‘Tis the season for NFL roster projections; a favorite time of year for those who do what we do and those kind enough to read it. After breaking down the potential Dallas Cowboys 2020 offense yesterday, we will now predict who will make their 53-man roster on defense.
Yesterday's projection for the Cowboys offense used up 24 roster spots. With three spots needed for kicker, punter, and long snapper, that leaves 26 spots for our defensive positions.
It's common for the defense to get one or two more roster spots than the offense. They rely much more on rotations and keeping guys fresh, especially on the defensive line, than offensive positions.
To illustrate, top offensive linemen like Zack Martin almost never comes out of a game. Martin played on over 99% of Dallas' offensive snaps last year. But DeMarcus Lawrence, easily Dallas' best defensive linemen, played in just under 62% of the snaps on defense.
So who look like the front-runners to make the roster in 2020?
Defensive End (5)
1. DeMarcus Lawrence, Tyrone Crawford
2. Aldon Smith, Randy Gregory
3. Bradlee Anae
The big x-factors here are Gregory and Smith. We're still hoping to see Randy reinstated by the league and there's plenty of time for that to happen before Week One, but how much practice time will he get in if it's delayed much longer?
We've seen and heard a lot of exciting things about Aldon Smith's comeback, but you can't ignore that he hasn't played in about five years. Dallas is playing with fire if they count on either him or Gregory too heavily right now.
Tyrone Crawford is still around and projects to start early on. He will likely be in on rushing downs and then tag out to Smith or Gregory in the nickel and other pass-focused formations.
If Gregory doesn't get reinstated then his spot will likely go to pass-rushing specialist Dorance Armstrong. Also don't sleep on Joe Jackson, who should be competitive in his second season. As hyped as we are about Bradlee Anae, he's still a rookie and has missed out on a lot of offseason work.
Defensive Tackle (5)
1. Gerald McCoy, Dontari Poe
2. Trysten Hill, Antwaun Woods
3. Neville Gallimore
This offseason the Cowboys made some of the biggest investments in the DT position that they have in some time. McCoy and Poe are both former 1st-round picks and Pro Bowlers who should bolster the group despite age (McCoy) and injury concerns (Poe).
Dallas also has two young prospects in Trysten Hill and Neville Gallimore to rotate in and learn behind the veterans. While Hill was disappointing overall as a rookie, he started to turn it on toward the end of the year and will hopefully carry that forward.
The tough one to project here is Antwaun Woods. He's been a starter the last two years but appears to be losing that job to the veteran Poe. He's also had some personal issues and expressed frustration with his place on the team.
Woods would make sense to keep given his cheap contract and being the most ideal backup for Poe as the run-stopping DT. But I could easily see Dallas wanting to go longer at defensive end and keeping just four tackles, which might knock Woods off the roster.
1. Leighton Vander Esch, Jaylon Smith, Sean Lee
2. Joe Thomas, Justin March, Luke Gifford
There's not much to discuss here. The starters are set and Thomas is a sure bet as a primary backup. As long as Gifford impresses the new coaching staff like he did the last one, he also won't be going anywhere.
The last spot comes down to Justin March and undrafted rookie Francis Bernard. Whoever is the best performer on special teams will likely seal the deal.
We've seen Dallas keep up to seven linebackers in the past and that could happen given injury concerns with Vander Esch and Lee. But this is one position where the new 55-man rule, allowing for practice squad players to be called up for games, will likely be heavily utilized. I still think they only keep six on the official roster.
1. Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis
2. Trevon Diggs, Anthony Brown
3. Reggie Robinson, Maurice Canady
The entire secondary is a real jumble right now; easily the toughest part of the roster to predict. I could give you multiple scenarios that all about equal in plausibility right now.
The most textbook scenario is for Awuzie and Lewis to get deferred to as veterans, especially given the missed practice time for the rookies. It wouldn't be shocking to see Chido, Jourdan, and Anthony Brown as the top three corners in Week One.
Still, Dallas spent a 2nd-round pick on Trevon Diggs. While that doesn't make him an immediate starter, they're not going to leave him on the bench too much. Expect a healthy rotation with the three veterans.
Reggie Robinson will have a harder time getting in if Dallas hangs on to everyone else. I think his immediate impact will be on special teams, likely replacing C.J. Goodwin as a gunner, and other work will come with time.
For now I'm putting in Canady as a sixth corner but he could easily be cut if the team wants to keep five safeties, or if they just want nine total defensive backs and to use a spot elsewhere.
1. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Xavier Woods
2. Daryl Worley, Donovan Wilson
The safe bet is for Clinton-Dix and Woods to be the starting duo at safety but it's hardly assured. Depending on how Defensive Coordinator Mike Nolan wants to use his safeties, they may want a bigger guy taking on the traditional “strong safety” role.
A tough cut here was Darian Thompson, who has been a solid backup and can play either role. However, Daryl Worley has versaility as a safety and cornerback and much greater experience. He could wind up a starter at either CB or S before it's all said and done.
Could Donovan Wilson push for a starting job? Remember, Xavier Woods was only a 6th-round pick himself in 2017. Whose to say that Wilson can't continue his progress from last year and be a contender?
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The special teams positions don't need much discussion. We know Chris Jones and L.P. Ladouceur will resume their duties, leaving Kai Forbath and Greg Zuerlein to battle it out at kicker. Zuerlein is the easy pick given his resume and relationship with John Fassel, but Forbath should make it interesting.
Remember that this projection is just the beginning; a foundation to work from as we head into training camp. I will be adjusting it as reports come out of those practices and we finally get to hear how some of the free agents and rookies look and are performing.
We'll check back in after the first week or so of camp for the next installment.