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.
Current 2021 Quarterbacks:
Garrett Gilbert, Cooper Rush, Ben DiNucci
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.
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.
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.
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.
Current 2021 Offensive Linemen:
Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, La'el Collins
Connor Williams, Tyler Biadasz, Brandon Knight
Connor McGovern, Terence Steele, Adam Redmond
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.