Every year there are surprises during training camp and on cut down day. In 2018, most who follow and analyze the Cowboys were surprised by the release of long-time kicker Dan Bailey in favor of Brett Maher.
Even from one set of OTA's to another, things change. How we view the depth chart can change. Most players are locked into a role and the Cowboys front office probably already knows what 80-85% of the roster will look like. What the other 15% of the roster looks like will depend on a lot of factors; which positions they can afford to go light, which players are playing too well to release, which players they don't think will make it to the practice squad, players traded and players traded for. The roster churn is real and as the Dallas Cowboys go from 90 players to 53, they'll be adjusting along the way to create competition to make it easier for them to make decisions.
With as deep as this roster is, it's going to be difficult for undrafted free agents like Jaylon Guyton, Jon'vea Johnson, Chris Westry, and Daniel Wise to make the final 53-man roster. They could beat out a veteran, but it's an uphill battle for them.
This is how I think they'll construct the roster when they make their final cuts in preparation for week one of the regular season.
- Dak Prescott
- Cooper Rush
Whether people want to admit it or not, Dak Prescott is entrenched as the franchise quarterback for the next decade. He's done more than enough to be viewed that way by the front office as they're about to back up a Brink's Truck to his front door. He's going to get paid handsomely and based on what we've seen from him in his first three seasons, he'll reward the Dallas Cowboys and the front office for paying him that money.
The quarterback competition that will take place in training camp will determine the backup quarterback spot behind starter Dak Prescott. In training camp last year, neither Cooper Rush nor Mike White did enough to stand out, but the gig went to Cooper Rush. I don't expect things to be much different this year. The team has felt very comfortable with Cooper Rush as the backup quarterback for two seasons now and I don't see that changing.
Mike White still has some practice squad eligibility, so if he's not on the 53-man roster, he's a prime candidate to spend 2019 on the practice squad unless he's claimed after final cutdowns.
Running Back (3)
- Ezekiel Elliott
- Tony Pollard
- Jamize Olawale
This may look a bit thin at running back, but with the three that you have here and a couple of wide receivers, you can afford to have only three backs on the 53-man roster.
Ezekiel Elliott is the best running back in the NFL. He's durable, consistent, and is continuing to grow as a runner and leader for the Dallas Cowboys. He'll get more than 350 touches again this year and will contend for the league's rushing title again. An improved offensive line with Travis Frederick returning will pave the way for Elliott to have his best season as a pro.
Though many have scoffed at the idea of using Tony Pollard as the team's backup running back, he's the perfect compliment to Ezekiel Elliott. He's a little more lightning to Elliott's thunder but has the size to be an every-down back as well. He's garnered comparisons to New Orleans Saints Running Back Alvin Kamara. Though it's unlikely Pollard will get the touches to put up Kamara type numbers, he'll have the opportunity to have a similar impact in the run, pass, and return game. He's capable of taking the ball for a big play every time he touches the ball. Being the first skill position player drafted under Kellen Moore's tenure as offensive coordinator, I believe they have a plan for Pollard in the offense.
Though Scott Linehan failed to unlock everything that Jamize Olawale could be for the Dallas Cowboys, he's a receiving threat that gives Moore another option in the passing game. Look for Olawale to see an uptick in his snap and target count from 2019.
Mike Weber could certainly make the roster out of camp, but because of the depth at OL, DL, and WR I think he gets squeezed in a numbers game. It’ll likely come down to him, Noah Brown, Xavier Su’a-Filo, and Donovan Wilson at the back end of the roster.
Wide Receiver (6)
- Amari Cooper
- Michael Gallup
- Randall Cobb
- Tavon Austin
- Allen Hurns
- Noah Brown
The top three wide receivers are locks to make the roster and will likely be the three guys that sit at the top of the reception and yardage totals for the Dallas Cowboys at the end of the 2019 season. Amari Cooper and Randall Cobb provide Dak Prescott with excellent options in the short to intermediate parts of the field. Michael Gallup showed in 2018 that he's very capable as a down the field threat.
If Dak Prescott is able to improve his deep passing efficiency, the Cowboys will have an offense that can contend for a Super Bowl. In the final day of OTA's, Dak was reportedly very sharp when throwing down the field.
Tavon Austin and Allen Hurns provide valuable veteran depth to a roster that is ready to contend for a Super Bowl in 2019. Tavon Austin provides a dynamic ability for both the offense and the return game. Like Randall Cobb, Austin's ability to line up in the backfield and take handoffs allows you to go lighter at running back. Austin's a legit deep threat if he can stay healthy and will also give the team some snaps in the slot, where his quickness can take advantage of slower corners.
Per Jeff Cavanaugh of 105.3 The Fan in Dallas/Fort Worth, the team really likes Allen Hurns and his ability on the outside, which gives him a leg up on the fifth wide receiver spot. I think Hurns best spot is as a slot receiver, but knowing that he can do both, probably gives the Cowboys a lot more than one of the rookie undrafted free agents might.
@john9williams @DaltonBMiller Coaches love Hurns and he's the primary backup as an outside guy
Noah Brown is the biggest wild card. His spot could be up for grabs if the Cowboys decide to keep a third quarterback or fourth running back. If they're able to go light at either of those positions, then Brown makes the team. He flashed some skill as both a blocker and receiver in 2018 in very limited opportunities. Brown has the ability to threaten the defense down the field and use strong route running to create separation. His work after the catch below was impressive. The Cowboys need to run more 10 personnel (four wide receivers, one running back, no tight ends) in 2019 with Brown as a big slot receiver.
Tight End (3)
- Jason Witten
- Blake Jarwin
- Dalton Schultz
Count me as an advocate for Blake Jarwin to see first-team reps for the Dallas Cowboys and be the starter come week one. Jason Witten's a future Hall of Famer and will be enshrined in the Dallas Cowboys Ring of Honor, but Jarwin adds a more dynamic element to the passing game right now.
Witten can still help you, but Jarwin's athleticism and speed down the seem is something you don't have on offense. Someone who can attack deep between the hash marks. This team will use all three tight ends, including Dalton Schultz, but I imagine the one tight end sets to be split between Witten and Jarwin. Witten and Jarwin will be the two tight ends when they go with 12 or 22 personnel groupings.
Offensive Line (9)
- Tyron Smith, Left Tackle
- Connor Williams, Left Guard
- Travis Frederick, Center
- Zack Martin, Right Guard
- La'el Collins, Right Tackle
- Cam Fleming, Swing Tackle
- Connor McGovern, Guard/Center
- Joe Looney, Center/Guard
- Xavier Su'a-Filo, Guard
There may not be a position group as deep in the NFL as the Dallas Cowboys offensive line group. They have nine guys that could start games for them right now if you needed them to. Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, and La'el Collins have been cemented on the offensive line for several years now and that won't change in 2019.
Travis Frederick is the most important offseason addition to the Dallas Cowboys. Joe Looney was good and played admirably in 2018, but he's no Travis Frederick. Frederick is an All-Pro and considered one of the best centers in the NFL. You don't simply replace that level of play and intelligence. Getting one of the leaders of the offense back will be huge for Dak Prescott and for Frederick's line neighbor Connor Williams.
Connor McGovern more than likely sits this season and assumes the left guard spot so that Connor Williams can move to right tackle when Collins leaves in free agency.
Cam Fleming remains the fill-in option at tackle were Tyron Smith or Collins to miss games due to injury. Xavier Su'a-Filo will round out the bottom of the roster and depending on roster composition could see him looking for work elsewhere. The team would prefer to keep him on the roster with the way injuries go in the NFL. He's started a lot of games in his career and is a valuable backup.
Defensive Line (11)
- *DeMarcus Lawrence, Left Defensive End
- Maliek Collins, 3-Technique Defensive Tackle
- Antwaun Woods, 1-Technique Defensive Tackle
- Robert Quinn, Right Defensive End
- *Tyrone Crawford, DE/3-Tech
- *Randy Gregory, RDE
- Trysten Hill, 3-Tech
- Kerry Hyder, DE/3-Tech
- Christian Covington, 1-Tech/3-Tech
- Taco Charlton, LDE
- Dorance Armstrong, DE
While the offensive line is deep, the defensive line might be just as deep. The Dallas Cowboys have six players who've each had a six-sack season. DeMarcus Lawrence, Maliek Collins, Tyrone Crawford, Robert Quinn, Randy Gregory, and Kerry Hyder have all been successful pass rushers at some point in their careers. Throw in second-round pick Trysten Hill, who projects as a very dangerous pass rusher in his own right and the Cowboys literally have waves of players who can get after the passer.
For a variety of reasons DeMarcus Lawrence, Tyrone Crawford, and Randy Gregory are players who may not be available week one of the season. DeMarcus Lawrence is recovering from offseason shoulder surgery and his time table puts him close to the start of the regular season for a return. Crawford may face a suspension related to an incident at a Miami bar this offseason.
Still serving an indefinite suspension, Gregory seems like a wild card to be available to start the season. The league has revised its policy on substance abuse and mental health, which could allow Gregory to play in 2019. At the moment, I'm predicting that Gregory will play. Obviously, things could become more cemented on that front, but if the league is softening its stance on marijuana, then Gregory should be allowed to play this season.
Christian Covington is a vital depth piece on the interior of the defensive line and will help give starting 1-technique defensive tackle Antwaun Woods a breather. They'll be very important run stoppers for a team that struggled in the playoff loss to the Los Angeles Rams.
Taco Charlton and Dorance Armstrong are going to be battling for snaps at the back end of the defensive end depth chart. With DeMarcus Lawrence rehabbing his shoulder and Gregory not allowed to practice, this is an excellent opportunity for them. Unfortunately, Taco is also recovering from offseason surgery to his shoulder and foot. Armstrong is getting a leg up and it sounds like he's taking advantage of those extra snaps.
A dark horse to make the roster is Daniel Wise from the University of Kansas. The undrafted free agent was a priority signing for the Dallas Cowboys after the draft and he provides some interesting pass rush ability at the 3-technique that could push a player off the roster.
- Jaylon Smith, Middle Linebacker
- Leighton Vander Esch, Weakside Linebacker
- Sean Lee, Linebacker
- Joe Thomas, MIKE/WILL
- Justin March-Lillard, WILL
- Chris Covington, Linebacker
Linebacker seems as set in stone as any position but offensive line. The top three guys, Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esh, and Sean Lee all have roles in the starting base defense. Each figures to get snaps when the Cowboys go to their nickel defense. The three are all capable of making big plays for the Cowboys defense.
As we saw in 2018, however, the team would be making a mistake if they took Smith and Vander Esch off the field for significant stretches of a game to play Lee. Lee's still capable of making an impact, but the Smith and Vander Esch are faster and more athletic than Lee at this point in their respective careers.
Joe Thomas is the other name of note as he'll get a few snaps here and there on defense, but his primary role will be on special teams like Justin March-Lillard and Chris Covington.
- Byron Jones, Right Cornerback
- Chidobe Awuzie, Left Cornerback
- Anthony Brown, Slot Cornerback
- Jourdan Lewis, Cornerback
- Michael Jackson, Cornerback
There are only a couple of changes that could potentially happen from this group. One of those changes, though unlikely, is that the Dallas Cowboys find a suitable trade offer for Jourdan Lewis. Lewis is a good cornerback, but he's been overshadowed by Anthony Brown, who's played very well as the slot corner the last two seasons.
The only other thing that could possibly happen is Chris Westry beating out Michael Jackson for the fifth and final cornerback spot. Jackson is a better cover player right now, but with some coaching, Westry has the speed and athleticism to be a very good player for the Cowboys.
- Xavier Woods, Free Safety
- George Iloka, Strong Safety (backup free safety)
- Jeff Heath, Safety
- Kavon Frazier, Safety
- Donovan Wilson, Safety
The only question here is whether they'll actually keep five safeties and how they'll deploy them.
Xavier Woods is the unquestioned starter at free safety. The Cowboys declared their contentment with Woods by passing on Earl Thomas in free agency and Juan Thornhill in the second round of the NFL Draft.
In fact, it was Defensive Backs Coach Kris Richard who pounded the table in favor of Xavier Woods, believing that he's an ascending player.
Jeff Heath and George Iloka will share snaps at the other safety spot while Kavon Frazier and Donovan Wilson battle for the leftovers. They'll handle special teams duties. It's unlikely that Wilson will find his way into the starting lineup with this coaching staff's history of favoring veterans over rookies.
Special Teams (3)
- Brett Maher, Kicker
- Chris Jones, Punter
- L.P. Ladouceur, Long Snapper
Other than L.P. Ladouceur, there shouldn't be a ton of confidence in who will be the kicker and punter in 2019. Both Brett Maher and Chris Jones had okay years for the Cowboys but could have been better.
Jones, in particular, didn't kick as he had throughout his career and just looked off on a lot of punts this season. Hopefully, he can bounce back and have another strong year in what's been a stellar career.
Maher will get the chance to earn the kicking job again in training camp, and I think he'll keep it. He has a big leg and showed he's a capable kicker on a winning football team.
✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭
Well, there you have it. My 53-man roster projection for the 2019 season. Like every year, there will be surprises to the roster makeup. The Cowboys will keep more players at a position that wasn't anticipated and they'll release a player that comes as a shock to those who analyze the team.
What would you do differently? Let us know in the comment section.
Cowboys Wishlist: Dress Rehearsal Edition
In the NFL, the third preseason week is often referred to as the "Dress Rehearsal." It's usually the week in which starters get the most playing time. That has changed lately, with plenty of teams deciding to take care of their key players instead of risking them on the field. However, the Dallas Cowboys have played their starters on their first two games and there's no reason to believe that will change versus the Texans today.
Here is my wishlist for the Cowboys vs Texans "Dress Rehearsal!" Let me know what your wishes for tonight's game are in the comments section below or tweet me @MauNFL!
Wish #1: Justin Phillips Locks Up a Roster Spot
Phillips has been one of the most surprising players this offseason and preseason. The Cowboys are set at linebacker, but Phillips has made sure to be a tough guy to cut. Last week, he had a remarkable interception against the Rams. Despite making a first step toward the line, he managed to adjust and made the play. He has followed it up with more plays in practice.
If he keeps it up, the Cowboys won't be able to cut him. He has the potential to be a force on special teams and a quality backup.
Wish #2: Devin Smith Makes Things Interesting
The battle for the final wide receiver spots is at full-go. Devin Smith has shined lately, and has risen as a serious candidate to make the roster. However, it seems like other wide receivers have the upper-hand as of now. Earlier this week, I made my Cowboys WR Power Rankings and had Devin Smith at #7.
His TD catch versus the Rams last week was pretty impressive, and I wish he makes a few more plays to make the debate all the more interesting.
Wish #3: Tony Pollard Does It Again
Fifth-round rookie Tony Pollard
stole was the show last weekend as he racked up 51 total yards (five carries, one catch) and a touchdown on Dallas' first offensive drive. He looked impressive as the starting running back, giving us just what we wanted to see.
While many have advertised him as a gadget player, Pollard proved he can actually be a "standard" RB. He ran between the tackles, showed power, balance and great vision. I'm ready to watch it again, this time versus the Texans.
Wish #4: Taco Charlton Shines Rushing The Passer
Taco Charlton has made a couple of plays in preseason on his third year with the Dallas Cowboys. Against the Rams, he batted down two passes and looked good separating from opposing offensive linemen. Charlton has gotten praise from some analysts during these first two preseason weeks.
But I want to watch some quality pass rush from his part. Right now, the Cowboys' roster counts with some promising players, including rookies Jalen Jelks and Joe Jackson. While they're currently below Taco, he must prove he belongs on the roster.
Cowboys’ Tight End Marcus Lucas with Huge Opportunity vs the Houston Texans
With only two preseason games remaining, opportunities to make a statement are growing thin. The Dallas Cowboys have very few spots on the roster available, especially at the tight end position where Jason Witten, Blake Jarwin, and Dalton Schultz appear to have the depth chart locked down. The problem is, Jarwin and Schultz have been dealing with injuries and missed the second preseason game against the Los Angeles Rams and probably won't play against the Houston Texans tonight.
Enter Marcus Lucas.
Marcus Lucas hasn't been a member of the Dallas Cowboys for very long, but he's already made an impact.
In his first preseason game with the Dallas Cowboys, Lucas caught four passes on four targets for 20 yards. His receptions went for two, seven, five, and six yards for an average of five yards per reception. He did have a holding penalty that cost the Dallas Cowboys 10 yards on a first down play that didn't go anywhere anyway.
Though Lucas has bounced around NFL practice squads, he's never really found a home. After going undrafted in 2014, Lucas was signed by the Carolina Panthers in May of that year but wasn't able to stick on the 53-man roster and was released and placed on the practice squad. In 2015, he was on the Miami Dolphins and Chicago Bears practice squads. In 2016, the Panthers brought him back in the summer after the Bears released him from their 90-man roster. That September after cut-down day, the Seattle Seahawks signed Lucas to their practice squad where he spent all of 2016. From 2017 to the end of 2018, Lucas spent time with the Indianapolis Colts, Oakland Raiders, Detroit Lions, the Seattle Seahawks again, and the San Francisco 49ers. He was with the 49ers in 2019 before joining the Dallas Cowboys about two weeks ago and will get an extended run in these final two preseason games.
At Thursday's practice, Lucas was the only tight end available with Jason Witten getting a rest day and Jarwin, Schultz, and fellow Tight End Cody McElroy dealing with injuries.
With Jason Witten getting a day of rest, Blake Jarwin, Dalton Schultz and Codey McElroy injured, the Cowboys have one tight end practicing today: Marcus Lucas, who has been with the team for about two weeks.
It's possible that Lucas may get an extended amount of playing time tonight with an opportunity to show the Dallas Cowboys and the rest of the NFL that he's ready to land on a 53-man roster. With likely only Jason Witten being the only other tight end active for the game against the Houston Texans, Lucas will get a lot of playing time. If his last preseason exposure is any indication, he'll get the chance to display his receiving prowess.
At 27, Lucas likely has few opportunities left to make his mark for an NFL franchise. On a team that proclaims the "next man up" as a battle cry, after Witten, Lucas is the next man up for tonight and depending on his performance could make the Dallas Cowboys front office or another front office around the league take notice.
Depending on the long-term health of the Dallas Cowboys' tight end position, Lucas may find his path to a roster spot simply dependent upon the health of Blake Jarwin and Dalton Schultz. Though a job may not come with the Dallas Cowboys, tonight is an extremely important audition for his next suitor. How he performs tonight could land Marcus Lucas a job after the Dallas Cowboys trim the roster to 53 next week.
They say "preseason games don't matter," but to Marcus Lucas, this might be the most important game of his career.
Don’t Forget Special Teams Value in Cowboys Roster Decisions
Building a 53-man roster in the NFL is a complex formula, requiring balance between numerous positions on each side of the ball. But what often gets overlooked in our analysis as outsiders is special teams, and that's a huge factor for many of the Dallas Cowboys players hoping to make it past final cuts.
Some players have survived in the league by being just good enough at their listed positions but excelling in special teams roles. You may think of former Dallas safety Bill Bates, who was personally responsible for a special teams player being made part of the annual Pro Bowl roster. A more recent example would be Keith Davis, who was an adequate safety but a special teams ace for several seasons.
To be sure, someone is going to be on this 2019 Cowboys more for their special teams value than their actual offensive or defensive ability. Who might he, or they, be?
One candidate is veteran Cornerback C.J. Goodwin. He is considered an exceptional talent in coverage on punts, which is probably the only reason he's still in the NFL today. At age 29, Goodwin has never really emerged as a consistent contributor on defense.
Young players like Donovan Olumba or rookie Michael Jackson, if not already superior cornerbacks to Goodwin, have far more upside to keep on the roster. But
considering how little they may get on the field anyway as the fifth or sixth corners, you can see why special teams value becomes so important. It may be the only time you actually see them in the game.
If the Cowboys don't want to lose a young prospect but can't let go of Goodwin's special teams ability, it may prompt them to go long at the CB position. But that means taking a roster spot from some other position, and thus the balancing act continues.
Another player to watch in this discussion is second-year an Running Back Jordan Chunn. He doesn't have Alfred Morris' experience or maybe Mike Weber or Darius Jackson's rushing talent, but he has been showing up on the special teams units.
Yesterday, Cowboys insider Bryan Broaddus called Chunn "a better Rod Smith" in analyzing his chances of making the roster. If you don't recall, Jaylon's older brother was a solid RB but a standout special teams player in his few years with Dallas.
As we just mentioned with the 5th/6th CB slots, the third running back is not a guy you expect to see much on offense. That will be especially true this year as Dallas will be struggling just to give rookie Tony Pollard the touches he deserves as the number-two RB.
Given that, special teams play becomes vital for the value of whoever is behind Zeke and Pollard on the depth chart. If Jordan Chunn is superior to his competition in that regard, it could negate whatever he lacks as an actual running back.
This same conversation can be had throughout the roster. It's why Noah Brown might make the team over more traditionally gifted receivers, or why a certain linebacker or safety might be more valued than others.
We make the common mistake of referring to "both sides of the ball" when we talk about football teams. There are three sides; special teams can't be underestimated. It will certainly play a part in how the Dallas Cowboys finalize their 53-man roster this season and in years to come.
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