Players arriving to the Dallas Cowboys' 2021 training camp all have varying degrees of job security. Some who are returning from last year's roster won't necessarily walk on to the next one, and today we're going to look at five 2020 players who can't afford to struggle in camp or preseason.
Ask any football coach and they'll try to convince you that nobody is untouchable. But you and I know better; Dak Prescott, Zack Martin, DeMarcus Lawrence, and others could have horrible camps and still be starting in Week 1.
Not everyone has that luxury, having either never earned benefit of the doubt or having already squandered it. So who falls into that category this year?
1. WR Noah Brown
The Cowboys have gotten good use out of Brown the last four years as just a 7th-Round pick. But while he's been a good special teamer, Noah's never found a consistent role on offense and is still in the precarious position at the bottom of the WR depth chart.
Five of the spots at receiver already feel spoken for. After the Big 3 you have Cedrick Wilson as a proven backup and then 4th-Round rookie Simi Fehoko. Unless Michael Gallup gets traded there doesn't seem much room here for Brown to push upward.
If Dallas only keeps five receivers, which they certainly could, then that would likely be bad news for Brown. But even if they go six there will be several undrafted prospects from the the last few years pushing for that last spot.
Noah has stuck around this long by providing dirty work value as a blocker and on special teams. He will have to do that again in 2021, and perhaps better than ever, to avoid getting squeezed off the roster.
2. DT Trysten Hill
If you can't fathom Dallas parting with a 2nd-Round pick after just two seasons then ask Taco Charlton what he thinks. We have very recent history with 1st-Round guy that proves the Cowboys aren't afraid to cut bait if the situation calls for it.
Hill was starting to turn things around in 2020 after a rough rookie season but was lost for the year with an ACL injury in Week 5. That gave Neville Gallimore more opportunities to step up and take the spotlight as a young prospect heading into this year.
Dallas hit the DT position hard this offseason with veterans Brent Urban and Carlos Watkins plus rookies Osa Odhigizuwa and Quinton Bohanna. With all six of these guys coming to camp there's certainly going to be one, if not two, who don't finally make the roster.
While the Cowboys original investment in Hill is higher than any of these other players, he's also the least fresh of the faces. He was drafted two defensive coordinators ago and clearly the team isn't ready to rely on him. If the next few weeks don't go well, Trsyten could very well end up looking for a new team.
3. LB Leighton Vander Esch
Dallas already publicized their concerns about Vander Esch by not picking up his 5th-year option for 2022. While they've also stated they're still interested in a second contract with him, that will live or die by how Leighton performs this season.
If Vander Esch were to struggle in the upcoming weeks then Dallas could have reason to go ahead and pull the plug. Jaylon Smith is still here and now veteran Keanu Neal has joined the LB group. First-round rookie Micah Parsons and 4th-Rounder Jabril Cox are also expected to contribute early. And there are still intriguing prospects like Francis Bernard, Luke Gifford, and others to potentially round out the depth chart.
Of course, Leighton playing anywhere close to his 2018 level makes him a valuable commodity now and for the future. But at this point he's used up all the goodwill from three years ago and can't afford any more red flags.
It's hard to imagine a guy who made the Pro Bowl in his rookie season washing out a few years later. But we're headed in that direction unless Vander Esch corrects course immediately.
4. CB Anthony Brown
Brown is here to be what he's always been; a steady backup who can manage a larger role if needed. There's no real upside at this point though and that's where the veteran could be in trouble against several younger prospects.
Guys like Trevon Diggs, Kelvin Joseph, and Nahshon Wright are the hoped-for future at the CB position in Dallas. And while his role isn't certain yet, Jourdan Lewis just got a new three-year deal to return to the Cowboys at about the same annual cost as Brown's contract.
Already staring up at those four, Brown also has veteran competition in Maurice Canady and Deante Burton. Plus there's Reggie Robinson, last year's 4th-round pick who is moving back to CB after a year at safety.
Oh, and the team will need a roster spot for special team ace C.J. Goodwin.
The Cowboys know and trust Anthony Brown and would never let him go lightly. But with so many options to pick from this year at cornerback, he can ill afford to struggle in camp or preseason.
5. K Greg Zuerlein
This will be the second year that Zuerlein has been allowed to go into training camp without competition. While it worked out fairly well last year, Greg is 33 and the wheels can come flying off at any point once kickers reach this stage.
Dallas could easily bring a second kicker once we get to Oxnard, with the idea that he's only there to take some reps off of their current veteran. But if Zuerlein were to struggle then that “camp leg” could quickly become something more.
It was just a few years ago that we saw Dan Bailey shockingly released in favor of Brett Maher. While there may not be a clear competitor for Zuerlein's job now, you know John Fassel has several guys on speed dial should a need arise.
Zuerlein can start or stop any wandering eye with he performs over the next two months. He doesn't have to be perfect, as he was far from that in 2020. But if Greg isn't consistent in camp then Dallas will start exploring their options without hesitation.