With the 2018 NFL Draft and the signings of undrafted free agents now behind us, it's a good opportunity to look at the Dallas Cowboys roster and what they have in stock for the upcoming season.
There are still a lot of changes that could come between now and the start of training camp, let alone Week One of the regular season. But the vast majority of the 53-man roster is already here and preparing to participate in mini-camps and other activities in the coming weeks.
Yesterday, we projected 25 players for the offense. With three spots obviously going to Kicker Dan Bailey, Punter Chris Jones, and Long Snapper L.P. Ladouceur on special teams, that leaves 25 more roster openings for the defense.
What might the 2018 defense look like when the Cowboys head Charlotte, NC on September 9th for the season opener against the Carolina Panthers?
Defensive End (5)
If nothing else, Lawrence is back for 2018 on his Franchise Player deal. In way, not having him signed long-term could be good as it keeps DeMarcus hungry for next year's free agency. But even if a new contract gets done, we should still expect “Tank” to keep excelling as one of the league's premiere pass rushers.
The progression of last year's first-round pick, Taco Charlton, will be heavily discussed in 2018. Whether you're rooting for him or trying to justify your criticism from the 2017 draft, Taco's play will be under plenty of scrutiny. He coming on at the end of his rookie year and should get a lot of playing time.
Dallas signed veteran Kony Ealy to bring some depth and some potential upside. Ealy was misused last year in the Jets' 3-4 scheme and now returns to the type of defense that suits him. The Cowboys wanted him last year but lost out on a waiver claim to New York.
I'm putting Randy Gregory here with the assumption that he gets reinstated. If he still has the potential that made him a second-round pick in 2015, Gregory could give Dallas the edge rusher that it sorely needs to go up against the left tackles. Coming back at all would be a success for Gregory, but hopefully he returns as more than just a depth player.
Another edge rushing option is rookie Dorance Armstrong, drafted in the fourth round a few weeks ago. He will need some physical development to hold up in a 4-3 scheme, but Rod Marinelli must have liked the potential to spend that mid-round pick.
Defensive Tackle (5)
The Cowboys defensive line as a lot of versatile moving parts, so trying to declare anyone a “starter” could be a wasted exercise. In some cases, depending on schemes, guys who get that first snap don't have the highest counts by the end of the game.
Players like Irving and Crawford are really just defensive linemen, potentially playing end or tackle depending on the week, the series, or even each individual play. With some more options at DE now, we may not see them on the outside as much this year as in the past. Hopefully, more talent on the edges will let them wreak havoc up the middle.
Terrell McClain isn't officially a Cowboy again as of the writing of this article, but the veteran free agent is meeting with the team today and a reunion seems highly probably. McClain should walk in as a starting DT, as he was in 2016, and bring some stability to the base scheme and run defense.
Bringing McClain back will allow for Maliek Collins to get back where he belongs as the 3-tech DT, with less double teams and more ability to use his athleticism to get into the backfield. We hope to see him return to the exciting form he showed as a rookie.
Dallas traded WR Ryan Switzer for Jihad Ward, who was a second-round pick of the Raiders in 2016. Tall and athletic, Ward reminds you a bit of Jason Hatcher. In Rod Marinelli's first year in Dallas in 2013, Hatcher exploded for 11 sacks from the DT position. The Cowboys reportedly liked Jihad Ward in the 2016 draft, perhaps seeing the same potential.
The Cowboys have intriguing young talent at DT with guys like Richard Ash, Lewis Neal, and Brian Price. But these guys are all longshots given the numbers and the pedigree of the players above them.
Sean Lee, Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch (R)
Damien Wilson, Joe Thomas, Justin March-Lillard
The Cowboys took Vander Esch 19th overall and that automatically puts him in the starting discussion. Damien Wilson has been solid the last few years, but Vander Esch needs playing time and should get a healthy piece of the rotation even if he isn't on the first team
Right now, the safest bets for the depth chart are veterans Joe Thomas and Justin March-Lillard. Along with Wilson or Vander Esch, they round out the position and can cover all three LB roles.
That said, those last two spots are where some unexpected things could happen. Thomas is probably safe after getting signed to a two-year, $3.6 million backup deal. But March-Lillard is on a minimum contract and could be ousted if an undrafted rookie or some other unknown emerges.
Obviously, all of this is secondary to the goal of having Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith stay healthy and blossom as a duo. Particularly in the nickel scheme, these two could become one of the league's most dangerous pairs of linebackers. If it happens, we won't be too worried about what's behind them.
When was the last time that Dallas felt this loaded at cornerback? You'd have to go back to 2012 after they added Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr to Orlando Scandrick and Mike Jenkins.
Hopefully, this turns out a lot better.
With Byron Jones moving back to CB, you have an exciting young foursome with Jourdan Lewis, Chidobe Awuzie, and Anthony Brown. With Lewis and Awuzie already looking like studs, second-year progression could mean Dallas has one of the better CB tandems in the NFL this season.
Duke Thomas was an emerging player last summer before an injury ended his year. If he's healthy, he should hold down that fifth position on the depth chart.
As you'll see below, I'm only keeping three safeties to open up a sixth CB spot. Right now I'm giving it to Kameron Kelly, an undrafted free agent with the size and style that Defensive Backs Coach Kris Richard likes. His experience as a safety in college also lends itself to a roster spot.
If not Kelly, last year's late-round pick Marquez White could get the job. He's also got prototype size and maybe could be looked at for a safety conversion at some point.
Jeff Heath, Xavier Woods, Kavon Frazier
With two corners who have safety experience in Byron Jones and Kameron Kelly, plus some potential use there with Chidobe Awuzie, Dallas can afford to go thin. They still have nine total defensive backs, which is typical for many teams.
Barring that Earl Thomas trade you keep hearing about, two of these three guys will be your starters. Heath is the veteran but has likely tapped out his potential. Woods and Frazier bring the upside and intrigue.
Much of this will come down to the new Defensive Backs Coach Kris Richard and what he likes in these players. Not only is he bringing a different philosophy to the secondary, but Richard is likely a year away from being the Defensive Coordinator. He will have some serious pull in the roster decisions.
No matter how it shakes out, you'll have your starters and a quality backup. You'll also have several options from the corners who could move over in a pinch. If Dallas does acquire Thomas, the roster spot would come from that sixth CB rather than anyone from this group.