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.
Yesterday we broke down the current, pre-training camp job security of the offensive players. Today we turn our attention to the defense.
Remember, these tiers aren’t just about making the 53-man roster. It also has to do with the players’ roles within the roster. Are you a sure starter, fighting for playing time, or just hoping to avoid the practice squad?
Tier 1 – The Untouchables
DE DeMarcus Lawrence, LB Leighton Vander Esch, LB Jaylon Smith, CB Byron Jones
There is no debating these four players. Three of them are coming off Pro Bowl seasons and Jaylon Smith could’ve easily been right there with them. They are the new leaders of the defense and will be back in their featured roles in 2019.
None of these players will be challenged for their jobs. Even if Byron Jones doesn’t get a long-term extension beyond this season, he will be back as the primary corner and playing for his free agency leverage next year.
These guys are easy. Let’s move on.
Tier 2 – Slightly Touchable
DE Robert Quinn, DT Antwaun Woods, S Xavier Woods
The Cowboys hope that adding veteran Robert Quinn to Lawrence at defensive end will give them their most dangerous pair of pass rusher since DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer. The job is Quinn’s to lose; only the decline of age can stop Robert from being a key player in the defense this year.
Maybe putting the Woods boys up here is a little optimistic, but it just seems like the arrow is very much pointed upwards on both Antwaun and Xavier at their positions. If they continue to build on last year, there’s little reason to think they won’t be starters this season.
Dallas has good reason to be invested in both of them. With Tyrone Crawford and Maliek Collins both likely playing their final seasons here, Antwaun Woods gives them a secured talent going forward. Ideally, Woods and Trysten Hill will be your starters in 2020.
The same goes for Xavier Woods at safety. Jeff Heath has an expiring contract and George Iloka has just a one-year deal. The Cowboys want Xavier to become a fixture that they can add to going forward.
Assuming all of these players play up to current expectation, they aren’t budging.
Tier 3 – On the Team, But Where?
DE Taco Charlton, DE Dorance Armstrong, DL Tyrone Crawford, DT Maliek Collins, DT Trysten Hill, LB Sean Lee, LB Joe Thomas, CB Chidobe Awuzie, CB Anthony Brown, CB Jourdan Lewis, S Jeff Heath, S George Iloka
Most of the Cowboys defensive roster will be filled out from among this group. They should all make the team, but in what capacity? And how much will it matter, particularly on the defensive line, with the rotations that Rod Marinelli uses?
It probably seems odd to have former stalwarts like Tyrone Crawford and Sean Lee listed here, but that’s the new reality. I’m actually surprised both are still on the roster at this point, expecting at least one to be released for cap space this offseason. Both veterans will not be as featured as in the past, and I could even still see Crawford being released at final cuts.
Guys like Taco Charlton and Maliek Collins are also fighting for playing time against younger options on the defensive line. Will Dorance Armstrong and Trysten Hill push for snaps, and consequently push the older players into lesser roles?
How will things shake out in the secondary? Will Jourdan Lewis be able to find a larger role after being buried behind the top three corners last year? Will Anthony Brown or Chidobe Awuzie be the number-two CB? And at safety, who emerges as the second starter between veterans Jeff Heath and George Iloka?
Tier 4 – Bubble Players
DE Kerry Hyder, DE Joe Jackson, DT Christian Covington, DT Daniel Ross, LB Justin March-Lillard, LB Chris Covington, CB Michael Jackson, CB Donovan Olumba, S Kavon Frazier, S Darian Thompson, S Donovan Wilson
We’ve used up 19 of our 25-26 roster spots already. That means only 6-7 of these 11 players will make the team.
Dallas took a flier on Kerry Hyder as a rehab project, and the veteran DE is already impressing in the offseason practices. That could make it impossible for rookie Joe Jackson to make the team, getting crunched by the numbers.
Veteran Christian Covington feels like a solid pickup at DT, but what if he struggles to convert to the 4-3 scheme? A guy like Daniel Ross could be ready to steal the spot out from under him.
At cornerback, are rookie Michael Jackson and second-year prospect Donovan Olumba fighting for the same roster spot? What if Dallas doesn’t even keep five corner, like they did last year, and leave both guys out in the cold?
The competition is really heating up at safety. Kavon Frazier’s in the last year of his rookie deal and may not be able to fight off Darian Thompson, a former third-round pick, or rookie Donovan Wilson. Any one of these three could emerge.
None of these players listed here are guaranteed a roster spot. Even the newly drafted players will have to fight their way on, thanks to the strong talent acquisition the Cowboys have had in recent years.
Tier 5 – Longshots
Considering the potential casualties from the Bubble Players, any of this last group making the roster is going to defy expectations. Even 7th-round pick Jalen Jelks will have a hard time making it, and may have to convert to linebacker to have a chance at competing.
Despite his intriguing 6’4″ frame, CB Chris Westry will need to be truly exceptional to push past Michael Jackson or Donovan Olumba. Even if Dallas keeps six corners, he may be stuck as the seventh guy and headed for the practice squad.
It will inevitably happen that reports come from training camp of one of these guys, or some other longshot, making plays and creating a sudden surge of attention. You’ll see them start popping up on 53-man roster projections while we anxiously await watching them in the preseason games.
Then maybe nothing will happen, and we’ll forget about them all over again. Or maybe they do have some big games, but ultimately are among the final cuts despite all of the hype.
In the nearly two decades now that I’ve been really analyzing the Cowboys’ offseasons, I can’t remember a year where there seemed to be less opportunity for a dark horse to make the team. That’s unfortunate them, but a great problem for Dallas’ perceived roster strength.
We’ll find out soon enough how it all unfolds.