The Dallas Cowboys are heading into 2019 with high expectations based on the perceived overall strength of their roster. But nobody's perfect; every team has a few liabilities. Where are the Cowboys biggest risks for this upcoming season?
A saying I've always liked, and I'm pretty sure it came from Bill Parcells, is that you can't have prime rib at every position. The salary cap forces NFL teams to live on a budget, and sometimes you have to settle for the chopped steak or the meatloaf to field a 53-man roster.
Not every starter is going to be a Pro Bowler, and not every backup is going to be a solid option if asked to play a major role. Some of the greatest teams who ever won a Super Bowl could've had much different seasons if the wrong injury happened at a critical position.
The Cowboys have certainly had their share of derailed seasons. In recent memory, Ezekiel Elliott's 2017 suspension and Tony Romo's 2015 injury wrecked what could have been playoff-bound teams. In both cases, the team was heading into those years with high hopes coming off a strong finish in the previous season.
This year's Dallas team is also looking to build on a good showing in 2018, but carries is its own set of weak spots. What are those, and just how risky are they?
We'll start with what I perceive to be the team's riskiest decision, and it actually doesn't involve the roster.
1. Kellen Moore, Offensive Coordinator
Say what you want about Scott Linehan, but he was a highly experienced coach who helped the Cowboys have four winning seasons and three playoff appearances in his five years here. This offseason, Dallas decided they could do better by promoting Kellen Moore to the job.
Moore has spent just one year as a full-time coach, serving in 2018 as the Quarterbacks Coach. The quick ascension to Offensive Coordinator is rare; even Sean McVay spent six years in lesser roles before becoming the Redskins' OC in 2014.
Many would argue that Kellen's practical coaching experience didn't begin last year. He has been seen as one of the assistant coaches even while playing, with an eventual future in coaching never in doubt.
Jason Garrett has said that Moore won't be thrown into the deep end. Tight Ends coach Doug Nussmeier, who has been the OC with major college programs like Alabama, Florida, and Michigan, is expected to assist Kellen with his duties. Dallas also hired Jon Kitna to bolster the QB coaching, and of course Garrett has plenty of his own experience to contribute.
All that said, you are still asking a 30-year-old to take over as the offensive boss for a team looking to win the Super Bowl. Even if Kellen Moore turns out to be a genius, growing pains with the new coach could affect the Cowboys' play early in the year. Maybe they lose a game or two because the chemistry isn't quite there yet.
Dallas is betting on Moore's innovation and upside as a coordinator, breaking their longtime strategy of going with proven experience. Will it be what pushes them over the hump, or what drives them off a cliff?
2. Backup Quarterback
Let's go back to that 2015 season. The Cowboys had a proven problem, Brandon Weeden, as their primary backup. When Tony Romo went down, they panicked and acquired Matt Cassel. They already knew Weeden wouldn't get the job done, and yet they were fine with him until Romo's injury meant he'd actually have to play.
Four years later, Dallas is taking Cooper Rush and Mike White into training camp to compete for the backup QB job. Neither has a bad track record like Weeden, but they have no record to go by at all.
Let's say that Dak Prescott suffers a Romo-like injury late in the preseason. Will the Cowboys be content to allow Rush or White to run the show, or will they again find themselves trying to scramble and add a veteran?
Neither of those young QBs looked stellar in the 2018 preseason. Maybe they'd improve with first-team talent around them, but that also means facing the other team's starting defenders.
To be fair, most NFL teams don't have a Nick Foles. A major injury at quarterback will derail almost any club's season.
But you can do things to mitigate the risk, and right now the Cowboys seem a little too comfortable with their current depth. Developing young players is great, but you only get so many cracks at a championship before Father Time and NFL economics force you to rebuild.
If Dallas isn't careful, we could wind up bemoaning the lost opportunities of the Dak Prescott Era the same way we do Tony Romo's.
3. Backup Running Back
The logic here is similar to what we just discussed with the quarterbacks. Having suffered for losing Ezekiel Elliott in 2017, should the Cowboys be gambling on their RB depth this season?
Dallas saw what happened when Elliott went out that year. After going 5-3 to start the year, Dallas lost it's next three games when Zeke's suspension finally took effect. Had it not been for the cupcakes that came along in the Redskins, Giants, and Raiders, that losing streak likely would've gone longer.
The Cowboys are arguably thinner now at RB than they were in 2017. Then they had veterans Alfred Morris and Darren McFadden, and Rod Smith was in his third year with the team.
Now Dallas is counting on a pair of rookies, Tony Pollard and Mike Weber, to carry the load if Elliott is somehow lost.
There's good reason to be excited about Pollard. The fourth-round pick has tantalizing athleticism, but also only had 243 offensive touches in his entire college career. Elliott gets over 300 caries in a single year, let alone his receptions.
Pollard may not be able to hold up to being an every-down back, and neither Weber or Darius Jackson may be good enough to be that effective. For a run-focused team like the Cowboys, that's a daunting lack of depth when you're aspiring for a championship.
Ezekiel Elliott is highly durable, but his personal conduct issues are perhaps the bigger concern. His high profile and history with the league office make him an easy target, and give him less cushion.
If something bad happens with Zeke, the Cowboys may wind up kicking themselves for not investing more in his backups.
4. Starting Talent in Secondary
No, the Cowboys didn't sign Earl Thomas this offseason. They also didn't add Eric Berry, Adrian Amos, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, or anyone else who might've been on your safety wish list. They didn't even draft one until the sixth round (Donovan Wilson), leaving the position relatively unchanged from last season.
Dallas did sign veteran George Iloka to hopefully compete with Jeff Heath and Xavier Woods, but he spent last season as a backup in Minnesota. He may be nothing more than a versatile depth option.
At cornerback, Dallas decided to gamble on the third-development of Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis rather than add a more proven corner. Both had sophomore slumps in 2018, and the Cowboys are banking on them getting back to the promise shown as rookies. If not, Anthony Brown is their only recourse at a critical position playing across from Byron Jones.
Pass coverage is just as critical as pass rush in the modern NFL, and the Cowboys were not that strong in the secondary last season. Counting on Awuzie, Lewis, and Woods to all blossom in their third season could be dangerous.
Sometimes you have to take what the draft and free agency options give you. But in this case, Dallas had plenty of opportunities for some immediate upgrades and passed. With Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Carson Wentz, Jared Goff, and others all on the 2019 schedule, the Cowboys will find out fairly quickly if they made the right move.
5. Defensive Tackle
After giving up an embarrassing 273 rushing yards in their playoff loss to the Rams, the Cowboys seemed destined to upgrade the middle of the defensive line. But other than the second-round pick spent on Trysten Hill, Dallas did not add any significant upgrades at defensive tackle.
The Cowboys appear content with the reality that Maliek Collins and Antwaun Woods were both not at 100% in that Rams game, dealing with illness and injury. Considering that Dallas had the fifth-best run defense in the 2018 regular season, it's wise not to overreact to one awful day in January.
But still, that bad day happened. And like we just discussed with safety, Dallas had some opportunities in free agency to add proven players like Gerald McCoy or Ndamukong Suh.
The Cowboys' focus this offseason was re-signing DeMarcus Lawrence and also upgrading the DE position with Robert Quinn. They seem to be hoping that the pressure on the outside, coming from both sides, will make life easier for the defensive tackles.
Maybe Trysten Hill will make an immediate impact, but that is another risky proposition for a Day 2 rookie. The Cowboys are again hoping to get more flavor out of the same basic ingredients, and in the end there's only so much these guys can do.
Sometimes you simply get what you paid for, and the lack of investment in the DT position could once again bite Dallas in the butt.
Cowboys Wishlist: Dress Rehearsal Edition
In the NFL, the third preseason week is often referred to as the "Dress Rehearsal." It's usually the week in which starters get the most playing time. That has changed lately, with plenty of teams deciding to take care of their key players instead of risking them on the field. However, the Dallas Cowboys have played their starters on their first two games and there's no reason to believe that will change versus the Texans today.
Here is my wishlist for the Cowboys vs Texans "Dress Rehearsal!" Let me know what your wishes for tonight's game are in the comments section below or tweet me @MauNFL!
Wish #1: Justin Phillips Locks Up a Roster Spot
Phillips has been one of the most surprising players this offseason and preseason. The Cowboys are set at linebacker, but Phillips has made sure to be a tough guy to cut. Last week, he had a remarkable interception against the Rams. Despite making a first step toward the line, he managed to adjust and made the play. He has followed it up with more plays in practice.
If he keeps it up, the Cowboys won't be able to cut him. He has the potential to be a force on special teams and a quality backup.
Wish #2: Devin Smith Makes Things Interesting
The battle for the final wide receiver spots is at full-go. Devin Smith has shined lately, and has risen as a serious candidate to make the roster. However, it seems like other wide receivers have the upper-hand as of now. Earlier this week, I made my Cowboys WR Power Rankings and had Devin Smith at #7.
His TD catch versus the Rams last week was pretty impressive, and I wish he makes a few more plays to make the debate all the more interesting.
Wish #3: Tony Pollard Does It Again
Fifth-round rookie Tony Pollard
stole was the show last weekend as he racked up 51 total yards (five carries, one catch) and a touchdown on Dallas' first offensive drive. He looked impressive as the starting running back, giving us just what we wanted to see.
While many have advertised him as a gadget player, Pollard proved he can actually be a "standard" RB. He ran between the tackles, showed power, balance and great vision. I'm ready to watch it again, this time versus the Texans.
Wish #4: Taco Charlton Shines Rushing The Passer
Taco Charlton has made a couple of plays in preseason on his third year with the Dallas Cowboys. Against the Rams, he batted down two passes and looked good separating from opposing offensive linemen. Charlton has gotten praise from some analysts during these first two preseason weeks.
But I want to watch some quality pass rush from his part. Right now, the Cowboys' roster counts with some promising players, including rookies Jalen Jelks and Joe Jackson. While they're currently below Taco, he must prove he belongs on the roster.
Cowboys’ Tight End Marcus Lucas with Huge Opportunity vs the Houston Texans
With only two preseason games remaining, opportunities to make a statement are growing thin. The Dallas Cowboys have very few spots on the roster available, especially at the tight end position where Jason Witten, Blake Jarwin, and Dalton Schultz appear to have the depth chart locked down. The problem is, Jarwin and Schultz have been dealing with injuries and missed the second preseason game against the Los Angeles Rams and probably won't play against the Houston Texans tonight.
Enter Marcus Lucas.
Marcus Lucas hasn't been a member of the Dallas Cowboys for very long, but he's already made an impact.
In his first preseason game with the Dallas Cowboys, Lucas caught four passes on four targets for 20 yards. His receptions went for two, seven, five, and six yards for an average of five yards per reception. He did have a holding penalty that cost the Dallas Cowboys 10 yards on a first down play that didn't go anywhere anyway.
Though Lucas has bounced around NFL practice squads, he's never really found a home. After going undrafted in 2014, Lucas was signed by the Carolina Panthers in May of that year but wasn't able to stick on the 53-man roster and was released and placed on the practice squad. In 2015, he was on the Miami Dolphins and Chicago Bears practice squads. In 2016, the Panthers brought him back in the summer after the Bears released him from their 90-man roster. That September after cut-down day, the Seattle Seahawks signed Lucas to their practice squad where he spent all of 2016. From 2017 to the end of 2018, Lucas spent time with the Indianapolis Colts, Oakland Raiders, Detroit Lions, the Seattle Seahawks again, and the San Francisco 49ers. He was with the 49ers in 2019 before joining the Dallas Cowboys about two weeks ago and will get an extended run in these final two preseason games.
At Thursday's practice, Lucas was the only tight end available with Jason Witten getting a rest day and Jarwin, Schultz, and fellow Tight End Cody McElroy dealing with injuries.
With Jason Witten getting a day of rest, Blake Jarwin, Dalton Schultz and Codey McElroy injured, the Cowboys have one tight end practicing today: Marcus Lucas, who has been with the team for about two weeks.
It's possible that Lucas may get an extended amount of playing time tonight with an opportunity to show the Dallas Cowboys and the rest of the NFL that he's ready to land on a 53-man roster. With likely only Jason Witten being the only other tight end active for the game against the Houston Texans, Lucas will get a lot of playing time. If his last preseason exposure is any indication, he'll get the chance to display his receiving prowess.
At 27, Lucas likely has few opportunities left to make his mark for an NFL franchise. On a team that proclaims the "next man up" as a battle cry, after Witten, Lucas is the next man up for tonight and depending on his performance could make the Dallas Cowboys front office or another front office around the league take notice.
Depending on the long-term health of the Dallas Cowboys' tight end position, Lucas may find his path to a roster spot simply dependent upon the health of Blake Jarwin and Dalton Schultz. Though a job may not come with the Dallas Cowboys, tonight is an extremely important audition for his next suitor. How he performs tonight could land Marcus Lucas a job after the Dallas Cowboys trim the roster to 53 next week.
They say "preseason games don't matter," but to Marcus Lucas, this might be the most important game of his career.
Don’t Forget Special Teams Value in Cowboys Roster Decisions
Building a 53-man roster in the NFL is a complex formula, requiring balance between numerous positions on each side of the ball. But what often gets overlooked in our analysis as outsiders is special teams, and that's a huge factor for many of the Dallas Cowboys players hoping to make it past final cuts.
Some players have survived in the league by being just good enough at their listed positions but excelling in special teams roles. You may think of former Dallas safety Bill Bates, who was personally responsible for a special teams player being made part of the annual Pro Bowl roster. A more recent example would be Keith Davis, who was an adequate safety but a special teams ace for several seasons.
To be sure, someone is going to be on this 2019 Cowboys more for their special teams value than their actual offensive or defensive ability. Who might he, or they, be?
One candidate is veteran Cornerback C.J. Goodwin. He is considered an exceptional talent in coverage on punts, which is probably the only reason he's still in the NFL today. At age 29, Goodwin has never really emerged as a consistent contributor on defense.
Young players like Donovan Olumba or rookie Michael Jackson, if not already superior cornerbacks to Goodwin, have far more upside to keep on the roster. But
considering how little they may get on the field anyway as the fifth or sixth corners, you can see why special teams value becomes so important. It may be the only time you actually see them in the game.
If the Cowboys don't want to lose a young prospect but can't let go of Goodwin's special teams ability, it may prompt them to go long at the CB position. But that means taking a roster spot from some other position, and thus the balancing act continues.
Another player to watch in this discussion is second-year an Running Back Jordan Chunn. He doesn't have Alfred Morris' experience or maybe Mike Weber or Darius Jackson's rushing talent, but he has been showing up on the special teams units.
Yesterday, Cowboys insider Bryan Broaddus called Chunn "a better Rod Smith" in analyzing his chances of making the roster. If you don't recall, Jaylon's older brother was a solid RB but a standout special teams player in his few years with Dallas.
As we just mentioned with the 5th/6th CB slots, the third running back is not a guy you expect to see much on offense. That will be especially true this year as Dallas will be struggling just to give rookie Tony Pollard the touches he deserves as the number-two RB.
Given that, special teams play becomes vital for the value of whoever is behind Zeke and Pollard on the depth chart. If Jordan Chunn is superior to his competition in that regard, it could negate whatever he lacks as an actual running back.
This same conversation can be had throughout the roster. It's why Noah Brown might make the team over more traditionally gifted receivers, or why a certain linebacker or safety might be more valued than others.
We make the common mistake of referring to "both sides of the ball" when we talk about football teams. There are three sides; special teams can't be underestimated. It will certainly play a part in how the Dallas Cowboys finalize their 53-man roster this season and in years to come.
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