For the last few years, before offseason business really gets going, I’ve enjoyed the exercise of trying to build the Dallas Cowboys’ roster for the upcoming season using only current contracts. It’s a great way of seeing where the team is truly lacking and determining what their top priorities will be. I’m going to start that today with the 2020 offense.
Obviously, huge moves should still be coming with players like Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper. But with around 30 free agents coming off of last year’s roster, the Cowboys have work to do both in the starting lineups and further down the depth charts.
Perhaps no position exemplifies that better than quarterback.
Not only is Dak a free agent but so is backup Cooper Rush. While only a restricted free agent and likely to return, Rush still has to get an offer from the Cowboys to make that official.
So that leaves Clayton Thorson, a fifth-round pick last year by the Eagles who didn’t make it past their final roster cuts. Dallas swooped in and added Clayton to their practice squad the next day, where he remained all of last year.
Naturally, any list of the Cowboys’ top offseason priorities is headlined by retaining Dak Prescott. Whether it’s through the franchise tag or a new long-term deal, Dak is expected to be in Dallas next year.
Even if Rush was under contract the idea of him taking over starting QB wouldn’t be palatable. He’s had a couple of nice preseasons but nothing proven in real games to inspire confidence.
It’s almost a lock that Prescott will be Dallas’ starter in 2020. Even if the team decides to move on from Rush as the backup, I would expect them to add a veteran or draft a backup option.
But for now, the beginning of the Clayton Thorson Era is the only thing that’s written in stone.
2020 Running Backs:
Ezekiel Elliott, Tony Pollard, Jordan Chunn,
Jamize Olawale (FB)
Unlike with the QB position, Dallas could stand pat at running back and actually be just fine for 2020. They have everything in place at all levels of the depth chart.
Zeke and Pollard are emerging as one of the best one-two punches in football. If Elliott ever had to miss time, Tony’s rookie season was strong enough that Dallas might be fine with him in a temporary starting role.
Even practice-squadder Jordan Chunn as a potential third RB would be acceptable. He might’ve made the team last year if Dallas hadn’t gone short with just two on the roster. He has good size to handle short-yardage duties if Zeke ever went out; a nice compliment to Pollard.
Dallas is even set at fullback with veteran Jamize Olawale. There is hope that Mike McCarthy, who did great things with FBs in Green Bay, will get more out of Olawale’s offensive skills than Scott Linehan or Kellen Moore have.
So, clearly, there’s little reason to think that Dallas will be doing much work at running back this offseason. They will add a few off the street as camp bodies and maybe spend a late draft pick on a rookie they really like, but this just might be the lowest priority on the offense in 2020.
2020 Wide Receivers:
Michael Gallup, Devin Smith, Noah Brown,
Cedrick Wilson, Ventell Bryant, Jon’Vea Johnson
Hope you enjoyed that lovely luxury at RB, because the struggle just got real again.
Amari Cooper, Randall Cobb, and even Tavon Austin are all free agents in 2020. That leaves Michael Gallup and not much else under contract, pushing WR way up the offseason to-do list.
Gallup has shown the makings of a number-one receiver but that trusting him in that role in 2020 would be a huge gamble. And clearly, Gallup wouldn’t have anyone to help to take the pressure off based on the current contracts.
The best of the bunch is probably Devin Smith, but even he didn’t produce much last year despite a strong preseason. Noah Brown has also flashed potential at times but hasn’t been able to stay healthy.
You move down the list and there are some intriguing young prospects like Cedrick Wilson and Jon’Vea Johnson, but none of these are players you can rely on while also claiming to be competing for the Super Bowl.
The bare minimum for Dallas this year is to bring back one of either Cooper or Cobb, or signing a comparable talent in free agency, to field a functional offense. Drafting a receiver, even at the 17th pick, and expecting immediate production can be a fool’s errand.
So while Michael Gallup at least provides one reliable asset at WR, this is clearly another spot where the Cowboys have a lot of work to do the next few months.
2020 Tight Ends:
Dalton Schultz, Cole Hikutini
Another bad spot for Dallas is at tight end where both Jason Witten and Blake Jarwin remain unsigned for 2020. Without some kind of moves, third-year prospect Dalton Schultz is the next man up.
Witten’s future is up in the air with Dallas making no commitments about allowing their longtime legend to return. But even if they intend to turn the keys over to Blake Jarwin, the restricted free agent will need a new deal of some sort.
Something will need to be done. While Schultz was a fourth-round pick in 2018 and has drawn favorable comparisons to a young Witten at times, he hasn’t proven anything in real-game action.
Bringing back Jarwin may be sufficient. He has shown some nice skills in the receiving game and can hopefully keep improving as a blocker. He also fits the big, athletic build that McCarthy usually likes in tight ends.
If the Cowboys aren’t sold on Jarwin as a full-time starter then they may make a significant offseason move in either free agency or the draft. While they’ve been burned in the past by draft picks spent on guys like Gavin Escobar and Martellus Bennett, finding the true heir to Jason Witten may take another high pick.
Hopefully, whether it’s Jarwin or some rookie, the next guy will finally get a chance to establish himself without Jason in the way.
2020 Offensive Tackles:
Tyron Smith, La’el Collins, Brandon Knight,
Offensive line in general is in pretty good shape for Dallas. All last year’s starters are back, but the key depth players are all free agents unless the Cowboys make some moves.
Swing tackle Cam Fleming technically has another year left on his contract but it is as a team option. Dallas will have to exercise that option by March 18th to lock Fleming in for 2020.
The Cowboys could decide to turn his job over to Brandon Knight, who looked good in reserve duty last year and would be much cheaper. But does Knight have the ability to play the left side? That is a critical issue in whether or not you can trust him to play the swing role.
Another option under contract is former Clemson Tiger Mitch Hyatt. He had the skills to play the left side in college and has now had a year of professional development. Perhaps he will challenge Knight for the role if it’s left to open competition.
However, with Tyron Smith routinely missing a few games every year now, the need for a solid backup tackle is critical. Dallas may not put it to chance and decide paying Cam Fleming for one more year is worth the money.
2020 Guards & Centers:
Zack Martin, Connor Williams, Travis Frederick
Connor McGovern, Cody Wichmann
Again, the starters are in place but the backups could be heading out the door. Both Joe Looney and Xavier Su’a-Filo are free agents, both having started a lot of games for Dallas the last two years.
Dallas prepared for this last year by spending a third-round pick on Connor McGovern, who has the ability to play either guard or center. With Looney potentially cashing in on his 2018 season by landing a starting job now, McGovern can hopefully take over as Frederick’s backup.
Guard Cody Wichmann has some starting experience from 2015-2016 with the Rams but has had a hard time finding work since. He was on Dallas’ practice squad in 2018 and then landed in injured reserve last year.
If Cam Fleming does come back at tackle then Brandon Knight could also be used as a backup guard. Dallas may just stick with McGovern in that case for the interior line.
However, with McGovern spending last year injured, Dallas may be looking for a little more insurance. They could try to re-sign Su’a-Filo or pursue a similar bargain veteran in free agency. Looney will likely be out of their price range, but you never know if he doesn’t find any suitors.
So as we see throughout the offensive line, Dallas can risk going with young prospects as backups or make some moves for more proven depth. But at least, unlike QB, WR, or TE, the starting roles are all set and strengths for the Cowboys’ offense to lean on.