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.
Dez Bryant, Cole Beasley, Terrance Williams, Ryan Switzer, Brice Butler
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.