The Dallas Cowboys are loaded with talent headed into the 2019 season. There will be plenty of competition throughout the roster, both from newly-added players and returning prospects who are continuing their development. At what roster positions could one of these fresh faces potentially steal the job from a returning player?
One new arrival who is quickly asserting himself is Defensive End Kerry Hyder (pictured above). He had eight sacks in 2016 as a 4-3 end for the Detroit Lions. An Achilles injury cost him the entire 2017 season, and then he had a down year when the Lions switched to a 3-4 scheme last year. So far in the offseason practices, Hyder has been one of the standout performers.
While Kerry certainly isn’t going to push DeMarcus Lawrence for a starting job, and will likely begin the year behind veteran Robert Quinn, he does pose a major threat to 2017 1st-round pick Taco Charlton.
Taco is hoping to get back on a good trajectory after a disappointing sophomore year. He needs to make a big push in 2019 to hopefully get Dallas to pick up the fifth-year option on his rookie deal. Being a key rotation player at DE is vital to that goal.
But if Kerry Hyder keep shining this offseason then Charlton may wind up playing third fiddle. He’s already had to miss minicamp and OTAs while recovering from minor surgeries, giving guys like Hyder and Dorance Armstrong chances to fill the void.
Taco will get playing time this year, but what about in the crucial moments of games? How many layers of players will he have to get through to get opportunities when it matters most?
Big moments are when 1st-round picks prove their worth, and Charlton may wind up buried on the sideline. The arrow was already pointing down on Taco’s value, and now the arrival of Kerry Hyder may cause his stock to drop even further.
Another potential job-stealer is Quarterback Mike White. The backup QB the last two seasons has been undrafted Cooper Rush, but White was a 5th-round pick in 2018 who now has a year of experience under his belt.
There have been past years when the Cowboys only kept two quarterbacks on the roster, saving a spot to go long at another position. With a durable starter in Dak Prescott, this seasons feels like a time when Dallas may be pushed to use that strategy again.
Rush and White can battle for the backup job, with the loser probably landing on the practice squad. If things are fairly even between the two, White’s youth, draft status, and the years left on his rookie contract become logical tiebreakers.
But even if the Cowboys plan to keep three QBs, there is still a strong chance that Mike White could push Cooper Rush down the depth chart.
After a dazzling 2017 preseason, Rush failed to repeat in last year’s exhibition games. White actually looked slightly better in his playing time.
The hard part with evaluating preseason performances, though, is factoring for the other talent on the field. The third-string QB generally has less talented players alongside him, but also less talented defenders to contend with. How much does that skew perception?
Ideally, Dak Prescott’s health makes this a non-issue. We never want to see either of the guys play outside of August or some meaningless Week 17 finale.
But if Mike White takes a significant leap in his second year, he could at least push his way into the second-string and the backup QB role.
Back to defense, where a veteran linebacker in his prime could oust a guy who was contemplating retirement. 28-year-old LB Joe Thomas, who was a surprise in his strong play last year as a reserve, may push for more opportunities this year.
Sean Lee returned for 2019 and even accepted a pay cut to do so, but Father Time could still have a say in matters. While the Cowboys will give Lee plenty of deference given his legacy, there is a limit if Sean simply doesn’t have the tools anymore to be a consistent playmaker.
Joe Thomas has shown that potential. He also has the athleticism to play in the nickel and other passing situations, which is where the majority of snaps are in the modern NFL.
Of course, Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch are still the top dogs at linebacker. But what we could see is Thomas becoming the next man up in the rotation, or even pushing for a spot as the third LB in the base defense.
We all want to see Sean Lee have a great season. Like with Jason Witten at tight end, having these longtime leaders back in 2019 to help the Cowboys push for a title is a great story. If Dallas can have a glorious year then we’d love for these guys to have played significant part.
But it could turn out that, to be the best team possible, the Cowboys will have to turn to younger talent. Joe Thomas is one of those guys who has flashed potential in limited opportunities, and holding on to the memory of Sean Lee may wind up costing Dallas in the long run.
Some situations, like the one we just discussed at linebacker, still allow for both players to make the team. But others are more likely to push the loser right off the roster. That’s the danger that veteran Wide Receiver Tavon Austin faces thanks to rookie Running Back Tony Pollard.
How does a RB threaten the job security of a WR? It’s an unusual situation because both are unusual players. And it also has a lot to do with every NFL team’s melting pot, Special Teams.
Last year, Dallas signed Austin to be a multi-purpose tool on both offense and in the return game. We heard him discussed as a WR who could be deployed all over the field and even the third RB. Injuries limited his use in 2018, but we did Tavon shine toward the end of the year on punt returns.
Tony Pollard, the Cowboys’ 4th-round pick this year, comes in with a similar expectation of versatility. While a RB by trade, he has strong receiving skills and has been compared to players like Alvin Kamara and Darren Sproles. He also was a prolific kick returner in college.
Assuming that Pollard can also handle punt returning, does the Cowboys really need Tavon Austin at that point?
While having two versatile players is a good thing, the 53-man roster limit makes it hard to carry redundant offensive specialists. It seems likely that Tony Pollard’s arrival will mean a quick end to Austin’s time with the Cowboys.
Our fifth and final potential job-change is at safety, where veteran George Iloka could wind up starting over the incumbent Jeff Heath. Dallas signed Iloka as a free agent this year, and his 79 career starts in seven seasons suggests he has the ability to challenge Heath.
Iloka was a full-time starter for five years with the Cincinnati Bengals. Last season, he was cut in August due to his high cap hit and quickly signed with the Minnesota Vikings. He didn’t get to play much behind Pro Bowler Harrison Smith and the other tenured safeties.
Dallas signed Iloka this year in a budget-conscience move rather than going for the splash signing in Earl Thomas. At worst, he will be a versatile reserve with ample experience. But he has the ability to start, and the Cowboys should allow him to compete for one of those jobs.
With Xavier Woods’ star on the rise, it’s Jeff Heath who is at risk. While he’s been solid these last two years as a starter, Heath still has more coverage breakdowns than you’d like to see. He’s capable of making some exceptional individual plays at times, but those don’t outweigh the overall liability.
Last year was Heath’s first with new Defensive Backs Coach Kris Richard so perhaps he will step up his game in 2019. But Iloka has the size at 6’4″ that Richard covets, and Dallas didn’t sign him for nothing.
While all of these will be intriguing camp battles to watch, Heath and Iloka’s may be the important because it impacts a starting position. Both guys will likely play a fair bit, with whoever doesn’t start being the primary reserve and capable of playing either free or strong safety.
But if George can move ahead of Jeff onto the first-team defense, it should mean an upgrade in the secondary for the Cowboys in 2019. Game in, game out and from play to play, that can have a significant impact.