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.
5 Points: Analyzing the 2018 Dallas Cowboys Schedule
Every year around this time, sports fans everywhere are reminded of just how dominant the National Football League is. The NFL schedule release is literally just the sharing of a calendar that has little meaning until after next week's NFL Draft, but still dominates headlines both before and after the event.
If the Dallas Cowboys are going to return to the playoffs in 2018, we now know the path they will take -- beginning on September 9th in Carolina against the Panthers.
Here are five of my initial thoughts on this team's schedule.
1. "Early" Bye Week Still Later Than Recent Seasons
The Cowboys' bye week falls in week eight this season, which is certainly nothing new. This team is used to having their bye earlier in the season, but week eight is actually the latest it's been over the last three seasons.
In Dak Prescott's rookie season, the Cowboys rolled to six straight wins following their bye week - all part of a longer 11 game win streak. In 2017, the Cowboys played their final three games with Ezekiel Elliott after the bye, improving to 5-3 and inspiring hope for a salvageable season before further injuries piled up.
This season, the Cowboys will come out of their bye week to host Monday Night Football at AT&T Stadium against the Tennessee Titans.
2. AFC South to Play A Huge Factor
Speaking of the Titans, it is the NFC East's year to face off against the AFC South. This has been an unpredictable division as of late, with the Jacksonville Jaguars emerging as early favorites following their improbable run to the AFC Championship Game.
Unlike the NFC East, the AFC South has been decided by who maintains stability at quarterback. The Colts are hoping to contend with Andrew Luck back on the field in 2018, as are the Texans with second-year QB Deshaun Watson.
The Titans overhauled their coaching staff in hopes of progressing QB Marcus Mariota further to make a run at the playoffs once again.
For the Cowboys, their meetings with the AFC South will carry extra weight - as all but one of them precedes a divisional game in some sense. Following back to back games at the Texans and home against the Jaguars, the Cowboys will visit the Redskins in week seven.
The first shot Dallas will get at the defending Super Bowl champions will be November 11th in Philadelphia, two weeks removed from their bye after facing the Titans.
Coming out of two games in 12 days through weeks 12 (Thanksgiving) and 13, the Cowboys will have little chance to come up for air against the Eagles in week 14. Their chance to regroup may come the following week, with a favorable December road game in Indianapolis against the Colts.
3. Revenge Against the Falcons
The Cowboys' week 10 game a year ago in Atlanta is truly where the 2017 season was lost. Playing without Ezekiel Elliott, the Cowboys looked lost on offense thanks to the added absence of All-Pro Left Tackle Tyron Smith.
The Cowboys' fight to carry on at 5-4 was buried into the Falcons' new turf, as was Dak Prescott that afternoon, sacked eight times.
Only a week removed on the calendar from meeting the Falcons on the same date, the Cowboys will again play at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in week 11 this season. The chance for revenge against the Falcons will also mark the only pair of consecutive road games this 2018 Dallas Cowboys team will play.
4. Running Through December
The national media may not want you to know that the Cowboys are a combined 6-2 in December over the last two seasons, as this team's fabled late season collapses remain a topic of conversation.
This point also stands as a great example of why breaking down team schedules in April is often a pointless exercise, but not obsessing over every twist and turn of the NFL as a yearly hobby is no fun. According to me.
It is no secret that the Cowboys will be relying heavily on Ezekiel Elliott in 2018, expecting their star running back to suit up for 16 games and carry the offense. If you believe that Prescott and Elliott paired together full-time again is enough reason for optimism about the Cowboys, their December schedule becomes even more favorable.
Aside from playing three of the four games indoors and away from the elements, the Cowboys will face three of the worst rushing defenses in yards per game allowed from last season in December. With the Eagles being the glaring exception (leading the league in this category), the Cowboys should have their way on the ground with the Colts, Buccaneers, and Giants over their final three games.
5. Thanksgiving Tradition
For the second time in three seasons, the Dallas Cowboys will host the Washington Redskins on Thanksgiving. The Cowboys were victorious on Thanksgiving in 2016 over the Redskins, 31-26.
The Cowboys have only lost to the Redskins once on Thanksgiving, facing them a total of eight times and dropping a 2012 bout with Washington 38-31 (Robert Griffin III's rookie season with the Redskins).
Riding a four game winning streak against the Redskins, the Cowboys get to face an Alex Smith led Washington team on Thanksgiving to wrap up their first series against the NFC East. Following week 12, the Cowboys will still have meetings with the Eagles and New York Giants.
Some may look at this year's division as a two-team race, but counting absolutely any team out of an NFC East race is foolish - even more so in April.
✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭
By this time next week, the Dallas Cowboys have a chance to look entirely different - adding as many as ten players at the 2018 NFL Draft. Only then will we have a better feel for how they stack up against this 2018 schedule.
Stay posted right here to Inside The Star for draft coverage live from Dallas, as I will be at AT&T Stadium for all seven rounds of picks alongside Slant Sports Draft Analyst Nick Flaherty.
Cowboys TE James Hanna Retiring
In an unexpected bit of pre-draft news, Dallas Cowboys backup tight end James Hanna will be retiring after six seasons. He was drafted by the Cowboys in sixth round of the 2012 NFL Draft.
The news of Hanna's retirement was first reported by ESPN's Todd Archer:
The Cowboys will place James Hanna on the reserve/retired list as the tight end could not get over a serious knee condition that troubled him for most of the last two seasons, according to sources. Hanna was not involved in the early part of the team's... https://t.co/45BAZ2avSC
Hanna, who turns 29 in July, missed all of 2016 with that knee issue and has had two surgeries. He was active for all 16 games last season but wasn't used much on offense, only having four catches. James did catch his first and only NFL touchdown in the team's Week 4 loss to the Los Angeles Rams.
Many thought Hanna would be a salary cap casualty this offseason, but a retirement has the same effect on the cap. The Cowboys now save $2.75 million off his scheduled $3.5 mullion cap hit in 2018.
James Hanna has stuck around this long thanks to being a proficient blocker and one of the standout players on special teams. Geoff Swaim, entering the final year of his rookie deal, will likely be trusted to fill those roles.
That said, tight end was already a targeted position for the Cowboys in next week's draft. Losing Hanna only give the team more incentive to add more talent.
Optimistic Reports Emerge Around Randy Gregory
Good news are coming to Dallas just in time. Less than a week from now, the NFL Draft will be held in the Cowboys' home, the AT&T Stadium. But the team may count with a defensive talent many in Cowboys Nation have tried to forget for a while now. Randy Gregory's comeback may just happen.
There's a lot of positions in the roster that need more help than the defensive end one, but after finding the "War Daddy" Jerry Jones has always wanted in DeMarcus Lawrence, finding a RDE this offseason would be a dream scenario.
Sure, there's a lot of young talent in this football team and they'll be coming off a season that put a chip on their shoulders. Even so, they'll need all the help they can get.
Fortunately for the Cowboys, some help could come in form of a very talented pass rusher. Randy Gregory is reportedly applying for reinstatement very soon and according to Mike Fisher and Bobby Belt, there are positive reports around the situation.
Randy Gregory update: I'm told there is real momentum building. He is expected to apply for reinstatement in the week or two following next week's NFL Draft.
Cowboys Nation last saw the second round pick back in 2016, but his potential shouldn't be forgotten. Of course, the Cowboys shouldn't be considering Gregory for their 2018 plans, simply because there's risk of him not being available.
Even still, Dallas may get lucky at defensive end. After DeMarcus Lawrence has a breakout season in 2017, imagine the defensive line with Randy Gregory reinstated and rehabilitated to exploit his talent in the NFL.
UPDATE: We're told Randy Gregory camp is ready to present to NFL the fact the #Cowboys DE has passed a large number of drug tests, hasn't failed one since July 2016. https://t.co/Hjgu2CqRtC
Despite some TMZ "reports", it looks like Gregory has been clean for a while. It sure should make Cowboys' fans happy and not only form a football perspective. A comeback would definitely be something amazing. He has a chance to write a unique story for himself.
Everyone likes second-chance stories. Gregory is a guy who had his share of problems. By coming back to the NFL, he's showing players and fans that change is possible. This wouldn't just be epic for Dallas Cowboys fans but NFL fans in general.
If Dallas is fortunate enough to see Gregory reinstated by the NFL, their fight in the trenches might see a big upgrade next season. Randy still has a lot to work on and he might not even be a starter right away, but the potential is right there.
The Cowboys could become a team capable of dominating the line of scrimmage both on offense and on defense.
Hopefully, Gregory is able to come back and shine as a professional player. He, and NFL fans deserve a story like that.
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