With two preseason games and a lot of practices done, I thought it a fine time to post my next 2017 roster projection. The last one was done just as training camp began, and plenty has happened in the weeks since.
Before we get into who will be on the Week One roster, here’s a quick recap of the suspensions that will make some of our players unavailable:
- 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)
There’s still a lot up in the air about Elliott’s situation. He is filing an appeal with the league that will be resolved within about two weeks. Pending that outcome, he could then try to take it to the courts and that process could go on for some time. It’s entirely possible that he will be available to play in Week One, but for now we’re going to go with what we know.
The point is that the Cowboys’ Week One roster may look a fair bit different from the majority of the season while these suspensions play out. Guys will make the team to fill out the 53 for those early weeks but then wind up on the practice squad or the open market. For now, here’s my best guess at what the team will look like.
Dak Prescott, Kellen Moore
Trust me, I saw Cooper Rush on Saturday and am as intrigued by him as anyone. I even thought he looked solid in the Hall of Fame game. However, I felt the same about guys named Matt Moore and Alex Tanney and saw what happened with them. One game isn’t enough for me to create a roster spot.
However, if Rush has a couple more of these performances, things do get interesting. Dallas obviously values Kellen Moore for his contributions working with Dak in game preparation. He may even be our new QB coach sometime down the road. This is all well and good when Prescott is healthy, but the priorities change dramatically if QB2 has to come into the game. Who has more value then?
It’s too soon to say there’s been a change, but Rush is making good impressions and may be closing the gap. It’s hard to see him pushing Moore off the roster, but he could make the Cowboys keep three quarterbacks if this keeps up.
Running Backs (4)
Darren McFadden, Alfred Morris, Rod Smith, Keith Smith (FB)
CHANGES: Removed Ezekiel Elliott (suspension), Added Morris
If Elliott is suspended to start the year then this one is easy to call. Ronnie Hillman hasn’t done anything to earn a spot so far, so the top three RBs are clear. Keith Smith appears to be expanding his offensive role with some new receiving opportunities and there’s no question he’s making the team.
The most interesting scenario is if Zeke’s appeal makes him eligible to start the year but only defers the suspension. If Dallas fears losing him at some point during the season, they may have to keep all four RBs in preparation. Rod Smith could go back to the practice squad, but another good preseason game and they may not want to take that chance. We saw how quickly Darius Jackson got snatched up last year.
Brice Butler had a nice game against the Cardinals and has always been likely to make the team anyway. It would take a tremendous showing from one of the other prospects to make him expendable, and we certainly haven’t seen that yet.
However, Noah Brown has looked solid and is making a case for Dallas to go long at receiver. He would likely be inactive most weeks, so this will come down to how much the Cowboys fear risking him on the practice squad. A couple of big plays over the next three games could move the needle significantly.
Tight Ends (4)
Jason Witten, James Hanna, Geoff Swaim, Rico Gathers
Arguably the preseason MVP so far, Rico Gathers has delivered on over a year’s worth of hype with two touchdown catches and signs of being a dangerous offensive weapon. Any thoughts of him not making the 53 are long gone, and the focus now shifts to what Dallas might do with the other two players.
James Hanna and Geoff Swaim are similar; strong blockers with solid passing game potential. If Gathers is ready to contribute now, Dallas may not need to keep both veterans. If a decision has to be made, Hanna’s injury history and contract work against him. The Cowboys can save half of his $3 million cap it by releasing him.
For now, I’m keeping all four guys. With both Hanna and Swaim coming off major injuries, it makes sense to let them provide mutual insurance. It also keeps everyone around for next year after Jason Witten potentially retires.
Offensive Tackles (3)
Tyron Smith, La’el Collins, Emmett Cleary
CHANGES: Moved Chaz Green to guard, Added Cleary
Based on practice reps, Emmett Cleary is looking like the lead dog for the swing tackle position. It could still go to Chaz Green, but he’s currently limited with a shoulder injury and Cleary has been getting the first-team reps while Tyron Smith has been resting his back.
Zack Martin, Jonathan Cooper, Chaz Green
CHANGES: Cut Byron Bell, Added Green
Left guard is still open and that will become more concerning if it doesn’t change closer to the start of the season. All three of Cooper, Green, and Bell has had first-team reps and so far there’s no clear indication of who’s been the most impressive.
In a seemingly tight race, bad days are harder to overcome. Bell certainly had one on Saturday when he drew two holding flags on a single drive. As the most experienced player, Byron should be held to a higher standard and those mistakes could cost him.
Travis Frederick, Joe Looney
No surprises here. The only potential change is if prospects Ross Burbank or Ruben Carter can somehow force Looney out, but Dallas won’t lose the veteran lightly. He can play center or guard and now has a full year in the system.
In fact, don’t sleep on Looney as the potential starting left guard. If that happens, we will probably have to address backup center with one of the young guys or a free agent signing. Jonathan Cooper has been tried at center, though, so that could become his new role if he doesn’t get the starting job at guard.
Defensive Ends (5)
DeMarcus Lawrence, Benson Mayowa, Charles Tapper, Taco Charlton, Lenny Jones
CHANGES: Removed Damontre Moore (suspension), Added Jones
The Cowboys are still experimenting with who plays where, and this may not really matter with how much Rod Marinelli will mix things up throughout the season. Other than Lawrence getting a heavy number of snaps as his health and performance allow, it’s hard to predict who will get more playing time from this group. Damontre Moore will further deepen the rotation when he returns.
Right now I’m giving the open spot from Moore’s suspension to Lenny Jones, who had a good game against the Rams and has been talked about throughout camp. He has competition in Lewis Neal, though, who has been favorably compared to Maliek Collins by one camp observer. There may even be two roster spots open if the Cowboys want ten total defensive linemen, allowing both to potentially make it while Moore and Irving are suspended.
Defensive Tackle (4)
Tyrone Crawford, Maliek Collins, Cedric Thornton, Stephen Paea
This top four is set. Prospects like Richard Ash, Jordan Carrell, and Joey Ivie are battling for practice squad spots. The only way one of them makes the roster is if injuries, plus David Irving and Damontre Moore’s suspensions, pull Tyrone Crawford more over to defensive end. For now, though, I think Lenny Jones and Lewis Neal would get that spot before the true defensive tackles.
Sean Lee, Jaylon Smith, Anthony Hitchens, Justin Durant, Kyle Wilber, Mark Nzeocha, John Lotulelei
It is entirely possible that Damien Wilson’s situation will not be resolved before the season starts, which means simply putting him in over Lotulelei if the league hasn’t made a ruling. It’s hard to imagine the NFL treating an assault arrest lightly, though. Unless they just have their hands full with Zeke, I imagine a decision to be announced in the next two weeks.
One prospect to keep an eye on is Joseph Jones, who is listed at linebacker but can also play safety. He’s shown up a little in the preseason and that hybrid ability could be useful. Lotulelei was the front-runner coming into camp but Jones could be in contention now.
Anthony Brown, Orlando Scandrick, Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, Marquez White, Duke Thomas
CHANGES: Removed Leon McFadden, Added Thomas
We are assuming that Nolan Carroll will be get a suspension to start the year after his DWI arrest last May. That means the Cowboys will be relying heavily on their young guys, Anthony Brown, Chidobe Awuzie, and Jourdan Lewis, to take on major responsibility. Thankfully, veteran leader Orlando Scandrick is still around and appears to be fully healthy as the season gets closer.
It’s possible that Dallas would want to keep on other experienced guy, like Leon McFadden, on the depth chart at least until Carroll comes back. But that would mean having to choose between two intriguing young prospects in Duke Thomas and Marquez White. As long as Carroll only gets the two-game ban, I think they may lean toward youth and hope that neither has to play much in the first two weeks.
Byron Jones, Jeff Heath, Kavon Frazier, Xavier Woods
With Frazier and Woods both looking good last Saturday, things are not looking good for veteran Robert Blanton. He didn’t seem like more than an insurance policy because of the young depth, but the youngsters are doing well and that roster spot can be better used elsewhere.
Dan Bailey (K), Chris Jones (P), L.P. Ladouceur (LS)
There’s little doubt about these three. Bailey is under contract until we start colonizing Mars and Chris Jones got a new four-year extension. They do have long snapper Zach Wood back here for a second offseason, but this is likely just to give L.P. Ladouceur some rest. There’s almost zero chance of the veteran being ousted.