With the first practice of training camp happening this afternoon, I thought it a fine time to post my next 2017 roster projection. The first one was done about a week after the draft, and plenty has happened over the last two months.
Since early May, we've had too many players in the news for the wrong reasons. One suspension is already confirmed a few more are likely. Here's a quick recap:
- DL David Irving, 4 games (PED violation) *CONFIRMED*
- CB Nolan Carroll, 2 games (DWI arrest) (probable)
- LB Damien Wilson, ? games (Assault arrest) (probable)
- CB Jourdan Lewis, ? games (DV charges) (pending court case)
- RB Ezekiel Elliott, ? games (Various issues) (unknown)
This doesn't include defensive end Randy Gregory, who is gone for the year and perhaps for good after repeated drug policy violations. Damien Wilson could be facing a major suspension depending on the details of his case, but the start may not come for some time depending on the movement of the legal system.
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
I recently addressed the topic of Dallas potentially keeping a potential third QB in more detail. Suffice to say that neither Zac Dysert or Cooper Rush currently looks like a candidate to make the 53. The Cowboys generally go with just their starter and a veteran backup, using that third spot only to hold on to a significant developmental prospect.
Of course, the events of last season may have shifted their viewpoint. Tony Romo and Kellen Moore had to get hurt to open the door for Dak Prescott. While Prescott doesn't present the same injury concerns as Romo did, having to rely on QB3 last year might prompt Dallas to be more concerned about the position now. I don't expect it, but I don't dismiss it entirely.
Running Backs (4)
Ezekiel Elliott, Darren McFadden, Rod Smith, Keith Smith (FB)
I am going with the assumption that Elliott does not get suspended at all. At the most, he might get a fine for going Justin Timberlake on that girl's shirt on St. Patrick's Day. Otherwise, there doesn't appear to be enough on either the domestic violence case or the nightclub incident for the NFL to levy a suspension.
Elliott, McFadden, and Keith Smith appear to have their positions locked up. I think Keith's value as a solid blocker as well as special teams player makes him hard to cut. He can even play linebacker for you in a pinch.
Rod Smith gets the nod over Alfred Morris and Jahad Thomas right now. He can be a short-yardage thumper, has some receiving skills, and is a solid special teams player. Thomas is more of a Lance Dunbar clone who will have a harder time getting on the field with Elliott and McFadden's receiving ability. Morris struggled last year and offers no special teams value.
CHANGES: Added Butler
The top three veterans and fourth-round rookie Ryan Switzer are all locks. The only questions now are if the Cowboys keep five or six receivers and who will earn those spots.
While young prospects Noah Brown and Andy Jones could be competitive for roster spots, Dallas may be hesitant to lose the veteran Butler given Dez Bryant's injury issues. I think this prompts them to go long, keeping Butler for experience but also wanting to use a spot to protect their favorite prospect. I am giving Brown the benefit of the doubt for now.
Tight Ends (4)
Jason Witten, James Hanna, Geoff Swaim, Rico Gathers
It's entirely possible that Dallas will only keep three tight ends, but they have plenty of reason to go long. 2017 is likely Jason Witten's last year, meaning all three backups could be useful next season. You also have Hanna and Swaim coming off injuries, which increases the need for a fourth option.
I think that 2017 will be a year-long audition for Hanna and Swaim to show if they can replace Witten next season or at least solidify themselves as the backup. Both missed a lot of time last year and may need more than just camp and preseason to get back to full speed.
How Rico Gathers performs in camp and preseason will be a major factor. Obviously, proving he can contribute should earn him a roster spot. Even if he still has major weaknesses, just a couple of big plays in preseason could be enough that Dallas won't risk him on the practice squad again.
Offensive Tackles (3)
Tyron Smith, La'el Collins, Chaz Green
CHANGES: Moved Collins from G, Cut Emmett Cleary
It appears that Collins is the new right tackle, at least for the start of camp. I'm going with the assumption that "Plan A" of Collins at tackle and Jonathan Cooper at left guard will work out. That then leaves the swing tackle position, like last year, between Chaz Green and Emmett Cleary.
It's important to remember that Green was a third-round pick just two years ago. Dallas wants him to succeed and that gives him a tiebreaker over Cleary and other contenders. Byron Bell could also be a factor as he played tackle for several seasons with Carolina.
Zack Martin, Jonathan Cooper, Byron Bell
CHANGES: Moved Bell from OT
Again, we're assuming that the current plan of Cooper taking over at left guard works out. I think Byron Bell will also stick as a backup at both guard and tackle. You also have Joe Looney as a versatile backup at guard and center.
It's the versatility of the backups that will allow Dallas to keep just eight offensive linemen and free up a spot somewhere else. They could easily go with nine, though, depending on health issues and if there are still lingering concerns at left guard or right tackle. Some position battles aren't always resolved by Week One.
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 Jonathan Cooper gets hurt or just can't get it done, Looney may be the next-best option. If that happens, we will have to address backup center with one of the young guys or a free agent signing.
Defensive Ends (5)
DeMarcus Lawrence, Benson Mayowa, Charles Tapper, Taco Charlton, Damontre Moore
CHANGES: Added Moore
Good reports on Moore during the summer have prompted me to add him for the first four weeks during David Irving's suspension. He may get cut at that point, but injuries and other issues between then and now and then could change things. Dallas isn't going to part ways with anybody who proves they can get to the quarterback.
It will be interesting to see how Lawrence's impending free agency affects him and the team's use of him. Will they take snaps away from Taco and Tapper if DeMarcus isn't in the long-term plans? Will Lawrence be able to force his way into a new contract if he has a breakout year? He's one of the most intriguing players to watch all season.
Defensive Tackle (4)
Tyrone Crawford, Maliek Collins, Cedric Thornton, Stephen Paea
CHANGES: Removed David Irving (suspended)
This core group is set. When Irving comes back in Week 5, the roster spot will probably come from Damontre Moore at defensive end or maybe some other position. We should see a healthy rotation of all these players throughout the season, though Collins will likely get the most snaps as he did in 2016.
I know many fans are excited about seventh-round rookie Joey Ivie but I have a hard time saving him a spot given everything else going on with the team. An injury is probably the only way he'll avoid the practice squad.
Sean Lee, Jaylon Smith, Anthony Hitchens, Justin Durant, Kyle Wilber, Mark Nzeocha, John Lotulelei
CHANGES: Removed Damien Wilson (suspended) and Jeremiah George, Added Durant and Lotulelei
I'm assuming that Wilson is eventually suspended for at least some portion of 2017. It's possible that the NFL won't move until more plays out in the legal system, which could actually go into the season. However, they don't have to wait to act on the Personal Conduct Policy if they so choose. The re-signing of Justin Durant last week speaks to Dallas' concern about Wilson's availability.
I think they'll keep a seventh linebacker because of the question marks; Jaylon's knee, Durant's age, and Nzeocha's recurrent health issues. John Lotulelei was praised during mini-camp and OTAs and seems to be front-runner among the unknown prospects.
Anthony Brown, Orlando Scandrick, Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, Leon McFadden, Marquez White
CHANGES: Removed Nolan Carroll (suspended), Added McFadden and White.
Carroll's assumed two-game suspension makes it much easier for sixth-round rookie Marquez White to make the team. He will have to fight off some more experienced options in Leon McFadden and Sammy Seamster, though. Carroll's absence could cause Dallas to be more enticed by veteran options, instead of another rookie.
I actually think both will happen. Dallas will hang on to McFadden, who was with them last year, for the experience while also protecting White with a roster spot. When Carroll comes off suspension one of the two will be released to make room.
Dallas may only be able to keep one of them if they have to go longer at safety, though, which we'll get into right now.
Byron Jones, Jeff Heath, Kavon Frazier, Xavier Woods
CHANGES: Cut Robert Blanton
I'm assuming that either or Frazier or Woods will show enough that Dallas doesn't feel the need to keep veteran insurance policy Robert Blanton. If not, Dallas may be forced to keep five safeties if they don't want to risk their young guys on the practice squad. Then again, Frazier might just get cut if he can't take on a bigger role in his second year.
There is Jameill Showers, the former quarterback who converted to safety while on last year's practice squad. It's hard to see him beating out Frazier or Woods, but Showers' special teams prowess and usefulness as a mobile scout team QB aren't without value. If a full offseason at safety leads to major growth, perhaps Showers will surprise people.
Dan Bailey (K), Chris Jones (P), L.P. Ladouceur (LS)
There's little doubt about these three. The one thing to watch is that Jones and Ladouceur are both on expiring contracts. Dallas should bring in young guys as camp bodies, but if one of them really stands out then things might get interesting. Dallas could decide hanging on to the younger prospect is more prudent.
WR Randall Cobb Named Cowboys “Surprise Standout” for Offseason
NFL teams have wrapped up their offseason activities with the close of OTAs, especially where the players are concerned, and await the start of training camps next month. In reviewing the last few months, ESPN had their local reporters each pick a surprise standout from their team's practices. Todd Archer, who covers the Dallas Cowboys full time, selected veteran receiver Randall Cobb.
Cobb is in his first season with Dallas after signing as a free agent last March. He's spent the last eight years with the Green Bay Packers and was a Pro Bowler in 2014, but has struggled with injuries the last few seasons.
Here were Archer's observations on how Randall is doing so far with the Cowboys:
Normally a player with Cobb's résumé -- 470 catches for 5,524 yards and 41 touchdowns during his career -- would not be considered for a category like this. But injuries limited him to only nine games and 38 catches for Green Bay in 2018, and it was hard to know what the Cowboys were getting in the veteran receiver.
If the offseason work is any indication, they have found a replacement for Cole Beasley. Cobb's versatility can expand the offense for others, such as Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup. Cobb looked quick in and out of his breaks and fast enough to make plays down the field. Will he put up the 1,287 yards he had in 2014? No, but he gives Dak Prescott a security blanket in the slot who can turn a small gain into a big one.
The notion of Cobb replacing Beasley is a big one. While we'd like to think that Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup will provide plenty of firepower for the Cowboys offense, Dak Prescott has enjoyed a reliable threat from the slot position since he arrived.
Randall Cobb, when healthy, can do more than just make clutch catches. He has good run-after-catch skills and perhaps bring more big play potential than Beasley did.
If Cooper and Gallup do emerge as a dangerous starting duo on the outside, Cobb should have even more opportunities to punish defenses than Beasley did.
If nothing else, it's very encouraging to hear that one of the Cowboys' few 2019 free agent moves is already reaping benefits. Cobb still needs to bring it over a full season to really justify the move, but these early reports are cause for excitement.
BREAKING: Cowboys TE Rico Gathers Receives One-Game Suspension
Tight End Rico Gathers already had an uphill climb to return to the Dallas Cowboys' 53-man roster in 2019. But that climb just got even steeper; the NFL handed down a one-game suspension to Gathers today for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy.
If he does make the team this year, with Dallas or anyone else, Rico will have to sit out Week One of the season without pay.
Cowboys TE Rico Gathers is suspended without pay for the first game of the 2019 regular season for violating the NFL's policy and program on substances of abuse. This is from his arrest in 2018 for marijuana possession.
Gathers' chances of returning in 2019 were already hurt by Jason Witten's reversed retirement. He dropped to fourth on the TE depth chart behind Witten, Blake Jarwin, and Dalton Schultz, and Dallas only kept three tight ends last year.
The Cowboys also added Codey McElroy as a developmental player during the offseason.
While the suspension is news, the incident that led to it is not. Dallas already knew about the arrest, which occurred in early September of 2018, and have kept Gathers around up until now.
The NFL's substance abuse system is pretty formulaic, so the Cowboys likely anticipated this suspension all along. This may not change anything about how they value Rico Gathers for the 2019 season.
Nevertheless, a player who can't help you in Week One and is a liability for ever longer suspensions down the road is definitely a red flag against Gathers' job security.
Antwaun Woods: Cowboys DT is Just Getting Started
Antwaun Woods went undrafted in 2016 coming out of USC. After two years with the Tennessee Titans, he would only see one game of action. In May of 2018, the Cowboys signed Woods to a two-year contract worth 1.05 million. Probably seen as nothing more than a practice squad guy, Woods would quickly show he was much more than that.
The newly acquired Woods started his climb to stardom in Oxnard during training camp, and not for making plays. One day during practice he got into a friendly game of fisticuffs with All-Pro Center Travis Frederick. The team even posted the video on social media, which had fans buzzing and wanting to know who he was.
All-Pro Running Back Ezekiel Elliott echoed those thoughts when he saw Woods during camp. "Honestly, when we first got him, we were like, 'Who is this guy?'. He was giving Travis Frederick, one of our best players, hell all camp. Just trying to figure out where this guy came from," Elliott said.
Once the regular season started it was clear the Cowboys had found a hidden gem. Although the sack numbers won't dazzle you, seeing as he only registered 1.5, you could forget about running the ball anywhere near him. Woods has amazing quickness for a 300 pounder which allows him to extend his arms before offensive lineman can get a hand on him.
How significant is that? It becomes that much easier to bull rush and blow running plays up in the backfield.
When you can get your hands on an offensive lineman immediately when the ball is snapped, he's basically under your control. You can move him around like a puppet on a string. Essential for a 1-technique nose tackle. With that being said, there should be no surprise the Cowboys finished fifth against the run in 2018 with Woods manning the middle.
Woods draws a lot of double teams, and he handles them well. Having the ability to take on multiple linemen frees up your other playmakers. As the anchor in the middle, Woods made life a lot easier for not only his fellow defensive linemen but the team's two young star Linebackers Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch. Allowing them to roam freely like Lions in the Serengeti makes running backs essentially Zebra's carrying the ball, cooked food. So much so that both tallied over 120 tackles and were the only teammates in the NFL to rank in the top 15 in that category.
There's nothing but upside with Antwaun Woods. He's only had 18 games of experience in three years. He's already a stud, but with limited snaps, it can only mean he'll be even more formidable going forward.
The Cowboys have a loaded defensive lineman group with around 15 bodies, plenty of competition. All signs point to him remaining the starter, but it's not guaranteed. Even with that being said I don't expect a complacency from Woods, especially with DeMarcus Lawrence and Robert Quinn looking like the only sure starters on the defensive line. Plus this is a contract year for him, so you know he'll be even more motivated as he tries to maximize his dollars. We've only seen the tip of the iceberg from this raw talent, setting up for a potential breakout year for him in 2019.
Dallas Cowboys5 days ago
3 Dallas Cowboys Who Could Be Traded Before Week 1
Dallas Cowboys2 weeks ago
Former Redskins RB Rob Kelley Could Be Shrewd Signing for Cowboys
Dallas Cowboys1 week ago
5 Takeaways from Dallas Cowboys OTA’s
Dallas Cowboys2 weeks ago
Kasey Redfern, a Name Dallas Cowboys Fans Might Want to get to Know
Star Blog2 weeks ago
3 Reasons 2019 Will be Dak Prescott’s Best Season Yet
Star Blog2 weeks ago
How Concerned Should We Be About Ezekiel Elliott’s Situation?
Dallas Cowboys7 days ago
Could Amari Cooper Threaten Cowboys Receiving Records in 2019?
Star Blog2 weeks ago
Will DE Taco Charlton “Break Out” In 2019?