The Dallas Cowboys have had two weeks of training camp and, as of last night, one preseason game to help bring some clarity to the 2016 roster.
I released a 53-man roster projection as training camp started, which you can view here. There have been several developments, both with injuries and performances, that have changed the landscape. Here's where I'm at today:
QB: Tony Romo, Dak Prescott (2)
CHANGES: Removed Kellen Moore
Moore's lower leg fracture will keep him out until at least late into the regular season, with some speculating he can't return at all. Dallas can put him on Injured Reserve and has the option of bringing him back sometime after Week 8.
If Prescott keeps playing like he did last night, though, Moore will be forgotten. The big question will be if they want to keep Jameil Showers on the active roster or are happy with him on the practice squad again. So long as Prescott keeps playing at that high level, I think Dallas will just keep the two quarterbacks and use the roster spot elsewhere.
RB: Ezekiel Elliott, Alfred Morris, Lance Dunbar, Darius Jackson (4)
Darren McFadden's future remains in question as he's still recovering from a fractured elbow. Morris is getting valuable time with the first unit while Elliott nurses a hamstring injury. The more Morris shows, the more McFadden's value drops.
The guy I'm least sure about on this list is Dunbar. I just don't know if there will be the same opportunities for him in 2016 that he was getting early last year. Elliott is a good receiver and now we're seeing Lucky Whitehead used in some of the ways that Dunbar was.
Still, Dallas knew about Dunbar's injury and chose to re-sign him anyway. They clearly want him around for something.
FB: Rod Smith (1)
CHANGES: Added Rod Smith
Two weeks ago I projected that Dallas wouldn't have any fullback. However, last night we saw Smith being used to lead block and even take a pass out of the backfield. His versatility to serve as a bruising tailback, blocker, and even a receiving option is a textbook way to make a team.
WR: Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley, Brice Butler
Lucky Whitehead (5)
I was ready to add Andy Jones to this list before last night's game, based on the hype coming out of Oxnard. But then he had two bad drops against the Rams.
Jones isn't the first receiver prospect to make noise in training camp. Through the years there's always seemed to be one standout WR who gets talked about a lot, but then doesn't show up much in preseason and never makes the team. Jones started down that road last night.
Obviously, there's plenty of time for him to turn it around. There are also other guys who could make their own push for a roster spot.
TE: Jason Witten, Gavin Escobar
James Hanna, Geoff Swaim (4)
Hanna was a surprising addition to the PUP list when camp started. He is having knee soreness but could be back very soon.
Last night was rough for Swaim, who had two drops on easy passes but then redeemed himself a little with a contested catch later. Like Andy Jones, Swaim was getting a lot of praise in camp but did not live up to it in Los Angeles.
Rico Gathers was nowhere to be seen last night, and there's probably a reason for that. I would guess that Dallas is hoping to sneak him to the practice squad.
OT: Tyron Smith, Doug Free, Cam Bradfield, Chaz Green (4)
CHANGES: Moved Green from G to OT
Nobody had a worse night in Los Angeles than Chaz Green. Starting at left tackle while Tyron Smith got a night off, Green drew several penalties and was getting beaten often. Oddly enough, his best play came early in the game against the Rams' better players. That speaks to a conditioning problem.
Green is still like a rookie in many ways. He missed all of last year's camp and preseason with a hip injury suffered in college. He got some practices in last last year but this was his first true offseason with the team.
Dallas will show the former third-round pick some patience, but last night told me he likely won't be ready to serve as the swing tackle. That means Bradfield, or some other veteran they bring in, will probably have the job in 2016.
G: Zack Martin, La'el Collins
Ron Leary (3)
A trade partner for Leary could still emerge as teams suffer injuries or start to get worried about what they have at guard. For now, there's no indication that the Cowboys are actively trying to move him.
If Chaz Green continues to struggle at tackle then we may see him end up back at guard. He was seeing some practice time there last year.
C: Travis Frederick, Joe Looney (2)
If any of the young offensive line prospects can make the team, it might be center Jake Brendel. We saw him playing there last night while Looney was used at guard. This could be Dallas' fallback plan if they do end up trading Leary.
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Just to quickly recap, we've used 25 of the 53 roster spots on the offense. The major swing factors are the decisions to keep or not keep a third quarterback, a true fullback, Lance Dunbar, and Chaz Green. Everything else feels fairly locked in.
Let's move on to the defense.
DE: Benson Mayowa, David Irving
Ryan Russell, Charles Tapper
Shaneil Jenkins (5)
CHANGES: Added Jenkins
Mayowa will have to prove that he's a starter once he comes off the PUP list, which should be any day now. I am still deferring to him based on what the Cowboys paid to sign him.
Jenkins, just added last week, had the team's only sack last night. That's not enough to necessarily make the team, but for now it's enough to separate him from the pack. He's like Jack Crawford in terms of being strong enough to play inside but also athletic enough to play on the end.
DT: Tyrone Crawford, Terrell McClain, Cedric Thornton, Jack Crawford (4)
CHANGES: Moved J. Crawford from DE to DT
Removed Rodney Coe
If Maliek Collins can heal up quickly enough for Week One, he'll take the roster spot I gave to Shaneil Jenkins. I still think he will begin the year on PUP, though.
McClain has been starting with the first team defense in the base formation. We will see plenty of Thornton throughout the year, though, and likely on all third-and-long plays. I could see Thornton getting more total snaps in 2016.
LB: Sean Lee, Anthony Hitchens
Kyle Wilber, Justin Durant
Andrew Gachkar, Mark Nzeocha
Damien Wilson (7)
Gachkar's thumb injury shouldn't hold him out beyond the preseason. Even if the young guys blossom in his absence, he's still a core special teams player and I expect he will make the team.
Nzeocha was arguably the defensive MVP last night. He seemed to be involved in almost every play and had the interception. I think he's making the team and may be a key reserve backup over some of his more experienced teammates.
CB: Orlando Scandrick, Morris Claiborne, Brandon Carr, Deji Olatoye
Anthony Brown (5)
The last two weeks have only helped Olatoye and Brown separate themselves from the pack. Brown has been a bright spot in camp and will likely be the slot cornerback if something were to happen to Scandrick.
Last night, Olatoye showed the same playmaking potential that he flashed last last season. He hauled in one pick and nearly had another. Throw in his size (6'1, 205 lbs) and he gives the Cowboys a type of corner they haven't had in a while.
S: Byron Jones, Barry Church
Jeff Heath, Kavon Frazier
Last night you J.J. Wilcox's career in a microcosm. He took bad angles and failed to make tackles on a few plays, but then also broke up a long pass with a big hit on the receiver.
Wilcox has gifts but just can't seem to develop them. He's the same player that he was 2-3 years ago. Unless there's a major injury to Heath or Frazier, I think they will finally let him go.
ST: Dan Bailey (K), Chris Jones (P), L.P. Ladouceur (LS)
Matt Wile was being used as a punter last night but only to save Jones' leg and avoid injury. These three positions are set.
~ ~ ~
There's really no player I feel bad leaving off the defense right now. That makes this fairly easy and give me confidence in the picks, but there's still time for that to change.
I will be releasing a new projection each week following the preseason games. The first round of cuts are due on August 30th and the final deadline is September 3rd. Dallas will play their fourth preseason game in between.
Despite Late Push as Rookie, Will Taco Charlton Struggle to See Field in 2018?
It feels like ages ago that the Dallas Cowboys spent the 28th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft on Michigan Defensive End Taco Charlton. Perhaps this is a result of the constant distancing fans have made from this unpopular pick, or the corresponding moves the Cowboys have made at DE since drafting Charlton.
These moves include using the franchise tag on DeMarcus Lawrence after seeing him explode for 14.5 sacks, spending a fourth round pick this year on Kansas' Dorance Armstrong, and seeing Randy Gregory reinstated in time for training camp.
Across the entirety of the Cowboys roster, there will be plenty of "odd men out" that miss the cut down to 53 players. Defensive end remains one of the most cluttered spots on the current 90 man roster however.
Prior to establishing the depth the Cowboys now have up front on defense, they did Taco no favors by starting his career at right defensive end. While Gregory may still be a long way from earning the starting role here, similarly styled players like Armstrong have the edge here over Charlton.
This relegates Charlton to the strong side, where he always projected best out of college. By the time the Cowboys realized this a season ago, they also knew a franchise pass rusher was playing his way into the team's long-term plans.
Lawrence's stellar consistency off the edge reduced Charlton's role in the Cowboys rotation of pass rushers. An ideal spot for the rookie to develop with less pressure on him, Charlton's opportunities to continue playing left end may only be reduced this season.
The first-round pick is capable of kicking inside at defensive tackle, a position the Cowboys could certainly use help at. However, asking Charlton to go through another position shift would only halt the progress that took quite a bit of patience from Dallas to see.
It's far from unheard of for the Cowboys to do this with their young players, but for now Charlton remains a defensive end looking to make his impact. The Cowboys are in much better position now than they were at this time a year ago when it comes to setting expectations for him to do so.
Given everything he showed on tape at Michigan as well as in his pre-draft interviews, Charlton is a player that needs to succeed at the task at hand. When this plan is altered, the 6'6" pass rusher is much less effective -- without even considering any athletic struggles that Charlton has compared to other prototypes at defensive end.
As a unit, the Cowboys defensive line has all the pieces to be very effective this season. Taco Charlton is a piece to this puzzle, a backup left end that must find a way to flourish in this role.
For most former 28th overall picks, doing so would be considered a fall from grace. For the Cowboys, it's simply an example of strong roster building that's forced life to come at Charlton quickly. How he responds with a full season under his belt will make or break the hype this deep Cowboys defensive line has garnered, lead of course by the starter at Charlton's position in DeMarcus Lawrence.
Cowboys OT La’el Collins Could Become Major Bargain
When you talk Cowboys offensive line, you always think of Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin first. Right Tackle La'el Collins still has to prove he belongs in the same sentence with his elite teammates. If he does that in 2018, Collins could become one of the best bargains on the roster.
Making the move from left guard to right tackle last year, Collins improved with time and was playing his best football at the end of the year. This was despite ongoing back issues that had him on the injury report most weeks.
La'el started all 16 games at right tackle and did enough that the Cowboys committed to keeping him there in 2018, even despite a big hole back at left guard. They are hoping consistency and stability will allow Collins to really blossom this season, building on the strong progress shown last year.
For 2018, Collins has a $5.76 million cap hit. According to Spotrac, that makes him the 13th-most expensive right tackle in the NFL this year.
That middle-of-the-pack expense is consistent with where La'el currently rates among NFL right tackles. Bleacher Report ranked Collins as the 16th-best RT in football last year.
But that ranking was based on the season as a whole. If La'el plays all of 2018 the way he was playing towards the end of last year, he will have emerged as one of the better right tackles in the game.
If Collins develops as we hope, that salary suddenly becomes a major bargain. The most expensive right tackles in the NFL are making $7-$9 million this season.
But this can go a couple of ways. With his 2019 cap hit rising to $7.9 million, La'el needs to next step forward.
If Collins were to struggle this year, it could make him a potential cap casualty next offseason. Dallas can save $6.5 million in cap space if Collins is released or traded in 2019.
Dallas could elect to give Connor Williams, their second-round pick this year, a look at right tackle next season. It's the position he played in college.
They could also consider veteran backup Cameron Fleming, who will still be just 26-year-old. Fleming has two Super Bowl rings and several starts, including in the postseason, from his time with the Patriots.
While we think of La'el Collins as a first-round talent, it's important to remember that he was ultimately an undrafted free agent. Dallas did not have to invest anything to acquire him, and ultimately that makes it easier to let him go.
Naturally, we prefer the other side of this coin. If Collins builds on 2017, he will join the upper echelon of right tackles in the league. And if the Cowboys' offensive line isn't already the best in the NFL, that would only cement them as the best unit in football.
If La'el makes the leap, it could mean huge things for the Cowboys' offense and team success this year.
How Cowboys Could Benefit From Randy Gregory’s Suspension
Randy Gregory is back! His suspension is officially over and he will be able to join the Dallas Cowboys in Oxnard, California when training camp gets underway less than a week from now.
Speculation has already started as to what this could mean for the Dallas Cowboys defense this season, and shockingly expectations are rather high for a player who hasn't stepped foot on the field in over a year. But, that's not what I want to talk about today. Today I want to focus on Gregory's mess of a contract, because it is rather interesting.
Randy Gregory was signed to a four-year contract after being drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in the second-round of the 2015 NFL Draft. Gregory's rookie deal was set to expire at the conclusion of the 2018 season, but his multiple suspensions have now changed that expiration date.
You see, Gregory has only played in a total of 14 games in his career, 12 as a rookie and two in Year 2. His third year in the NFL was completely wiped out due to his year-long suspension. If you were to add that all up, it equates to just one accured season in the NFL. Remember that, because it could have a huge impact on his contract down the road.
What all of this means is that the Cowboys can pretty much stretch out Gregory's contract now that they are three years in on the deal and have only gotten one accured season out of the agreement. That basically means they can push his contract back a year, meaning his 2017 salary ($731,813) gets pushed back to 2018, his 2018 salary ($955,217) gets pushed to 2019. That would essentially make him a Restricted Free Agent (RFA) in 2020.
Or does it?
Depending on how the Dallas Cowboys handled paying Randy Gregory during his suspension could actually make him an Exclusive Rights Free Agent (EFA). This is a similar situation in which David Irving found himself in after the 2017 season. The Cowboys placed a second-round tender on him in order to secure his services for another season, albeit at a $2.91 million price tag.
As you can see, the Dallas Cowboys pretty much hold all the cards when it comes to Randy Gregory's contract situation. It's all a little confusing, but that's what makes it such a unique and interesting situation.
Of course, the Cowboys could decide to extend Gregory early if he completely dominates upon his return this season. It's highly doubtful though considering his past suspensions, but still technically a possibility. If it does happen, you can go ahead and ignore everything I've written previously.
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