There is no exact blueprint for a NFL roster. Every year, teams are put together with different circumstances and philosophies that change the numbers at each position. The Dallas Cowboys are no exception, and 2017 is likely to have different math from last season.
Here is a quick look at some of the positions where you can expect change on offense. We'll see where roster spots are opened up, but also where they may be consumed.
You can read about the changes on defense here, or using the link at the end of the article.
Last year, Dallas carried three guys as they worked through Tony Romo's injury situation. Even once Romo became healthy, Mark Sanchez remained on the 53-man roster for the rest of the season.
There is little doubt right now that the Cowboys will have just two QBs in 2017. Dak Prescott is the clear starter and Kellen Moore, re-signed in March, is expected to be his backup. There is no young developmental player who projects to earn that third spot, which would only be used if Dallas didn't want to risk losing someone on the practice squad.
Granted, things could change between now and Week One. Injuries can change the landscape quickly. Also, some young guy could wow us more than Alex Tanney or Dustin Vaughan ever did to force his way onto the roster. However, if that happens, he might be good enough that Dallas decides they don't need Kellen Moore after all.
Still, the most likely scenario is that Dallas will keep just two quarterbacks. That opens a roster spot for another position in 2017 which we didn't have last year.
Dallas opened 2016 with four halfbacks and two fullbacks on the 53-man roster. That is highly unlikely this year, which should open up at least one or two spots for other positions.
One big change is the role that Lance Dunbar occupied. At this point, receivers like Lucky Whitehead or Ryan Switzer are likely to get the looks on offense that Dunbar did, which came primarily as pass catcher. You will see how this may push Dallas to keep a sixth receiver in 2017, using up one of these RB roster spots.
At fullback, Keith Smith seems to be entrenched now as the starter. Rod Smith is still around and made the team early in 2016 to compete at FB and play special teams, but he should only make the squad now as a halfback.
With Ezekiel Elliott and Darren McFadden looking solid as the top two guys, a third halfback should be all the team needs. They only carried Darius Jackson last year as a drafted player who they didn't want to risk on the practice squad, never actually playing him in a real game. That is unlikely to happen again.
It is highly possible that Dallas will keep six receivers in 2017. The top four guys all have roles to play and bring their own element to the offense. Rookie Ryan Swizter is a virtual lock to make the team, already being seen as the front-runner to be the return specialist and to have a niche role on offense.
Noah Brown, drafted in the seventh round, could be carried as a gameday inactive to protect him from practice squad poachers. He could be good enough to push Brice Butler off the roster, but it's too soon to project that. The same can be said for Andy Jones, a promising undrafted player from last season.
It's also too soon to dismiss Whitehead from making this year's team. Many assume that his roster spot will go to Switzer, but both could make the squad depending on the roles they're best suited to fill.
However it shakes out, receiver is looking like a position where Dallas can easily go longer than last season. Here comes another one.
Dallas only kept three TEs last year. Would they have kept four if James Hanna hadn't been injured? It's hard to say; Gavin Escobar might have been released if Hanna and Geoff Swaim were both active.
Regardless, the Cowboys could easily be keeping four guys this season. Jason Witten's back to play his 27th season, or something like that, and you have the experienced backups in Hanna and Swaim. The fourth man is Rico Gathers, the highly intriguing draft pick from 2016 who spent last year converting from basketball to football on the practice squad.
If Gathers was able to develop enough, and there is plenty of chatter that he has, then Hanna and Swaim might be fighting for one spot. However, 2017 could easily be Jason Witten's last season. Dallas may be using this season as a year-long audition for all of these guys to show who might be able to start in 2018.
Camp and preseason will hopefully give us some clarity here. For now, I'm betting on Dallas going long and keeping the options open as the season progresses.
Dallas opened 2016 with just eight offensive linemen on the roster. They had more stability then, though, with veterans Doug Free and Ronald Leary in the mix. The exit of those two players has potentially created the need for some additional bodies.
The move of La'el Collins from guard to tackle appears to be final. That leaves a starting spot at left guard open with several contenders: Byron Bell, Emmett Cleary, Jonathan Cooper, Chaz Green, and Joe Looney.
It's too early to say there's a favorite. How all of these guys continue to compete should be the story of training camp for the offense.
However it unfolds, though, you could have some players with troublesome injury history in key positions. Collins had a foot injury which cost him most of last year. Cooper, a former first-round pick, has had his NFL career nearly derailed by health problems. Green has battled injuries the last two years.
These question marks could easily prompt Dallas to keep some extra depth, at least nine players over eight, at the start of the year. Even if health isn't the concern, they may still not be settled at left guard or with some of the reserve spots and want to keep evaluating guys into the regular season.
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Will Dallas Cowboys Address Backup RB in Free Agency or 2019 Draft?
The Dallas Cowboys' backup running back spot may not seem like a high priority compared to other 2019 offseason issues. But all it takes is one bad play for Ezekiel Elliott to be lost, and the Dallas offense leans too heavily on the RB position to take his backup plan lightly. Will the team be looking to improve the talent behind Zeke through free agency or the draft?
Right now, the only running backs signed to the Cowboys' roster are Elliott, Darius Jackson, and Jordan Chunn. The backup for the last few seasons, Rod Smith, is currently an unrestricted free agent.
Jackson and Chunn have a combined six carries for 16 yards in their careers, and all of those came from Darius in the Cowboys' meaningless 2018 regular-season finale. Chunn spent all of his rookie season on the practice squad.
A sixth-round pick for Dallas in 2016, Darius Jackson is on his third stint with the Cowboys after stops in Cleveland and Green Bay in between. He has flashed some electric running ability at times but clearly hasn't been able to stick with a team. Could 2019 be his chance?
Jordan Chunn was an undrafted free agent out of Troy last year. He's a big, powerful runner with some deceptive athletic moves as well.
What stands out most with both of these guys isn't positive, though, and that's their mutual inexperience and draft capital. Would the Cowboys really leave their RB depth chart so thin when they're trying to make a championship run?
Dallas could be hoping to eventually re-sign Rod Smith at a bargain price. He's a solid backup and special teams leader, and the longer he sits unsigned in free agency then the lower his price should be.
But is it time for the Cowboys to invest more in their other running backs? Not only is 2019 a critical year, but upcoming contract negotiations with Elliott could make it a wise move.
This upcoming season is the last one of Zeke's standard rookie contract. Dallas will have to decide if they want to sign him long-term or let him play 2020 on his fifth-year option as a former first-round draft pick, which would pay him about $9 million.
Signing or drafting a player of consequence now, and having them under contract over the next few seasons, would give the Cowboys some added leverage in contract negotiations with Elliott.
What's more, who's to say that Zeke's impressive durability will just continue? He's already had a lot of touches in three years, even with the six suspension games. Maybe it's time to find someone who you don't mind giving some of the workload to?
Some of the top free agents available likely won't want the reduced role, and money, that playing behind Elliott will mean. That would take guys like Jay Ajayi and C.J. Anderson off the list.
What about older veteran who can still ball, like Marshawn Lynch, Darren Sproles, or Doug Martin? You might not want them as a featured player anymore but they could still be effective on limited touches. Joining a potential contender like the Cowboys in a supporting role could be exactly what these guys are looking for.
Other free agent options would be players who are used to backup roles, such as Isaiah Crowell, T.J. Yeldon, or Spencer Ware. They would be probable upgrades from Rod Smith but for minimal money if they stay unsigned much longer.
The draft is another way to add some RB talent, and it could be the smartest one. A drafted player, even as high as Dallas' second-round pick, would have a four-year rookie deal at a minimal salary.
One player that could make a lot of sense for the Cowboys is Justice Hill out of Oklahoma State. He brings a change of pace from Elliott as a smaller, quicker back and could be available for them during Day 2 of the draft.
Hill was featured as a potential Cowboys target by our Brian Martin a few weeks ago.
You might say that having Elliott makes any sort of serious draft pick at running back a wasted pick. But with Zeke turning 26 after the 2020 season, the Cowboys might be willing to let someone else give him a huge deal and move on to a much cheaper option.
And again, who says that Elliott makes it through another 16-game season and playoffs without a major injury? It can happen to the best of them.
Clearly, this could go any number of ways. Dallas might bring back Rod Smith or some comparable player for a cheap, easy answer at backup running back. Maybe they invest in a more proven free agent, or perhaps they draft someone early enough to matter.
However it goes, let's just say that I highly doubt Darius Jackson will be RB2 come September.
Dallas Cowboys Head Toward NFL Draft with No Glaring Needs
When the offseason began after the Dallas Cowboys fell to the Los Angeles Rams in the divisional round of the playoffs, it was clear that they were a team on the rise, but had several areas they needed to address as free agency and the draft approached.
The team had holes or depth issues at safety, defensive tackle, swing tackle, wide receiver, defensive end, and tight end. Through the first two weeks of free agency, the Dallas Cowboys have taken care of each of those areas.
With the signings of George Iloka, Christian Covington, Cameron Fleming, Randall Cobb, Tavon Austin, Kerry Hyder, and Jason Witten, The Dallas Cowboys have set themselves up to approach the draft with “clear eyes and a full heart.”
As they head into April with the NFL Draft looming, the Cowboys won’t be held back by positional need and can allow their draft board to do the work for them and just add good players. It’s an excellent position to be in as they don’t have to reach for a player at a position of need they may not like as much because they have a veteran presence filling that need.
Backup running back appears to be the only position where the Cowboys could use some depth, but that player for this team is more of a special teams player who gets limited snaps on offense because of the greatness of Ezekiel Elliott. It’s generally a position where there is a lot of talent deep in the draft and undrafted free agent pool, which allows the Cowboys to be patient filling that need behind the NFL’s leading rusher.
Mother than that, if the Dallas Cowboys has to go play a football game and win today, they’d be in great shape to do so.
On the flip side, however, the Cowboys can still add players at defensive tackle, wide receiver, tight end, safety, and defensive end because they aren’t restricted by big contracts to those veteran players. Each of them came to the Cowboys on one-year deals. The veterans that they signed would prohibit them from drafting at that same position, and that’s the point.
The Cowboys have created a formula that works really well for them. Sometimes it get frustrating watching the team not make any big splashes in free agency, especially that first week when other teams are bringing in big-name players to add to their rosters. That formula has led them to a 48-32 record over the last five seasons with three NFC East titles, and two playoff wins, and three divisional round appearances.
And the playoff runs could have been deeper with a bit of luck and correct officiating.
The Dallas Cowboys have set themselves up really well as they now set their sights on the NFL Draft at the end of April. Though they won’t have a first round pick to add to their talent pool, the Cowboys have shown that they can find talent in the second round and beyond. This year will be no different.
Now it’s time to sit back and trust the process.
Cowboys Have Had Quiet, Yet Successful, Free Agency
Yet another free agency without a big splash by the Dallas Cowboys. What a surprise. Despite entertaining Earl Thomas rumors for a long, long time, the Cowboys' front office has stuck with its philosophy of not overpaying free agents and building the team mainly through the NFL Draft. However, they've actually had some pretty good signings over the last few days that will really benefit the Cowboys when the season comes around.
They've done so with inexpensive free agents who will contribute at a high level on their respective positions. Sure, top free agent signings are fun. But many times, they end up backfiring to teams for spending so much money in one single player. At the end of the day, the Cowboys' way has gotten the team three NFC East Championships since 2014. Many factors come into play, but their team building philosophy can't be as bad as many claim it to be.
The most recent acquisition came in form of former Cincinnati Bengal and Minnesota Viking Safety George Iloka. The Cowboys had a desperate need at the defensive backfield and finally they've done something about it. On a heavy safety market, the Cowboys sat tight while watching the top free agents get top contracts around the league, including Landon Collins' record breaking deal with the Washington Redskins.
Now, they've gotten a guy who can play both safety positions. I'll be surprised if he doesn't take Jeff Heath's job. He's played as a free safety most of his career but being a good tackler, he should do a good job in the box. Iloka will also shine on special teams in Dallas.
So far, my favorite signing may be that of former Green Bay Packer, Randall Cobb. The Cowboys had an important need at the wide receiver position despite counting with Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup leading the room. Cole Beasley is a tough guy to replace and although Cobb may not be a better slot receiver than him, he certainly has the experience and the skill set to be a starting slot WR. What's more, he'll only cost the Cowboys five million while Beasley got a four year deal with which he'll earn $17M over the first two years.
Cole Beasley will be missed, but the good thing is the front office did a pretty good job at filling the concerning hole on offense. Cooper, Gallup and Cobb are definitely not a bad starting trio to have.
Other under the radar moves will also help the Cowboys. Kerry Hyder may not be a well-known in the NFL but he'll surely contribute to this defensive line as a rotational player. Hyder had eight sacks in 2016 with the Detroit Lions before suffering an Achilles injury in 2017 and dealing with a scheme change last season. Hyder will surely be happy about being back to a 4-3 defense in Dallas.
Christian Covington was another overlooked signing. Covington will help on the interior of the defensive line and although he'll likely not be a starter, he'll be an important piece in the rotation for a very reasonable contract ( also a one-year deal).
For a football team that's constantly criticized for not being active in free agency, the Cowboys have done something at pretty much every position where they need help. Safety, defensive end, defensive tackle, wide receiver and tight end have all been addressed this offseason prior to the NFL Draft. This will give them great flexibility in April and could lead to a pretty good "best player available" strategy.
Now granted, there are still concerns regarding the young "to be extended" group of players. DeMarcus Lawrence hasn't reached an agreement with the Cowboys and will continue to postpone surgery until he does. If the front office doesn't strike a contract with the star pass rusher, it won't be possible to consider this offseason a good one no matter what happens. Dallas can't let him leave.
In the meantime though, they've had a pretty quiet yet successful March. And they're not done yet. Robert Quinn could end up wearing the Star if a trade with the Miami Dolphins does end up taking place. We'll see if the Cowboys continue to build on an already pretty good free agency.
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