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.
Cowboys Wishlist: Snap Julio Jones’ Hot Streak
The Dallas Cowboys will try to get their second road win of the season against another inconsistent Atlanta Falcons team. As both try to get back to .500, this game will be filled with interesting matchups and implications. After upsetting the Philadelphia Eagles 27-20 last Sunday, the Cowboys need to get another upset win to keep being relevant in the league this year.
Here's this week's edition of Cowboys Wishlist! I hope you enjoy and I encourage you to let me know what your wishes are in the comments section below or tweet me @MauNFL!
Wish #1: Stop Julio Jones' 100-Yard Game Streak
With the Atlanta Falcons sitting at 4-5, many have overlooked Wide Receiver Julio Jones' hot streak. In each of his last four games, Jones has accounted for more than 100 receiving yards and two touchdowns. Totaling 476 yards in his last four games, Jones is ready to face Cowboys' Cornerback Byron Jones.
Byron has certainly been a pleasant surprise in 2018, playing at a great level right now. He has faced Odell Beckham and DeAndre Hopkins this year and made a good job of defending these "Tier 1" pass-catchers. It's worth noting the Cowboys are not making him "travel" with these players but rather keep him on a specific side of the field. That shouldn't change against the Falcons.
Wish #2: Contain WR Calvin Ridley
Back in April, Cowboys Nation eyed Calvin Ridley as a prospect who could end up wearing the Star on Sundays. However, Dallas passed on him and the Alabama product fell right unto the Falcons' lap. He's had a pretty good season and despite sharing the field with Julio Jones, he's done a great job as a rookie averaging 14 yards per reception.
The Cowboys need to contain him. While Dallas should feel comfortable with Byron doing his job, the truth is Chidobe Awuzie has struggled at times. Not that he's suddenly a bad player, but he needs to step up his game. Lining up against Ridley today will be a great test and one I wouldn't expect him to pass easily.
Wish #3: Score 28+ Points
The Cowboys have the huge advantage of going against a defense that ranks 29th in scoring defense. They did a nice job on Philadelphia last week and should continue to build on that success to do something they haven't done much this year: score a lot of points.
Scott Linehan's unit needs to do a better, more consistent, job. They've shown us they're capable of scoring, but they've also shown us their remarkable ability to seemingly forget how to do so. Blame it on play-calling, QB play, poor offensive line or whatever you prefer, it's a flawed unit.
They need to capitalize versus a poor defense like the Falcons' to find a steady rhythm.
Wish #4: Dak Makes This Falcons' Game a Turning Point
Last year, when Dak Prescott was sacked six times in Atlanta (five times by Adrian Clayborn) something changed for the Cowboys' young quarterback. Missing RB Ezekiel Elliott and LT Tyron Smith that day, Prescott had one of the worse days in his career. It was a turning point for him as a QB and the public eye.
Now he has a chance at redemption. A shot at putting the Cowboys at .500 and reviving playoff hopes, as unlikely as it sounds.
I wish that's the case for the Cowboys young passer in Atlanta. As flawed as he is, I'm a fan of his. The kid leaves it all on the field.
Final Thoughts on Cowboys Matchup with the Atlanta Falcons
This week, like every week for the rest of the 2018 NFL season, is a must-win game for the Dallas Cowboys. Getting ready to face an Atlanta Falcons team that took the heart and soul of the Cowboys offense in last year's matchup, Dak Prescott and the Cowboys have a lot to prove as they attempt to get back to the .500 mark for the fourth time this season.
It feels like the Philadelphia game was forever ago. Now that it's finally game day, here are some final thoughts on the Cowboys matchup with the Atlanta Falcons.
Amari Cooper Breaks Century Mark
Amari Cooper has proven his worth in his first two games since coming over to the Dallas Cowboys from the Oakland Raiders. He's had 11 catches in the first two weeks and has made an instant rapport with Quarterback Dak Prescott. I believe they take another step forward this week and Amari Cooper goes for 100 yards in just his third game with America's Team.
Cooper had 75 yards against the Eagles and 58 against the Titans. He's trending toward the 100 yard mark. If Prescott and Cooper could have connected on just one of the deep shots they missed on, Cooper goes for 100 last week. This week, Dak and Coop get another weak defense.
The Atlanta Falcons pass defense is one of the worst in the NFL. They have the sixth highest net yards per attempt number in the NFL and the sixth most yards allowed. They've also allowed the fourth most passing touchdowns; 21.
Since the Atlanta Falcons can score and move the ball with their passing attack, the Cowboys will have to throw to win this game.
Can Xavier Su'a Filo Continue to be an X-Factor
The Cowboys offensive line had their best game of the season on the ground on Sunday as they gashed the Philadelphia Eagles -- who were second in rushing heading into the game -- for 171 rushing yards. They did it by going right at the Eagles defense and were most successful when they used Su'a-Filo to get to the next level of the defense.
There's been a lot of talk about whether Su'a-Filo should continue to start when Connor Williams comes back and for me, it depends. Williams has had some problems with the strength that defensive tackles bring on the inside, but he's been getting better too.
If Su'a-Filo and the Cowboys offensive line plays well during this stretch that Williams is healing, then it would be a shock to see the rookie second round pick reinserted into the starting lineup.
Check out this week's film review on Xavier Su'a-Filo.
Dominant Defensive Duo
Jaylon Smith and DeMarcus Lawrence has been exceptional this season. Jaylon Smith looks to be healthy and progressing to be what the NFL thought he would be coming out of college. A transcendant middle linebacker.
DeMarcus Lawrence sack numbers may not be as high as they were this time last season, but he continues to show that he's a dominant player on both pass and rushing downs.
Cowboys playmaking EPA, now with snap counts! The most efficient playmakers have been Jaylon Smith, DeMarcus Lawrence, Sean Lee, Daniel Ross and Jourdan Lewis. "Playmaking EPA" = total EPA on failed plays forced through sacks, QB hits, turnovers, passes deflected, tackles, etc.
As you can see from our friend Daniel Houston, who manages Cowboys Stats and Graphics on Twitter points out, Smith and Lee have been the best playmakers on the team on a per snap basis. By just about every measure out there, those two have been worthy of Pro Bowl and perhaps All-Pro selections.
Playing for his Life
Chidobe Awuzie has been struggling this season. And that's stating it kindly to the second-year corner back. He's had decent positioning for much of the year, typically being right where he's supposed to be, but he's not making any plays of the football, which is something he was known for coming out of college.
There's something not quite right with his game this season as he's become the focal point for opposing passing attacks and for good reason. He can't stop anyone.
Well, this is the week to turn all of that around. The Dallas Cowboys need him to have a big week this week.
As humans, we know that when our interior isn't right, it doesn't matter what else we have going on on the outside, we don't function as well. The same is true for defense. If your interior isn't right, your defense isn't right. The Dallas Cowboys defensive interior is struggling with some health issues.
On the final injury report of the week, Defensive Tackles David Irving and Daniel Ross have already been ruled out, Antwaun Woods is doubtful, and Maliek Collins is questionable. If for some reason Maliek Collins isn't able to go, then it's probable that the team will go into the game without a functional one-technique defensive tackle. Even with Collins in the lineup, being down Woods and Ross means the Cowboys have to run Collins at 1T and Tyrone Crawford is your primary 3T defensive tackle.
With Crawford having to play inside this week it means a three-man rotation at defensive end of DeMarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory, and Dorance Armstrong. They should be alright on the outside, but Crawford is one of their best run defending defensive ends. He's good on the inside, but you want to save him for your passing situations.
This is one of those games that I'm having a difficult time getting a read on. The Cowboys haven't been good on the road this season until last week at Philadelphia, one of the more difficult places to play in the NFL. In that game, they finally got their offense clicking through the air and on the ground.
This week looks like an opportunity for the Cowboys to continue to prove themselves offensively against an average to below average opponent.
On the defensive side of the ball, they're going to have their hands full with an Atlanta Falcons offense that is averaging more than 30 points a game at home and has one of the best receivers in the NFL in Julio Jones.
I think this is going to be a close game where both teams get into 20's in point scored and it comes down to who plays better offensively at the end.
My heart leans Cowboys, but my gut leans Falcons. So it should be a 20-20 tie. Really though, I'm going with the...
Who you got?
Cowboys, Falcons Week 11 Injury Report
The Dallas Cowboys and Atlanta Falcons are both 4-5 and playing to keep their seasons alive. It's a mutual must-win game, and both will have to try to win it without some key players. Once again, we look at this week's injury reports.
Let's begin with your Cowboys, whose report is getting longer as the season wears on:
- WR Tavon Austin (groin) - OUT
- DE Taco Charlton (shoulder) - OUT
- DT David Irving (ankle) - OUT
- DT Daniel Ross (calf) - OUT
- LB Sean Lee (hamstring) - OUT
- DT Antwaun Woods (concussion) - Doubtful
- G Zack Martin (knee) - Questionable
- G Connor Williams (knee) - Questionable
- DT Maliek Collins (knee) - Questionable
- LB Joe Thomas (foot) - Questionable
The biggest news is the guy who won't miss tomorrow's game; All-Pro guard Zack Martin is expected to play despite his knee injury from last Sunday night. The Cowboys, already dealing with Travis Frederick's absence and now health issues at left guard, could ill afford to go without Martin in such a pivotal game.
Even if he was healthy, rookie Connor Williams might have a hard time getting in the game. Backup Xavier Su'a-Filo looked like an experienced former second-round pick last week, and he may be the better player for now.
The defensive line has been hit hard, particularly in the middle. With Irving and Ross out, Woods doubtful, and Collins uncertain, Dallas called up DT Christian Ringo from the practice squad. They will also be without Taco Charlton, who could play inside some. Veteran Caraun Reid will be seeing a lot of playing time.
Sean Lee's ongoing absence has become almost an afterthought now with the stellar play of Leighton Vander Esch. We've seen in the past when missing Lee meant disaster on defense, but Dallas' first-round rookie has helped mitigate the damage.
- LB Deion Jones (foot) - OUT
It's a short list for Atlanta, but the one name on it is a big one. Arguably the team's best defensive player, Deion Jones will miss the game with a foot injury.
The Falcons' injury issues have been more in players suffering season-ending injuries. Both starting guards, Andy Levitre and Brandon Fusco, are on injured reserve. Star running back Devonta Freeman is also there, and those losses help explain Atlanta's 30th-ranked rushing offense.
Both starting safeties are also on IR; Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal. Atlanta has one of the league's worst passing defense this year without them, ranking 30th in yards allowed and 28th in opponent passer rating.
So yes, the Falcons injury report compared to the Cowboys' may raise some eyebrows. But in terms of who has most of their key guys, Dallas is arguably still better off.
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