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 position or role on a team or when they're fighting for survival.
Today, we're going to look at how secure the Cowboys' players should feel in 2018. This not only applies to if they make the final roster, but also their position as a starter or key roleplayer.
We will start with the offensive players.
Tier 1 - The Untouchables
As pictured above, the core trio on the offensive line is arguably the team's most secure players overall. Frederick and Martin are arguably the best in the NFL at their positions, and Tyron is always an elite tackle as long he remains healthy. Thankfully, it sounds like he's getting back to good health in 2018.
Despite his sophomore struggles, Dak Prescott is the starting quarterback in 2018. Even with the drop in his numbers from his historic rookie season, Dak remains in the top half of NFL passers and his potential is enormous. We may be having a different conversation next season if the problems continue, but this year he's their guy.
While there is a lot of intrigue behind Ezekiel Elliott on the running back depth chart, he is unchallenged as the team's starting RB and primary offensive weapon.The potential for Elliott to get a career-high workload, and threaten 2,000 rushing yards, is out there this season.
I also included La'el Collins in the top tier, though with an asterisk. There is no question that Collins will be a 2018 starter, but there is still a little uncertainty as to whether he will play guard or tackle. The team appears committed to keeping him at right tackle, but the option of moving him back to left guard remains out there if an injury or some other occurrence forces their hand.
Tier 2 - Slightly Touchable
FB Jamize Olawale, WR Allen Hurns, WR Cole Beasley, OT Cam Fleming
Dallas traded a fifth-round pick to get veteran Fullback Jamize Olawale from Oakland. They had Olawale in training camp and on the practice squad back in 2012. Clearly, the Cowboys targeted him as the FB they wanted this year and there's little reason to think that will change.
Similarly, Dallas went out and signed free agent Allen Hurns to a deal that indicates he will have a starting role this year. With any new player, there's always a little room for uncertainty if he doesn't take to the offense well. But Hurns should step into the role vacated by Dez Bryant's release, and will hopefully forge better chemistry with Dak Prescott.
Cole Beasley was Dak's favorite target in 2016, and defenses figured that out and keyed on him last season. His effectiveness waned, and it's now up to Offensive Coordinator Scott Linehan to find ways to get Beasley open again. Whether it's a starting spot or as the slot receiver, Beasley's major role in the offense is sure to continue.
Veteran Offensive Tackle Cam Fleming was signed to be the swing man behind Tyron Smith and La'el Collins, and that is almost assuredly where he stays. Fleming really only has room to move up, perhaps into a starting role should Collins wind up back at guard. Either way, Fleming is locked in as a key member of the offensive line.
Tier 3 - On the Team, But Where?
QB Cooper Rush, QB Mike White, RB Rod Smith, RB Tavon Austin, WR Terrance Williams, WR Michael Gallup, G Connor Williams, TE Geoff Swaim, TE Dalton Schultz
You could argue that Cooper Rush and Mike White are both bubble players, perhaps fighting for the same roster spot, but it depends on the Cowboys' current philosophy about quarterback depth. I think they've changed from the day of keeping just two, moving to more of a pipeline model and wanting to keep talent when they find it. As such, I think both Rush and White are on the 2018 roster.
Rod Smith's experience with the team, fullback versatility, and special teams play should keep him around this year. He will have challenges to his playing time at running back from some of the new faces, but Smith offers too much value and is the only proven reserve they have.
Speaking of Austin, the speedster is sure to be here in 2018 in some capacity. Dallas didn't just give up a draft pick, even a sixth-rounder, lightly to acquire him. At worst, he should be the team's return specialist. But it appears that the Cowboys are going to find creative ways to work him into the offense and add a new element to their attack.
Despite his recent arrest, Terrance Williams should be around next year. There's no salary cap value in cutting Williams so the Cowboys will get what they can out of him in 2018, then likely move on next year. How much playing time he gets will be the question, thanks largely to exciting rookie Michael Gallup.
Second-round pick Connor Williams is a roster lock, but will he be a starter? Dallas will be asking the rookie to convert to left guard and it could be more than he can handle in his first year. At worst, Williams should be a versatile reserve option this season. But the Cowboys are hoping for much more.
The only tight ends that I would guarantee spots for are veteran Geoff Swaim and rookie Dalton Schultz. Given his experience, albeit limited, Swaim is the pack leader to replace Jason Witten as the starter. And Schultz, a fourth-round pick, will make the team in some capacity. While Rico Gathers and Blake Jarwin aren't far behind, I could still see potential for them to not make the squad.
Tier 4 - Bubble Players
RB Bo Scarbrough, WR Noah Brown, WR Deonte Thompson, WR Cedrick Wilson, TE Rico Gathers, TE Blake Jarwin, G/C Joe Looney, G/C Marcus Martin, OL Chaz Green
You can make cases for any of these guys to be on the 2018 roster, but also see potential for them to be cut. In a few cases, one may have to fall for the other to survive.
Running Back Bo Scarbrough seems like a steal as a seventh-round pick. The rookie's power running will work well behind an offensive line that makes lanes for him to pick up speed. He's hardly guaranteed a roster spot, though, and could now be threatened by the return of a previous late-round RB in Darius Jackson.
There is a logjam of intriguing receivers, meaning not everyone will make the roster. Veteran Deonte Thompson was signed to a minimal deal that doesn't secure his spot on the team. He is up against the youth and potential of guys like Noah Brown, rookie Cedrick Wilson, or perhaps dark horse Lance Lenoir. The bottom of the WR depth chart will be one of the most interesting topics leading up to final cuts.
At tight end, Rico Gathers and Blake Jarwin could both easily make the team. But Dallas may not need to keep four tight ends anymore with the move to more of a spread offense. What's more, fullback Jamize Olawale has the size to play the position in certain looks. It's possible that Gathers and Jarwin will be competing for just one available roster spot.
Before last week, I'd have considered Joe Looney and Marcus Martin as locks to make the team. But then Chaz Green got the first-team reps in practice at right guard, and now you have to consider Green as a challenger. Dallas may have room for all three guys to make the team, depending on how many total offensive linemen they wish to keep. But it's possible that there are only two spots for three players.
Tier 5 - Longshots
Almost every year there's a surprise or two for who makes the team. Players who felt like afterthoughts before training camp push their way into the conversation, and sometimes right onto the roster.
Take, for example, Receiver Lance Lenoir. Not only does he have some flash on offense, but his ability as a return specialist could make him hard to cut. While Tavon Austin will likely fill that role, Lenoir could win that job and a roster spot if he's clearly better than the veteran.
Or what about Running Back Darius Jackson, a sixth-round pick just two years ago, who the Cowboys brought back when he hit free agency? Jackson's 4.4 speed and one-cut style suit this offense well, giving him more home run potential than Rod Smith or Bo Scarbrough. Perhaps the second time around goes better for the young RB.
Those are just a couple of the guys that you may already be considering, and there's potential for others to come out of total obscurity. Tight End David Wells may not have to do much to move up the depth chart with that position in such a state of flux. Or perhaps a young guard or tackle prospect pushes a veteran like Joe Looney or Marcus Martin off the team.
Sure, the odds are against these guys. But the door is never closed until cut day.
Cowboys 2018 Breakout Candidates: TE Geoff Swaim
For the 2018 Dallas Cowboys, the retirement of Tight End Jason Witten was one of the biggest developments of the offseason. It leaves a gaping hole in their offense, and no major free agent or high draft pick was added as a clear replacement. As such, fourth-year veteran Geoff Swaim may be in line for a breakout season.
A seventh-round pick in 2015, Swaim has stuck in Dallas with strong run-blocking and special teams play. His offensive production has been limited to just nine catches and 94 yards, thanks largely to the stranglehold that Witten kept on the TE position. Geoff has only been targeted 11 times in the passing game over three seasons.
But with Witten leaving, as well as veteran backup James Hanna, Swaim is now the elder statesman of the TE group. Even his limited playing time in the NFL thus far puts him way ahead of Rico Gathers, Blake Jarwin, or rookie Dalton Schultz.
Based on reports from the offseason practices and camps, Geoff is getting the first crack at becoming the new starter. It makes sense given his experience edge, but also his proficiency as a run blocker.
The Cowboys will likely lean on Ezekiel Elliott heavily this year, particularly early in the season. The passing game will need time to find itself with Witten and Dez Bryant gone. They'll want to ease Dak Prescott into heavier workloads as he and his new receiving options get acclimated.
Geoff Swaim will be one of those new options. And even though his reputation is for blocking, don't take that to mean he's not athletic.
We've seen Swaim on the move as a blocker and also in the passing game, and he's certainly got some wheels. That could make him a deceptive weapon on play-action and other passing plays out of running formations.
In some ways, losing Witten and Bryant makes the Cowboys' offense less predictable than in the past. Defenses will be less sure who to focus on, and that also creates opportunities for the new receivers.
Obviously, Swaim's breakout potential is dependent on Prescott looking his way. But unless Dak has undergone a major change in his playing style, a TE working in the short and middle parts of the field is someone he'll rely on plenty.
With training camp and preseason still to come, calling Geoff the starter right now is just an assumption. There is still time for one of the other prospects to impress and climb the ladder.
But right now, there's clearly no better candidate to claim the spot than Swaim. He has the most critical skill as a blocker, and his potential in the passing game is underrated. It's his job to lose.
The guy with only nine career catches could get that in a single game this year. Therefore, Geoff Swaim is clearly one of the major breakout candidates for the 2018 Cowboys.
Cowboys 2018 Breakout Candidates: LB Jaylon Smith
No single player on the Dallas Cowboys roster right now may be more primed for a breakout season than Linebacker Jaylon Smith. His ascension as a player isn't just a big gain for the Cowboys defense, but it may be vital to their success in 2018.
Smith joined the Cowboys as a high second-round pick (34th overall) in the 2016 NFL Draft. Potentially a top-five elite talent in that class, Jaylon's stock fell after a severe knee injury in his final college game. It was unknown if he could ever play football again, but Dallas took the risk based on Smith's incredible upside.
After Jaylon sat out his rookie year to fully rehab. In 2017, he was able to play all 16 games and started in six. That alone was a huge win for Smith and the Cowboys.
Jaylon's performance last year wasn't great, but understandably so after all the missed time. He also had to regain confidence in his knee, which is critical for a linebacker with all of the directional changes during plays.
Still, Smith got better as the season went. And even amidst the struggles, there were flashes of his instincts and potential.
This offseason, reports of Jaylon's improving health are fueling increased optimism. He is now playing without a knee brace and that means more confidence. If Smith fully trusts his body now, it will make him far more dangerous on the field.
With Anthony Hitchens leaving in free agency, Dallas needs Jaylon to be a bigger factor this year. If he doesn't take the next step, it could leave the Cowboys vulnerable at linebacker in 2018.
True, Dallas drafted Leighton Vander Esch in the first round of last April's draft. But it's always dangerous to ask a rookie to do heavy lifting, and especially one who is seen as a raw talent like Vander Esch.
Ideally, anything Dallas gets from Leighton this year will be gravy. Their goal is to rely on veteran Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith, with Damien Wilson also available as a solid fallback option.
But when you mention Sean Lee, you have to mention health concerns. After two encouragingly healthy seasons in 2015 and 2016, Lee was back to having some issues last year and missed five games.
That is all the more reason why Dallas needs Jaylon to be ready for more this year. If Lee misses time again, Smith is the best suited to take over the roles that Sean leaves behind.
Thankfully, all signs point to big things for Jaylon Smith in 2018. His body appears healed and there's no questioning his work ethic and desire. If the mental aspect of football has also developed, he could be everything the Cowboys hoped when they drafted them.
Despite Late Push as Rookie, Will Taco Charlton Struggle to See Field in 2018?
It feels like ages ago that the Dallas Cowboys spent the 28th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft on Michigan Defensive End Taco Charlton. Perhaps this is a result of the constant distancing fans have made from this unpopular pick, or the corresponding moves the Cowboys have made at DE since drafting Charlton.
These moves include using the franchise tag on DeMarcus Lawrence after seeing him explode for 14.5 sacks, spending a fourth round pick this year on Kansas' Dorance Armstrong, and seeing Randy Gregory reinstated in time for training camp.
Across the entirety of the Cowboys roster, there will be plenty of "odd men out" that miss the cut down to 53 players. Defensive end remains one of the most cluttered spots on the current 90 man roster however.
Prior to establishing the depth the Cowboys now have up front on defense, they did Taco no favors by starting his career at right defensive end. While Gregory may still be a long way from earning the starting role here, similarly styled players like Armstrong have the edge here over Charlton.
This relegates Charlton to the strong side, where he always projected best out of college. By the time the Cowboys realized this a season ago, they also knew a franchise pass rusher was playing his way into the team's long-term plans.
Lawrence's stellar consistency off the edge reduced Charlton's role in the Cowboys rotation of pass rushers. An ideal spot for the rookie to develop with less pressure on him, Charlton's opportunities to continue playing left end may only be reduced this season.
The first-round pick is capable of kicking inside at defensive tackle, a position the Cowboys could certainly use help at. However, asking Charlton to go through another position shift would only halt the progress that took quite a bit of patience from Dallas to see.
It's far from unheard of for the Cowboys to do this with their young players, but for now Charlton remains a defensive end looking to make his impact. The Cowboys are in much better position now than they were at this time a year ago when it comes to setting expectations for him to do so.
Given everything he showed on tape at Michigan as well as in his pre-draft interviews, Charlton is a player that needs to succeed at the task at hand. When this plan is altered, the 6'6" pass rusher is much less effective -- without even considering any athletic struggles that Charlton has compared to other prototypes at defensive end.
As a unit, the Cowboys defensive line has all the pieces to be very effective this season. Taco Charlton is a piece to this puzzle, a backup left end that must find a way to flourish in this role.
For most former 28th overall picks, doing so would be considered a fall from grace. For the Cowboys, it's simply an example of strong roster building that's forced life to come at Charlton quickly. How he responds with a full season under his belt will make or break the hype this deep Cowboys defensive line has garnered, lead of course by the starter at Charlton's position in DeMarcus Lawrence.
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