With the 2019 NFL Draft now behind us, it seemed a fine time to do our first 53-Man Roster Projection for this year. How does this latest draft class change the landscape of the Dallas Cowboys going forward?
Dallas went into this draft with most of their holes covered, signing modest free agent deals to avoid any glaring needs in Nashville. That has left with them with more than a few logjams at various positions; there simply won't be enough roster spots to go around.
Some of the late-round rookies, perhaps even the fifth-round picks, may have a hard time making the Cowboys team this year. It's one of the most loaded rosters that Dallas has had at this point in the offseason, at least in recent memory.
So how will the pieces fit together? Who's in and who's out, and how much room for change is there between now and the end of the preseason?
We'll start at the top.
Dak Prescott, Mike White
I think the Cowboys could go back to keeping just two QBs this year, desiring to protect talent at other positions. That would mean having Cooper Rush and Mike White compete for the backup role and likely sticking the loser on the practice squad.
Rush looked great in the 2017 preseason but didn't build on that last year. White looked as good, if not a little better, despite playing with lesser talent around him and being the rookie. If those trends continue, Mike White projects to win the backup QB job.
Remember, one of these guys was a fifth-round pick and the other was undrafted. That guarantees nothing but suggests that White should have more upside than Rush. He also has three years left on a rookie contract, while Rush will be a restricted free agent next year.
I could be totally wrong about Dallas dropping to two quarterbacks on the roster, but it feels like the right move based on the current makeup. Whoever loses the backup QB battle probably won't have as much value to the team as one of their prospects at other positions.
Running Back (4)
Ezekiel Elliott, Tony Pollard, Darius Jackson,
Jamize Olawale (FB)
I still think Dallas could add a veteran free agent in the coming weeks, but we're going to go with who we have right now. That adds one of our fresh faces from the draft, fourth-round pick Tony Pollard, with fourth-year veteran Darius Jackson on the depth chart.
In ways, Pollard actually sounds like a younger version of Jackson. He has kick return ability and great speed if the running lane is clear. That could mean he bounces Darius off the roster if he's the newer, shinier model.
But being like Jackson could also be a disadvantage. Darius was a raw talent when Dallas took him in the sixth round of the 2016 draft, having to learn the finer points of playing NFL ball over the last three seasons. Does Tony Pollard have some of the same holes in his game right now, such as pass blocking, that Jackson has dealt with?
To be honest, my guess for 2019 is that Dallas will sign a more experienced and well-rounded player to be Zeke's immediate backup. Pollard will be RB3 for kick returning and some specific, gadget uses, and Darius Jackson will be looking for work elsewhere in the league.
Until that free agent gets signed though, we'll go with this group.
Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, Randall Cobb,
Allen Hurns, Tavon Austin, Noah Brown
Dallas didn't add any receivers in the draft, leaving this sextant in tact for now. It's a good balance of experience with Cobb, Hurns, and Austin, potential in Gallup and Brown, and the elite Cooper making everything go.
Neither Austin or Hurns are locks at this point. The Cowboys don't face any major dead money cutting either of them, so they could make room for a younger prospect like Cedrick Wilson if they choose to at final cuts.
Tavon's situation is particularly interesting thanks to the drafting of Tony Pollard. While we don't know yet if he can return punts, Pollard should become the kick return specialist and be used on some of the specific offensive play-types where Austin got looks. There may not be enough work to justify keeping both guys on the roster.
The competition at WR will be one of the most intriguing stories come July and August. The top three seem set with Cooper, Gallup, and Cobb, but everything beyond that is up in the air.
Tight End (3)
Jason Witten, Blake Jarwin, Dalton Schultz
I would've gone with four tight ends if Dallas hadn't re-signed Jamize Olawale at fullback. But with Olawale returning and Noah Brown having the size and power to do some work as a smallish TE, I could see the Cowboys keeping just their top three guys.
Of course, that means ending the Rico Gathers project. But there's no indication that Gathers has developed enough to challenge for a larger role in 2019.
We don't know what rotation there will be between the returning Witten and prospects Jarwin and Schultz. But the Cowboys didn't spend a single draft pick at TE, so they must be content with who they already have.
The only real question here is if they still want to make room for Rico. If so, it will cost somebody a job at another position.
Offensive Tackle (3)
Tyron Smith, La'el Collins, Cam Fleming
Dallas re-signed Fleming to be the swing tackle again in 2019. He got a two-year deal, and that's led to some speculation about what the team plans to do when La'el Collins becomes a free agent after this season.
Compounding things was the drafting of Connor McGovern, who has been more of an inside lineman but has position flex. McGovern could move into a starting guard role and allow Connor Williams to go back to his college position at tackle.
Either way, it seems like Dallas is preparing for a future without Collins. They're already paying a lot of money to their Pro Bowl offensive linemen and perhaps can't afford to keep La'el at what he's likely to command on the open market.
I don't think anything will happen now. Dallas will enjoy their depth and give McGovern a year to develop. But come 2020, big changes appear to be ahead for the offensive line.
Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, Connor Williams,
Joe Looney, Connor McGovern (R), Xavier Su'a-Filo
If Dallas wants to keep a third QB or a fourth TE, this may be the position where they can create an extra roster spot. They may look to trade Looney or release Su'a-Filo now that they have McGovern in the mix.
Whether or not Dallas can go thinner here depends heavily on Travis Frederick's health, which so far has had only positive reports. If Frederick is all-the-way back and alleviates concerns for this season, the Cowboys won't need to keep three interior line backups.
If they trust McGovern to play center then I would try hard to trade Joe Looney. He was a 16-game starter for a playoff team last year and has G/C flex. It's hard to imagine that all other 31 teams will be content with their interior line by the end of August.
Better to get something for Looney now than lose him as a free agent in 2020. We'll see that same logic come up again at a few of our defensive positions.
Defensive End (6)
DeMarcus Lawrence, Robert Quinn, Taco Charlton,
Dorance Armstrong, Kerry Hyder, Joe Jackson (R)
I have all of these DE options listed for now, without even including Tyrone Crawford's ability to flex to the outside, but am prepared for that to change quickly. I think the Cowboys are going to be looking to trade Taco Charlton between now and the start of training camp, hoping some other team who liked him in 2017 still assigns value.
Dallas aggressively pursued new DE talent by trading for Robert Quinn and signing veteran Kerry Hyder. Throw in Armstrong and Jackson as young prospects and they simply have more players than they'll probably have spots for the 53-man roster.
That said, the Cowboys aren't going to just give up a former first-round pick for peanuts. If the right trade offer doesn't come, they'll probably keep Taco and see how things play out.
Defensive Tackle (5)
Tyrone Crawford, Maliek Collins, Antwaun Woods,
Trysten Hill (R), Christian Covington
I could also see Dallas trying to move Tyrone Crawford or Maliek Collins in a trade this offseason. Neither figures into the team's long-term plans, especially after Trysten Hill was selected in the second round of last week's draft.
The nice thing about moving Crawford is that he can be attractive to a variety of teams; either a DE or DT in a 4-3 and even a DE in a 3-4 scheme. He's been a solid player for years and perhaps would fill a hole for someone with greater need. His $7 million base salary isn't awful for what he brings on the field.
Collins also provides starting experience and position flex, having played both 1-tech and 3-tech at defensive tackle. He will be a free agent next year and that could limit trade interest, but he does offer immediate value if a team needs a quick solution.
Trysten Hill and Antwaun Woods look like the future at DT for now. The Cowboys can lean on that and try to move one of these other players to save cap space and avoid losing them for nothing in 2020.
Sean Lee, Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch,
Joe Thomas, Justin March-Lillard, Chris Covington
Other than some undrafted free agents, the linebacker position went untouched over the course of the draft. That's largely due to Dallas reaching a salary reduction agreement with Sean Lee and keeping him around for at least one more year.
The Cowboys are content to play the season with Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch as their rising stars on defense, with Lee and Joe Thomas likely rotating in for various formations. We could see Jaylon play the SAM role in the base defense, left open by Damien Wilson's free agent departure.
Dallas brought back Justin March-Lillard for experienced depth and strong special teams player. The last spot will be Chris Covington's to lose against the undrafted rookies and other young prospects.
Byron Jones, Chidobe Awuzie, Anthony Brown,
Jourdan Lewis, Michael Jackson (R)
Another spot where I could see a trade coming, cornerback is deep enough that former third-round pick Jourdan Lewis is stuck as the fourth man. He has more talent than that and hopefully another team will want to give up something valuable to get him.
But again, like with Taco, Dallas isn't going to just dump Lewis for nothing. He's too good for that and still has a cheap rookie contract. Even if he's not ideal for Kris Richard's scheme, he has more ability than whatever big-bodied guys the team goes and finds with late-round picks or off the street.
If Lewis doesn't get moved, the top four CBs from 2018 will return with newly-drafted Michael Jackson rounding out the depth chart. But I think it would be in everyone's best interests to find a new and more suitable home for Jourdan, and get something back on our investment.
George Iloka, Xavier Woods, Jeff Heath,
Donovan Wilson (R)
It appears that Xavier Woods will remain the starting free safety while Jeff Heath and George Iloka battle for the other spot. The loser should stick around as a versatile and experienced backup, able to play either position.
The real question is if sixth-round rookie Donovan Wilson can compete for a spot. He would have to oust Kavon Frazier, who was also a sixth-round pick in 2016. Will Wilson's youth trump Frazier's experience?
If the competition is at all close, Donovan will likely steal Kavon's roster spot. This is the fourth a final year of Frazier's rookie deal while Wilson is starting a fresh, new contract. That makes it an easy personnel swap if the talent and performance are comparable.
Given all the other situations across the roster, I can't see Dallas keeping a fifth safety in 2019.
Special Teams (3)
Brett Maher, Chris Jones, L.P. Ladouceur
We end with the easy ones; there's little question who the team's specialists will be unless other talent gets added during the offseason.
I still think Dallas will bring in some competition at kicker. There are still some quality veterans unsigned and plenty of little-known prospects. Brett Maher's shaky stats on short-yardage field goals mean he's hardly untouchable.