The three weeks of "voluntary" OTAs have come to a close for the Dallas Cowboys, and this week starts the mandatory portion of the off-season practice program with minicamps getting started out at The Star. As the OTAs progressed, several players made cases to have their names etched on Jason Garrett's 53-Man Roster when they open up the 2018 NFL Regular Season.
With what we know now, here's what the 53-Man Roster could look like week one.
- Dak Prescott
- Cooper Rush
- Mike White
Dak Prescott is the starter. There is no competition and no debate. He's a good player that has a chance to be a great player. He's in need of a bounce-back start to the season after the way his 2017 season finished, but he's a hard worker and is capable of improving his game.
There was a time when I thought the backup quarterback situation would be a competition between Cooper Rush and Mike White, and it still might be. After what I've read about the two from OTAs, I'm ready to state that the backup quarterback position to Dak Prescott is Cooper Rush's to lose.
Now, I don't have the benefit of watching every practice, but from everything I've read -- mostly from Bryan Broaddus at DallasCowboys.com -- White has been behind on throws while Rush has been making good throws throughout OTAs.
Rush has the edge of experience, even if it is only one year.
Running Back (5)
- Ezekiel Elliott
- Rod Smith
- Jamize Olawale (FB)
- Tavon Austin (Web Back)
- Bo Scarbrough
The guys I've listed above are locks to make the team at this point. The only question with Austin is how do they see him. As a WR/RB hybrid, he will line up in both spots. He's either the fourth running back or the seventh wide receiver.
Jamize Olawale is a great fullback piece. He's averaged 3.7 yards per carry and 10.9 yards per reception for his career while scoring seven touchdowns over the last five years. You may not think much of those numbers, but for a fullback, it's pretty good. Like Tavon Austin, he's a chess piece that the offensive staff can get creative with.
There's a lot that could be said about Ezekiel Elliott as a player. One nugget I found the other day was pretty incredible:
Only 2 running backs averaged more yards per game through their first two seasons than Ezekiel Elliott's 104.6. Eric Dickerson: 122.3 Clinton Portis: 106.9 #CowboysNation
Make sure you read my 2018 stat projection for Ezekiel Elliott for more interesting notes on Elliott.
The final running back spot on the team will come down to Bo Scarbrough, the team's seventh-round draft pick in 2018, and Darius Jackson, the sixth-round pick from 2016.
What gives Scarbrough the edge is his style of play. It's different from anything else we have on the team. He's a straight-line and downhill runner who will find a role as a short-yardage back from time to time. Darius Jackson reminds me a lot of Rod Smith; capable at a lot of things, but not great at any one thing. Bo has great physicality and once he gets going, he's tough to stop.
Imagine dealing with Ezekiel Elliott for 20 carries and then in comes Scarbrough for a series in the fourth quarter.
These five give the team a very well-rounded group of runners that will keep defenses off-balance. Should be a lot of fun to watch them behind this offensive line.
Wide Receiver (6)
The odd man out here, Deonte Thompson, could very well still be on the roster if the legal situation with Terrance Williams turns into an NFL suspension.
With a suspension, the Dallas Cowboys could release him without any cap penalties for the remainder of his contract, which is set to run through 2020. A suspension for Williams could also mean Deonte Thompson gets a roster spot until Williams returns, should the team decide to keep him anyway. It's a bit of an albatross that I'm sure the Cowboys would like some flexibility with, but if there's no suspension, Williams will be on the roster.
Thompson seems very similar to the Nolan Carroll signing a year ago - veteran insurance in case the rookies aren't ready to step into a full-time role.
Michael Gallup and Cedric Wilson have both been making noise throughout the Rookie Minicamp and OTAs, and because of their route-running ability, they will be a part of the new-look Dallas Cowboys WR group.
The team loves Noah Brown's blocking ability and his ability to play special teams. They can use him as a small tight end in formations that motion him in-line like they tried to do with Vince Mayle a few years ago.
Allen Hurns and Cole Beasley are the veterans of the group and fully personify what a "Dak-friendly" receiver looks like. Quick route runners with the ability to line up in several spots on the field.
Tight End (3)
- Dalton Schultz
- Geoff Swaim
- Rico Gathers
The toughest decision for me came down to five running backs (including Tavon Austin) or four tight ends, and ultimately I decided that four tight ends was too much.
They have four guys who are very unproven NFL assets at tight end. Geoff Swaim has the most experience and Rico Gathers brings the most intrigue. Dalton Schultz and Blake Jarwin offer a lot of potential, but their ceilings may not be as high as Gathers if he can put together consistent performances as a blocker.
Jarwin would be a candidate for the practice squad if he doesn't make the team out of camp, but as you know there are always injuries in training camp, so there's still a good chance he makes the team.
Hopefully one of these guys steps up and asserts themselves as TE1 before training camp is completed.
Offensive Line (8)
- Tyron Smith
- Connor Williams
- Travis Frederick
- Zack Martin
- La'el Collins
- Cameron Fleming
- Joe Looney
- Marcus Martin
We know who the starters are before we even hit minicamp. This group of offensive linemen might be the most impressive group we've ever had with a Star on the side of their helmet. They've created a monster that is going to give Dak the protection that failed him in 2017 and blow open holes for Ezekiel Elliott.
Most importantly, the deal with Left Guard Zack Martin is done. He will be with the Dallas Cowboys through 2024 and will begin working with the team on the field during this week's minicamp. Kudos to the front office for getting this done and not letting it linger into training camp.
Joe Looney has been and will continue to be the backup center to Travis Frederick. He can also play some guard in a pinch.
While I think the team is going to give Chaz Green a chance to keep a job, I think the need to go long at WR, TE, and defensive line will prohibit the team from carrying nine guys on the 53-man roster. Though they won't be able to keep a lot of bodies for the offensive line, the depth has gotten better with the signing of Cameron Fleming as the swing tackle.
Defensive Line (10)
- DeMarcus Lawrence
- David Irving
- Maliek Collins
- Tyron Crawford
- Taco Charlton
- Datone Jones
- Jihad Ward
- Dorance Armstrong
- Randy Gregory
- Kony Ealy
Maliek Collins' injury and David Irving's family issues have me concerned that they may have to prepare to start the season without either of those guys.
Irving has stated he'll be ready for training camp when they go to Oxnard, California in July, but the stuff that he's dealing with can take time to sort out. As he stated, it's important to take care of the off-field stuff first so that he can focus on football.
Collins should be ready for week one, according to several reports, but with his history of foot issues now covering each of his first three seasons in the NFL, it's also possible he's not ready when the Cowboys travel to face the Carolina Panthers.
Jihad Ward and Datone Jones are going to get quite the opportunity on the interior to earn playing time with the absences of Collins and Irving. Going up against the All-Universe offensive line that the Cowboys have should only help them to improve.
At the moment, I'm going to say that Randy Gregory gets reinstated and is put on the 53-man roster out of training camp. They'll have to go long along the defensive line.
The odd man out at the moment looks like Charles Tapper, who hasn't really found his stride in the NFL due to injury. The last spot along the defensive line will come down to Tapper and Ealy. Ealy gets the nod at the moment because of his ability to move inside to rush from the 3-tech defensive tackle spot.
We know how this team loves position flexibility.
- Sean Lee
- Jaylon Smith
- Leighton Vander Esch
- Damien Wilson
- Joe Thomas
- Justin March-Lillard
Justin March-Lillard is the name that has been making the most noise so far in the OTAs, aside from Jaylon Smith. With Sean Lee being held out for precautionary reasons and Leighton Vander Esch spraining an ankle, March-Lillard took advantage of a tremendous opportunity to shine with the first-team defense in the last couple weeks of OTAs.
Damien Wilson has been a forgotten man this offseason with the spotlight on Jaylon's recovery and Vander Esch's draft selection. Though he looks like he's going to be moved to more of a reserve role, it's a great sign for the depth of the linebacking group. He's been a good run player for the Cowboys.
Last year they were really thin at the position and now they have four guys who can start for them and play significant snaps.
Joe Thomas is a nice depth piece who will contribute on special teams while being able to play the MIKE and WILL linebacker positions.
- Byron Jones
- Chidobe Awuzie
- Anthony Brown
- Jourdan Lewis
- Marquez White
The surprise of OTAs so far has been the usage of Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis.
We'd been hearing all offseason that Byron Jones and Chidobe Awuzie figured to be the outside cornerbacks for the Dallas Cowboys. We also figured that meant Jourdan Lewis would be the first cornerback off the bench to play in nickel situations. So far, that hasn't been the case as Brown has been playing with the first team defense more regularly.
In 2016, when Brown filled in for Orlando Scandrick in the slot, he was very good. Perhaps he's found his home there again in 2018.
We know that Lewis doesn't fit the long and tall profile that Defensive Backs Coach and Passing Game Coordinator Kris Richard prefers, but I'd argue it's only a matter of time until we see Lewis make his move up the depth chart.
This is a young, talented, and deep cornerback group. The top four guys have each started games in the NFL.
Marquez White, who was seen as a project when drafted in 2017, does fit the profile for Richard and will be the fifth cornerback on the squad this year. He's very athletic and profiles as an outside corner.
- Jeff Heath
- Xavier Woods
- Kavon Frazier
- Tyree Robinson
Xavier Woods is probably the most intriguing player on the defense after Jaylon Smith.
The Dallas Cowboys felt so good about what they had in him that they didn't pull the trigger on draft day to trade for All-Pro Safety Earl Thomas of the Seattle Seahawks. I wouldn't completely rule out a trade however, if Earl continues his hold-out into training camp and the preseason.
I really like Woods' ability to cover and play the run. In his rookie season he was really good as a slot cornerback for the team early on when they were dealing with injuries. His cover ability allows the defense a ton of flexibility when lining up. They can stay in their base 4-3 on early downs more frequently, even when opposing offenses want to go with 11-personnel.
Kavon Frazier really came on at the end of the season as a run-stuffing "box safety." He helped bring an edge to the defense that struggled for much of the year against the run.
Barring any unforeseen deals for a certain safety from a certain team in the Northwest US, Tyree Robinson is my fourth safety. Robinson is a center-fielder type of safety. While Woods also can do that, Robinson will have a shot to earn that spot with his natural instincts to play the position.
From Bryan Broaddus' notes during the rookie minicamp:
"Of the undrafted rookie free agents, Tyree Robinson appears to be the one guy that’s a true free safety. If there was something that stood out about him today was his ball skills. There were a couple of different snaps where he did a nice job of reading the quarterback and putting himself in position to make interceptions."
Bryan Broaddus - DallasCowboys.com
Special Teams (3)
- Dan Bailey
- Chris Jones
- L.P. Ladouceur
Dan Bailey needs to rebound from a slump he experienced in the second half of the season. His field goal percentage of 75% was the worst of his career. He missed some games in the middle of the season due to injury, but had been perfect until the second Giants game when he missed two out of three attempts.
No need to panic yet, but if he gets off to a slow start in the preseason games or the regular season, the Cowboys will have to think about making a change.
Chris Jones remains one of the best punters in the NFL. Not only does he kick it well, but his physical presence helps as a safety valve for the team. What also makes him great is his ability to convert on fakes. It's a weapon that has been quite useful.
L.P. Ladouceur will be the Dallas Cowboys' long snapper for as long as he wants to be the Dallas Cowboys' long snapper. He's that good.
✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭
Obviously, a lot could change between now and September when the regular season opens up, but here's my best guess at the 53-man roster as we sit in June.
We're now 44 days till the first day of practice in training camp, 58 days from the first preseason game, and 89 days from the start of the regular season.
Will Dallas Cowboys Address Backup RB in Free Agency or 2019 Draft?
The Dallas Cowboys' backup running back spot may not seem like a high priority compared to other 2019 offseason issues. But all it takes is one bad play for Ezekiel Elliott to be lost, and the Dallas offense leans too heavily on the RB position to take his backup plan lightly. Will the team be looking to improve the talent behind Zeke through free agency or the draft?
Right now, the only running backs signed to the Cowboys' roster are Elliott, Darius Jackson, and Jordan Chunn. The backup for the last few seasons, Rod Smith, is currently an unrestricted free agent.
Jackson and Chunn have a combined six carries for 16 yards in their careers, and all of those came from Darius in the Cowboys' meaningless 2018 regular-season finale. Chunn spent all of his rookie season on the practice squad.
A sixth-round pick for Dallas in 2016, Darius Jackson is on his third stint with the Cowboys after stops in Cleveland and Green Bay in between. He has flashed some electric running ability at times but clearly hasn't been able to stick with a team. Could 2019 be his chance?
Jordan Chunn was an undrafted free agent out of Troy last year. He's a big, powerful runner with some deceptive athletic moves as well.
What stands out most with both of these guys isn't positive, though, and that's their mutual inexperience and draft capital. Would the Cowboys really leave their RB depth chart so thin when they're trying to make a championship run?
Dallas could be hoping to eventually re-sign Rod Smith at a bargain price. He's a solid backup and special teams leader, and the longer he sits unsigned in free agency then the lower his price should be.
But is it time for the Cowboys to invest more in their other running backs? Not only is 2019 a critical year, but upcoming contract negotiations with Elliott could make it a wise move.
This upcoming season is the last one of Zeke's standard rookie contract. Dallas will have to decide if they want to sign him long-term or let him play 2020 on his fifth-year option as a former first-round draft pick, which would pay him about $9 million.
Signing or drafting a player of consequence now, and having them under contract over the next few seasons, would give the Cowboys some added leverage in contract negotiations with Elliott.
What's more, who's to say that Zeke's impressive durability will just continue? He's already had a lot of touches in three years, even with the six suspension games. Maybe it's time to find someone who you don't mind giving some of the workload to?
Some of the top free agents available likely won't want the reduced role, and money, that playing behind Elliott will mean. That would take guys like Jay Ajayi and C.J. Anderson off the list.
What about older veteran who can still ball, like Marshawn Lynch, Darren Sproles, or Doug Martin? You might not want them as a featured player anymore but they could still be effective on limited touches. Joining a potential contender like the Cowboys in a supporting role could be exactly what these guys are looking for.
Other free agent options would be players who are used to backup roles, such as Isaiah Crowell, T.J. Yeldon, or Spencer Ware. They would be probable upgrades from Rod Smith but for minimal money if they stay unsigned much longer.
The draft is another way to add some RB talent, and it could be the smartest one. A drafted player, even as high as Dallas' second-round pick, would have a four-year rookie deal at a minimal salary.
One player that could make a lot of sense for the Cowboys is Justice Hill out of Oklahoma State. He brings a change of pace from Elliott as a smaller, quicker back and could be available for them during Day 2 of the draft.
Hill was featured as a potential Cowboys target by our Brian Martin a few weeks ago.
You might say that having Elliott makes any sort of serious draft pick at running back a wasted pick. But with Zeke turning 26 after the 2020 season, the Cowboys might be willing to let someone else give him a huge deal and move on to a much cheaper option.
And again, who says that Elliott makes it through another 16-game season and playoffs without a major injury? It can happen to the best of them.
Clearly, this could go any number of ways. Dallas might bring back Rod Smith or some comparable player for a cheap, easy answer at backup running back. Maybe they invest in a more proven free agent, or perhaps they draft someone early enough to matter.
However it goes, let's just say that I highly doubt Darius Jackson will be RB2 come September.
Dallas Cowboys Head Toward NFL Draft with No Glaring Needs
When the offseason began after the Dallas Cowboys fell to the Los Angeles Rams in the divisional round of the playoffs, it was clear that they were a team on the rise, but had several areas they needed to address as free agency and the draft approached.
The team had holes or depth issues at safety, defensive tackle, swing tackle, wide receiver, defensive end, and tight end. Through the first two weeks of free agency, the Dallas Cowboys have taken care of each of those areas.
With the signings of George Iloka, Christian Covington, Cameron Fleming, Randall Cobb, Tavon Austin, Kerry Hyder, and Jason Witten, The Dallas Cowboys have set themselves up to approach the draft with “clear eyes and a full heart.”
As they head into April with the NFL Draft looming, the Cowboys won’t be held back by positional need and can allow their draft board to do the work for them and just add good players. It’s an excellent position to be in as they don’t have to reach for a player at a position of need they may not like as much because they have a veteran presence filling that need.
Backup running back appears to be the only position where the Cowboys could use some depth, but that player for this team is more of a special teams player who gets limited snaps on offense because of the greatness of Ezekiel Elliott. It’s generally a position where there is a lot of talent deep in the draft and undrafted free agent pool, which allows the Cowboys to be patient filling that need behind the NFL’s leading rusher.
Mother than that, if the Dallas Cowboys has to go play a football game and win today, they’d be in great shape to do so.
On the flip side, however, the Cowboys can still add players at defensive tackle, wide receiver, tight end, safety, and defensive end because they aren’t restricted by big contracts to those veteran players. Each of them came to the Cowboys on one-year deals. The veterans that they signed would prohibit them from drafting at that same position, and that’s the point.
The Cowboys have created a formula that works really well for them. Sometimes it get frustrating watching the team not make any big splashes in free agency, especially that first week when other teams are bringing in big-name players to add to their rosters. That formula has led them to a 48-32 record over the last five seasons with three NFC East titles, and two playoff wins, and three divisional round appearances.
And the playoff runs could have been deeper with a bit of luck and correct officiating.
The Dallas Cowboys have set themselves up really well as they now set their sights on the NFL Draft at the end of April. Though they won’t have a first round pick to add to their talent pool, the Cowboys have shown that they can find talent in the second round and beyond. This year will be no different.
Now it’s time to sit back and trust the process.
Cowboys Have Had Quiet, Yet Successful, Free Agency
Yet another free agency without a big splash by the Dallas Cowboys. What a surprise. Despite entertaining Earl Thomas rumors for a long, long time, the Cowboys' front office has stuck with its philosophy of not overpaying free agents and building the team mainly through the NFL Draft. However, they've actually had some pretty good signings over the last few days that will really benefit the Cowboys when the season comes around.
They've done so with inexpensive free agents who will contribute at a high level on their respective positions. Sure, top free agent signings are fun. But many times, they end up backfiring to teams for spending so much money in one single player. At the end of the day, the Cowboys' way has gotten the team three NFC East Championships since 2014. Many factors come into play, but their team building philosophy can't be as bad as many claim it to be.
The most recent acquisition came in form of former Cincinnati Bengal and Minnesota Viking Safety George Iloka. The Cowboys had a desperate need at the defensive backfield and finally they've done something about it. On a heavy safety market, the Cowboys sat tight while watching the top free agents get top contracts around the league, including Landon Collins' record breaking deal with the Washington Redskins.
Now, they've gotten a guy who can play both safety positions. I'll be surprised if he doesn't take Jeff Heath's job. He's played as a free safety most of his career but being a good tackler, he should do a good job in the box. Iloka will also shine on special teams in Dallas.
So far, my favorite signing may be that of former Green Bay Packer, Randall Cobb. The Cowboys had an important need at the wide receiver position despite counting with Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup leading the room. Cole Beasley is a tough guy to replace and although Cobb may not be a better slot receiver than him, he certainly has the experience and the skill set to be a starting slot WR. What's more, he'll only cost the Cowboys five million while Beasley got a four year deal with which he'll earn $17M over the first two years.
Cole Beasley will be missed, but the good thing is the front office did a pretty good job at filling the concerning hole on offense. Cooper, Gallup and Cobb are definitely not a bad starting trio to have.
Other under the radar moves will also help the Cowboys. Kerry Hyder may not be a well-known in the NFL but he'll surely contribute to this defensive line as a rotational player. Hyder had eight sacks in 2016 with the Detroit Lions before suffering an Achilles injury in 2017 and dealing with a scheme change last season. Hyder will surely be happy about being back to a 4-3 defense in Dallas.
Christian Covington was another overlooked signing. Covington will help on the interior of the defensive line and although he'll likely not be a starter, he'll be an important piece in the rotation for a very reasonable contract ( also a one-year deal).
For a football team that's constantly criticized for not being active in free agency, the Cowboys have done something at pretty much every position where they need help. Safety, defensive end, defensive tackle, wide receiver and tight end have all been addressed this offseason prior to the NFL Draft. This will give them great flexibility in April and could lead to a pretty good "best player available" strategy.
Now granted, there are still concerns regarding the young "to be extended" group of players. DeMarcus Lawrence hasn't reached an agreement with the Cowboys and will continue to postpone surgery until he does. If the front office doesn't strike a contract with the star pass rusher, it won't be possible to consider this offseason a good one no matter what happens. Dallas can't let him leave.
In the meantime though, they've had a pretty quiet yet successful March. And they're not done yet. Robert Quinn could end up wearing the Star if a trade with the Miami Dolphins does end up taking place. We'll see if the Cowboys continue to build on an already pretty good free agency.
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