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.
Will Dallas Cowboys Address Backup RB in Free Agency or 2019 Draft?
The Dallas Cowboys' backup running back spot may not seem like a high priority compared to other 2019 offseason issues. But all it takes is one bad play for Ezekiel Elliott to be lost, and the Dallas offense leans too heavily on the RB position to take his backup plan lightly. Will the team be looking to improve the talent behind Zeke through free agency or the draft?
Right now, the only running backs signed to the Cowboys' roster are Elliott, Darius Jackson, and Jordan Chunn. The backup for the last few seasons, Rod Smith, is currently an unrestricted free agent.
Jackson and Chunn have a combined six carries for 16 yards in their careers, and all of those came from Darius in the Cowboys' meaningless 2018 regular-season finale. Chunn spent all of his rookie season on the practice squad.
A sixth-round pick for Dallas in 2016, Darius Jackson is on his third stint with the Cowboys after stops in Cleveland and Green Bay in between. He has flashed some electric running ability at times but clearly hasn't been able to stick with a team. Could 2019 be his chance?
Jordan Chunn was an undrafted free agent out of Troy last year. He's a big, powerful runner with some deceptive athletic moves as well.
What stands out most with both of these guys isn't positive, though, and that's their mutual inexperience and draft capital. Would the Cowboys really leave their RB depth chart so thin when they're trying to make a championship run?
Dallas could be hoping to eventually re-sign Rod Smith at a bargain price. He's a solid backup and special teams leader, and the longer he sits unsigned in free agency then the lower his price should be.
But is it time for the Cowboys to invest more in their other running backs? Not only is 2019 a critical year, but upcoming contract negotiations with Elliott could make it a wise move.
This upcoming season is the last one of Zeke's standard rookie contract. Dallas will have to decide if they want to sign him long-term or let him play 2020 on his fifth-year option as a former first-round draft pick, which would pay him about $9 million.
Signing or drafting a player of consequence now, and having them under contract over the next few seasons, would give the Cowboys some added leverage in contract negotiations with Elliott.
What's more, who's to say that Zeke's impressive durability will just continue? He's already had a lot of touches in three years, even with the six suspension games. Maybe it's time to find someone who you don't mind giving some of the workload to?
Some of the top free agents available likely won't want the reduced role, and money, that playing behind Elliott will mean. That would take guys like Jay Ajayi and C.J. Anderson off the list.
What about older veteran who can still ball, like Marshawn Lynch, Darren Sproles, or Doug Martin? You might not want them as a featured player anymore but they could still be effective on limited touches. Joining a potential contender like the Cowboys in a supporting role could be exactly what these guys are looking for.
Other free agent options would be players who are used to backup roles, such as Isaiah Crowell, T.J. Yeldon, or Spencer Ware. They would be probable upgrades from Rod Smith but for minimal money if they stay unsigned much longer.
The draft is another way to add some RB talent, and it could be the smartest one. A drafted player, even as high as Dallas' second-round pick, would have a four-year rookie deal at a minimal salary.
One player that could make a lot of sense for the Cowboys is Justice Hill out of Oklahoma State. He brings a change of pace from Elliott as a smaller, quicker back and could be available for them during Day 2 of the draft.
Hill was featured as a potential Cowboys target by our Brian Martin a few weeks ago.
You might say that having Elliott makes any sort of serious draft pick at running back a wasted pick. But with Zeke turning 26 after the 2020 season, the Cowboys might be willing to let someone else give him a huge deal and move on to a much cheaper option.
And again, who says that Elliott makes it through another 16-game season and playoffs without a major injury? It can happen to the best of them.
Clearly, this could go any number of ways. Dallas might bring back Rod Smith or some comparable player for a cheap, easy answer at backup running back. Maybe they invest in a more proven free agent, or perhaps they draft someone early enough to matter.
However it goes, let's just say that I highly doubt Darius Jackson will be RB2 come September.
Dallas Cowboys Head Toward NFL Draft with No Glaring Needs
When the offseason began after the Dallas Cowboys fell to the Los Angeles Rams in the divisional round of the playoffs, it was clear that they were a team on the rise, but had several areas they needed to address as free agency and the draft approached.
The team had holes or depth issues at safety, defensive tackle, swing tackle, wide receiver, defensive end, and tight end. Through the first two weeks of free agency, the Dallas Cowboys have taken care of each of those areas.
With the signings of George Iloka, Christian Covington, Cameron Fleming, Randall Cobb, Tavon Austin, Kerry Hyder, and Jason Witten, The Dallas Cowboys have set themselves up to approach the draft with “clear eyes and a full heart.”
As they head into April with the NFL Draft looming, the Cowboys won’t be held back by positional need and can allow their draft board to do the work for them and just add good players. It’s an excellent position to be in as they don’t have to reach for a player at a position of need they may not like as much because they have a veteran presence filling that need.
Backup running back appears to be the only position where the Cowboys could use some depth, but that player for this team is more of a special teams player who gets limited snaps on offense because of the greatness of Ezekiel Elliott. It’s generally a position where there is a lot of talent deep in the draft and undrafted free agent pool, which allows the Cowboys to be patient filling that need behind the NFL’s leading rusher.
Mother than that, if the Dallas Cowboys has to go play a football game and win today, they’d be in great shape to do so.
On the flip side, however, the Cowboys can still add players at defensive tackle, wide receiver, tight end, safety, and defensive end because they aren’t restricted by big contracts to those veteran players. Each of them came to the Cowboys on one-year deals. The veterans that they signed would prohibit them from drafting at that same position, and that’s the point.
The Cowboys have created a formula that works really well for them. Sometimes it get frustrating watching the team not make any big splashes in free agency, especially that first week when other teams are bringing in big-name players to add to their rosters. That formula has led them to a 48-32 record over the last five seasons with three NFC East titles, and two playoff wins, and three divisional round appearances.
And the playoff runs could have been deeper with a bit of luck and correct officiating.
The Dallas Cowboys have set themselves up really well as they now set their sights on the NFL Draft at the end of April. Though they won’t have a first round pick to add to their talent pool, the Cowboys have shown that they can find talent in the second round and beyond. This year will be no different.
Now it’s time to sit back and trust the process.
Cowboys Have Had Quiet, Yet Successful, Free Agency
Yet another free agency without a big splash by the Dallas Cowboys. What a surprise. Despite entertaining Earl Thomas rumors for a long, long time, the Cowboys' front office has stuck with its philosophy of not overpaying free agents and building the team mainly through the NFL Draft. However, they've actually had some pretty good signings over the last few days that will really benefit the Cowboys when the season comes around.
They've done so with inexpensive free agents who will contribute at a high level on their respective positions. Sure, top free agent signings are fun. But many times, they end up backfiring to teams for spending so much money in one single player. At the end of the day, the Cowboys' way has gotten the team three NFC East Championships since 2014. Many factors come into play, but their team building philosophy can't be as bad as many claim it to be.
The most recent acquisition came in form of former Cincinnati Bengal and Minnesota Viking Safety George Iloka. The Cowboys had a desperate need at the defensive backfield and finally they've done something about it. On a heavy safety market, the Cowboys sat tight while watching the top free agents get top contracts around the league, including Landon Collins' record breaking deal with the Washington Redskins.
Now, they've gotten a guy who can play both safety positions. I'll be surprised if he doesn't take Jeff Heath's job. He's played as a free safety most of his career but being a good tackler, he should do a good job in the box. Iloka will also shine on special teams in Dallas.
So far, my favorite signing may be that of former Green Bay Packer, Randall Cobb. The Cowboys had an important need at the wide receiver position despite counting with Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup leading the room. Cole Beasley is a tough guy to replace and although Cobb may not be a better slot receiver than him, he certainly has the experience and the skill set to be a starting slot WR. What's more, he'll only cost the Cowboys five million while Beasley got a four year deal with which he'll earn $17M over the first two years.
Cole Beasley will be missed, but the good thing is the front office did a pretty good job at filling the concerning hole on offense. Cooper, Gallup and Cobb are definitely not a bad starting trio to have.
Other under the radar moves will also help the Cowboys. Kerry Hyder may not be a well-known in the NFL but he'll surely contribute to this defensive line as a rotational player. Hyder had eight sacks in 2016 with the Detroit Lions before suffering an Achilles injury in 2017 and dealing with a scheme change last season. Hyder will surely be happy about being back to a 4-3 defense in Dallas.
Christian Covington was another overlooked signing. Covington will help on the interior of the defensive line and although he'll likely not be a starter, he'll be an important piece in the rotation for a very reasonable contract ( also a one-year deal).
For a football team that's constantly criticized for not being active in free agency, the Cowboys have done something at pretty much every position where they need help. Safety, defensive end, defensive tackle, wide receiver and tight end have all been addressed this offseason prior to the NFL Draft. This will give them great flexibility in April and could lead to a pretty good "best player available" strategy.
Now granted, there are still concerns regarding the young "to be extended" group of players. DeMarcus Lawrence hasn't reached an agreement with the Cowboys and will continue to postpone surgery until he does. If the front office doesn't strike a contract with the star pass rusher, it won't be possible to consider this offseason a good one no matter what happens. Dallas can't let him leave.
In the meantime though, they've had a pretty quiet yet successful March. And they're not done yet. Robert Quinn could end up wearing the Star if a trade with the Miami Dolphins does end up taking place. We'll see if the Cowboys continue to build on an already pretty good free agency.
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