We’re a week removed from the 2017 NFL Draft. With all of the picks and the wave of undrafted free agent signings now known, it’s a good time to take stock of the Cowboys roster and see what it may look like after final cuts.
Obviously, a lot will happen between now and the end of preseason. Injuries and surprising play, for good or bad, can move guys up and down the depth chart. What we think of some of these guys now could change dramatically after a big preseason performance.
That said, we’ll do the best we can. Here is my best guess, based on current information, at the Cowboys 53-man roster come Week One.
Dak Prescott, Kellen Moore
With no draft picks spent on a developmental QB, Dallas will likely go back to the days of having just two passers on the active roster. They did sign Florida’s Austin Appleby and Central Michigan’s Cooper Rush as undrafted free agents, one of whom will likely be on the practice squad next year.
Barring injuries or a very unexpected surge from one of the rookies, Prescott and Moore should go unchallenged in their roles. Despite his 2015 struggles and missed time last year, Dallas still thought enough to bring Kellen back and leave him without any real competition for the backup job. It’s a vote of confidence from the front office, even if many fans don’t share it.
Running Backs (4)
Ezekiel Elliott, Darren McFadden, Rod Smith, Keith Smith (FB)
With Elliott getting workhorse carries it takes some of the pressure off the rest of the depth chart. Once he came off the Non-Football Injury list last year, McFadden was clearly the number-two back and pushed Alfred Morris into oblivion. As I wrote about yesterday, I don’t expect Morris to make the 2017 roster.
Rod Smith provides far better value as a third running back than Morris. He has been a strong special teams player and gives a short-yardage option in case Zeke’s not available. After last year, he could also serve as a backup fullback.
There won’t be any competition at FB this year, though, as Keith Smith emerged as a solid starter. He doesn’t get the same number of snaps as some of the top FBs in the league, but Smith shows up as a run-blocker and provides versatility both on special teams and as an emergency linebacker.
Dez Bryant, Cole Beasley, Terrance Williams, Ryan Switzer, Noah Brown
The top three were never in doubt. To the surprise of many, Dallas re-signed Williams to a four-year deal and will have all of the same primary skill-position players on the offense. As Stephen Jones said in a recent press conference, they did not foresee being able to draft or sign anyone who could give them an upgrade so bringing Terrance back made the most sense.
Dallas used a fourth-round pick to add North Carolina’s Ryan Switzer, who should knock Lucky Whitehead off the roster as the new primary return man. He has been compared to Cole Beasley (and all the other small white receivers) and should compete for targets immediately.
I had a tough time deciding between Noah Brown and Brice Butler. Ultimately, I went with Brown given his raw ability and what he could be after the coaches get their hands on him. Dallas seems ready to move on from Butler, giving him a minimal one-year deal that felt like nothing more than insurance. As long as Brown or another young guy, like Andy Jones, step up then Butler should be gone.
Tight Ends (4)
Jason Witten, James Hanna, Geoff Swaim, Rico Gathers
This foursome has felt set for a while. While Dallas could have used a high pick on Witten’s eventual replacement, it’s always seemed more prudent to use 2017 to see just what all of these current options can really do. If a young guy like Swaim or Gathers can really blossom, you may have found your answer for a fraction of the cost.
We should not dismiss James Hanna, either. Dallas clearly thought highly of him last year when they re-signed him for almost $3 million per season. Hanna is the best blocking TE and has the athleticism to be dangerous in the receiving game. He will have to fight off the youngsters for his spot, but Hanna has the skills to do it.
Offensive Tackles (4)
Tyron Smith, Chaz Green, Emmett Cleary, Byron Bell
Doug Free’s retirement left a big question mark on the right end of the Cowboys’ offensive line. I was content with a competition between Green and Cleary for the job, but Dallas also signed veteran Byron Bell as another contender.
Chaz Green will have the advantage as a former third-round pick. Teams are naturally biased towards drafted players, particularly when they went that high. That will be the tiebreaker if everything’s even between Chaz and the other two guys.
The nice thing with Bell is that he could also play guard, giving him versatility that should preserve a roster spot even if he doesn’t win the starting job. Given Chaz Green’s injury history, I see them keeping Cleary around also.
Zack Martin, La’el Collins, Jonathan Cooper
While we may regret having to lose Ronald Leary in free agency, the picture above reminds us that La’el Collins is seen as a first-round talent. This was always his job; only an injury kept him away from it last year. Now he has to play up that level to reward the Cowboys’ faith.
As long as he can stay healthy and motivated, Jonathan Cooper should hold down the backup job. He’s a former first-round pick who’s had bad luck with injuries and never finding the right fit. If he really stands out, there’s potential for him to earn a starting role while Collins gets moved out to right tackle. That’s another reason why Byron Bell’s potential as an interior player comes in handy.
Travis Frederick, Joe Looney
There’s not much to say at this spot. Frederick is as entrenched as they get with his long-term deal and 1st-team All-Pro status. He, Tyron Smith, and Zack Martin will all be Cowboys longer than most guys on the current roster.
Joe Looney feels secure as the backup center but could see competition from Jonathan Cooper. I expect both to make the team, though, as veteran options for a team looking to make a championship run.
Defensive Ends (4)
DeMarcus Lawrence, Benson Mayowa, Charles Tapper, Taco Charlton
Four may seem light but keep in mind that David Irving and Tyrone Crawford have flexibility to play DE as well. These are clearly the top four options as outside rushers, though, and how the snaps get divided will be interesting to track all season.
We’ve seen Lawrence play at a high level, getting seven sacks in the final eight games of 2015. If he can avoid injury and get back to that then he may still earn a contract extension. However, Dallas didn’t spend a first-round pick on Taco Charlton for nothing. Even if Lawrence has a good year, he may still get forced out by the rookie.
Charles Tapper brings plenty of intrigue, as well. Many felt he played out of position in college and will blossom as a 4-3 end. He will get every opportunity to do so as Rod Marinelli will keep tinkering until he finds the most potent mix.
Defensive Tackle (5)
David Irving, Tyrone Crawford, Maliek Collins, Cedric Thornton, Stephen Paea
This position is loaded with solid players but now we need someone to emerge as a star. The best candidates for that are Irving and Collins, who were both flashing greatness last season.
This season could be the last for all three veterans. Both Tyrone Crawford and Cedric Thornton could be cap casualties in 2018 and Stephen Paea was signed to just a one-year deal. If the young players emerge as we hope then these three may all be competing for a single spot as a veteran reserve next year.
Sean Lee, Jaylon Smith, Damien Wilson, Anthony Hitchens, Kyle Wilber, Mark Nzeocha, Jeremiah George
The Cowboys did not add any significant linebacker talent in the draft, as some thought they would, so this group should remain intact. Jaylon Smith’s debut will likely be the most anticipated of any new face, even among our 2017 rookies and free agents.
Anthony Hitchens and Damien Wilson should battle for the SAM spot. Wilson was really coming on last year and probably has the edge, especially since Hitchens is in the final year of his contract. I expect Hitch to stick around as a primary backup, though, regardless of what happens.
Given injury concerns for Smith and Mark Nzeocha, I think Dallas will keep a seventh guy on the roster. I went with Jeremiah George given his experience (21 games played) and work as a special teams player. That spot is wide open, though, for a less established prospect to emerge.
Anthony Brown, Orlando Scandrick, Nolan Carroll, Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis
This may be the most interesting position now on the whole roster. The early picks spent on Awuzie and Lewis bring intrigue and competition. The rumblings that Scandrick might get traded could affect his play, for good or bad. And all eyes will be on Anthony Brown as we hope he builds on a standout rookie year to become a top corner.
Even with the youth infusion, I expect Nolan Carroll to stick around as a veteran backup. He signed a three-year deal and should do well in our scheme.
Sixth-round rookie Marquez White could push for a roster spot but, I’m afraid, just can’t fight these numbers. Ten defensive backs is already a lot. Dallas will hope they can stash him on the practice squad, but that could be difficult given his profile.
Byron Jones, Jeff Heath, Kavon Frazier, Robert, Blanton, Xavier Woods
Dallas went with five safeties last year, mostly because they were trying to keep Frazier secure as a developmental player. They may be in the same position again with Xavier Woods.
While he will have to fight for it, Jeff Heath should be your Week One starter. Veteran addition Robert Blanton could contend but is more likely to be an experienced backup and special teamer. He will have to outplay Frazier and Woods, though, to earn a job. Dallas would love to open up a roster spot if they can.
Dan Bailey (K), Chris Jones (P), L.P. Ladouceur (LS)
There’s little doubt about these three. The one thing to watch is that Jones and Ladouceur are both on expiring contracts. Dallas should bring in young guys as camp bodies, but if one of them really stands out then things might get interesting. Dallas could decide hanging on to the younger prospect is more prudent.