The Dallas Cowboys open training camp on July 24th, just a few weeks away. Inspired by the NFL's recent Top 100 list, I thought it would be interesting to try rank just the Cowboys players against one another. This should also give us a sense of who will make up the majority of the 53-man roster after final cuts.
The players are ranked based on a variety of factors. Overall talent and performance, legacy with the franchise, and the importance of their position (e.g. left tackle vs. guard/center) were all considered. I also looked at their projected role in 2017.
Today we move on to the players ranked #21-30. At this point, we're looking at players who will all significant roles with the team and will likely get credited with some starts, depending on the packages they're involved in.
30. Jonathan Cooper, G
Just four years ago, Cooper was the seventh-overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. Injuries marred his first three seasons in Arizona, leading to him being a thrown-in piece of the Cardinals' trade with New England for Chandler Jones. Last season, another injury caused him to miss time and fall out of the Patriots' plans. He then spent a couple of months with Cleveland, starting a few games but not finding a lasting home.
Immediately after being waived by the Brown in late December, Jonathan Cooper was signed by the Cowboys for an extended audition. He now enters the 2017 season as a front-runner for the starting spot at left guard, vacated by Ronald Leary's free agent departure and La'el Collins moving to right tackle.
Dallas reportedly coveted Cooper during the 2013 draft. He's still just 27 and has plenty of career ahead of him if he can finally stay healthy. It wasn't long ago that the Cowboys had another offensive line reclamation project in Marc Colombo, pulling him off the NFL discard pile and getting six seasons of solid play. Will Jonathan Cooper be another success story?
29. Anthony Hitchens, LB
I recently wrote a more extensive breakdown of Hitchens' status with the Cowboys in 2017. I discussed how, through Sean Lee's major 2014 injury and the various tribulations of Rolando McClain, Hitchens has proven to be a valuable and versatile player. Recent events for the Cowboys just may prove it again.
With the news this week of Damien Wilson's arrest on assault charges, Hitchens may once again be asked to take on a starting role. He may take over as the SAM linebacker, provided he can hold up having to player closer to the line of scrimmage. There's also the possibility of Jaylon Smith playing SAM, leaving Hitchens where he has the most experience in the middle.
The situation just reminds us of how steady and reliable, as well as versatile, Anthony Hitchens is. While it's not under great circumstances for the team, the opportunities for more playing time certainly have to be welcome for Hitchens as he prepares for 2018 free agency.
28. Chris Jones, P
Over the last few years Jones has developed into a very solid punter. He doesn't get the recognition of guys with big distance, but Jones is arguably more valuable because of how well he can aim kicks for the sideline. Not allowing teams to return punts on you is a major boon to the field position battle.
Chris Jones turns 28 in just a few weeks and is in the final year of his current contract. Another solid season should earn him an extension. However, the Cowboys typically bring in at least one young leg in training camp to give their veterans some breaks. There is always the possibility that the young guy impresses the team enough that they might make a switch, especially if the veteran is on an expiring contract.
27. Damien Wilson, LB
Until we know more about Wilson's legal situation and subsequent league discipline, all we can do is look at where he stood going into the season. It actually reinforces what a potentially big loss this is for the Cowboys, and for Damien, as he was starting to look like a breakout player.
Last year, Wilson emerged as a solid and sometimes flashy player as the starting SAM linebacker. He was headed into his third year fairly certain to retain that role and hopefully shine even more.
Now, it's almost assured that Damien will be suspended for some portion of 2017. It's impossible to know now how this will affect his starting role or even his contract with the Cowboys once all the dust settles. For now, we can only bemoan another promising player who the Dallas defense will have to do without.
26. Tyrone Crawford, DE/DT
With arguably the worst contract on the team right now, Crawford has become an afterthought on the Cowboys defensive line. He has been surpassed at tackle by Maliek Collins and isn't seen as a difference maker on the outside. Still, Crawford counts $9.1 million against the 2017 salary cap.
The ability to play multiple positions gives Crawford some sustained value. However, Dallas was expecting him to be a breakout star as the three-tech DT in Rod Marinelli's scheme, getting close to double-digit sacks each year. He's never lived up to that expectation or the contract that came with it.
Next year, Dallas can clear roughly $6 million in cap space by releasing Crawford. Barring a major upswing in his performance in 2017, this will probably be his last season with the Cowboys. He will get plenty of playing time, though, so the opportunity is there to change things.
25. Jourdan Lewis, CB
If not for an ongoing legal issue, Lewis might have gone in the late first round of last April's NFL Draft. Instead he slipped to the third round and corner-needy Cowboys snatched him up.
The waters are murky at the CB position right now. Veterans Orlando Scandrick and Nolan Carroll will be competing with Lewis, Anthony Brown, and fellow rookie Chidobe Awuzie for playing time. If Dallas' recent history with CB injuries is any indication, all will probably have to play some significant snaps at some point this year.
What is clear, though, is that Lewis' talent should keep him around for some time. He may quickly pass Awuzie, taken one round ahead, on the depth chart. If he's a quick learner, Jourdan could have a big role much sooner than you think.
24. Chidobe Awuzie, CB
Nobody was surprised when Dallas took a defensive back in the second round last April. The real question was if they'd go with a cornerback or safety, and in Awuzie they found a guy who might be able to play either spot.
For now, Chidobe is expected to play at CB and could be playing a lot early. Nolan Carroll's DWI arrest in May will likely cost him a few games at the start of the year, putting pressure on Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis to be ready for Week One.
The long-term view on Awuzie is that he could become a tremendous slot corner and eventually replace Orlando Scandrick there. This year, personnel may dictate that Scandrick has to play outside and Chidobe could find himself in the slot role immediately. Clearly, these young cornerbacks in Dallas aren't going to be waiting long for their opportunities.
23. DeMarcus Lawrence, DE
As I wrote a few weeks ago, Lawrence is in a contract year and the situation couldn't be more unsure. After a season marred by back issues and a four-game suspension, DeMarcus watched the team draft his possible replacement and could already be out of their future plans.
That said, this is still a 25-year-old who has displayed his pass-rushing talent more than once. Whether it was his big plays in the 2014 playoff game against the Detroit Lions, or his eight sacks in 2015, Lawrence has kept hope alive that he might finally push through for a true breakout season. It would appear to be now or never, at least as far as the Cowboys are concerned.
Even with Taco Charlton and Charles Tapper in the mix now, Lawrence can still make his case. The Cowboys are going to go with the hot hand and, as we saw in 2015, DeMarcus can put together a consistent streak when healthy. Whether it's to extend his Dallas career or get a good deal elsewhere, Lawrence will have no motivation problems this season.
22. Jeff Heath, S
The Cowboys did not sign or draft any major contenders at safety this year, which was a clear vote of confidence in Heath's ability to handle the job. Rising up the depth chart with Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox both moving to Florida, one of the Cowboys' cult heroes will now get to prove just how great he really is.
All “G.O.A.T.” jokes aside, nobody expects Heath to be Darren Woodson. Ho doesn't have to be, though, to improve on what Dallas has had at the position. Church was a solid player but never exceptional. He was especially lacking with turnovers, getting just five interceptions in seven seasons. Heath already has four picks despite his limited playing time in four years.
All it takes is a few big plays to become a star in the secondary. Heath has already experienced a taste of that, and now he will get a full-time opportunity to do even more.
21. Taco Charlton, DE
The Cowboys addressed their biggest need by drafting the 6'6″ Charlton. That always comes with the pressure of being expected to solve that need, and Taco will have a tough road to satisfy the expectations of the sack-starved Dallas fans. Whether you grew up with Randy White, Charles Haley, or DeMarcus Ware, Dallas fans long to have another dominant pass rusher emerge.
There will be plenty of contenders in 2017. Charlton will be joined by the aforementioned DeMarcus Lawrence, Benson Mayowa, and Charles Tapper at defensive end. David Irving and Tyrone Crawford may also get time outside and even Damontre Moore could be a factor. The rotation may be good for the line but it could limit individual players' ability to really build their own reputation.
All that being true, being a first-round pick comes with the perk of coaches and scouts wanting you to prove them right. If Charlton can at least match his veteran teammates, he will get extra opportunities based on the hope of further growth and upside.