While the NFL free agent market seems to have come to a sudden halt recently, there is still plenty of offseason left for the Dallas Cowboys to add new talent and make other other moves, Next month’s NFL Draft is major event still coming, but free agency is also far from over.
Today, I thought it would be a good exercise to construct a 53-man roster using just the players we already have under contract. This should give us good insight into where the Cowboys’ biggest needs are and, more than likely, where their focus will be in the upcoming draft.
Before we get started, a couple of ground rules:
- Tony Romo is still under contract but I’m going to assume that he won’t be a Cowboy next year. My belief is that he will retire if nothing else happens.
- Randy Gregory is currently suspended through the regular season, so we’ll assume that won’t be changing. There are still some legal remedies he could pursue but we’ll deal with that if it ever comes.
So, now that we’re all on the same page, let’s build a roster.
Dak Prescott, Kellen Moore
After one of the most spectacular rookie seasons in NFL history, Dak Prescott’s hold on the Cowboys’ quarterback position couldn’t be tighter. He will go into 2017 as the unchallenged starter and with that expectation for many years to come.
Kellen Moore was re-signed from free agency and brings system familiarity that no other veteran option could offer. Some have groaned after Moore failed to win any games in 2015, but the Cowboys clearly feel that Moore can bring something to the table.
With Prescott’s youth and Moore as the veteran backup, we could easily see Dallas go back to keeping just two quarterbacks on the 53-man roster. This was their policy many years during Tony Romo’s tenure.
Running Back (4)
Ezekiel Elliott, Darren McFadden, Alfred Morris, Keith Smith (FB)
There’s no questioning the roster spots for Elliott and McFadden. Also, Keith Smith emerged last year as a solid blocking fullback who provides versatile value at linebacker and special teams. He should feel secure in his job.
The big question now is what happens with Alfred Morris. Dallas could release him for about $1.6 million in cap relief, but they have yet to make that move even after re-signing McFadden. The Cowboys may be holding on to Morris through the draft, or even through final cuts, just to see how things shake out.
I would not be surprised to see Dallas add a speed back with receiving skills as a replacement for Lance Dunbar. That player could push Morris out the door eventually.
Dallas surprised most of us be re-signing both Williams and Butler. The moves speak to a strategy of counting on returning offensive talent to yield the same results as last year, leaving you free to focus on defense in the draft.
Last year’s training camp darling, Andy Jones, is expected to push for a job this offseason. He could force Butler out the door; Dallas gave Butler little guaranteed money to leave him expendable if needed. However, we could also see a mid-round WR talent drafted that will compete with both Butler and Jones.
You may be wondering who’s going to return kicks with Lucky Whitehead gone. We’ll get to that later.
Tight End (4)
Jason Witten, James Hanna, Geoff Swaim, Rico Gathers
If the Cowboys spend their first-round pick on offense it will almost assuredly be at tight end. Many expect for 2017 to be Witten’s last year before retirement.
My preference is that Dallas use this year to see what they already have in the cupboard. James Hanna got a nice contract last year to return as the backup TE but injury kept him from playing. Geoff Swaim was looking like a solid all-around player before also getting hurt. Rico Gathers remains an intriguing physical specimen who reportedly had a great year on the practice squad.
If none of these guys earn your trust next season, then you can spend a high pick on Witten’s replacement or look to free agency. A first-round talent should be able to come in and play immediately, which isn’t needed right now with Witten still here.
Offensive Tackle (4)
Tyron Smith, Chaz Green, Emmett Cleary, Byron Bell
After signing Bell just a few days ago, the Cowboys appear to be loading up on guys to compete for the right tackle position after Doug Free‘s retirement. Bell has started in 72 of the 78 games he’s played in since entering the league in 2011.
Don’t assume that Bell is the front-runner with that experience. The Cowboys got to see how Chaz Green and Emmett Cleary look in starting roles last season and both performed well. Green was a third-round pick in 2015 and the team would love to see him take over at right tackle.
If Green does win the job, his injury history could push Dallas to keep an extra offensive tackle on staff beyond just the usual swing tackle. Bell, who can also play guard, would fit that role nicely with his versatility.
Zack Martin, La’el Collins, Jonathan Cooper
With Ronald Leary headed to Denver, the left guard job goes back to Collins. Still just a third-year player, Collins will hopefully blossom and build on the flashes of elite talent we saw in 2015.
Veteran Jonathan Cooper was re-signed to provide experienced depth and perhaps push Collins a little for the starting job. Cooper was once a first-round pick who has had his own injury problems. We could also see Byron Bell, who was expected to move to guard last year before injury, competing with Cooper for the backup job.
Travis Frederick, Joe Looney
This position feels solidified with the All-Pro starter and the veteran backup. Dallas might add some younger guys to compete with Looney, but for now he should be expected to return.
Defensive End (4)
DeMarcus Lawrence, Benson Mayowa, Charles Tapper, Damontre Moore
Everyone expects Dallas to add a pass-rushing end in the upcoming draft. It’s hard to project who will be there at the 28th pick, and you’d be right to be worried that that player won’t be able to provide the sort of catalytic spark that this defensive line needs.
Lawrence, Mayowa, and Tapper will certainly be here to compete for jobs. Lawrence should at least be a solid starter and could really shine if he moves back to his natural position as the strong-side end. Mayowa and Tapper should provide quality depth and rotation duty but neither is likely able to bring a significant improvement to the pass rush.
Whatever rookies the Cowboys add will likely push Damontre Moore out by final cuts. The underachieving DE was signed a few weeks ago but has never played up to his third-round pick potential.
Defensive Tackle (5)
Tyrone Crawford, Maliek Collins, David Irving, Cedric Thornton, Stephen Paea
Assigning position for some of defensive linemen is tricky business. Crawford and Irving will both likely play snaps at defensive end throughout the season, either due to injuries or just certain personnel packages.
By signing Stephen Paea to replace Terrell McClain, the Cowboys have at least stocked up the DT position and shouldn’t need to address it in the draft. They already have a young stud in Maliek Collins and plenty of veteran depth to go with him.
Sean Lee, Jaylon Smith, Damien Wilson, Anthony Hitchens, Kyle Wilber, Mark Nzeocha, Jeremiah George
Even with Justin Durant and Andrew Gachkar leaving in free agency, the Cowboys still have a solid crew at linebacker. Jaylon Smith’s debut will hopefully lock down the middle, leaving Anthony Hitchens and Damien Wilson to compete for the strong-side position. The loser of that battle will still be a key backup.
Kyle Wilber brings veteran depth and special teams value. Mark Nzeocha will hopefully stay healthy and build on a strong 2016 preseason.
I expect Dallas to keep seven linebackers due to Sean Lee’s age and Jaylon Smith’s health concerns. Right now the only other guy under contract is Jeremiah George, a fifth-round pick by Jets in 2014. George will likely be competing with several rookie prospects for a job.
Orlando Scandrick, Anthony Brown, Nolan Carroll, Leon McFadden, Jeremiah McKinnon
With Brown and Carroll stepping into the spaces occupied by Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr, Dallas shouldn’t be too bad off compared to last year. Their goal in the draft, though, is no doubt to improve their depth and perhaps even find a second starter.
If they can’t, Leon McFadden at least brings experience as a fourth cornerback. Sadly, he is best known for getting burned by the Steelers’ trick play last season.
McKinnon was an undrafted free agent who Dallas kept until final cuts last year. He was on the Titans practice squad in 2016 but then Dallas brought him back in January. That he was still on the Cowboys’ radar is intriguing and makes me want to keep an eye on him this July.
Byron Jones, Jeff Heath, Kavon Frazier, Jameil Showers
Like at cornerback, Dallas will almost certainly be adding some talent here. Few would be surprised to see them use their first-round pick on a new starter.
That said, I am comfortable with Jeff Heath starting if needed. He has a nose for the ball and might play even better if he gets full-time starter reps in practice.
The depth is the real concern now. Dallas will be hoping that Kazon Frazier can at least be a capable backup despite little playing time in his rookie season. He will likely be competing for that job with another drafted talent or perhaps even a veteran addition still to come.
Dallas converted Jameil Showers from quarterback to safety last year while he was on the practice squad. We’ll have to wait until training camp to see how that goes. If he can apply QB smarts to safety, Showers could be surprisingly dangerous in the role.
Special Teams (4)
Dan Bailey (K), Chris Jones (P), L.P. Ladouceur (LS), Quincy McDuffie (KR/PR)
No surprises at kicker, punter, or long snapper, I’m sure. The one thing we might see is a young long snapper coming in to compete with 36-year-old Ladouceur, but it will take a lot to mess with perfection.
I’ve put McDuffie here as the return specialist as a placeholder. I think Dallas is probably done with Lucky Whitehead after uninspiring play and some behavior issues last season. McDuffie was a standout return man in the CFL, but I imagine he will be competing with several other prospects this year.