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Building Cowboys 2021 Roster w/ Current Contracts Only: Offense

It’s become an annual exercise of mine, before the flurry of offseason activity begins, to try to build a roster for the upcoming season based on current contracts only. While the Dallas Cowboys will be adding many news faces over the next few months via free agency and the draft, plus re-signing some of their existing own talent, this is a good way to see where the team’s biggest holes are and what their offseason priorities should be.

2020 gave us some new rules to deal when it comes to roster math. In response to the pandemic the NFL allowed teams to have 1-2 extra players on the roster and active on game days. But still, the traditional base number of 53 players applied.

That’s the number we will work with now. And right away, let’s subtract three from it to account for the kicker, punter, and long snapper. That means we need to find 50 players to build an offense and defense for the Cowboys in 2021.

Today, we’ll focus on the offense.

Garrett Gilbert Shows Promise and Poise in First NFL Start
Dallas Cowboys QB Garrett Gilbert

Current 2021 Quarterbacks:
Garrett Gilbert, Cooper Rush, Ben DiNucci

Yikes!

You didn’t need this article to tell you what the Cowboys’ top offseason priority is. Getting Dak Prescott under contract is vital to any and every goal that Dallas has for the foreseeable future.

But with that comes the underrated problem of Andy Dalton’s free agency. We saw last season that Dalton can still perform when the team around him is solvent. He isn’t close to the weapon that Prescott is but could lead a viable playoff-worthy offense if his front line isn’t in tatters again.

In this nightmare scenario of neither Prescott, Dalton, or some newcomer starting at QB for Dallas in 2021, the battle between DiNucci, GIlbert, and Rush for the job would be equal parts fascinating and horrifying.

We saw Gilbert look like a competent NFL QB for one day last year against the Steelers. That was far more impressive at the time when Pittsburgh was still undefeated, but the next few months showed the Steelers were a mirage. In retrospect, their decline had already begun when they nearly lost to the depleted Cowboys.

Speaking of the unimpressive, Ben DiNucci certainly didn’t wow us in his one start the week before against the Eagles. But The Nooch only looked like you’d expect a 7th-round rookie from JMU to look in his first real game. Who knows what the future holds?

We’ve never had a chance to see Cooper Rush get significant playing time despite his four seasons with the Cowboys. They cut him in favor of Dalton and DiNucci last year and only re-signed him later in the season due to injuries, so it doesn’t feel like he’d be a factor now.

Again, nobody really expects the QB position to come down to these guys in 2021. At best, perhaps Gilbert or DiNucci ascend to the primary backup role if Dalton ends up moving elsewhere.

But clearly, quarterback is the biggest issue for the Dallas Cowboys roster this offseason. They need to get Dak Prescott or at least some other viable NFL starter under contract if they have any hope of competing in 2021.

Thankfully, the rest of the offensive roster isn’t nearly this complicated.

Ezekiel Elliott, Tony Pollard
Dallas Cowboys RBs Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard

Current 2021 Running Backs:
Ezekiel Elliott, Tony Pollard, Rico Dowdle
Jamize Olawale (FB)

The Cowboys could stand pat at RB and be just fine for next season. While they’ll certainly tinker and churn the bottom of the roster, and perhaps look at a new fullback, they could be content going into 2021 with the current crew.

Concerns about Zeke’s long-term viability as the starting RB, especially given his massive contract, are valid after a rough 2020 season. But once Connor Williams became the Cowboys’ most experienced offensive lineman on the field there wasn’t much hope for Elliott, Pollard, or even a time-warped JIm Brown to have success.

Dallas’ offseason strategy will be rightly focused on getting a quarterback and getting the offensive line back to health and prosperity. At that point, Elliott will get a shot at redemption and the team will have a much clearer picture of where he’s at in his career.

The depth behind Zeke is also solid for the next campaign. Tony Pollard similarly struggled with the offensive line issues but remains a capable and potentially explosive player. Rico Dowdle got few touches on offense but did show up nicely on special teams, but as a kick returner and in coverage duties. He’s a virtual lock for the RB3 at this point.

The fullback position is intriguing after Jamize Olawale opted-out of the 2020 season under the NFL’s COVID-19 policy. If the pandemic is still prevalent later this year, could Olawale choose health over football again?

Dallas may elect to bypass this question completely by finding a new fullback for 2021. They also still have Sewo Olonilua, an undrafted free agent last year, as a potential FB option. He spent most of 2020 on the practice squad but did get called up to the active roster for a few games.

Amari Cooper's Snap Count Continues to Decrease Since Week 1
Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Amari Cooper (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

Current 2021 Wide Receivers:
Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, CeeDee Lamb
Jon’Vea Johnson, Aaron Parker

The ballyhooed top three are intact for at least one more season before Gallup becomes a free agent. But the depth behind them could take a big hit in 2021 unless the Cowboys make some moves to keep or add talent.

Cedrick Wilson is set to become a restricted free agent after three seasons with the Cowboys. His original rookie deal was negated when Dallas didn’t take him past final cuts in 2019, but since then Wilson has developed into an intriguing prospect.

The Cowboys will likely bring back Cedrick back next year both for WR depth and his return ability on special teams. But perhaps his greatest asset, if they can sign him to more than a one-year deal, is to provide insurance against Gallup’s potential departure in 2022 free agency.

Noah Brown is becoming a free agent now as his rookie deal expires. He did enough with limited opportunities in 2020 that the Cowboys could be motivated to bring him back and shouldn’t have any bidding wars to worry about. His size, strength, and blocking skills give him distinct value both in certain offensive packages and on special teams.

The cupboard isn’t well stocked if Wilson and Brown don’t return next year. The best known of the remaining WR prospects is Jon’Vea Johnson, who hasn’t ever developed despite a lot of hype from the 2019 training camp. He’s not someone you’d want at WR4 based on what we’ve seen so far.

I put Aaron Parker in the last spot but only because of the limited positive information that came out about him during last year’s camp. But those 4th and 5th spots at WR are definitely wide open based on the current options.

Blake Jarwin
Cowboys TE Blake Jarwin

Current 2021 Tight Ends:
Blake Jarwin, Dalton Schultz, Sean McKeon

The Cowboys have a good outlook for 2021 with Jarwin and Schultz set to return. They stand to lose Blake Bell from the depth chart if they don’t re-sign him, but that top two mitigates a lot of concern about the rest of the position.

That said, Bell wasn’t just any old depth guy. He contributed both as a big-bodied target in the passing game and as a blocker, having served as Travis Kelce’s backup with the 2019 Super Bowl Champions.

Dallas has two young TE prospects in Sean McKeon and Cole Hikutini already under contract for next season. McKeon, an undrafted free agent last year, was carried on the official roster in 2020 due to fears that he’d be lost on waivers. However, he never saw much action despite being active for 14 games.

The Cowboys clearly see some value in McKeon to have used a roster spot on him throughout last season. Unless they end up re-signing Bell or adding a new TE to the mix through the draft or free agency, McKeon may be their ready replacement on the depth chart.

Of course, there’s always Kyle Pitts.

Cowboys Tyron Smith, Zack Martin Named to All-Decade Team for 2010s
Cowboys OT Tyron Smith & G Zack Martin

Current 2021 Offensive Linemen:
Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, La’el Collins
Connor Williams, Tyler Biadasz, Brandon Knight
Connor McGovern, Terence Steele, Adam Redmond
Isaac Alarcon

Dallas may not keep 10 offensive linemen in 2021 but you could understand it given how last season went. At one point they were down to Connor Williams as the only original starter on the field as injuries rocked the group throughout the year.

The Cowboys stand to lose veteran depth in Joe Looney and Cam Erving as free agents. But Erving never really showed much value this year given his own injuries, plus Brandon Knight looked like an adequate swing tackle option with more youth and upside. Plus, if the team still thinks Terence Steele has potential then there isn’t much need for Erving to return.

Losing Looney would hurt far more given his experience with the team, locker room presence, and versatility as a guard and center. However, Tyler Biadasz has claimed the starting job by midseason and Connor McGovern has similar versatility as a backup. Dallas could bring Joe back if he’s not looking for much money, but they may finally let the veteran walk after five seasons and at 30 years old.

Still, last year’s injury woes will put a premium on quality depth next season. While pieces like Knight and McGovern may be okay for 2021, Dallas would be wise to explore upgrades from the likes of Steele and Adam Redmond.

As I discussed last week, a tough decision is facing the team this offseason regarding Tyron Smith. If they’ve lost faith in his ability to stay on the field then the Cowboys can find better uses for all of the salary cap space that he occupies.

Making a move on Smith would certainly intensify the focus on the entire offensive line this offseason. It could vault offensive tackle to the top of Dallas’ draft board or lead to a significant free agent move to add a new starter.

I do believe Dallas will hold for one more year on Tyron’s contract to see if he can bounce back after surgery. Smith is still one of the best in the game if healthy and available and a bargain at his current cap hit, so long as he’s actually playing.

This position is the hardest to analyze right now because we don’t know how Smith and Collins are faring right now with their health. Frankly, we don’t even know how the Cowboys feel about Connor Williams as a starting guard in 2021 given his continued struggles at the position.

You could make a case that it was the offensive line issues, even more than Dak Prescott’s injury, which cost the Cowboys the NFC East and a playoff appearance in 2020. Even if you disagree with that, there’s no debating that this will be a key area of concern for the team during the upcoming offseason.

What do you think?

Jess Haynie

Written by Jess Haynie

Cowboys fan since 1992, blogger since 2011. Bringing you the objectivity of an outside perspective with the passion of a die-hard fan. I love to talk to my readers, so please comment on any article and I'll be sure to respond!

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  1. I would much rather have Dalton at 8 to 10 mil than Dak at 38 to 40 mil that is around 30 mil that could be spent on defense which I believe would offset the difference in production between the two QB because Dak is good but not Special

  2. I agree Don that we need to find a cheaper QB than Dak , but i’m not sure about AD, first off i think there’s gonna be a lot of teams interested in bringing him in as a bridge QB to like start and have a rookie sit behind him, so the price tag might go up some if that’s the case, but there again maybe that’s what we need to do, as I’ve said in other articles, IMO they should franchise tag Dak and see if he’s worth that kind of money he’s asking, there’s NO EXCUSE with a much better team and with this bad division that we shouldn’t at least win division and I think 1 playoff win. If he doesn’t win division or we barely win and don’t win a playoff game then i think move off him next year , bring in a cheap vet and draft a QB in next year’s draft, my two cents is that Dak is a tier 2 QB and not a top 10 QB and certainly not top 5 like the amount of money he’s wanting suggests, the Vikings paid Kirk Cousins and look at the Vikings now, they’re losing guys and they’re wasting valuable years of D Cook, the Rams paid Goff, which i sort of get that cuz at least he got his team to a super bowl before he got paid, but look at them now, they will probably move off him this year or maybe next year, the 49ers paid Jimmy G before they got to the Super Bowl but the reason they got there is cuz of the fact they hit on all there picks and sold out to get there by overpaying guys to offset it but there again they lost cuz of Jimmy G missing that deep throw to Deebo in the End Zone, and now there’s talks of them moving off him this year, Carson Wentz got paid and look at them now, he got benched for Hurts, there’s a recurring theme going on with these teams who overpay their QBs and if the cowboys do the same then they’ll probably end up doing the same as these teams wishing they didn’t pay these guys that kind of money

  3. Offense looks to be in pretty good shape if the O-line injured come back well, and some tweaking. Obviously, the Cowboys have to figure out what to do with their QB position. Do they pay DP stupid, highly inflated money or go with Dalton and/or Gilbert and draft a rookie early to groom for a year or maybe less?

    I would opt for the latter. IMO, after his five year audition, DP has not shown the potential to get us to the big show. On top of that, add in his persistent resistance to actually SIGN a contract after numerous generous attempts, that gives one pause, and may not help with continuity with the team as a whole. TEAM COMES FIRST!

    Younger QBs are passing him by, ie Mahomes, Jackson, etc. Throwing good money after bad, hanging another HUGE albatross contract around their necks, with the prospect of not getting the big payoff in the end, and may only help to keep us in mediocrity. Of course there is risk drafting a top college QB, but recently, especially when looking a Burrow and Herbert, it may be the smart way to go.

  4. That’s the thing, agents are the ones empowering these QBs that aren’t worth the kind of money they’re getting so that not only do they benefit from their client getting a bigger deal but they set the bar higher for these QBs THAT DO deserve that kind of money so now they’re getting more cuz they look at these QBs who are not as good as them and the inflation of the cap , so like with Dak, he gets 35-40 mil, well the next guy like Lamar Jackson can say i want 45-50 mil and he’ll get it a lot easier if guys like Dak or other tier 2 QBs keep coming up on salary, so does these true tier 1 QBs contracts, it’s all about money $$$

  5. @VAM and Josh Allen , Mahomes, and Jackson as of recency as they were all considered “PROJECTS” when they were drafted at 7th , 10th and 32nd picks respectively

  6. Agree TUTX88, these contracts are getting out of control. Greedy agents and, and to be honest, greedy players, are at the root of this spiraling money grab. Also, websites like Spotrac are almost dictating to owners how much they should pay their players. How in the world does that happen? There is something totally wrong about an INTERNET WEBSITE having ANY kind of power in the negotiations between an employer and an employee. Big Tech, in general, is getting way to much power in even the everyday lives of ordinary folks. You see it in the way people having certain viewpoints are being censored by google, twitter, facebook, etc.

  7. Okay guys I’ll bite, but let’s talk specifics not generalities. No let’s get rid of Dak and just go get another QB.

    Dalton is likely out as thorowup88 said. So are we rolling with Gilbert next year and drafting a QB in the upcoming draft? Okay with which pick? The #10 pick will absolutely go to a defensive player, in fact the first three picks should go to defense. So what QB and when? Even if we were to draft a QB with our #44 pick (which we won’t) it would be a 2nd or 3rd tier QB, and the bust rate for that would be high.

    The premise u are suggesting is roll with a back up level QB and draft one that will start the first or second year right? So given the fact that a Gilbert or any other retread FA is taking us nowhere, ur banking on this drafted QB to eventually get us to the playoffs and beyond right?

    Again what QB? When are you gonna draft him? Our top picks this year have to go towards fixing this atrocious defense. Where are you gonna get this QB? You can degrade Dak all you want but ur premise is totally dependent on drafting a QB and that QB being better then Dak. Sounds easy to get rid of Dak till you actually dig into the alternatives. When do you draft this QB? What QB? When do we draft him?

    Just playing devils advocate here. Gotta have a concrete plan or plans in place before u kick Dak to the curb.

  8. Incidentally I too have questions as to whether Dak is worth that type of money and i have no idea whether he is capable of taking us to the playoffs and beyond. I hope he is. If a better plan was out there i would sure feel better about moving on from him.

    But as always all that matters is what Jerry wants. It’s likely he resigns Dak, so we might all need to resign ourselves to that fact and work from that premise.

  9. If we want someone like Dak I’m sure we can swing a trade to move up to #2. Let’s say package the #10 pick and the Jets choice of either Gallup or Cooper for starters and see what happens. And then we can choose Justin Fields. Then you do the transition tag for Dak where whoever signs him has to fork up 2 1sts for him

  10. JUSTIN- all due respect but u sorta of illustrate my point. It’s highly unlikely we trade up into the #2 slot. And it’s doubtful a trade happens as well. It doesn’t matter what us fans think SHOULD happen, it only matters what is doable and what Jerry might do. Throwing out scenarios that have a 5% chance of happening are an exercise in futility.

    Again- I understand Dak is no Mahomes or Brady but there are only a handful of QBs in that upper tier. I also understand that Dak may not be worth that money. But teams generally do overpay for their QB due to the importance of the position. If ur gonna overpay for a position QB is the one. Not RB for a washed up Zeke or LB for a gimpy underperforming J Smith.

    As far as the contract goes, how many players can u name that didn’t try to get the max amount they could get on their 1st contract? VERY FEW so yea u can say Dak is being greedy but then so is every other player that ever chased that 1st big max contract. Players will at times give the team a discount on their 2nd or 3rd contract but rarely the 1st one.

    The cowboys have some hard decisions to make, and regardless of what us fans may think, there is no clear cut solution. All come with risks and concerns.

  11. You’re right Gary b on the fact that we need to spend this year’s picks on D, that’s why i said they should franchise tag him which i mean that might happen , if Jerry was sold on Dak they’d give him the contract he wants LONG AGO, now will he eventually give in is a different story, but with my idea of franchise tagging him , we can see what he looks like after his bad injury, and with a better D and hopefully somewhat healthy O-Line and Ceedee with a year under his belt , and in a AWFUL division we’ll see what Dak can do, and as i just saw on a new article on here, we got the Chiefs and the Bucs on schedule for next year, if he can hang with those teams and win division and i think maybe one playoff game then sign him, but if he gets blown out by those teams , barely wins division and doesn’t win a playoff game then move off him , we’ll know by then which QBs in the draft that we could take if we sell out to go and trade up in next year’s draft, and roll with him and a cheap vet , we’ll save a TON of money which will kind of amend the BAD contracts we already got and we’ll be able to bring good quality free agents

    Now as you said Gary b , will Jerry do that ? More than likely not because of the fact that he’s a businessman , even though a quite a few of us on here is willing to move off Dak , the fan base as a whole i don’t think agrees on getting rid of Dak , and so Jerry will think about the ramifications of getting rid of Dak, like how would that effect ticket sales , selling of merch , and how would the fan base react to that ? But now for me who isn’t worrying about those things I believe this is the BEST ROUTE TO GO, and just cuz the rest of the league is reaching and overpaying there QBs THAT DOESN’T MEAN WE HAVE TO TOO

    THERE’S ANOTHER WAY JERRY

  12. The Cowboys and JJ reportedly offered Dak 5 years 175 million which would amount to 35 mill a year last year , my guess is that’s the cowboys stretching as far as they want to and that they like us on here thinks he’s worth like 30 and Dak wants more than that 35 . If he wants just 35 then we would’ve got a deal done and if Jerry was sold on Dak he’d reach a bit and give Dak 40 so i think they aren’t sold on him and 35 is them reaching and that’s why there isn’t a deal yet

  13. To put it more simply

    the cowboys think Dak’s worth 30 mill

    Dak thinks he’s worth 40 mill

    the cowboys tried to meet in the middle with Dak at 35 mill

    Dak isn’t budging

    cowboys ain’t willing to give up anymore cuz they think that 35 is too much

    And so this is why there isn’t a deal

  14. Pretty fair post throwup88 and I agree with much of what you said (surprise). I too think this is a prove it year for Dak, and would think he needs to win the division and win at least one playoff game to silence the critics.

    Now I don’t believe the cowboys will tag Dak again. It wouldn’t be a good business decision for Jerry. One it would create even more animosity and financially 37 million is alot to pay him for what could turn out to be a one year rental. If Dak chooses he could just walk after next year and choose where he wants to play from several different suitors., and the cowboys get no compensation and have no QB.

    Lastly the cowboys don’t think Dak is only worth 30 million, nor does anyone else. That’s a low ball figure. What he is worth doesn’t really matter. What matters is what Jerry will ultimately have to pay him to sign. Likely it is closer to 40 mil then 35. Is Dak worth that? Maybe not but that is yet to be determined. Again players almost always hold out for the max pay out on their first contract. Why is Dak demonized for doing what every other player does?

    As you said the cowboys have never been completely sold on Dak and because of that they missed out on signing him earlier for less. Is that their fault? Who knows it is what it is and here we are.

    Moving forward hopefully the cowboys can shed themselves of dead weight and poor signings such as Zeke and J Smith and continue to develop their young players as well as nailing this next draft with their 10 picks.

  15. You make fair points and the problem with my idea of franchising him is that if he does go off and plays good next season , he gonna want the sun and the moon for his contract , all i want is what is what every cowboys fan wants , a Super Bowl , and with Dak I hope i’m wrong but i just don’t see that in him, i’ll root for Dak and the cowboys still , it’s just that i can’t see that happening and that’s why i’m ready to move on now rather than find out he isn’t that guy, and we end up stuck with him and have to wait another 4-6 years for the cowboys to move on like i said hope i’m wrong but in all likelihood he gonna be signed to a big contract and we’ll see what he’s made of

  16. Y’all don’t have a clue saying don’t sign Dak. There are very few tier 1 QB in the league, but Lamar isn’t one of them cause he is one dimensional as it showed in a lot of games this year. It could be the coaching or him when his first read is not there he immediately pull the ball down and look to run. Yet as recently as last year y’all was saying that Big Ben, Matt Ryan, Drew Brees (two years ago yes), Deshaun Watson, Goff (going to Super Bowl don’t make you elite) were tier 1 quarterbacks. Now let me hear y’all justify them being tier 1 or elite QBs and see how it sound like the same reason why Dak is not. You can put some of the blame on bad play calling on offense. Take the 2019 season for instance when Kellen Moore was in his first year as OC. In the first few games he used a lot motion and the offense was potent, then they went back to their old style of offense (Jason Garrett). When they went back to the Kellen Moore offense against the Rams we blew them out. So don’t just out the negative with Dak and not the play calling. Y’all tend to do the same about Zeke without pointing out the different variables such as stacked boxes, y’all don’t point out the missed blocks by some of our All Pro OL, like when Fletcher Cox trucked Zack Martin or Tyron Smith gets beat, but Zeke still manage to break at least 85% of the first tackles and still manage to get back LOS or positive yards.

  17. I’m with you CFS1981. Don’t understand the problem with Zeke’s contract. I think he’s worth it. Maybe Dak’s agent is being unreasonable since none of his player on the franchise tag signed long term contracts last year. What is exactly “Dak’s money” since I keep hearing about how the cowboys should pay Dak “his money” or “the Cowboys need to pay Dak’. He got paid pretty well last yr. I think 5yrs that avg 37mil a year is more than fair.

  18. We need to sign Dak and trade him get a couple extra picks trade up a couple spots and draft Justin Feilds he better then Trevor Lawrence draft a CB In the 2round

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