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.
Dallas Cowboys 2019 Training Camp Preview: Linebacker
The linebacker position went from liability to luxury in 2018, thanks largely to the emergence of a pair of dynamic young talents. Now seen as one of the strengths of the Dallas Cowboys' defense, what questions remain for the linebackers as we await the start of the 2019 training camp?
Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch are the nucleus now at linebacker, if not the the Cowboys' defense as a whole. The days of worrying if Sean Lee can stay healthy are over; we now have two players capable of elite play and the versatility to handle multiple spots.
Lee isn't gone; the longtime defensive captain accepted a pay cut and a lesser role to stay in Dallas this year. He is still expected to start in the base defense, moving to the strong-side LB role that Damien Wilson vacated.
Indeed, the top-three linebackers for 2019 are easy to project. Jaylon and Leighton are the new leaders and Sean will get as much playing time as his body can handle.
This year, which is unusual for reserve players, the second team is almost just as predictable.
Here's the projected Linebacker Depth Chart for the 2019 training camp:
- Leighton Vander Esch, Jaylon Smith, Sean Lee
- Joe Thomas, Justin March-Lillard, Chris Covington
- Kyle Queiro, Andrew Dowell, Luke Gifford, Nate Hall
There may not be a position on offense or defense with less x-factors than linebacker. Almost just as likely as the starters, Joe Thomas, Justin-March Lillard, and Chris Covington should have the second-team spots locked down.
Thomas is especially valuable, having the skills to step into a larger role if Sean Lee suffers from age or injury. If Lee were to go down, we might see Jaylon Smith move into the SAM spot and Thomas playing as WILL in the base defense.
Dallas re-signed Justin March-Lillard this offseason. He played in all 16 games last year as a backup and special teamer, and his experience will make him hard to oust.
Chris Covington was a 6th-round pick last year and has the body to play SAM but also experience at other spots in college. Dallas would love to see him grow into a larger role the way other recent 6th-rounders like Anthony Brown and Xavier Woods have.
One potential challenger could be Jalen Jelks, the 7th-round defensive end that Dallas just drafted last April. Jelks has the body and athleticism to play a hybrid LB/DE role, and could challenge as the backup SAM. We don't know if the Cowboys will give Jelks a chance at LB, but it may be the only way to keep him on the 53 given all the talent at defensive end.
It will be hard for any of the remaining LB prospects to work their way onto the roster. The top six have experience and upside that undrafted rookies will need to be exceptionally good to overcome. Only Kyle Queiro, who was on the practice squad last year, brings a little NFL experience to the table.
Of course, unexpected things can happen. The talent margin between late-round picks and undrafted guys can be slim; who knows if one of these prospects pushes March-Lillard or Covington out of the way?
But barring a surprise, we already have a good idea who the Cowboys' six linebackers will be in 2019. Will this year's training camp solidify that projection, or will we get some new evidence to consider?
~ ~ ~
OTHER 2019 CAMP PREVIEWS
Tony Romo: Cowboys TE Jason Witten Will “Pick Up Right Where He Left Off”
There's no denying that the future holds a gold jacket for Dallas Cowboys Tight End Jason Witten. With everything he's done in his career, he'll go down as one of the three best tight ends in the history of the NFL when he finally hangs up his number 82 for good.
Most of the questions that have come surrounding the offense have focused on the tight end position this offseason. Even prior to Jason Witten announcing his return from the broadcast booth at ESPN to the NFL, tight end was one of the areas that was considered a draft need by most analysts. Since coming back, the questions may have altered, but they're there all the same. Now, we're wondering how much Jason Witten will play? Will Blake Jarwin and/or Dalton Schultz see significant playing time in the offense? Will Jason Witten be able to return to his pre-retirement form?
It's that last question that was answered pretty directly by Witten's former quarterback and NFL on CBS Analyst Tony Romo when he was on with Ben and Skin of 105.3 The Fan. In the way that only Tony Romo can, he illustrated what exactly will allow Jason Witten to return to the game without missing a beat.
"He'll pick up right where he left off. I don't think it's a big challenge for Jason (Witten). The reality of it is as long as, if you know the game the way he does, there are certain positions -- he plays one of them at tight end -- he's always going to have the nuance to get open. Let's say he runs the exact same he always did, to me , it's just that at that position, your ability to use leverage against somebody, make you think this and then do that. It's like the back pick in basketball. Just all of a sudden it gets you and you didn't even know it was coming and that guy is wide open. He's very intelligent with the game of football. I think he's going to pick up right from when he retired. I think you're going to see the same guy."
Tony Romo on 105.3 The Fan via Jon Machota of SportsDay DFW
Jason Witten has been one of the best route-running tight ends in the NFL during his time with the Dallas Cowboys. He's always been able to win with his intelligence and route running despite not ever being the quickest or most athletic tight end in the NFL.
Because of Jason Witten's knowledge and feel for the game, it's easy to see why a player like that could walk back into the NFL after taking a year off and remain a productive player for the Dallas Cowboys. It's why they didn't hesitate to bring him back in the offseason. Though it's been relayed that he'll have a somewhat reduced role, he'll be the starting tight end week one against the New York Giants.
While it's uncertain exactly how much Jason Witten can play, you know that he'll be available to play. Prior to his retirement, Witten played in 235 straight regular-season games. Not only is Witten's availability great to have, but so is his ability to win on third down and in the red zone. It will be a welcomed addition to a Dallas Cowboys offense that struggled in both of those areas in 2018.
In 2018, they were 10th in third-down conversion percentage in the NFL at 41.4%. That's down from ranking fifth in the NFL in 2017 at 42.9%. 1.5% may not seem like a huge difference, but that's two to three more first downs on the season. Being able to convert on third downs increases your chances of scoring. Scoring more helps you win.
They were 29th in red-zone scoring rate at 48% in 2018. The only teams in the NFL that were worse than the Dallas Cowboys were the New York Jets, Jacksonville Jaguars, and San Francisco 49ers. Only one other team in the bottom 10 in the league in red-zone scoring rate made the playoffs; the Houston Texans. In 2017, the Dallas Cowboys were sixth in the NFL in red-zone scoring percentage at 59.6% and that was without Ezekiel Elliott for six games and without Tyron Smith for three games.
Having Jason Witten's ability to get open in confined spaces will help everyone on the offense. Even after having a year off, Witten is a player that will have to be accounted for in those high-leverage situations.
There isn't a person in the world that knows Jason Witten the football player better than Tony Romo does. Their careers have been so intertwined that it's hard to think of one without thinking of the other. It's why one day when they're inducted into the Dallas Cowboys Ring of Honor, that it would be fitting for it to happen together.
If, as Romo believes, Jason Witten can pick up right where he left off, his veteran presence, leadership, and on-field ability are going to be a huge asset for a team that has Super Bowl aspirations in 2019. For the Cowboys to reach the Super Bowl and win their sixth Lombardi Trophy, they're going to need "Gold Jacket" Witten to return to his pre-retirement form.
And if Tony Romo believes he will, there's no reason to doubt Jason Witten. Do so at your own peril.
Position Flex of Connor Williams, Connor McGovern Gives the Cowboys Options
The Dallas Cowboys find themselves facing an interesting situation heading into training camp later this month. They've stockpiled enough talent on the offensive line that now they have multiple players who can play multiple positions. This is better known as "Position Flex" around the Cowboys team facility, and it's highlighted by Connor Williams and rookie Connor McGovern.
Williams was drafted in the second round in 2018 out of Texas. Even though he logged 28 starts at left tackle during his days in Austin, he was brought in to play left guard opposite All-Pro Zack Martin. As a rookie, he started the first eight games before suffering a knee injury Week 10 against the Titans. He struggled due to his smaller size and being a natural tackle, showing he definitely needed to bulk up if he wanted to start on the interior of the offensive line. His back up Xavier Su'a-Filo was serviceable in his absence.
However, he did start two games at right guard in place of Zack Martin and performed pretty decent. This gave him much-needed experience in case of an injury in the future. He's shown he can adjust and be a solid lineman at more than one spot.
When All-Pro Tyron Smith had veterans day off during OTAs, Williams was seen taking snaps at left tackle, his natural position. La'el Collins is the starter at right tackle but is currently in a contract year. Set to be an unrestricted free agent in 2020, and with uncertainty, that he'll perform to the level needed to keep him as the starter or garner a big payday, the Cowboys have some insurance. This could create a situation where Williams is flexed outside if Collins hits the open market next year, only time will tell.
McGovern comes into the NFL with an advantage over his fellow lineman Williams. He was able to gain experience at multiple positions on the offensive line at Penn State. He started 21 games at right guard (9 as a freshman, 12 as a junior) and 14 games at center (13 as a sophomore, 1 as a junior). He's ideal to play on the interior seeing as he is naturally a little bigger than Williams, who had to pack on the pounds this offseason to deal with the responsibility of playing guard.
Now, the Cowboys can really see, if this is their thinking, who the five best guys are on the offensive line. If it were up to me, I would put Williams in direct competition with Collins for the right tackle position. This would allow McGovern to battle Su'a-Filo for the left guard spot. Also, with the health of All-Pro Center Travis Fredrick still up in the air, until the pads come on, McGovern's flexibility has added more insurance along with back up Joe Looney in case there's a setback before the season starts.
Multiple players with the skill set to move across the line if called upon. What more could you ask for as an offensive line coach? Plus, neither will be over the age of 22 during the season. The Cowboys have masterfully built the line of scrimmage on offense through the draft since 2011. Their dedication to dominating the trenches has them loaded with talent in said area. The only thing left is to wait for training camp to see where the chips fall.
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