Some weeks bring major changes to our roster projections, and some weeks only confirm what we already believed. The last two preseason games have definitely provided more confirmation than new evidence, meaning that this updated projection has very little difference from the last one.
Once again, here is a quick recap of the Cowboys' suspension situation:
- 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)
Elliott's appeal is scheduled for April 29th and the NFL will almost surely rule on his status before Week One. At that point it will be up to Zeke if he's going to seek an injunction and take it to the courts. While this is a very real possibility and perhaps even the most likely scenario, we're going to work with the current information.
Even though we don't have anything official yet on Carroll or Wilson, their situations don't leave much room for clemency. It's not a matter of if, but when, for them to get their suspensions. In Wilson's case, it's possible the legal situation will have to play out more before the league takes action. That means he may be available for Week One, but then goes away mid-season.
Dak Prescott, Cooper Rush, Kellen Moore
CHANGES: Added Cooper Rush
At this point there's no question that Cooper Rush will make the Cowboys 53-man roster. He has been one of the league's best quarterbacks this preseason and would be snatched up immediately if Dallas tried to get him to the practice squad. While there may be some recency bias here, I can't remember guys like Matt Moore or Alex Tanney looking as good as Rush has.
The real question now is what Dallas does with Kellen Moore and the backup position. They could still keep Moore as QB2 and just secure Rush with a roster spot. They could make Rush the primary backup and keep Moore around for his experience and the way he helps with game preparation. They even have the surprising option of putting Moore on the practice squad.
Indeed, the Cowboys may still decide to go with just two quarterbacks on the roster. If that happens, it won't be Cooper Rush who suffers. He's earned his spot the old-fashioned way, playing so well that he's impossible to ignore.
Running Backs (4)
Darren McFadden, Alfred Morris, Rod Smith, Keith Smith (FB)
If Elliott is suspended to start the year then this one is easy to call. Ronnie Hillman had a nice touchdown play last night but otherwise hasn't done enough to merit a spot. 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 on Thursday and they may not want to take that chance. We saw how quickly Darius Jackson got snatched up last year.
CHANGES: Removed Noah Brown
The decision to keep Cooper Rush at QB comes with a price somewhere else on the roster, and it's rookie Noah Brown who had to pay the bill. The top five at receiver are clear and the Cowboys likely wouldn't have the sixth guy active on game days.
Even if they do keep six, I can't say with certainty now that Noah Brown would be the guy. We've seen plays made by fellow rookies Brian Brown and Lance Lenoir. There are also Andy Jones and Uzoma Nwachukwu in the mix. We don't know all of the things these guys have done on the practice field that might sway the coaches.
For now, though, I see all of these guys competing for the practice squad. One will certainly be there and maybe even two. Perhaps Thursday's preseason finale will help to clear things up a bit.
Tight Ends (4)
Jason Witten, James Hanna, Geoff Swaim, Rico Gathers
Barring any new injuries, this group is locked in for 2017. The only thing left to determine is who gets the most snaps after Jason Witten, and we may see all three guys used fairly evenly throughout the year. Hanna and Swaim both have run-blocking advantages over Gathers, but Rico has the mismatch element in the passing game. It's a nice problem for Scott Linehan to have.
Offensive Tackles (3)
Tyron Smith, La'el Collins, Emmett Cleary
Another position that appears set; the starters are obvious and Cleary looks to have secured the swing tackle role now that Chaz Green is getting looks at guard and still having injury problems. While Green and Byron Bell do offer some position flexibility as options at tackle, Cleary probably has the most trust going forward.
Zack Martin, Jonathan Cooper, Chaz Green, Byron Bell
CHANGES: Added Bell
With the last projection I cut Bell because of the position flex that Chaz Green offers as a tackle or guard. However, the ongoing uncertainty at left guard and with Green's injuries mean the Cowboys probably need to go a little long with nine total linemen. At this point, Bell might even be the starting guard in Week One; things are still that unsettled.
Travis Frederick, Joe Looney
I'm surprised we haven't seen Looney more in the competition for left guard, but that would create another hole for a backup center. That's not to say he isn't being considered, but you can see why Dallas wants for one of the other guys to win that job outright and not force them to move other pieces around and create a new opening.
Defensive Ends (5)
DeMarcus Lawrence, Benson Mayowa, Charles Tapper, Taco Charlton, Lewis Neal
CHANGES: Removed Lenny Jones, Added Neal
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 and David Irving will further deepen the rotation as they return.
It's a toss-up right now between Lewis Neal and Lenny Jones for that final spot on the defensive line. Right now I'm going with Neal because he has the size to play inside or out, which we saw last night against the Raiders. Having a second guy like that helps with Tyrone Crawford likely to be playing at defensive end some during the suspensions, if not all season.
Defensive Tackle (4)
Tyrone Crawford, Maliek Collins, Stephen Paea, Cedric Thornton
Another locked-in position in terms of who makes the team, but Paea has been working his way into a larger role since camp began. It's not surprising given his history with Rod Marinelli in Chicago; the veteran has been starting over Thornton during preseason. It's another tough break for Cedric, who last year got benched because of the surprising emergence of a healthy Terrell McClain and rookie standout Maliek Collins.
Sean Lee, Jaylon Smith, Anthony Hitchens, Justin Durant, Kyle Wilber, Mark Nzeocha
CHANGES: Removed John Lotulelei
We're waiting for confirmation on Hitchens' knee injury and so far it's not looking good. If he does end up on IR, rookie Joseph Jones is probably the strongest candidate right now for the roster spot. Given their other issues with Damien Wilson's likely suspension and Jaylon Smith's ongoing reintroduction to football, it's possible Dallas will look to free agency. If you were one of those hoping Dallas would sign Daryl Washington, that door may have just been reopened.
Anthony Brown, Orlando Scandrick, Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, Marquez White, Duke 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.
Duke Thomas left last night's game with what appears to be a minor injury. He's had a nice camp and preseason and I'm keeping him on the roster for now. Dallas certainly needs to go long at cornerback with Awuzie and Lewis still limited by hamstring issues. Hopefully they get some run on Thursday night, because the Giants will be in town pretty damn soon.
Byron Jones, Jeff Heath, Kavon Frazier, Xavier Woods
Dallas probably would like to keep veteran Robert Blanton but just don't have the numbers. They will hope that Jones and Heath stay healthy and the young guys can stay on the bench and special teams. Blanton will likely be on the short list of guys they call during the year if an injury occurs.
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 just 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, Colts Week 15 Injury Report
The Dallas Cowboys can clinch the NFC East with a win this week, while the Indianapolis Colts are fighting to stay alive in the AFC wild card race. Only one team can accomplish their goal, and both have some big names on the Week 15 injury report.
We'll begin with the visiting Cowboys, who could be getting at least one star player back while another is already confirmed to miss the game.
- TE Geoff Swaim (wrist) - OUT
- G Zack Martin (knee) - OUT
- DL David Irving (ankle) - OUT
- WR Tavon Austin (groin) - Questionable
- WR Lance Lenoir (illness) - Questionable
- OT Tyron Smith (neck) - Questionable
- DE Randy Gregory (personal) - Questionable
- LB Sean Lee (hamstring) - Questionable
Yes, sadly, Zack Martin will be out tomorrow. The good news is that Connor Williams got the entire week to practice with the starters at right guard. You can read much more about this situation and it's impact on the game here, courtesy of our own Sean Martin.
Also ruled out, as they have been for a while now, are TE Geoff Swaim and DL David Irving. Swaim is still recovering from wrist surgery but has not been placed on injured reserve, so the team must feel he could be back for the playoffs. Irving could return as soon as next week.
Speaking of returns, Sean Lee may be back on the field this Sunday. It's unknown yet how he'll rotate with Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith, but Dallas has the luxury of working him in slowly thanks to the play of their young duo.
Tavon Austin could also return this week, creating another new offensive wrinkle. Austin has been injured since the Jacksonville game and has yet to play since the Cowboys acquired Amari Cooper. Not only could Tavon do some interesting things in the offense, but he should bring some additional sizzle to special teams.
While appearing on the injury report, Randy Gregory missed practice this week for "family reasons" according to Jason Garrett. He could still play tomorrow.
- G Mark Glowinski (ankle) - OUT
- LB Skai Moore (neck) - OUT
- S Mike Mitchell (calf) - OUT
- WR T.Y. Hilton (ankle) - Questionable
- TE Ryan Hewitt (ribs) - Questionable
- S Clayton Geathers (knee) - Questionable
The big name here is Hilton, the star receiver who missed all practice this week with an ankle injury. Indianapolis has not ruled him out, wanting to give Andrew Luck's favorite target every opportunity to play. But it's not looking good, and a bad ankle could limit Hilton's effectiveness even if he goes.
Also hurt among the passing options is starting TE Ryan Hewitt, but he did practice full on Friday and should go. Not playing, however, is starting right guard Mark Glowinski. That means third-year player Evan Boehm should start, who just joined the team in October.
Indy's hurting at safety this week. Not only did starter Clayton Geathers miss the whole week of practice, but veteran backup Mike Mitchell is already ruled out. The Colts would have to rely on undrafted rookie George Odum if neither plays.
Fun fact before we go; former Cowboy Jihad Ward was picked up by the Colts after Dallas included him in their roster cuts to start the season. However, he landed on injured reserve back in October so won't get a chance at revenge.
Zack Martin Out, Connor Williams In at Right Guard for Cowboys at Colts
The Dallas Cowboys offensive line depth will be tested as they play for a chance to clinch the NFC East on Sunday at the Indianapolis Colts. Suffering a knee injury last week against the Eagles, Right Guard Zack Martin will not be able to play. In missing his first career start, rookie Connor Williams rightfully returns to the starting lineup as Martin's replacement.
The 50th overall pick from this year's AT&T Stadium hosted Draft has started eight games this season at left guard. Williams' last start happens to be in the last game Dallas lost, a week nine defeat to the Tennessee Titans. This opened the door for Xavier Su'a-Filo to become something of a sensation for Cowboys Nation as the starting left guard throughout the team's current five game win streak.
Pro Bowl guard Zack Martin has been ruled out of Sunday's game with a sprained knee. Rookie Connor Williams will start in his place.
Zack Martin being unavailable is hardly how Marc Colombo wants to prepare for the Cowboys first road game since week 11. Having both Su'a-Filo and Williams in the lineup will be valuable for the Cowboys moving forward though, as Williams could earn his job at left guard back from the right side.
While he won't nearly be expected to play at the level of Martin, Williams looked poised coming off the bench against the Eagles and helping the Cowboys offense score their final three touchdowns. Williams was on the field for all three of Amari Cooper's scores, as Dallas rushed for 34 yards on 11 carries with him in the game.
Williams flashed some of the traits that made him a top left tackle prospect out of college, flowing to the second level with ease and creating movement with quick feet at the point of attack. The Cowboys have forced him to remain game ready despite losing his starting position by finding a few emergency snaps for him in recent weeks, as well as special teams looks. The team has every reason to believe Williams is an ascending young player still.
The same cannot be said of Su'a-Filo, who simply has to focus on continuing to hold up at left guard again this week. With each passing win, Su'a-Filo's LG spot has become more of a liability in a Cowboys offense in need of a jump-start late in this 2018 season.
Consistent offensive line play is one of the few things that's clearly hurting the Cowboys as contenders in the NFC behind a stellar defense and game breaking wide receiver.
The Cowboys won't be at full strength against the eighth best rushing defense and 15th ranked passing defense in yards per game. With three separate chances to clinch the NFC East starting at the Colts and extending until the end of the regular season, the Cowboys stand to learn all they need to know about the offensive line that will start in the playoffs.
Martin, who's elevated his game to a new level this season despite this lingering knee injury, should be on track to return when the Cowboys come home to play the Buccaneers in week 16.
Final Thoughts and Prediction for Cowboys vs Indianapolis Colts
Over the last five weeks, the Dallas Cowboys have put themselves in a position in week 15 to clinch the NFC East with a win over the Indianapolis Colts or a loss by the Philadelphia Eagles vs the Los Angeles Rams.
My how things have changed.
Just six weeks ago, the Cowboys were coming off an embarrassing two touchdown loss on Monday Night Football at the hands of the Tennessee Titans and looked dead in the water sitting at 3-5. A month and a half later they are in position to win the division and potentially have little to play for the final two weeks of the season. That's an amazing turnaround. One that should have Jason Garrett in the Coach of the Year discussions.
As we get ready for the Colts on Sunday, let me give you my final thoughts on the week 15 matchup.
Will Key Injuries Tell the Tale?
By week 15 of the NFL season, pretty much everyone is dealing with injuries and most teams are dealing with injuries to key players. The Dallas Cowboys and the Indianapolis Colts are no different.
All-Pro Right Guard Zack Martin has already been ruled out of Sunday's contest, as he's been battling a knee injury for several weeks. It was worsened on Sunday vs the Eagles when he took a bull rush from Fletcher Cox and fell awkwardly. This will be the first start that Zack Martin has missed in his illustrious five-year career. He's been an iron man for the Cowboys at a position that makes it extremely difficult to stay healthy.
On the plus side, it looks like the Cowboys mat get All-Pro Linebacker Sean Lee and Wide Receiver Tavon Austin back for Sunday. Both Lee and Austin will likely be in reserve/rotational roles if they suit up this week, but if they're active, they'll make important impacts to their respective units.
Indianapolis is struggling with an injury to a very important player in their own right as Wide Receiver T.Y. Hilton has not practiced this week. He's dealing with an ankle injury and Colts Head Coach Frank Reich doesn't sound optimistic about his chances of playing.
The Colts will also be missing their Right Guard Mark Glowinski, who has started the last eight games for Indianapolis. Glowinski suffered an ankle injury during the Colts win over the Texans last Sunday. That's a key loss for an offensive line that has played as well as anyone in the NFL this season.
Can the Cowboys Limit Andrew Luck?
The Cowboys defense has been one of the best units in football in 2018 as they've put on a show against really good offensive teams like the Atlanta Falcons and the New Orleans Saints. They'll have another tough test this week against Andrew Luck and the Colts.
According to Pro Football Reference, Luck sits second in the NFL in touchdown passes, sixth in passing yards, third in completions, second in attempts, 12th in quarterback rating, and ninth in QBR. At 7.1 yards per attempt, he sits 22nd in the NFL in and 20th in the NFL in air yards per attempt at 7.3.
Luck has been one of the best passers in the NFL, but he's also thrown the second most interceptions this season. On the flip side, among quarterbacks who have started 13 games, Luck has been sacked the second fewest times. Only Drew Brees has taken less sacks. Luck has only been sacked 16 times in 13 games and has been sacked multiple times in only five games. Over the last three weeks, Luck has taken an average of two sacks a game.
In that four week stretch, the Colts have gone 3-1, and Luck has averaged 321 yards passing, two touchdowns and an interception per game.
The Dallas defense has come on strong and is finding ways to get pressure with four rushers. Taking advantage of the injury at right guard and getting to Luck with their front four is a huge key to the game as it is against most quarterbacks. Randy Gregory and DeMarcus Lawrence are playing as well as any defensive end duo in the NFL this season and I expect that to continue this week.
Big Games from Explosive Duo?
The Dallas Cowboys have been getting huge games from their two most important skill position players; Running Back Ezekiel Elliott and Wide Receiver Amari Cooper. Over the last five weeks, Elliott has averaged 116 rushing yards a game, 55 receiving yards, and at least one touchdown per game. During the same stretch, Cooper has averaged seven receptions for 116 yards and a touchdown per game.
Elliott and Cooper may find it difficult to reach their respective 100 yard milestones against the Colts. As Patrick Conn of WFAA.com illustrates below.
Colts haven't given up 100 yards to a single rusher. 2-100 yard receiving games vs Texans in first matchup (Hopkins/Coutee). Other than that, no other 100 yard performances
Now, it could be argued that the Colts have only played three games against teams with good to great offenses. The Houston Texans (twice), and the New England Patriots. They went a combined 1-2 in those three games and the defense allowed an average of 32 points per game. The Colts have played better defense over the last seven games than they did earlier in the season. Over the last seven, they went 6-1 and allowed an average of 17 points per game. Of course that stretch of games doesn't feature any offensive juggernauts. They played the Buffalo Bills, Jacksonville Jaguars, Miami Dolphins, Tennessee Titans, and the Oakland Raiders. The best team they played in their last seven games was the Houston Texans and they allowed 21 points. The Cowboys only allowed 16 points in regulation to the Texans.
Only one team on the Colts schedule to this point is in the top 10 in rushing; the Houston Texans. And only one team on their schedule is in the top 10 in passing; the New England Patriots. Again, in three games against those teams, they went 1-2.
They haven't faced an offense this season that is playing as well, and as balanced, as the Cowboys have over the last five weeks.
Rookie Linebackers Dominating
We've all witnessed the standout play of rookie Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, as the "Wolf Hunter" has taken the NFC by storm during Sean Lee's absence. Vander Esch is third in the league in solo tackles this season. The two players in front of Vander Esch are perennial All-Pro Luke Kuechly and the guy who will probably run away with Defensive Rookie of the Year award, Indianapolis Colts rookie Darius Leonard.
Leonard is leading the NFL in solo tackles and combined tackles per Pro Football Focus. He's tied for the lead league among linebackers with seven sacks and is second in the NFL in Pro Football Focus' "stops" metric. Leighton Vander Esch is fourth.
Both linebackers have been huge contributors for their teams, at times taking over games and coming up with big plays to turn the tide. Throw in Fred Warner in San Francisco and 2018 has been the year of the rookie linebacker.
Since I've been writing this column, the Dallas Cowboys have enjoyed a bit of a win streak. I haven't always picked them, as you can see in the New Orleans Saints edition of Final Thoughts, but when I have picked the Cowboys, they've made me look smart and I'm going to go with them again this week on the road.
Indianapolis isn't really known as a tough place to play and in the Jason Garrett era, the Cowboys have generally been a really good team away from AT&T Stadium. I believe this game will be a close one, as most have been this year, but I think that Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott continue their impressive string of performances and are able to do enough to keep Andrew Luck on the sideline and limiting his impact on the game. If T.Y. Hilton is limited in the game or unable to go, that gives the Cowboys a huge advantage as they then can focus on touchdown maker Tight End Eric Ebron and we know what Byron Jones does to tight ends.
This is going to be a tough game, but I like the Cowboys to come out on top. Randy Gregory continues his sack streak and they get to Luck multiple times in the game and are able to force at least one turnover. Dak Prescott is efficient and doesn't turn the ball over this week and finds ways to beat the blitz. So, I've got it...
Cowboys 24 - Colts 20
Be sure to leave us your prediction in the comment section.
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