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.
What might the 2018 roster look like when the Cowboys head Charlotte, NC on September 9th for the season opener against the Carolina Panthers?
Dak Prescott, Cooper Rush, Mike White (R)
With no questions about Dak's role in 2018, the intrigue here is in the two backups. Rush and White will certainly be competing for the number-two spot on the depth chart. Could the loser find himself off the roster completely?
The Cowboys have typically tried to keep just one backup QB on the roster, freeing up a spot for another position. While they did carry three to start 2017, they eventually cut Kellen Moore once there was a need and they were confident enough in Rush to handle the job.
Cooper's back this year looking to build on his unexpected rise from undrafted rookie to preseason darling. But now he's got to fight off Mike White, a fifth-round pick who many felt was a tremendous value with major potential.
Whether both guys make the roster or not could depend on who wins the backup job. If it's Rush, Dallas probably still keeps White on the 53 to preserve his four-year rookie deal. But if White beats Rush, the Cowboys might decide they can afford to risk him on the practice squad.
Running Back (5)
Ezekiel Elliott, Rod Smith, Tavon Austin, Bo Scarbrough (R)
Jamize Olawale (Fullback)
We all know who the bell cow will be for the Cowboys offense next year. Hopefully with all personal issues in the rear view, Zeke returns to retake the throne as the league's best RB. One might wonder how many carries will be left for the other backs.
Rod Smith emerged last year as a very capable reserve, mixing power and athleticism and even flashing receiving skills at times. He could be especially dangerous behind Elliott, able to exploit a battered a defense with fresh legs and versatility.
But if you want to batter a defense, Alabama's Bo Scarbrough is a wrecking ball. At almost 240 pounds, he could be a menace with the lanes that the Cowboys' offensive line can create. Some of his tape reminds you of Marshawn Lynch.
The real change of pace will come when Dallas works veteran Tavon Austin into the offense. Converting to RB, the sixth-year speedster was picked up in a trade for a sixth-round pick. If nothing else, he should serve as the primary return man. But the Cowboys will be looking for various ways to get Austin the ball, wanting to add a speed element to the offense that has been missing for a few years now.
At fullback, Jamize Olawale returns to Dallas after six years with the Raiders. Undrafted in 2012, Olawale was on the Cowboys' practice squad but got poached by Oakland. He brings more of a receiving threat to the FB position than Dallas had in Keith Smith, plus has the size to play a little tight end. We'll get to that shortly.
Wide Receiver (6)
With Dez Bryant released and Ryan Switzer traded, the receiver corps for 2018 is already looking very different from what we'd have guessed a few months ago. For those who have returned from last year, how much could their role change?
Allen Hurns, who was clearly signed to be Bryant's replacement rather than running mate, will hopefully return to the 1,000-yard form he once showed in Jacksonville. But he won't have an Allen Robinson playing on the other side of the field, so it may be asking too much for Hurns to now be the top target.
In 2016, Cole Beasley was Dak Prescott's favorite target and the team's leading receiver. But team's figured that out and schemed against Beasley last season, which was a key cause for Prescott's regression. Unless someone like Hurns or Terrance Williams starts to take advantage, it could be another down year for Cole.
Hopefully, third-round pick Michael Gallup will help in the fight. The Cowboys should give the rookie plenty of opportunities to make an early impact. This is a time of change in Dallas and there will be less emphasis on tenure. If Gallup can develop early chemistry with Dak, he could have a large role quickly.
Veteran free agent Deonte Thompson is a wild card here. Like Brice Butler in recent seasons, Thompson has intriguing speed but will have to show he can consistently produce. Thompson has only recently emerged as a solid NFL player when in Buffalo, but is now 29 years old. He was signed to a minimal contract, and may not even make the roster if younger guys show up.
Noah Brown is one of those young prospects who could push into the mix. He looked like a young Dez Bryant at times during the last preseason, bringing physicality once the ball is in his hands. Brown will need to find a role on special teams to secure a roster spot.
Tight End (3)
Geoff Swaim, Blake Jarwin, Dalton Schultz (R)
No, I didn't forget about Rico Gathers. But I have a feeling that the hype around this kid is misplaced, and many Dallas fans will be disappointed when they find out he's no longer in the team's long-term plans.
The Cowboys have a run-focused offense, which puts a premium on blocking ability. Gathers didn't learn how to take on pass rushers when he was grabbing rebounds at Baylor, and that's not his fault. But it makes his ability to make any NFL team, and especially one with a more old school approach, a longshot at best.
Because of the ability of guys like FB Jamize Olawale and perhaps WR Noah Brown to play as smallish tight ends, it allows Dallas to keep just three. Swaim is the experienced player who should get the first crack at the starting role, and the unenviable task of trying to fill Jason Witten's shoes.
The Cowboys liked Blake Jarwin enough last year that they signed him off the practice squad to avoid him being stolen by the Philadelphia Eagles. He will compete with Dalton Schultz, a fourth-round rookie, for the backup role.
There are several known entities like Antonio Gates, Julius Thomas, and Coby Fleener still out there in free agency. Dallas may wind up bringing in one of them before the offseason's over. But for now, we'll work with what we've got.
Offensive Line (8)
Dallas loaded up on versatile players this offseason, giving them options as they decide on a new starting left guard and backups for 2018.
Second-round pick Connor Williams will likely get the first look as the fifth starter. A college tackle, Williams should move inside to try his hand at guard. But Dallas could also consider moving La'el Collins back to that spot if they feel Connor is the better right tackle.
If the rookie isn't ready for full-time work, the Cowboys could also go with one of the veteran interior linemen in Looney or Martin. They have both played guard and center during their careers and this will be Looney's third season in the Cowboys' system.
It's also possible that Cam Fleming, probably the most talented of the backups, would be the best option to join the starting lineup. That would also mean moving Collins back to guard, which both he and the team have said isn't their first choice. But ultimately, Dallas will do what it has to get their five best offensive linemen on the field.
The good news is that the team isn't trapped. They left themselves several ways of filling the need and bolstering their depth from last season.
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That's 25 of your 53 players accounted for. CLICK HERE for the defense and special teams.
Do Or Die: Chidobe Awuzie Must Improve Sunday, Or Cowboys Season Could End
Coming into the season there was a lot of hype surrounding the Dallas Cowboys' cornerbacks. With Byron Jones moving from safety full time, and now second year player Chidobe Awuzie playing opposite Jones after a promising rookie season, there was a lot for Cowboys fans to be excited about.
Through the first 10 weeks of the year, though, only one of those two has maintained fans' excitement. While Byron Jones has been arguably the best cornerback in all of football, Chidobe Awuzie has been damn-near an automatic completion when thrown at.
Awuzie has a -5.8 coverage rating this season, 65th among cornerbacks in the NFL. Coverage rating is a metric which factors in how often a cornerback is targeted as well as how many passes they've defensed per target. Quarterbacks also have a 116.6 passer rating when targeting Awuzie, compared to just 64.5 when targeting Byron Jones. For comparisons sake, Jones' coverage rating is a +45! So you can see why "cornerback opposite of Jones" is becoming a need for the Cowboys.
What's perplexing about Awuzie's season, though, is that he is only giving up an average 0.95 yards of separation, 27th in the league (courtesy of playerprofiler.com). So while Awuzie is playing relatively sticky coverage, he's still being targeted often, and he's still allowing completions way too often.
This week, Chidobe Awuzie will be tested once again, this time by the dynamic passing game of the Atlanta Falcons. The match-up many fans are focusing on is that between Byron Jones and Julio Jones, but how Awuzie does against Calvin Ridley and Mohamed Sanu may play a bigger factor in the result.
Both Ridley and Sanu are solid supporting receivers, and considering how much attention the defense typically has to pay to Julio Jones, they tend to get man coverage often. This allows for a precise route runner like Ridley to take advantage of opportunities, and come away with the types of big plays we've seen from him this year.
When matched up with either of these weapons, Awuzie will need to continue to stay close, but play and defense the ball better. He must continue to make it hard on these receivers and force them into contested catches, but hopefully he can improve on his play when the ball gets to the catch point.
Sunday will be another big test for the Cowboys' young defense. And as well as they have played most weeks, this game has the potential to be a season ender if certain guys do not step up. One of those guys who will certainly play a key role in influencing the result in Chidobe Awuzie.
Cowboys Defense Faces Tough Matchup vs Falcons Passing Attack
When you're a 4-5 team in the NFL with preseason expectations of making the playoffs, the last half of the season has a lot of of must-win games. This week is no different. The Dallas Cowboys face another 4-5 team in the Atlanta Falcons who is also looking to keep their playoff hopes alive. Both teams are still in the hunt, but have slightly different paths to get there. The Dallas Cowboys would probably have to win the NFC East to make the playoffs with the Falcons only real chance coming via the wild card. The New Orleans Saints look to be the kings of the NFC South this season.
In order to stay in the hunt, the Dallas Cowboys are going to need a huge defensive effort against a fierce Atlanta Falcons passing game. Through the first nine games, the Cowboys have provided reason for optimism that they can slow down Matt Ryan and company, but they've also had some porous efforts this season.
The front seven of the defense has played pretty well through the first nine games of the season and Byron Jones has been one of the best corner backs in the league. They've had problems on the left sde of the defense with Chidobe Awuzie and with the safeties.
The Cowboys will face a really difficult challenge as they travel to face the Atlanta Falcons passing game led by Matt Ryan and Julio Jones.
Matt Ryan is in the top five in most passing categories including yards, touchdowns, passer rating, completion percentage, and leads the league in passing yards per game. In yards per attempt, net yards per attempt, and air yards per attempt, Matt Ryan is sixth in the NFL.
As you can see from the chart above provided by Next Gen Stats and NFL.com, Matt Ryan has been average to better than average throwing to every area of the field this season. Particularly troubling is what he's doing when he's throwing to his right, which happens to be the side of the field occupied by Chidobe Awuzie. Awuzie is allowing a passer rating of 129.7 this season, which is the 15th worst number in the NFL among corners who have played a minimum of 92 coverage snaps.
What's potentially more troubling than how efficient Matt Ryan's been throwing to Awuzie's side of the field is the fact that Julio Jones will play all over the formation and can beat you in every area of the field.
The chances are high that we'll see Awuzie lined up against Julio Jones on several occasions on Sunday. Pray for Chido, y'all.
Jones has only scored two touchdowns this year, but through nine games, he's already over 1,000 yards receiving, which is leading the NFL. Julio is fourth in the NFL in receptions and is averaging more than 15 yards per catch. He's third in the NFL in yards per route run at 2.99 sitting behind only Michael Thomas and Albert Wilson among players with at least 20 targets on the season.
From Jones' chart against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in week six, you can see that they lined him up all over the formation and they ran him on a large variety of routes to a large variety of depths. Julio Jones is one of the best route runners in the NFL, which is scary considering he provides huge size and athleticism to go with it.
As good as he's been this season, the secondary receivers for the Falcons -- Calvin Ridley, Mohammed Sanu, and Austin Hooper -- have also played well. Each of them has more than 400 yards receiving on the season. To put that in perspective, Cole Beasley leads the Dallas Cowboys in receiving yards at 403. Each of the Falcons' top four targets have more receiving yards than Beasley does.
Not sure if that speaks of how good the Falcons passing game has been or how bad the Cowboys passing game has been.
The Cowboys will be facing the player that fans wanted the team to select instead of Leighton Vander Esch at 19th overall; Calvin Ridley. Ridley's been excellent this season with 500 receiving yards and seven touchdown receptions. He's averaging 13.2 yards per reception. Ridley's second on the Falcons in receptions for first downs and Matt Ryan has a passer rating of 138.9 when targeting Ridley.
Austin Hooper doesn't get the same publicity that Jones and Ridley do, but he's been effective this season as well. Hooper is second on the Falcons in receptions with 46, which is the fourth most among tight ends in the NFL. Hooper will test Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch in the middle of the field as well as Xavier Woods and Jeff Heath down the seem.
Mohammed Sanu will be the matchup to watch for Anthony Brown in the slot. Though Calvin Ridley and Julio Jones will run routes from there on occasion, Sanu is the primary slot receiver. He ranks 22nd in the NFL in receptions and yards from the slot. Of his 45 targets, 33 have come while in the slot and 25 of his 34 receptions. When Matt Ryan throws Sanu's way, he's got a passer rating of 125.8.
And if all that wasn't bad enough, you have the Dallas Cowboys defense as one of the worst in the NFL at getting off the field on third down. The Atlanta Falcons are second in the NFL at getting off the field on third down.
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The Dallas Cowboys are likely going to give up some long drives to the Falcons, and that's ok. What they don't want to do is give up big plays to the Falcons passing attack. The Cowboys rank sixth in the NFL in red zone defense allowing teams to score on only 48.1% of their trips inside the 20 yard line. The Falcons are seventh in the league at scoring in the red zone, but have had their issues scoring touchdowns when getting inside the 20. If the Cowboys can hold them to three instead of seven, I'll count it as a successful drive for the defense.
The Dallas Cowboys defense is playing really well this season and it ranks in the top 10 in most team defensive categories. However, if they have a weakness it's been in their pass defense, primarily Awuzie and the safeties. If they want to win this game and continue to get themselves back into the playoff picture, they're going to need better performances from their defensive backs not named Byron Jones, Anthony Brown, and to a lesser extent Xavier Woods.
Facing the Atlanta Falcons prolific passing attack is a huge test for this defense and one that could define the rest of the Dallas Cowboys 2018 season.
Cowboys’ Revenge Against Atlanta Hinges on These 3 Key Matchups
With their seasons hanging in the balance, the Dallas Cowboys (4-5) and the Atlanta Falcons (4-5) know all too well the importance of this matchup. The Cowboys however might have a little extra incentive to win this game, revenge. The Falcons absolutely throttled them in 2017, but Dallas is looking to turn the tables on them this year.
Playing in hostile territory at Mercedes-Benz Stadium isn't the ideal place to secure a victory, but I believe the Dallas Cowboys have a excellent shot at coming out of this contest with a "W". This time around the Cowboys will have Ezekiel Elliott and Tyron Smith at their disposal and they should pay huge dividends. Having these two players in the lineup will certainly factor into the outcome of the game, but there are other matchups worth keeping an eye on as well.
Here are the three matchups I believe will decide the outcome of this game:
Amari Cooper vs. Falcons' Secondary
If the Atlanta Falcons secondary continues to play the way they've played for the majority of the 2018 season, the Dallas Cowboys should be able to find quite a bit of success in the passing game. That's why I'm expecting Quarterback Dak Prescott and his receivers to have a big game, especially Amari Cooper.
The Falcons are surprisingly giving up 294.4 passing yards a game, which happens to be third worst in the NFL. But what's more surprising is they are also the worst at defending their opponents best receiver, ranking 30th in Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA). That's why I think Amari Cooper could end up having his best game to date in a Cowboys uniform.
Cooper's ability to threaten an opponent's defense all over the field has already made the Cowboys offense better and that should continue to improve as his bond with Prescott develops. He has already become one of the most highly targeted WRs in the NFL since coming to Dallas and that is not only helping improve their passing game, but the running game as well.
Ezekiel Elliott vs. Falcons' Run Defense
As much as I'm excited about the damage Amari Cooper could do to the Falcons secondary, I'm even more excited about how dominate Ezekiel Elliott can be against Atlanta's defensive front. A lot of that has to do with the way both of these teams played in these areas a week ago, and it's a matchup that heavily favors the Cowboys.
The Cowboys are coming off their best rushing attack of the 2018 season. The offensive line completely manhandled the Philadelphia Eagles top ranked run defense last week, allowing Zeke to rush for 150+ yards. We could see a repeat performance, especially with the way the Falcons failed to stop the run last week against the Cleveland Browns.
Rookie Running Back Nick Chubb had a career day against the Falcons a week ago, amassing 176 yards and a touchdown on the ground and another 33 yards and a touchdown through the air. If that's an indication of what we can expect from Atlanta's run defense, Zeke should have a huge game. Controlling the clock with the running game would more than likely secure a much-needed victory.
Cowboys' Defense vs. Falcons' 3rd-down Offense
As good as a Dallas Cowboys defense has been this season, they have really struggled to get opposing offenses off the field on third down. In fact, they're currently the fourth worst third-down defense in the league, allowing offenses to convert a first down 44.07% of the time. That's not good, especially if you factor in that the Falcons convert 51.26% of their third downs, ranking second in the NFL.
The matchup between the Cowboys defense and the Falcons third-down offense could end up being the most important. Dallas absolutely have to find a way to get Matt Ryan and his offense off the field and the ball back in the hands of Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott. They can't allow Atlanta to get out to an early lead, because they're not a team who's built to come from behind.
Hopefully the Cowboys can capitalize on the Amari Cooper and Ezekiel Elliott match ups (previously mentioned), that way they're play on third-down becomes less of a factor. But if it ends up being a close game, they will without a doubt have to improve their third-down defensive efficiency.
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