With the roster cut-down deadline for 2019 looming this Saturday, the Dallas Cowboys will be making many difficult decisions throughout their talented preseason roster. Things are particularly tough on the defensive line, where there are several good players who won't make the team due to the numbers.
Right now there are only four players we can say are 100% guaranteed to make the 2019 roster; Defensive End DeMarcus Lawrence and Defensive Tackles Maliek Collins, Antwaun Woods, and Trysten Hill.
Lawrence is the franchise player on the defensive line and was just signed to a huge contract. Collins and Woods are the clear starters at DT based on last season and how they've been utilized this summer. And Hill, a 2nd-round rookie, would have to hit Jerry Jones with his car to get released in this first season.
But while these are the players who will definitely be on the team this year, some others are very close to being guaranteed.
Kerry Hyder, a veteran DE that was signed as a free agent this offseason, has reportedly been the best performer since his arrival. Between a high level of player and a minimal salary, Hyder has all but locked himself into a roster spot in 2019.
The same goes for Dorance Armstrong, who is entering his second year after being a 4th-round pick in 2018. Armstrong is a pure pass rusher who has been among the standout players this summer; he's not going anywhere.
Another near-lock is DT Christian Covington, whose size and skills allow him to play both interior line positions and make him valuable. He hasn't been standing out as much as Hyder, but Covington is another newly-added free agent who's performed well and should make the squad.
That's seven players I fully expect to be on the 53-man roster. That leaves just 3-4 spots of the expected 10-11 total that go to defensive line, so who is on that bubble?
Veteran Tyrone Crawford would likely make the roster if not for the $7 million in salary cap relief that Dallas gets by cutting him. Even if they can afford to pay him this year, the Cowboys may prefer to keep a younger player with room to develop than have one last year with Crawford.
Still, given his solid play and ability to work at either DE or DT, Tyrone is not an easy cut. He may not seem as valuable this moment given our available options, but one or two injuries could leave the Cowboys wishing they still had Crawford come December or January.
Another wrinkle with Crawford is that, as a vested NFL veteran, his salary becomes fully guaranteed if he's on the Week One roster. So Dallas can't just keep him for a few weeks and then cut him after Robert Quinn's suspension (more on that below) ends in Week 3; they would lose nearly all of the cap benefits at that point.
Another big decision looms with 2017 1st-round pick Taco Charlton. Many felt that Taco might not survive final cuts this year, and that players like Hyder and Robert Quinn were being added this offseason as his eventual replacements.
But Charlton has stepped it up lately, and never more so than in last Saturday's preseason game. Taco had a huge night, albeit against shoddy offensive line play, and may have given the Cowboy enough incentive to keep working with him in 2019.
Another contender is 5th-round rookie Joe Jackson, who has certainly played well enough to deserve a roster spot but is up against the numbers. While not an exceptional athlete, Jackson's motor and power make him effective and tough to cut. He can contribute right away, and that's an exceptional quality for a Day 3 rookie.
At defensive tackle, solid talents like Daniel Ross, Daniel Wise, and Ricky Walker are all capable of being NFL players. Even 7th-rookie DE Jalen Jelks has had some good moments; all guys you wish you could keep but simply don't have room for.
If that wasn't hard enough, we haven't even talked about the guys who are currently suspended.
Complicating matters further is the suspension of veteran Robert Quinn, who will return in Week 3 and require that someone be released to make room.
While he hasn't been seen yet in preseason due to a hand fracture, Robert is expected to be a starting DE this year after Dallas traded for him last March. However, his two-game suspension will delay that for the opening games against the Giants and Redskins.
Dallas has a multi-layered decision in front of them. Does accounting for Quinn's absence impact how who they keep at final cuts? Will someone make the team for a few weeks who otherwise wouldn't; a placeholder for Quinn's eventual return?
That roster spot doesn't necessarily have to come from the defensive line. Dallas might hang on to someone at any other position, such as tight end while guys are a little banged up, and then cut him to open up Quinn's roster spot.
More likely, though, is that Dallas will hang on to an extra DE and then cut someone from that group when Quinn returns. That strategy is the cleanest way to manage the roster, and it also helps account for any injuries that could occur during the first two games.
Another suspended DE is Randy Gregory, and right now it's unknown when or if he will return to the NFL. He has yet to officially request reinstatement, though that may be close, and it now appears that his possible return to football will have to occur sometime in the middle of the season.
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Clearly, there is a lot for the Cowboys to figure out with their defensive line in 2019. Having too many good players is a great problem to have, but that doesn't alleviate the stress of these roster decisions that Dallas faces this week.
Thursday night's preseason game may not impact much; most of the decisions are likely made prior to the finale. But for bubble guys like Joe Jackson, Jalen Jelks, Daniel Ross, Daniel Wise, and others, perhaps they can do something to help move the needle in their favor.
Lots of questions right now, but the answers are soon to come. Stay tuned this week for my final 53-man Roster Projection and other analysis as the Cowboys work on preparing their team for the 2019 season.