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.
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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.