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Cowboys Linebacker Conundrum: Who’s In, and Who’s Out?

The Cowboys made the switch to the base 4-3 defense after their 2012 campaign produced a mild 8-8 record. Since the change in 2013, the team has only carried 6-7 linebackers on their opening day roster. As it stands right now, the team has 11 linebackers on the roster. That number may vary slightly as we near training camp, but because our base defense requires three stand up linebackers, I can’t imagine it to drop much before cuts to 75. This presents a relatively interesting situation to our personnel department as they’re going to have to figure out who makes the cut.

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The Cowboys made the switch to the base 4-3 defense after their 2012 campaign produced a mild 8-8 record. Since the change in 2013, the team has only carried 6-7 linebackers on their opening day roster. As it stands right now, the team has 11 linebackers on the roster. That number may vary slightly as we near training camp, but because our base defense requires three stand up linebackers, I can't imagine it to drop much before cuts to 75.

This presents a relatively interesting situation to our personnel department as they're going to have to figure out who makes the cut. It's always interesting to see where the team feels they should go heavier or lighter. For example, because of the injury history of our quarterback, we've felt it necessary to carry three signal-callers in recent years. Because of decisions like this, we've needed to go lighter in other areas.

This is where versatility comes in.

What can a guy do for me besides play linebacker? Can he rush the passer in a pinch? Can he play special teams? Hell, can he play fullback? All of these questions factor into which guys make the team or not. So, because of the large amount of guys we currently have listed on the roster, I thought it might be a good idea to project which guys make the team if cuts were today.

Injured Reserve/Physically Unable To Perform

Let's start with the injured reserve and physically unable to perform lists because they don't count towards the 53 man roster. I think we can all agree that this is likely the target for Jaylon Smith. Until the nerve in his knee starts firing again, he's not going to see the field. Having said that, his talent is too good to part with, and he's a second round pick. All of this makes him a lock to start the season on PUP.

Now for your quick, friendly reminder that Keith Smith, a pet cat of some fans for the last couple years, has made a positional switch to fullback in hopes to make the team in a different role. This change was a little bit of a head scratcher for me, but if he thinks this is his best chance to make the squad, and the coaches see enough versatility in him to play both sides of the ball, I say go for it.

The reason I bring this situation up, is because it may allow the team to go a little lighter on linebackers, maybe even as little as five guys (though I think they would probably go heavier than that).

Locks To Make The Squad

Let's talk about the locks to make this team. As far as I'm concerned, there is only one linebacker currently on the roster guaranteed to make the team: Sean Lee.

After finishing his first full season since 2011, Lee looks to extend upon his pro bowl play from 2015 and lead our defense this season.

All But Certain

Cowboys Headlines - The Linebacker Log Jam Conundrum 1Now for guys who are very likely going to make the squad in 2016: Rolando McClain, Kyle Wilber, Anthony Hitchens, and Damien Wilson.

With both McClain and Wilber coming into this season with new contracts, it's tough to see them get waived before seeing a snap in 2016. Having said that, both players signed low, team friendly deals and wouldn't cause a dramatic amount of dead money should the team want to go in different directions. Having said that, I just don't see that happening with the combination of talent and versatility that McClain and Wilber can bring to the table.

Both Hitchens and Wilson are fourth round picks and are still on their rookie contracts. Both of those facts make it difficult to think either won't make the team this season. Hitchens can also play SAM linebacker for you if necessary, giving him the versatility this coaching staff covets.

That gives us five guys (with Jaylon Smith on PUP as the sixth), with names like Andrew Gachkar and Mark Nzeocha still out there. IF Keith Smith makes the team, you could conceivably roll into week one without either of the aforementioned players on the team, especially since we tend to play a ton of Nickel defense which only requires two linebackers. Thus, you could go into the season with just Wilber as the SAM linebacker and flex Hitchens to that spot in a pinch.

I don't think that's the way it's going to go. Without forecasting the rest of the 53-man roster, I think we roll into the season with six pure linebackers and I'll tell you why.

I don't think this team is going to carry a fullback, which leaves Keith Smith without a job.

The addition of both Ezekiel Elliott and Alfred Morris gives us two solid zone running backs for 11 and 12 personnel formations. I think those guys are going to run more comfortably with cleaner holes and one less body in the way. This takes carrying only five linebackers off the table.

And The Final Spot Goes To...

Cowboys Headlines - The Linebacker Log Jam ConundrumOkay Ian, then who is the sixth linebacker to make the team? I think this coaching staff is really excited with what they've got in Mark Nzeocha. This is a player that a lot of personnel aficionados had graded as a mid-round prospect coming out last season. He fell to us in the seventh round due to both injury and limited position flex. He's got an ideal build as an athletic SAM linebacker who some coaches think can push Wilber for starting time in base formations this season.

Now here's something interesting to think about that furthers Nzeocha's chances of making the squad. If we can get Jaylon Smith back at some point in the season, we would likely see one of these guys get knocked off the roster to make space, likely being Nzeocha. Having said that, because of his status on IR throughout last season, Nzeocha would be able to be put on the practice squad at any point in the season.

So that gives us Sean Lee, Rolando McClain, Kyle Wilber, Anthony Hitchens, Damien Wilson, and Mark Nzeocha as our linebacking corps this season. I think this is a solid group with some serious versatility.



Dallas Cowboys fan since the Drew Bledsoe "era." I love Tony AND Dak. I like to think that I'm the most objective that a fan can get, while still being a diehard, which I truly believe is the 8th wonder of the world. Go Cowboys!!

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Dallas Cowboys 2019 Job Security Rankings: Offense

Jess Haynie

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Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

When the Dallas Cowboys start training camp in July, there will be various feelings of job security throughout the 90-man roster. Throughout the NFL, players know when they're already locked in to a role on the team or when they're fighting for survival.

Today, we're going to look at how secure the Cowboys' players should feel in 2019. This not only applies to if they make the final roster, but also their position as a starter, roleplayer, or developmental prospect.

We'll start with the offense.

Tier 1 - The Untouchables

QB Dak Prescott, RB Ezekiel Elliott, FB Jamize Olawale, WR Amari Cooper, OT Tyron Smith, G Connor Williams, C Travis Frederick, G Zack Martin, OT La'el Collins, OT Cam Fleming

There are no foreseeable issues that could change where these 10 players fit into the 2019 offense. Barring injury or some surprise trade, such as Dallas moving La'el Collins, we know exactly where these guys will fall if they're here and healthy.

Prescott, Elliott, and Cooper are no-brainers, as are your five starting offensive linemen. I also included Fleming as he was clearly brought back to be the swing tackle this season. That could all change in 2020, but for this year at least his role is certain.

You may be surprised to see any fullback in this top tier, but the Cowboys gave Olawale a three-year contract to return this offseason. They made $2.8 million of it guaranteed; you just don't do that if you have any doubts about keeping him on the 53. There's no question that Jamize will be part of the team in 2019.

Some might argue that Connor Williams' starting spot isn't guaranteed, but I just don't see it. They lived the rookie growing pains last year and are hoping for much more going forward. A mid-season switch could occur if he struggles, but Williams will be the Week One starter at left guard.

Michael Gallup

Dallas Cowboys WR Michael Gallup

Tier 2 - Slightly Touchable

WR Michael Gallup, WR Randall Cobb, G/C Joe Looney

I almost put Gallup in the first tier but "sophomore slumps" are a real thing. Until we see him building on last year as hoped, there is room for something to go awry.

That also brings Cobb's role into question. Any slippage in Gallup's game could lead to increased opportunities for the veteran. Really, even if both guys are bringing it in 2019, how exactly the targets and usage get split between them isn't entirely certain. If Cobb is back to his peak form in Green Bay, he will be hard to take off the field.

I also put Joe Looney in this second tier because I think he could be trade bait. If a team is hurting at center before Week One, is there a more attractive trade target in the NFL?

Dallas could afford to trade Looney if they feel good enough about Connor McGovern as a backup center. Adam Redmond could also be in the mix, serving as the backup last year when Looney was starting.

It's very unlikely that Dallas would give up one of the best backup offensive lineman in football. But if a team is desperate enough to dangle a third-round pick in front of them, the Cowboys might have an offer they can't refuse.

Blake Jarwin

Dallas Cowboys TE Blake Jarwin (Kevin Terrell via AP)

Tier 3 - On the Team, But Where?

RB Tony Pollard, TE Jason Witten, TE Blake Jarwin, TE Dalton Schultz, OL Connor McGovern

This tier is dominated by the mysterious tight end position.  How much playing time will Jason Witten really get? How have Jarwin and Schultz developed and how will it all shake out?

Witten should be the ceremonial starter, but what really matters are total snaps and targets. Even if Jason is the first man out on game days, Jarwin could still wind up being the most-used TE of the group. It all remains to be seen.

We are also expecting a lot from rookie RB Tony Pollard this year, but we don't know yet how much responsibility he'll be given. Will he be the true backup RB or more of a gadget player? Will he take the KR and PR jobs aways from Jourdan Lewis and Tavon Austin? Lots to still be determined here.

Another rookie with question marks is third-round pick Connor McGovern. Will he be given a significant job right away or be carried, perhaps with several game day inactives, for development towards 2020? It's doubtful that he could push Joe Looney out of a job, but will he show enough that Dallas is willing to part with Xavier Su'a-Filo?

Mike White

Dallas Cowboys QB Mike White

Tier 4 - Bubble Players

QB Cooper Rush, QB Mike White, RB Mike Weber, RB Darius Jackson, WR Tavon Austin, WR Allen Hurns, WR Noah Brown, WR Cedrick Wilson, TE Rico Gathers, G Xavier Su'a-Filo, OT Mitch Hyatt

In the top three tiers we've named 18 players who are locks to make the 53-man roster. You generally have 24-25 player on each side of the ball, so that means only 6-7 roster spots left on offense. That means some of the guys named here won't make the team.

Will Cooper Rush and Mike White both have jobs? If Rush remains the backup QB, Dallas will probably hang on to White for another year. But if White beats Rush, the Cowboys could easily let Cooper go to save a roster spot for another position.

Assuming Dallas doesn't add any veteran RBs between now and camp, it seems Darius Jackson and Mike Weber are competing for the same job. There's also a chance that neither makes it; the Cowboys could use Jamize Olawale as the emergency third back. They may be happy to stash with Jackson or Weber on the practice squad.

Things get really interesting at receiver once you get past the top three. Do veterans Allen Hurns and Tavon Austin's experience edge lift them above guys like Noah Brown and Cedrick Wilson? Or will Dallas choose the upside of youth and their cheaper contracts? The bottom half of the WR depth chart appears entirely open right now.

The Rico Gathers Experiment seems close to ending, but he's still here and has a chance to change perceptions. The one-game suspension won't matter if the Cowboys like what he has to offer the rest of the season. But keeping a fourth TE could be tough with the numbers at other spots, and Gathers is unlikely to leap above Jarwin or Schultz.

Numbers are also an issue for the offensive linemen. We know the top eight; five starters, Fleming, Looney, and McGovern. If the Cowboys keep nine guys, they may go with Mitch Hyatt as an additional tackle rather than bring Xavier Su'a-Filo back. They already have the interior line covered.

Codey McElroy

Dallas Cowboys TE Codey McElroy

Tier 5 - Longshots

We'll all have our "pet cats" and favorite underdogs over the next two months, but they will all be hard-pressed to make the roster given the current depth.

Maybe a guy like RB Jordan Chunn shocks us by beating out Weber and Jackson, or perhaps a dark horse WR like Jalen Guyton or Jon'Vea Johnson forces his way into the conversation. Crazier things have happened.

But this 2019 Cowboys roster is about as stacked and predictable as it's been in a long time. Strong drafting has give us a lot of young talent with years left on their rookie deals, and those guys are hard to budge.

The key for these players is to be too good to risk losing on the practice squad. Convince Dallas to make room for them, perhaps by keeping just two quarterbacks or going short somewhere else.

Because only 46 guys are active on game days, roster spots 47-53 can be dedicated to securing players and development. These young prospects want to force their way into those spots, and likely cost a veteran like Cooper Rush or Allen Hurns a job in the process.

~ ~ ~

Where players fall in these tiers could change once we start getting some reports form training camp. How expendable you are can shift depending on performance, or if the circumstances change at your position.

We'll hit the defense tomorrow.



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Bold Prediction: Tony Pollard has Rookie Season Similar to Alvin Kamara

Brian Martin

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Predicting Cowboys RB/WR Tony Pollard's Rookie Season Statistics

The Dallas Cowboys drafted over half a dozen players this year in the 2019 NFL Draft, but the only name we have really been hearing anything about is rookie Running Back/Wide Receiver Tony Pollard. Cowboys Nation is really intrigued with the former Memphis Tiger, so today I thought I'd take a look at what he could potentially do with the Cowboys in his rookie season.

The first thing we have to try and figure out is what kind of role Tony Pollard will have with the Dallas Cowboys this season. Will he just be used to give Ezekiel Elliott a breather from time to time, or will he be expected to form a 1-2 punch with Zeke? An argument can be made for either of these two scenarios.

If you were to ask me my honest opinion though, I believe Tony Pollard will be more of a sidekick to Ezekiel Elliott in 2019 rather than someone who spells him when needed. Pollard has the skill set and versatility to become a really good complement for Zeke, and that's the way I believe the Dallas Cowboys will utilize him as a rookie.

If you're looking for more of a visual, look no further than how the New Orleans Saints used Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara these past few seasons. On their own, Ingram and Kamara are above average RBs in the NFL, but when in the lineup together they form an impressive duo that puts opposing defenses at a disadvantage. That's what I envision for Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard with the Dallas Cowboys.

Ezekiel Elliott, Tony Pollard

Dallas Cowboys RBs Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard

If that's not a bold enough prediction for you, I'll take this a step further. I wouldn't be surprised if Tony Pollard has a rookie season similar to Alvin Kamara's first year in the NFL in 2017.

As a rookie, Alvin Kamara had 120 rushing attempts for 728 yards and 8 touchdowns. He also accumulated 81 receptions for 826 receiving yards and 5 TDs. That production earned him Offensive Rookie of the Year.

It's probably a bit of a stretch to predict Tony Pollard have that kind of production with the Dallas Cowboys, especially considering the heavy workload they've put on Ezekiel Elliott's shoulders these past few years. But, I really don't think Kamara's rookie stats are that far off.

I think it's reasonable to believe Pollard will have between 88, double of Rod Smith's carries in 2018, and 100 rushing attempts this year. He should also haul in around 40 receptions in the passing game as well. Overall, I think he will have around 800 total yards, 500 rushing and 300 receiving, and 5-8 touchdowns.

Would you take the over or under on those numbers?

I don't know where you stand, but I truly believe Tony Pollard can help the Dallas Cowboys, and most importantly Ezekiel Elliott as a rookie this year. He should be a playmaker as both a runner and receiver on offense, and that's not even mentioning what he can do in the return game. It's easy to forget he was one of the best kick returners at the collegiate level.

You may not believe me, but I think Tony Pollard will have a pretty impressive rookie season with the Dallas Cowboys this year. Whether or not it measures up to Alvin Kamara's though is yet to be seen.

What are you expecting from Tony Pollard in his rookie season?



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Cowboys Twitter Tuesday: Answering Defensive Back Questions

John Williams

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Is Jeff Heath Set for Cowboys Captaincy in 2018?

Each week I’ll collect your questions from Twitter as well as any questions left in the comment section and attempt to condense a few into a common theme.

Last week, we talked about the 53-man roster. In particular the wide receiver group and one player who contributed to the 2018 squad, that may not make the 2019 team out of training camp.

Today, I want to tackle a couple of defensive back questions, as right now, that’s arguably the biggest question mark for the Dallas Cowboys heading into the 2019 season.

Steve Haley on Twitter

@john9williams Is Jeff Heath really as bad as everyone thinks?

It was a rough 2018 for Safety Jeff Heath. According to Pro Football Focus, Heath finished second in the NFL in missed tackles with 19. While a glaring issue for a player who you rely on to be a sure tackler and a reliable player, there are several stand out safeties that also finished in the top 10 in missed tackles, per PFF. Jessie Bates III, Derwin James, Landon Collins, and Malcolm Jenkins all finished inside the top 10 in missed tackles.

For Heath, though, were too many times where Jeff Heath had the ball carrier in his grasps and allowed himself to get carried or miss the tackle completely, because he was attempting to strip the football. And was rarely successful.

Dallas Cowboys Defensive Backs Coach Kris Richard made an interesting point in favor of Heath when he talked about the Cowboys winning 10 games and made the playoffs with Heath as the starting safety.

Heath stays under a microscope because he’s always been one of the whipping boys for Cowboys Nation.

The Dallas Cowboys had several opportunities to upgrade the box safety or strong safety role in team but passed at every turn. Instead they brought in George Iloka on a veteran minimum contract to be depth at free and strong safety. They also drafted Donovan Wilson in 2019 to provide some special teams play and potentially compete for the starting strong safety spot.

The moves the Dallas Cowboys made would seem to indicate they have a high comfort level with Jeff Heath as the other starting safety next to Xavier Woods. For a team that has had few misses in recent years, how they’ve approached the safety position this offseason speaks volumes.

TommyDaTexan on Twitter

@john9williams Is @ChidobeAwuzie going to be challenged for the #2 spot at CB and by who?

Head Coach Jason Garrett loves to create competition for his football team. Generally, the only players that find theme selves as unquestioned starters are the quarterback and veterans with a track record of production.

Chidobe Awuzie is one of the players I’m most intrigued to watch this season because of the way he played last year.

Statistically, Awuzie has a rough season in 2018, but if you watch him closely, there were few times that he wasn’t in excellent position to defend the pass. He just wasn’t able to make a play on the ball to prevent the reception. He struggled in the first half of the season and was getting picked on, but if you’ll recall, he had a really good second half of the season.

I really like Awuzie’s game. He’s got good athleticism and is able to play the ball in the air. He’s a physical player and is willing to play the run. I think he’s a player that is primed for a breakout season. Remember he was limited for much of his rookie season because of injury, so 2018 was his first full training camp and season. After getting beat a lot in the first half of the season, he settled in during the second half.

The player that could challenge Awuzie at left corner back is Jourdan Lewis. Lewis has sticky coverage skills and by all reports has been the best defensive back in the OTA and minicamp practices. Much had been made about Lewis’ body not fitting Kris Richard’s prototype for a corner back, but Richard has talked glowingly about Lewis this offseason.

With Byron Jones our nursing a hip injury, Lewis could very well start the season at right corner, but if he continues to play well and Awuzie struggles, you could see Lewis take over on the left side.

✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭

What do you make of this year’s defensive back group? Do you think Jourdan Lewis could wind up as a weak one starter?

If you’ve got any Cowboys questions, make sure you leave them in the comment section.



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