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 #31-40. We’ll see some key backups as well as players who may be contending for starting jobs.
40. Cedric Thornton, DT
The Cowboys gave Thornton a four-year, $17 million contract to join the team in last year’s free agency. That kind of money tell you they expected him to have a significant role, likely starting, on the 2016 defense.
However, Dallas didn’t know that Terrell McClain was finally going to have a healthy and productive season. They also didn’t know that they’d be drafting Maliek Collins and that he’d turn out to be a third-round steal. Thornton fell to the bottom of the depth chart, but that had more to do with the talent in front of him than any failings on his part.
The 2017 situation isn’t much different. Collins is going to be the focal point at DT and there’s still Tyrone Crawford to consider. Dallas also signed veteran Stephen Paea, a former Rod Marinelli player in Chicago. Thornton will still make the team with no cap relief available from shedding his contract, but his role may not increase much from last year.
39. Joe Looney, OL
While much of the offensive line is being shaken up, Looney should be a stable presence and resume his role as backup center. If he gets a shot at the left guard starting job, “Jumbo Joe” could be competitive. He was used as a sixth blocker in limited packages last year.
The veteran’s versatility as an interior line reserve will make him hard to cut. That’s a good thing for Looney, because his contract makes it very easy. He is only guaranteed $50k of the $850k in 2017.
The backup center role is where Looney’s real security comes in. Dallas may give Jonathan Cooper a look there, but Looney is trusted and experienced. His biggest concern will be younger center prospects like Ross Burbank or Ruben Carter emerging during camp.
38. Charles Tapper, DE
While Jaylon Smith is the debuting player everyone is most interested in, Tapper may not be too far behind. A fourth-round pick last year, Charles hopes to meet the high bar set by his classmates from the 2016 draft.
Tapper missed his rookie year due to a spine defect that was discovered during the offseason. He had corrective surgery and is reportedly good to go for 2017. After the contributions that Maliek Collins and Anthony Brown made on defense last year, it’s no wonder that fans are anxious to see what Tapper can do.
Many feel Tapper played out of position at Oklahoma, not getting to rush the passer as much as his skills would suggest. He will have no such issue in Dallas; the Cowboys are going to be looking for him to get to the quarterback as much as he can. If Tapper can show up early during training camp, he could carve out a big role quickly.
37. Geoff Swaim, TE
Before the 2016 season began, Swaim had risen to the number-two spot on the depth chart after James Hanna’s injury and Gavin Escobar’s fall from grace. He showed a little spark on offense early, having a catch for over 20 yards in each of the first two games.
There should be open competition for that second TE spot now between Swaim, Hanna, and perhaps even Rico Gathers. Both Swaim and Hanna are known as solid blockers with some receiving ability, so it’s hard to give one the nod over another right now.
Swaim is four years younger and would be much cheaper next year, so Dallas would love for him to win the job. They could release Hanna for close to $3 million cap relief in 2018.
36. Kellen Moore, QB
The Cowboys clearly trust Moore to be their backup quarterback, adding no real competition for him in free agency or the draft. Barring injury, he a virtual lock to be the second QB and will probably be the only reserve passer that Dallas keeps in on the 2017 roster.
Moore’s football intellect has been praised more than once by Cowboys coaches and others throughout his career. That is a handy trait to have in the QB room, making him an asset to Dak Prescott and the coaches as they work out gameplans. It’s clear that Scott Linehan values Moore’s presence, having brought him over from Detroit and likely being a key reason he was re-signed this year.
On just a one-year contract, Moore’s contributions will hopefully all be behind the scenes. He can earn new deal with Dallas by being a resource to the offense. If Kellen does have to play, hopefully time in the system will allow him to perform better than in 2015.
35. James Hanna, TE
In last year’s free agency, Dallas gave Hanna a three-year deal worth close to $3 million per season. They clearly liked what he offered and he was expected to be Jason Witten’s primary backup. However, a knee injury cost Hanna all of 2016.
As we just discussed with Geoff Swaim, Hanna will have competition for that job now. He and Swaim are arguably neck-and-neck and the younger guy might get the tiebreaker because of age and upside.
Where Hanna could outshine Swaim is in the passing attack. He has tremendous athleticism for his size and could be a dangerous new wrinkle. The big problem for Hanna has been staying healthy. though, and that could sink him quickly with Swaim and Rico Gathers right on his heels.
34. Keith Smith, FB
While not a full-time starter because of the various formations used, Keith Smith has emerged as a trusted lead blocker for the Cowboys rushing attack. He graded out as one of the league’s top fullbacks in 2016.
Smith not only gives you a backfield blocker but also plays a key role on special teams. He can even serve as an emergency linebacker, having played that position from 2014-2015 and in college.
With Rod Smith returning to halfback, Keith should go unchallenged for the fullback spot this year. The only threat would be Dallas using tight ends in the backfield, which they’ve done in past seasons, but all signs point to Smith returning to help clear paths for Ezekiel Elliott.
33. Chaz Green, OL
If he’s not the starting left guard than he’ll likely be the swing tackle, making Green an important figure in the upcoming training camp. The former third-round pick needs a healthy season to keep himself in the team’s long-term plans.
Green has missed most of his first two years with a foot injury in 2015 and a back injury last year. He had surgery last December and should be a full participant going forward. Chaz is expected fight with veteran Jonathan Cooper at left guard, but he has the versatility to play different spots on the line.
It’s possible that Green could still compete at right tackle. If he has a great camp, Dallas might decide to cancel plans on moving La’el Collins there and feel good about starting Green on the outside. That might be the ideal scenario, allowing Collins to stay at guard where many feel he has elite potental.
32. Nolan Carroll, CB
Signed to a three-year, $10 million contract last March, Carroll was expected to be one of the team’s top three corners in 2017. That was before the draft, though, where Dallas spent their second and third-round picks on Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis.
As I wrote about a few weeks ago, Carroll’s job security may have taken a very quick and unexpected hit. The addition of young talent, plus his DWI arrest last month, may have rendered Nolan expendable. He will likely suspended at least two games to start the season.
It is doubtful that Carroll will be released, but Dallas will have to get their young guys ready to play during the weeks that he’ll be suspended. This could wind up in them keeping those spots on the depth chart, pushing Carroll down to the bottom.
Of course, it’s too soon to know what the rookies will do. Carroll could easily return and be a primary piece in the secondary. The Cowboys certainly paid him enough to suggest that. How the veteran performs over Awuzie and Lewis will be one of the more interesting stories to follow during camp.
31. Darren McFadden, RB
Dallas re-signed McFadden last March, comfortable with him as the primary backup to Ezekiel Elliott. Even though he turns 30 in August, McFadden still showed the wheels last year to be effective and has a better running style for our scheme than Alfred Morris.
Where McFadden is especially good for Dallas is in his receiving and blocking skills, making him a perfect third-down back. He should be able to compliment Elliott well throughout the year and allow the Cowboys to get Zeke rest when needed.
That said, McFadden only got a one-year contract to come back. What’s more, he only got $80k in guaranteed money. Dallas clearly has reservations about his age and injury history and are leaving their options open. The job is certainly McFadden’s to lose, but the Cowboys are ready to have to change plans if needed.