It's been a difficult week for the Dallas Cowboys. Not only did they get crushed in last night's preseason game, but the news of Travis Frederick's nerve disease cast a dark cloud over everything.
The health of the offensive live is now the dominant issue in trying to project the final 53-man roster. Several questions have to be answered:
- Will Travis Frederick be put on injured reserve?
- Will Zack Martin be ready to play?
- How many extra bodies will the Cowboys need to keep, if any?
- Is Chaz Green an Eagles sleeper agent, sent here to destroy us?
The ripple effects of roster decisions are what make these projections so interesting. A few banged up offensive linemen could cost a defensive back or someone at any other, seemingly unrelated, position a job.
So where are we now? What's changed after this week's events?
Dak Prescott, Cooper Rush, Mike White
After the last three games you may not be too high on either of the Cowboys' backup QBs. I still contend that neither has had much opportunity to shine with poor play from the backup offensive linemen, but I can understand any concerns.
That said, Cooper Rush has not looked like the same guy from the 2017 preseason. If some veteran passers hit the open market after final cuts, could Dallas consider cutting one of their youngsters for more security on the QB depth chart?
If nothing else, the Cowboys may now be more motivated to just keep two guys. Thursday night's game could be critical for one of Rush or White to hang on to their roster spot and avoid the practice squad.
Running Back (4)
Ezekiel Elliott, Rod Smith, Darius Jackson,
Jamize Olawale (FB)
Every week Darius Jackson flashes what a weapon he could be on a few plays, plus he's been getting looks as a kick returner. That gives him added value over Bo Scarbrough, who doesn't offer anything on special teams.
As I said last week, I think Elliott, Smith, and even Olawale give you all of the goal line and short yardage thumpers you need. Scarbrough should make it to the practice squad, and if not I don't see it as any big loss given what you already have.
So, unless something happens with injuries, I'm feeling pretty good about this RB group for Week One.
Allen Hurns, Cole Beasley, Michael Gallup,
Terrance Williams, Tavon Austin
Changes: Removed Lance Lenoir
It'd be easy to call removing Lenoir a knee-jerk reaction after his rough preseason game. While it does factor in, this change is about more than just a few muffed punts.
Keeping six receivers is never guaranteed. You'd really need to feel good about all six guys, plus have clear roles for them. Even though he's had a strong showing before last night, Lenoir may not even be active on game days. He clearly won't be the return man, either.
As I said at the outset, Dallas may have to go long on the offensive line. So at this point, all things considered, I'm going to make Lenoir the fall guy for those issues.
Tight End (3)
Blake Jarwin, Geoff Swaim, Dalton Schultz
Rico Gathers probably makes the team if not for the issues at other positions, but the math just doesn't work for him anymore. Dallas will hope he gets to the practice squad, but I don't think they'll lose much sleep at this point if someone claims him.
As much as some might be disappointed about the failed experiment, you have to remember what we were talking about with Gathers. Think about all the guys who don't make it to the NFL despite great college careers.
Rico didn't play football in college. He didn't play it in high school. You were just hoping that you could make a football player out of this great athlete, essentially cheating the normal process of how people get into the NFL.
It didn't work because it's not supposed to. The odds were never in his favor.
Offensive Tackle (3)
Tyron Smith, La'el Collins, Cam Fleming
While he hasn't looked great at times this preseason, Fleming is still the clear swing tackle with no real competition for the job. It's unlikely anyone better will become available after final cuts, either.
What's encouraging here is that Tyron Smith and La'el Collins are healthier than last year, hopefully making the swing tackle a little of a concern. Given what's going on elsewhere with the offensive line, Dallas needs their tackles to be out there every snap if possible.
Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, Connor Williams,
Joe Looney, Kadeem Edwards, Free Agent TBD
Changes: Added "Free Agent TBD"
I'm still on the fence about Frederick going to IR. I can easily see it happening, but I can also see Dallas wanting to wait in case he can come back sooner. If it swings just one game to have him out there as opposed to Joe Looney, that could be the difference between making the playoffs or not.
So right now, I'm projecting with the idea that Frederick stays on the 53 but inactive to start the year. In that case, Joe Looney will start. Dallas will get aggressive looking for a new backup guard/center, and they might sign two and cut Edwards.
Defensive End (6)
DeMarcus Lawrence, Tyrone Crawford, Randy Gregory,
Taco Charlton, Dorance Armstrong, Charles Tapper
While this may be one DE too many, all it takes is one injury to wish you still had somebody. None of these guys are just a body; all have some upside Dallas would hate to lose.
What we'll probably see is that one of these guys, most likely Charles Tapper, gets released once David Irving comes back from suspension. After four weeks, though, who knows how injuries may change the landscape.
Defensive Tackle (4)
Maliek Collins, Antwaun Woods, Daniel Ross,
Changes: Removed Jihad Ward
Jihad Ward hasn't done much to justify a spot, but he's also new to Rod Marinelli's system. I think he'd get extra time if there weren't other issues, but injuries on the offensive line and at safety are going to cost him a spot.
As always, we're going to see a lot of rotation and plenty of guys getting snaps in different formations. Nobody from this DT group can really be called a clear starter, especially with Tyrone Crawford probably getting more looks as the 3-tech again.
Sean Lee, Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch,
Damien Wilson, Joe Thomas, Justin March-Lillard
Free agent addition Joe Thomas is looking like a total steal. He may now be their first man off the bench, even ahead of the first-round rookie.
The Cowboys have as much LB depth as they've had in some time. While we'd certainly never want to be without Sean Lee, they are much more ready to deal with it now than in the past.
Chidobe Awuzie, Byron Jones, Anthony Brown,
Jourdan Lewis, Charvarius Ward
We're still waiting for a clear favorite to emerge for the final spot at CB. I'm sticking with Ward just because I've had no reason to bump him for someone else.
With Xavier Woods hurt and likely to miss Week One, the roster spot could come from corner. Dallas has kept just four guys in the past, and the top four right now are all healthy.
Jeff Heath, Xavier Woods, Kavon Frazier,
Jeron Johnson, Tyree Robinson
Changes: Added Johnson, Robinson
Removed Marqueston Huff
Johnson and Robinson are just placeholders right now. Hopefully Dallas pulls off a deal for a certain safety from Seattle, but they should at least be active in looking at other team's cuts.
The Cowboys may not even keep a fifth guy, regardless of Woods' status. They can always play Byron Jones at safety if another injury happens. They might want to use that roster spot at another position.
Special Teams (3)
Dan Bailey, Chris Jones, L.P. Ladouceur
We've only gotten to see Dan Bailey attempt one field goal this preseason, so some of the questions from last year still linger. But the Cowboys appear confident enough to keep him shelved in these games, which seems like a good sign.
Did DC Rod Marinelli Have Increased Role in Cowboys Loss at Rams?
The Dallas Cowboys Divisional Round loss at the Los Angeles Rams is still fresh on the minds of their players, staff, and front office. So much so that the team had to fan the flames on a Jason Garrett comment expecting Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan to return. Garrett himself walked back this "report" once Stephen Jones noted it's still too early for any coaching staff changes. The focus will remain on Linehan's post until it's removed or the Cowboys OC is retained, but one coordinator the Cowboys now expect to keep is Rod Marinelli on defense.
Marinelli himself disputed the season-long belief that this was likely his last as the Cowboys defensive coordinator. With Passing Game Coordinator Kris Richard not taking any of the three HC positions he interviewed for, Marinelli doesn't have to worry about shuffling his title to accommodate Richard - who called the plays from week one this season anyway.
Rod's title does include his specialty as defensive line coach though, a unit that the Rams dominated with their offensive line to a historic degree. The Rams' season-high 273 rushing yards was provided by both Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson surpassing 100 yards on the ground, the first time in team history they've had two backs reach this mark in a single playoff game.
Rams HC Sean McVay hardly had to reach into his vaunted 'bag of tricks' to expose the Cowboys defense in a way they hadn't been all year, but there was still an element of brilliance in his offensive game plan. It came out after the game that the Rams picked up on the keys the Dallas defensive linemen used to signal stunts and twists before the snap. While this is nothing more than just great scouting yielding an unforeseen advantage, it's left the Cowboys with more than enough time to ponder what went wrong in the Coliseum.
The Rams offensive line knew what the Cowboys defensive line was going to do before the snap on Saturday. https://t.co/oGo6Eiz4av
The answer to this may be nothing other than the coaching questions the Cowboys are already considering. With Richard's interviews in Tampa Bay, Miami, and New York coming at the beginning of the week leading up to game day, it's possible Marinelli had a larger say in the Cowboys preparation on defense.
It was Marinelli's defense that conceded 412 yards to the Rams in 2017 in a loss at AT&T Stadium. Matching him up with McVay leaves a lot to be desired, while Richard helps bridge this gap - something he was seen desperately trying to do on the sideline with a battered Cowboys defense.
As each day of the offseason passes, a change at either coordinator position becomes less likely in Dallas. On offense, the play caller has more than a season's worth of evidence showing the deficiencies of the Cowboys attack. In a league fueled by recency bias however, Marinelli certainly didn't leave his best performance on the field in Los Angeles.
Somewhere in the middle of this is Jason Garrett, safely in place as the head coach that should be personally trying to upgrade his top two assistants however possible. Marinelli signing up for another year makes this hard on defense, though Richard should resume play calling duties next season.
Again, this leaves the onus of the Cowboys improvements for 2019 on the offensive side of the ball, something that'll be realized when the shock of their defense letting them down in the biggest game of the season is gone.
Cowboys Getting Over $30 Million Cap Space from Expiring Dead Money
You may have already heard that the Dallas Cowboys will be flush with salary cap space in 2019, and that's very accurate. A huge portion of it comes from over $30 million in expiring cap penalties, otherwise known as "dead money."
Quick explanation; dead money occurs when a player is released or retires prior to the expiration of their contract. Any guaranteed money, such as the original signing bonus or money converted in a restructuring, that has not yet been paid out according to the contract schedule is accelerated.
For example, when Tony Romo retired after 2016, he still had $19.6 million in guaranteed money owed to him. Dallas chose to split this dead money over two years, and thus had a $10.7 cap penalty in 2017 and $8.9 million last season.
But now Romo's dead money, along with Dez Bryant's and several other players, is coming off the Cowboys' books. The result is a roughly $30 million infusion of salary cap space for 2019.
Here were the major culprits for last year's dead money:
(All cap figures are taken from Spotrac.com)
- QB Tony Romo - $8.9 million
- WR Dez Bryant - $8 million
- DT Cedric Thornton - $2.5 million
- CB Orlando Scandrick - $2.3 million
- CB Nolan Carroll - $2 million
- WR Deonte Thompson - $1.8 million
- DE Benson Mayowa - $1.1 million
- K Dan Bailey - $800 thousand
- TE James Hanna - $750 thousand
Those players alone make up a little over $28 million. Another $4 million or so came from over 30 players with lesser penalties that still added up.
Right now, the Cowboys have only $1.76 million in dead money on their 2019 salary cap. Nearly all of that is the $1.6 million still owed to Orlando Scandrick.
That difference is where the cap space comes from, and it will be of tremendous help to Dallas as they have major financial moves coming. They need to re-sign DeMarcus Lawrence, deal with a major salary bump for Amari Cooper, and consider a contract extension for Dak Prescott.
The 2019 number will change, of course, as the offseason rolls on. If Dallas elects to release players like Sean Lee, Tyrone Crawford, or others, some dead money will appear. But that will be offset by whatever cap savings motivated the move in the first place.
This is a good reminder of why the Cowboys' new era of fiscal conservatism is a good thing. After years of what felt like perpetual "salary cap hell," they are finally getting out from under those penalties and have complete flexibility this offseason. They may not even need to cut a guy like Crawford, who they almost would have been forced to in past seasons.
We'll be talking a lot more about individual players and their contracts in the weeks ahead, but this summary helps us see that Dallas isn't nearly up against the financial wall as they have been. We still miss guys like Romo and Dez, but we won't miss that awful dead money in 2019.
Cowboys Expect C Travis Frederick Back for Offseason Program
Lost in yesterday's hoopla over Scott Linehan's return was a positive report about Center Travis Frederick. In his comments to the media, Jason Garrett said that Frederick's recovery timetable should allow him to a full participant in the team's offseason program.
After never missing a start in his first five years, Travis missed all of 2018 dealing with the effects of Guillain-Barré Syndrome. The disease attacked his neurological system and required immediate and intensive treatment.
Jason Garrett says the team anticipates Travis Frederick being involved in the offseason program right from the start this spring if he continues on the same positive track in recovery from Guillain-Barré syndrome. #cowboyswire
While Joe Looney performed admirably in Frederick's absence, he's not an elite talent. Travis has been arguably the best center in the NFL since entering the league in 2013.
It's hard to qualify what effect not having Frederick had on the Cowboys offense in 2018. Ezekiel Elliott still led the league in rushing, but short-yardage plays weren't as automatic as we've seen in past years. A 4th-and-1 stuff was part of what led to the Cowboys' loss this past Saturday.
Dak Prescott was the second-most sacked QB in the NFL in 2018. After being sacked just 25 and 32 times in his first two seasons, the number skyrocketed to 56 sacks.
That's not all on Frederick, of course. Tyron Smith had some health issues and there were was turnover at left guard.
But having your All-Pro veteran center out there to help with the pre-snap reads, and help the rookie guard on his left, might have helped avoid some of those issues.
Indeed, Travis Frederick's return is just one of many reasons for optimism with the 2019 season. One of the best players on the team, he was sorely missed this year and can only help as Dallas looks to build on their division title and playoff appearance.
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