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Dallas Cowboys 2020 Pre-Camp Roster Projection: Defense

‘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.

Acquiring Gerald McCoy, Dontari Poe Allows Cowboys to Focus on Secondary Early in the Draft
Dallas Cowboys DTs Dontari Poe and Gerald McCoy

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.

Linebacker (6)

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.

CB Trevon Diggs Looks Seasoned In Private Workouts
Dallas Cowboys CB Trevon Diggs

Cornerback (6)

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.

Safety (4)

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?

~ ~ ~

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.

What do you think?

Jess Haynie

Written by Jess Haynie

Cowboys fan since 1992, blogger since 2011. Bringing you the objectivity of an outside perspective with the passion of a die-hard fan. I love to talk to my readers, so please comment on any article and I'll be sure to respond!

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  1. I think you’ve done a really nice job on both sides of the ball Jess! The selections and the reasonings are all valid and hard to dispute.

    Only real change (IMO) is that I’m more inclined to think Worley is being viewed as CB and could very well earn one of the starting positions … until Diggs is ready. That means my changes would be Canady not making the team and Thompson being kept. If Diggs earns a starting nod by midseason, then the lesser of the 2 between Worley and Awuzie could still get moved to safety if the other 4 fail to live up to expectations there.

    • Thanks Bill. Always appreciate your loyal readership and insightful commenting.

      You could be spot on with Worley. It’s quite possible that he’s the best CB on the roster if the scheme suits his style of play. If Dallas is ready to move on from Awuzie and Lewis then I could see him starting as soon as Week 1.

    • I agree…. I was gonna make a comment about the same thing with Worley and Canady…. I believe Worley will stay in at corner and Thompson will stay on the team at safety!! I really don’t think we’ll move any of our corners to safety, we’re not the best at safety, but I don’t think any of our corners can be moved to safety and be better than the safeties we have now!! And with this being a contract year for chido, I think he’ll stay at corner to try to earn his second contract!! Plus, I know it’s hard to believe, but he is the best corner we have right now!! And now that Byron Jones is gone he’ll be even better cause opposing offenses won’t be picking on him so much!! But of course nobody will know for sure until the season starts!!

  2. Agree Jess really good job breaking it down. You gave us a real clear picture of what we have moving forward. The only question for me us is Zuerlein. I know McCarthy is familiar with him and he has been great in the past and cowboys are tied up in a little money with him. But he wasn’t good last yr not sure why but he wasn’t. Kickers are a quirky breed and can lose it quickly from season to season. Hopefully last yr was an aberration and he reverts back to his norm, cuz kickers can lose some winnable games for you. Sure if he looks shaky at any point they won’t hesitate to go with Forbath.

    • Forbath vs Zuerlein will be a fun story for camp. Keep in mind that while Forbath was a semi-shaky journeyman bouncing around the league, Zuerlein was one of the top kickers in the game. It’s all going to be about who’s healthy and gets hot over the next month.

  3. I think you got it wrong with the DE. I think Doran e Armstrong and Joe Jackson makes the team. Armstrong did a good job on limited opportunities and he is D Law reliever.

    • I tend to side with you here Brian. Armstron has always seemed to be the guy that spells D-Law and/or favors the LE position. I can see Antwaun Woods not making the team. That could mean Crawford serving primarily as a DT, which frees up another DE spot. I’m assuming Anae is all but a guarantee, and I think this team will try to do whatever that can to keep 2 of the combination of Armstrong, Jackson, Carter, Jelks. But as Jess points out, the Gregory/Smith experiments will ultimately determine that capability. Bad year to have to try that experiment …

      All told, it appears there could be some decent talent getting cut …

    • You could be right; another very tough position to predict. I definitely think Armstrong makes it if Gregory isn’t reinstated, and both could make it if Dallas decides to keep six DEs and go short elsewhere. If these young guys all step up, and especially if Aldon Smith looks capable of starting, could we see Tyrone Crawford released to save cap space?

  4. Yea gotta make good decisions regarding DEs don’t wanna give up on a guy too soon and see him have success with another team. Edge rushers being at such a premium. Really the only sure thing is Lawrence, so we really need a couple more guys to step up at arguably the 2nd or 3rd most important position on the team.

  5. Very good insight on both aides of the ball Jess. Every level of the defense has some discussions to be made.
    DLine: Who’s to think Lawrence will play at this point as he may opt out for the season. That leaves really Crawford as the only sure thing. I think a case is to be made for Armstrong and Ron’dell Carter to make the roster. As for DT, Hill is all dependant on his work ethic and if he improves this year. McCarthy has no attachment to him.

    LB: Francis Bernard is the only player to discus about making the roster maybe over March or Gifford.

    CB: The secondary is the biggest question by far as you can make a case for anyone of the players. I believe Diggs and Awuzie start either Brown manning the slot, as he’s a bigger corner than Lewis and they prefer bigger corners. I think Canady beats out Goodwin for ST and depth. For my last 2 slots I give it to Robinson and Worlry as they both have S experience.

    S: Not much to discuss here. With Worley at corner I think Thompson makes it due to his ability to play both spots.

    ST: Forbath vs Zuerlein will be the only battle. How much of Zuerliens issues are injury related or drop in production will very key here.

  6. I like Gallimore over Hill on that second level. Like the talent, but depending on Gregory is a mistake, just look at the track record. Has he even been re-instated yet? Would replace him with Armstrong. The rest of your lineup looks pretty good.

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