The first practice of the Dallas Cowboys' 2018 training camp is today. Therefore, it seems a great time for a new 53-man roster projection.
My last projection was after the draft, and there have been some developments with the roster since then. One defensive lineman got reinstated by the NFL, while another got suspended for the first four weeks. We also have reports from camps in May and June that have given us more clarity about the talent currently in Oxnard, CA.
So, without further ado, let's start the projecting. Along with the current picks and analysis, changes from the previous edition will also be listed.
Dak Prescott, Cooper Rush, Mike White
The days when Dallas only kept one backup QB appear to be over. Given Rush's performance last year, they didn't need to spend a fifth-round pick on White. But they did, and this signifies a move to more of a "pipeline" handling of QB talent.
Of course, this depends on both Rush and White performing well enough to deserve roster spots. The Cowboys could certainly end up cutting one of them if they don't merit keeping.
But given what we've already seen out of Cooper, and the draft pick invested in the rookie, it's hard to see either playing their way off the roster.
Running Back (5)
Ezekiel Elliott, Rod Smith, Tavon Austin,
Bo Scarbrough, Jamize Olawale (FB)
Five sounds like a lot, but remember that we're lumping the fullback into the group. We're also listing Austin as a RB, as the Cowboys official website does, even though he is likely to be a hybrid player both rushing and receiving.
Scarbrough is an interesting case. We're all excited about him getting a head of steam running behind the Cowboys' offensive line. But how much will he actually get to play with the first-team line? Will he get to look impressive behind Joe Looney and Chaz Green?
Helping the rookie is that Rod Smith has an expiring contract, so I think Dallas will find ways to give Bo looks to determine his long-term value. A battering ram is nice as a backup, particularly for later in games after the defense is already worn down.
Allen Hurns, Cole Beasley, Terrance Williams,
Michael Gallup, Deonte Thompson, Noah Brown
I'm still not convinced that Williams makes the team this year. His public intoxication arrest earlier this year, and the general disappointment with his play last season, don't give him job security. His contract is probably the only reason he's still around, as Dallas eats a lot of dead money by releasing him.
But at this point, the Cowboys can afford to eat that cap space if they want to. And depending on what rookie Michael Gallup and other young prospects like Noah Brown, Lance Lenoir, and Cedrick Wilson bring to the table, Dallas might want Terrance's roster spot more than the player.
Veteran Deonte Thompson is another one who I'm not entirely sure about. He only signed a one-year, $1.8 million deal and can be cut easily. At 29-years-old, Thompson has little cushion for performance issues.
Given Tavon Austin's ability to play receiver, Dallas could easily go with just five guys here to free up a roster spot somewhere else. But how much uncertainty there is in the passing game right now, I think they go long to keep their options open.
Tight End (3)
Geoff Swaim, Rico Gathers, Dalton Schultz
Changes: Added Gathers, Removed Blake Jarwin
Only three TEs seems light for the Cowboys, but there are a few reasons for it. One is that they are going long at RB and WR, so the spot has to come from somewhere. Also, FB Jamize Olawale has the size to play some TE and has done so in the past with Oakland.
Another reason is that Dallas is apparently moving to more of a spread offense, thinking it will bring out the best in Dak Prescott. That further alleviates the need for tight ends on the roster.
I'm putting Gathers here on faith right now, hoping that he's going to take the next step this year to capitalize on his athletic potential. Swaim and Schultz are locked into their spots, so it really comes down to Rico and Blake if they only keep one more guy.
Dallas clearly likes Jarwin, having signed him to the roster last year to avoid the Eagles poaching him off the practice squad. But if Rico starts really putting things together this year, his upside is greater.
Offensive Tackle (4)
Tyron Smith, La'el Collins, Cam Fleming,
Changes: Added Green
No surprises in the top three. Your starters are clear and Fleming was brought in to be the trusted swing tackle, having started 20 regular season games with the Patriots plus playoff action.
As much as it pains me, I put Chaz Green on the roster based on a few inescapable truths. He has position flex as a tackle and guard, which gives him value. He also was a former third-round pick, which will make it harder for the team to give up on him.
The way I see it, Joe Looney and Marcus Martin are competing for the backup center position. They both can play guard as well. Having Green as a G/T option is the better value, assuming he has a decent camp and preseason.
Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, Connor Williams,
Changes: Removed Joe Looney
The starters appear set, with two spots obvious and the rookie Williams getting every opportunity to win the job at left guard. How Connor does in that quest could have a ripple effect on the entire offensive line.
If Williams struggles, Dallas may look at Looney or Martin to move into the starting lineup. There's always the La'el Collins option too, but the Cowboys appear committed to keeping him at tackle this year.
Given his time in the system, Looney may be more attractive as a starter. But if Williams starts, I see Dallas going with Martin for the backup role given that he's three years younger and could have a little more upside.
If Chaz Green is a total bust and gets cut, Dallas should keep both Looney and Martin as reserves.
~ ~ ~
That's 25 roster spots on offense. And with three definitely going to Kicker Dan Bailey, Punter Chris Jones, and Long Snapper L.P. Ladouceur as the specialists, that leaves 25 more for defense.
Mind you, it's not always an even split between offensive and defensive roster numbers. We've often seen one or two more guys on defense given the rotations and need for greater depth. But this year, with the offense undergoing some overhaul, this is how I see it shaking out.
Let's head over to the other side of the ball.
Defensive End (5)
DeMarcus Lawrence, Taco Charlton, Kony Ealy,
Randy Gregory, Dorance Armstrong
Back in May, I had Gregory on the list with the hope that he'd be reinstated. I'm so glad that I can keep him here now his return is official.
For the first time in a while, this isn't a very hard group to predict. Lawrence and Charlton are easy, and veteran free agent Kony Ealy would have to be really bad to lose his job so quickly. I expect Ealy will be far from bad as he returns to the 4-3 scheme and gets to beat up in backup blockers this preseason.
Rounding out the group will be two pass-rushing specialists in Gregory and the rookie Armstrong. We don't know how quickly Randy will get his football legs back under him, but the Cowboys appear very excited for his return. And Dorance needs time to work on his NFL body, but the team spent a fourth-round pick on him. Those guys don't get cut often.
The loser here is Charles Tapper, who is likely to be the odd man out unless he has a stellar camp and preseason. It's been two seasons of health-related disappointment for the former fourth-rounder, but he'll get his opportunity to prove he still has value.
Defensive Tackle (5)
Tyrone Crawford, Jihad Ward, Brian Price,
Richard Ash, Datone Jones
Changes: Added Ash, Price, and Jones.
Removed Maliek Collins, David Irving, and Terrell McClain
So yeah, in May I put McClain on the roster because I was so confident he'd sign with the Cowboys as a free agent. But he went to the Falcons instead. So yeah.
Irving isn't on here because he's suspended for Week 1-4. We'll have to see what happens when he gets out of rehab and if his absence doesn't get prolonged. I also didn't include Collins, who is starting camp on the PUP list, because I have a feeling Dallas may go ahead and let him recover through the start of the regular season.
That means big opportunity at defensive tackle. Jihad Ward, the former second-round pick who Dallas traded WR Ryan Switzer to Oakland for, should get the most work from these absences. The Cowboys clearly believe they can get something out of him that the Raiders couldn't.
Brian Price was working as the 1-tech tackle prior to his injury last year, and Richard Ash did well later in the season. I think both make the squad for as long as Maliek Collins is out.
Lastly there's Datone Jones, who impressed as a late-season signing last year. Jones has versatility to play end or tackle, making him an ideal guy to round out the line.
Sean Lee, Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch,
Damien Wilson, Joe Thomas, Justin March-Lillard
Until we see more from this group, these are the names I'm most confident about. The first four are certain, while Thomas and JML have experience.
That said, there are several young prospects who could push their way in. Rookie Chris Covington was a sixth-round pick, which isn't a guarantee but will at least get him some extra attention from coaches. There's also Tre'von Johnson, who was with the Cowboys practice squad most of last year and brought back this season.
Linebacker is a position where there's almost always a surprise. Special teams comes into play and gives some unexpected darkhorse a lot more value then you realized going in. That is where Covington, Johnson, or some other guy has to make an impact to make the team.
Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, Byron Jones,
Anthony Brown, Duke Thomas, Kameron Kelly
Your top four are set and Duke Thomas feels like a virtual lock. He was going to make the team last year if he hadn't been injured during preseason.
The last spot goes to Kelly over Marquez White given his college experience at safety. I have Dallas only keeping three safeties right now thanks to Byron Jones' position flex, but Kelly helps that as well.
A few weeks ago, White was charged with felony assault and we'll have to see how that process plays out. He does have potential, especially with Defensive Backs Coach Kris Richard's preference for physical corners. But Marquez's availability remains in question.
Another guy to keep an eye on is undrafted rookie Charvarious Ward, who came from a small school but is 6'1" with upside. He was considered one of the best rookie talents, league-wide, to go undrafted this year.
Jeff Heath, Xavier Woods, Kavon Frazier
While we're still keep one eye on Seattle for a potential newcomer at safety, the three Dallas already has are pretty interesting.
Heath is now one of the veteran leaders of the defense, with 27 seeming almost geriatric now on this very young Cowboys roster. If he can become more consistent while maintaining his knack for getting interceptions, Jeff could be in line for a breakout season.
Xavier Woods is one of the most exciting young players on the defense, flashing hard hits and a nose for the ball last season. He is likely to be the other starter, having the best potential to play free safety.
Kavon Frazier shouldn't be ignored, though. After sitting out a lot of his rookie year, Frazier showed up last season isn't far behind Woods in terms of intrigue. Even if the young guys can't force Heath out of the starting lineup, we should see all three a lot this season.
One other name to watch out for is Marqueston Huff, a fifth-year veteran and former fourth-round pick of the Titans. He has experience and could become more valuable if there's an injury to one of the top three.
~ ~ ~
So there you have it. As of now, before all of the camp reports and knee-jerk reactions and injuries that change everything, there's your 53-man roster projection for the start of training camp.
I'll be back with a new projection following the Cowboys' first preseason game.
Cowboys Face Latest Challenge Fighting for First Road Win at Redskins
The Dallas Cowboys 40-7 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars feels like just the introduction to this season's story. Whether or not the body of this story tells a disappointing tale or one of triumph can be revealed as early as this Sunday.
When the Cowboys travel to Washington, they'll be looking for their first road win of the season, and with it the NFC East lead over a Redskins team that would fall to 3-3 and 0-1 inside the division.
Early season losses at the Panthers, Seahawks, and Texans do little in predicting the Cowboys faith at the Redskins. These three teams are a combined 6-2 at home this season, with the Cowboys most recent loss in Houston falling much more on coaching than it did on-field execution.
Making their week six win over the NFL's top defense look extraordinarily easy, the Cowboys continued on a seemingly timeless trend under Jason Garrett. Returning to AT&T Stadium at 2-3, the Cowboys won their 12th game at one under .500 under Garrett.
Their 378 total yards on offense against the Jaguars brought their average in three home games up to 363.3, nearly 88 yards better than their road performances this season. The Redskins have allowed 326.2 yards per game this season, ranked fifth in the league just behind the Cowboys at 315.2 yards a game.
Garrett has gone 11-4 in his head coaching career against the Redskins, winning his last five at FedEx Field by an average of less than 10 points a game. The Redskins have turned the ball over just five times this season and allow a stout 90.2 rushing yards per game, meaning this game has all the makings of another classic between historic NFC East rivals.
In an ongoing effort to learn just who these 2018 Cowboys really are, a close win on the road would go a long way, beyond the slack they were afforded earlier this season to tighten up their game and make a serious push for the division.
The Cowboys will be on their bye week following Sunday's game. It comes at the perfect time for players like Sean Lee, Chidobe Awuzie, and Tavon Austin. With Austin struggling to make a sustained impact in the Cowboys offense, Awuzie conceding snaps to Jourdan Lewis, and Lee looking on at Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch dominate at LB, these three Cowboys among plenty of others know how important this game is for remaining relevant down the stretch.
Shortening this rivalry's history to just the games quarterbacked by Dak Prescott, the Cowboys are 3-0 with Prescott completing 65.3% of his passes - easily his highest mark against any NFC East foe.
The Cowboys confidence in getting to 4-3 should rest in Prescott using both his arm and legs to give the Cowboys the lead, than force Alex Smith to beat this defense.
The Redskins aren't a team that will beat themselves, leaving this one for the taking of a Cowboys team buried after week five's loss and crowned NFC East leaders 'elect' by week seven. A funny game this NFL is, and one the Cowboys don't want to play around with too much when considering Sunday's opponent - as well as the task at hand of earning a win on the road the latest in a season since 2013 for Dallas.
Cowboys Defense Getting Players Back at the Right Time
The Dallas Cowboys have played really well on defense this season allowing the seventh fewest rushing yards per game, the third lowest yards per carry, and the eighth fewest passing yards per game this season. They've done it for most of the 2018 season without Defensive Tackles Maliek Collins and David Irving, and Linebacker Sean Lee, who's missed the last three games with a strained hamstring.
This week the Cowboys play the NFC East leading Washington Redskins, making this a very important matchup for the Cowboys playoff chances. The Dallas Cowboys are 2-2 in the NFC in 2018, so a win against the Washington Redskins on Sunday carries much more importance. If the Cowboys have hopes of making the playoffs, they're going to have to improve their record against the NFC and they can on Sunday with their defense getting back to (nearly) full health.
Still awaiting word on Chidobe Awuzie's availability for this week.
Antwaun Woods, Tyrone Crawford, and David Ross have held up really well on the Cowboys defensive interior without Irving and Collins, which makes their return even more important. Better depth along the defensive interior is only going to help those guys have more productive snaps. Both Collins and Irving are explosive penetrating defensive tackles that give interior offensive lineman fits with their combination of strength and quickness. They play the run and pass with equal effectiveness and make life a lot easier for the linebackers and the defensive ends.
In their first game back in week six, Irving and Collins combined for two quarterback pressures, a quarterback hit (Irving) and a sack (Collins). Irving also drew a holding call on a punt.
Getting them back takes so much pressure off the defensive ends to generate pressure in passing situations. With better pressure from the interior of the defense, DeMarcus Lawrence and the other defensive ends will have better opportunities for sacks because opposing quarterbacks won't be able to step up in the pocket with as much ease as they have through the first five games of the season.
The linebacker duo of Jaylon Smith, and Leighton Vander Esch have been one of the best position groups for the Cowboys this season. As good as they've been, Sean Lee is still one of the better linebackers in the NFL. Though he's leading the Cowboys in solo tackles with 43, Leighton Vander Esch probably sees a decrease in his snaps with Lee returning. They'll all play, however, and the Cowboys will look for ways to have them all on the field together.
Getting Lee, Irving, and Collins on the field at the same time with the defensive parts that the Cowboys already boast in Vander Esch, Jaylon Smith, DeMarcus Lawrence, and Byron Jones is going to make playing offense nearly impossible.
How do you attack these guys?
The Washington Redskins rank in the bottom third in passing yards, yards per attempt, and are 18th in the NFL in passer rating. Washington ranks in the top half of the league in rushing yards per game, but rank 23rd in yards per attempt.
If there's an area where the Dallas Cowboys defense has been susceptible this season it's against the pass and having all of their best defensive players available for this week seven NFC East matchup is going to make all the difference. They'll be able to generate pressure with fewer blitzes because of the ability of Irving and Collins to generate pressure from the interior.
Though the Redskins have had some success on the ground in 2018, it's going to be tough sledding for Adrian Peterson and the Redskins run game. Lee, Vander Esch, and Smith all play the run extremely well and with the improved talent at defensive tackle, Peterson is going to find very few open lanes against the Dallas Cowboys defense.
The elite defense that we imagined this team could be may be right around the corner. Having everyone healthy and on the field together as the Dallas Cowboys get ready for the stretch run of the NFL season is huge.
Get ready NFL. Points are going to be really hard to come by.
Report: Austin Heading to IR: Deonte Thompson is the Next Man Up
Tavon Austin's stint with the Dallas Cowboys has been up and down through six games. He's provided some big play ability on the outside, but hasn't really had the running room on jet sweeps that the Dallas Cowboys would have hoped for when they acquired Austin from the Los Angeles Rams during the 2018 NFL Draft.
Now it's being reported by Brandon George from the Dallas Morning News that Austin may be headed to injured reserve for a groin tear suffered in the Dallas Cowboys week six win over the Jaguars.
Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said WR Tavon Austin will be getting a second opinion on his injured right groin in the next day or so. He didn't discount possibility of him being placed on injured reserve.
Whether Austin goes to injured reserve or not remains to be seen, but we do know that he'll miss week seven and likely won't be able to suit up for a while. Though Austin hasn't been relied upon much, he has been a threat that opposing defenses have had to account for in both the passing and running game. Tavon Austin leaves a bit of a hole.
Enter Deonte Thompson.
Deonte Thompson, who was signed by the Dallas Cowboys this past offseason, hasn't been the same type of rushing threat that Austin has been in his NFL career. Thompson's only carried the ball two times in his career for -5 yards. However, Thompson has some skills that could bode well should the Dallas Cowboys decide to use him in the jet sweep role that Austin is vacating.
He's been a return threat in his NFL career, averaging 24.8 yards per return. He's had returns of 47, 64, and 74 yards. He's also had some good moments running after the catch in his career, though he hasn't gotten many opportunities.
Thompson's a former track athlete and before the 2012 NFL Draft ran a 4.30 40 yard dash. He has the speed and a bit more size than Austin to make some things happen if given the opportunities.
The jet sweep has become an important staple in the Dallas Cowboys offense. Even when they don't hand it off on the sweep, they use it in play action, to set up screens, and even to get the defense thinking about it on direct hand offs to Ezekiel Elliott. They aren't going to want to scrap that part of the playbook just because Austin will be sitting out. Deonte Thompson can be that guy. Much like Marquise Goodwin in San Francisco, Thompson has elite speed.
He's not just football fast. He's fast-fast.
When I was in high school, I played baseball. In the baseball program I was fast. The fastest on the team. That was my game. Infield singles. Stretching doubles to triples. Stealing bases. I was fast. I went out for track my senior season because I thought, "hey I'm fast, let's see what would happen if I ran the 100-meter-dash." I found out really quickly that there is a difference between baseball fast and track fast.
The same applies to football and track. Deonte Thompson is track fast. He's a guy that the Dallas Cowboys need to get the ball to on those jet sweeps to continue to threaten defenses sideline to sideline. When it's working, as we've seen with Lucky Whitehead in the past and Tavon Austin this year, it opens up a lot for the Dallas Cowboys offense.
It's likely that Cole Beasley gets those first jet sweep attempts, and as a trusted veteran for the Dallas Cowboys, he probably should. But, if Jason Garrett and Scott Linehan want to continue to use the jet sweep to the offense's maximum benefit, they need to start showing it with Deonte Thompson. He has the speed to get to the corner and take it to the end zone from any where on the field.
Here's an example of what Thompson can do with the ball in his hands.
109 YARDS TO THE HOUSE!!! Deonte Thompson returns the missed field goal and runs it all the way back for a @ChicagoBears TD! #CHIvsAZ https://t.co/k9IfkZMoIY
With Tavon Austin set to be out -- possibly for the season -- it's time to see what Deonte Thompson can do. The Dallas Cowboys need to get a win here to get above .500 for the first time this season and set themselves up to make a run at the divisional crown. Deonte Thompson's ability with the ball in his hands will give them a good opportunity to do just that.
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