With the 2017 cut day scheduled for tomorrow, but cuts potentially coming today as well, I wanted to get out this final projection of the Dallas Cowboys' 53-man roster for 2017. This is the roster I believe they will have for Week One of the regular season.
Because it is the Week One roster, we have to account for suspensions. Here is a summary of the Cowboys' suspension situation as it currently stands:
- DE Randy Gregory, indefinite (substance violations) *CONFIRMED*
- RB Ezekiel Elliott, 6 games (domestic violence) *CONFIRMED*
- DL David Irving, 4 games (PED violation) *CONFIRMED*
- DE Damontre Moore, 2 games (substance violation) *CONFIRMED*
- CB Nolan Carroll, 2 games (DWI arrest) (probable)
- LB Damien Wilson, ? games (Assault arrest) (probable)
As you already know, Ezekiel Elliott's suspension is in a volatile state right now. Even if the appeal knocks it down to just a couple of games, that still means he won't playing in Week One. However, if Elliott decides to take the NFL to court and can get the injunction in time, he may be able to play until that process is complete. For the purpose of this article, and based on my belief that we are headed to a legal battle, I am going to include him on this projection.
I'm surprise that we don't have ruling yet on the Nolan Carroll or Damien Wilson suspension. Carroll's is especially odd since it happened back in May and is a pretty clear-cut DWI case. Wilson's may be delayed because it's a more serious and complex issue, though when did the NFL suddenly start caring what happened in the courts?
For now, since we don't have anything official yet, Carroll and Wilson are on the Week One roster. Along with Elliott, that leaves 50 more spots. Who got them? Who didn't? Let's find out!
Dak Prescott, Cooper Rush, Kellen Moore
This has been the preseason of Cooper Rush, easily the biggest story and biggest riser on the team over the last four weeks. Starting August as an undrafted rookie who would be lucky to make the practice squad, Rush has secured a spot on the roster and perhaps even supplanted Kellen Moore as the team's primary backup.
The question now is if the team decides to keep Moore. As much as I personally feel he should be cut so the roster spot is freed up for another position, Kellen has a strong advocate in offensive coordinator Scott Linehan and has more NFL years than Dak and Rush combined. I think they will keep him around, at least initially, to help his younger teammates.
Running Backs (5)
CHANGES: Added Elliott
I am going long here because of the threat that Elliott may be lost at some point during the season. If Zeke isn't ready to start Week One, they will just go with the other four guys and have an extra roster spot to use elsewhere.
Dallas would likely lose Rod Smith if they tried to get him to the practice squad. He's still just 25-years-old, had a strong preseason, and would be attractive to more than one style of offense. They would also likely lose Alfred Morris if he was put on waivers. Therefore, they have to go long to secure their assets and insurance policies.
CHANGES: Added Noah Brown
Because I think Rico Gathers is going to injured reserve to start the year (more on that below), a roster spot is open to secure sixth-round rookie Noah Brown. While still raw in many ways, Brown's physical skills are hard to let go. He reminds you of Dez Bryant with how he moves, especially once the ball is in his hands. He also has the physicality to contribute on special teams.
Brice Butler went into camp with uncertainty but locked up his spot was a great summer. He's in a much better position to help the Cowboys win games, especially if an injury happens to the top three guys. You don't let those guys go when you're eyeing a Super Bowl.
Tight Ends (3)
Jason Witten, James Hanna, Geoff Swaim
CHANGES: Removed Rico Gathers (Injured Reserve)
There's a good chance that this is the last time, after 15 years, that I will be putting Jason Witten on a roster projection. Just thought I'd mention that. *sniff*
Rico Gathers has been dealing with a concussion for over two weeks. Because of this, I think the Cowboys put him on Injured Reserve. They will have the option to bring him back after eight weeks if he's ready to go. This works out fairly well for the Cowboys as it secures Gathers spot with the team but also lets them have a roster spot to use somewhere else, like we saw with Noah Brown.
Offensive Tackles (3)
Tyron Smith, La'el Collins, Emmett Cleary
Collins' move from guard to tackle has been locked in for months now and he should be a darn good one by the end of the year. He's already shown pass protection skills that Doug Free never had. There will be bumps along the road, but the upside is tremendous.
Cleary stabilizes the depth chart as a capable swing tackle. We saw him do well last season in some limited duty and now he's had even more time in the system. Chaz Green also provided some security with his tackle experience. As you'll see, position flexibility is a key for this year's offensive line depth.
Zack Martin, Jonathan Cooper, Chaz Green
CHANGES: Removed Byron Bell
Bell is another guy the Cowboys may want to keep over that third QB. He provides depth at both guard and tackle. He also gives insurance to Green's ongoing problems with staying healthy. However, the numbers crunch right now doesn't work in Bell's favor.
I think Dallas was rooting for Green, the third-round pick in 2015, to win the left guard position. But his chronic injuries make it hard to trust him with a starting role. Like last year, he will provide versatile depth and could still be in competition with Cooper as the season progresses.
That means Dallas will turn to Jonathan Cooper, the seventh-overall pick in 2013, to replace Ronald Leary. The fact he hasn't one the job outright yet is a concern, but I think Dallas saw him as the fail-safe. They have confidence he can start and were just seeing if Green, the younger upside option, could beat him out. After a disappointing career so far, playing between Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick will give Cooper every opportunity to finally realize his potential.
Travis Frederick, Joe Looney
Looney's ability to play guard or center is just another big help to the line depth. I was actually surprised he didn't get looks at left guard this summer, but he's in that same role that Mackenzy Bernadeau had for several years. Looney is a big reason why Dallas can afford to let Byron Bell go.
That Frederick guy isn't too shabby, either.
Defensive Ends (5)
Lewis Neal, who can play both outside end and inside tackle, gets a roster spot thanks to suspensions. He should at least be here at least through Damontre Moore's two-game ban. If there are any new injuries, he may be able stick around through David Irving's four-game absence and perhaps even longer.
Lawrence is the only end with a clear starting role and larger chunk in the rotation. How the others will be used may depend a lot on matchups and perhaps who simply has the hot hand at a given moment. The end result will likely be no one player with a high sack total, but hopefully Rod Marinelli will be able to increase the team's pressure on opposing quarterbacks this year.
Defensive Tackle (4)
These top four were never in doubt. Neither Jordan Carrell or Joey Ivie, the Cowboys two seventh-round rookies, have done enough to threaten one of the veterans. Lewis Neal's ability to play inside, as well as David Irving's when he gets back, leaves no real need for more DT depth. One of Carrell or Ivie, if not both, will be on the practice squad.
Stephen Paea, new to the team as a veteran free agent, has moved past Cedric Thornton and will likely be starting on the base defense. He will be the nose tackle in short-yardage formations and appears to be a strong replacement for Terrell McClain. The combination of Paea and a sophomore Maliek Collins could be the best DT pairing we've had in a while.
Sean Lee, Jaylon Smith, Anthony Hitchens, Damien Wilson, Justin Durant, Kyle Wilber, Mark Nzeocha
CHANGES: Added Wilson
The Cowboys got good news that Anthony Hitchens' knee injury, which at first appeared season-ending and then became an eight-week issue, may now be even less severe. They will likely keep him on the roster and as a gameday inactive until he's ready to return. Justin Durant figures to play more in his absence.
I think rookie Joseph Jones will go to the practice squad and may get called up if and when Damien Wilson gets suspended. Hopefully by then, Hitchens will be back and Jaylon Smith will be taking on more responsibility. If it comes quickly, Dallas may need to look for a veteran free agent.
Orlando Scandrick, Anthony Brown, Nolan Carroll, Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis
CHANGES: Removed Marquez White and Duke Thomas, Added Carroll
Duke Thomas would've probably made the team if not for his knee injury, which should put him on Injured reserve. I don't think the team will have room for Marquez White, who would be more of a security stash then someone who could really help you this year. He will hopefully make it to the practice squad and may get called up whenever Carroll has to serve his DWI suspension.
The Cowboys are going to have to live dangerously with Awuzie and Lewis as their depth. Chidobe only played in one preseason game and Lewis will have had none. Hopefully the practice field gave them enough to be able to perform. Dallas will lean heavily on Scandrick, Brown, and Carroll early in the year.
Byron Jones, Jeff Heath, Kavon Frazier, Xavier Woods
Jeff Heath will be starting in Week One but may not be by Week 17. Rookie Xavier Woods keeps making plays and may be pushing Heath out as the season goes along. Both Woods and Kavon Frazier have had good summers and allow the Cowboys to not keep veteran Robert Blanton.
Whoever else is playing at safety, the real key this year is development from Byron Jones. Entering his third season, Jones needs to take the next step from “solid” to “star” in the Cowboys defense. He will make life better for everyone, and especially his fellow starting safety, if he become an elite presence.
One the league's best specialist trios is back again. Bailey and Jones are both signed for several years to come and Ladouceur will only be gone when he decides to hang up the cleats. If Ryan Switzer can finally become a consistent weapon as a the return man, life will be good and easy for coach Rich Bisaccia.