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.