and Pollard again in 2020. Elliott’s remarkable durability thus far, and still being just 25 this season, make that a realistic proposition.
Jamize Olawale will also likely return as the fullback. He not only covers that role but plays on most special teams reps and is an emergency third RB with his offensive skills.
There doesn’t seem to be much reason for the Cowboys to deviate from this strategy. It will come down to two factors: Mike McCarthy’s philosophical differences from Jason Garrett about RB depth and Dallas’ needs on special teams.
As of now, a 100% repeat of Elliott, Pollard, and Olawale as the only three running backs seems likely.
This is another spot where a total repeat is on the horizon. The biggest moves of the offseason were re-signing Sean Lee and Joe Thomas, keeping the top four intact with Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch.
Also returning are veteran Justin March and 2nd-year prospect Luke Gifford. All were with the team last year and, if Dallas only keeps six total linebackers, would likely mean no fresh faces in 2020.
Undrafted rookie Francis Bernard is the only other LB currently signed to go into training camp. He could work his way onto the roster in a special teams role but would need to be a true gem to knock off any of the top six.
Given discussions that Dallas could employ more 3-4 looks this year under Mike Nolan, I wouldn’t expect the team to go long at linebacker. That roster spot will likely go to an additional defensive lineman.
Dallas appears set to bring back L.P. Ladouceur as long snapper and Chris Jones at punter. Unless someone they add as a camp body pulls off a big surprise, these veterans should go unchallenged and retain their jobs in 2020.
The big question is at kicker. While the Cowboys re-signed Kai Forbath they also brought in veteran Greg Zuerlein. Given his history with John Fassel in Los Angeles, not to mention the 3-year contract he received, Zuerlein seems the early favorite to claim the job this season.
That isn’t written in stone, though. If Forbath keeps making kicks and Greg’s leg struggles from 2019 continue then Dallas can easily reverse course. So while a change is at least possible among this group of players, it’s hardly a sure thing.
10. Offensive Tackle
The starters are locked in with Tyron Smith and La’el Collins. But with swing tackle Cam Fleming departing in free agency, definite change is coming at least on the depth chart.
The leading candidate right now is veteran Cameron Erving, a recent free agent addition who was a former 1st-Round pick. He has played about every spot on the line since 2015 and most recently at offensive tackle.
Another swing tackle option is Brandon Knight. He got some limited playing time last year at right tackle during a Collins injury, but would Dallas trust him to step in on the all-important left side?
Erving is the likely replacement with Knight sticking around for additional depth. Hopefully, we don’t see either of them playing any meaningful snaps in 2020.
Things are pretty similar here as they are at offensive tackle. However, there is at least some chance of a change in the starting lineup.
Obviously I’m not talking about Zack Martin. But at left guard, Connor Williams’ job could be challenged by 2nd-year prospect Connor McGovern.
Even if WIlliams keeps his role there will still be some shake up on the depth chart. Xavier Su’a-Filo is gone and there will be some interesting fallout from the competition at center. Depending on what happens there between McGovern, Joe Looney, and Tyler Biadasz, the domino effect at other interior line positions will be interesting.
8. Wide Receiver
CeeDee Lamb coming as a 1st-Round pick is a big deal for the Cowboys now and for years to come. But with the exception of the rookie replacing Randall Cobb as the #3 receiver, the rest of the WR position will be relatively stable.
Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup should be back as Week One starters. And outside of Tavon Austin, who remains unsigned in free agency, the depth chart should feature returning talent like Noah Brown, Devin Smith, and Cedrick Wilson.
There could certainly be some shake up there with other prospects like Ventell Bryant, Jon’Vea Johnson, and others all vying to make the roster. And that’s especially possible given the new offensive coaches and “blank slate” mentality at most positions
That said, Dallas still has a clear top three at WR. CeeDee Lamb may one day eclipse Gallup or even Cooper as the team’s top receiver but it won’t happen right away. He will be doing plenty if he can just fill the void left by Cobb’s departure.
Dak Prescott will be back either on the franchise tag or a new long-term contract in 2020. But there was a pretty big change at backup QB with Dallas signing veteran Andy Dalton and dumping Cooper Rush.
Adding Dalton gives the Cowboys a proven player as QB2. It also changes the dynamic in the relationship between backup and starter; Andy can give Dak all sorts of wisdom that Cooper Rush never could.
Another potential could be in how many quarterbacks are kept on the 53-man roster. While Dallas only retained Prescott and Rush in 2019, there’s a good chance that either Clayton Thorson or Ben DiNucci will hang on this year given McCarthy’s general history.
So no, it won’t feel that different on the surface with Dak back in the starting saddle. But behind the scenes, the QB room in 2020 could have significant change.
One starting position will definitely change with Jeff Heath now playing for the Raiders. That and some intriguing roster additions mean some interesting competitions are coming.
The current projection is for Xavier Woods to return as a starter and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix to replace Heath on the first team. Ha Ha’s background with McCarthy on the Packers helps explain how he landed in Dallas and suggests an advantage in any roster competition.
But the Cowboys also added veteran Daryl Worley, who has played well at safety in recent years since converting there from cornerback. Depending on which position he is going to play in Dallas, Worley stands to compete for work at either spot in the secondary.
There has also been talk of CB Chidobe Awuzie transitioning to safety this year. If the switch happens and does him as good as the reverse did for Byron Jones in 2018, Awuzie could completely change the landscape at the position.
5. Tight End
Jason Witten is gone again, and now we get the long-awaited look at Blake Jarwin as the starting TE. If he can play every week like it’s against the Giants, Jarwin could be a breakout star (or at least fantasy starter) at the position.
However, the Cowboys did bring in some veteran help in free agent Blake Bell. The former Chief was Travis Kelce’s backup and played a lot of reps in a blocking role.
That was bad news for Dalton Schultz, who is entering his 3rd season still waiting for a significant offensive role. Schultz and Bell will likely compete for the backup job but Bell’s blocking would seem a better fit for Dallas’ rushing attack.
The key here is still Jarwin. Will he blossom with Witten gone or will he make tight end a top priority in the 2021 offseason?
Travis Frederick’s retirement has created a fluid situation in the middle of the offensive line. While Joe Looney is the current favorite to take over after his 2018 performance, prospects Connor McGovern and Tyler Biadasz should make it a true competition.
The Cowboys made the playoffs with Looney as the starting center two years ago. But if the younger Biadasz or McGovern can match him, or even just come close, Dallas could decide it’s better to take some growing pains early and let a younger guy develop in the role.
Looney is what he is at this point, turning 30 in August and already playing eight seasons. He may be the more reliable option in Week One, but that could also make him a progress stopper.
At this point, even with Joe as the minor favorite, there really is little telling who the Cowboys’ starting center will be by September.
3. Defensive End
DeMarcus Lawrence’s return is the only real certainty at defensive end. With Robert Quinn now in Chicago, the other starting job is open and Dallas has an interesting mix of options to replace him.
The Cowboys signed former All-Pro Aldon Smith after a five-year break from the NFL due to a suspension and personal issues. Smith appears recommitted to the game and himself and, by all accounts, is in great shape to make a successful return.
While Smith is already reinstated by the league for 2020, Randy Gregory is still waiting the final word on his return. Gregory missed all of 2019 but was an effective pass rusher two years ago for Dallas and is still just 27 years old.
Tyrone Crawford is still here, for now, and is the current insurance policy against any problems with Gregory and Smith’s comebacks. He could still be released for cap savings but Dallas won’t pull that trigger until they absolutely have to.
Dallas also drafted Bradlee Anae in the 5th Round this year, adding him to a young stable with Dorance Armstrong, Joe Jackson, and Jalen Jelks as drafted DE talent. Throw in undrafted rookie Ron’Dell Carter from JMU and we could have a lot of new faces throughout the depth chart.
A major overhaul could be coming at cornerback. Dallas drafted Trevon Diggs and Reggie Robinson in the 2nd and 4th rounds, plus added free agents Maurice Canady and Daryl Worley. There’s no doubt that the Cowboys expect improvement at the position in 2020.
Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, and Anthony Brown are still in the mix. There’s hope that a new coaching staff will get more out of Awuzie and Lewis than the last one did, but that same staff could also be ready to move on to the shiny new toys that they had a hand in drafting.
Dallas could easily keep all seven of the players we’ve named here on the roster, and especially if Awuzie or Worley have a hybrid role between corner and safety. But any expectations about starting jobs and depth chart order are only guesswork right now; some of these guys are as likely to be starters in 2020 as they are to get cut or traded.
It’s truly that wide open.
1. Defensive Tackle
After so many years of investing little in the DT position, Dallas signed two major names in Gerald McCoy and Dontari Poe this offseason. Both project to take over as starters so long as age (McCoy) and health (Poe) don’t get in the way.
If that wasn’t enough, Neville Gallimore is also coming in as a 3rd-Round pick with 2nd-Round talent. While recency bias is certainly part of the equation, many are already putting him ahead of Trysten Hill in discussions about next year’s team.
Hill and Antwaun Woods both appear to be buried under this new influx of talent. They will certainly compete for playing time and should be part of a rotation, but neither is going to have the status in 2020 that we would’ve projected a year ago.
Another big factor here will be how much “3-4 principles” really do come into play for the Cowboys defense. It could lead to even more sharing of playing time as some players are better suited to one look over another.
All of that remains to be seen, but what we know today is that two former Pro Bowlers and 1st-Round picks were added as free agents. No other position on the roster had such a clear upgrade, and that’s what put defensive tackle at the top of our list.