Later today the Dallas Cowboys' 2021 preseason will end with a game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. While many of this year's players will not be playing today, others who are still competing for roster spots could be facing a critical moment. What are some of the biggest things to watch for in the preseason finale?
A great problem to have; Dallas has at least a few bubble guys at almost every position that you'd hate to see go. Let's go through the roster and just quickly glance at each position and see whose future hangs in the balance, perhaps being decided by today's game.
First and foremost is the battle for backup quarterback. Garrett Gilbert was the favorite coming into August but Cooper Rush narrowed the gap and now they appear to be in an open competition. Will Rush continue his strong play from last week to claim the job, or will Gilbert bounce back and finish this preseason where he started?
While he may not be a factor for QB2 at this point, Ben DiNucci's future could depend on today's game as well. Do the Cowboys still see last year's 7th-Round pick as a worthy developmental player or could they be ready to dump him for a new project?
Rico Dowdle's season ended this week with a move to IR and perhaps opened the door for JaQuan Hardy or Brenden Knox to make the roster. Dowdle was the heavy favorite to be the third RB and special teams contributor.
Because of Dowdle's additional special teams value, RB3 isn't a guaranteed spot on the 2021 roster. The Cowboys have rolled with just Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard before and could do so again, especially if it allows them to go long at WR/TE or keep a true fullback in rookie Nick Ralston.
Ralston has been impressive since Sewo Olonilua's injury and has another game to build momentum toward final cuts. With experience as a small TE in college and his own special teams value, the UDFA may be a more valuable piece in 2021 than either of the RB prospects.
There doesn't seem like much to discuss here. We know who the top five are and Dallas isn't going to risk Simi Fehoko on waivers. You don't see 4th-Round picks cut that often as rookies and Fehoko has done enough to warrant some protection.
Similar story here; Jarwin, Schultz, and Sprinkle are locks as your top three after Sean McKeon's ankle injury. The big question is if Dallas will carry McKeon on the 53-man roster as they did last year or go ahead and put him on IR as one of their cutdown moves.
Remember, a player has to be on the roster after final cuts and then placed on IR if the team wants him to be eligible for a midseason return. We could see Dallas cut someone temporarily, put McKeon on IR, and then re-sign that player to facilitate it.
The starters are set and thankfully ready to go for Week One. The one backup you can count on is Connor McGovern but the rest of the depth chart seems to be up in the air. While Ty Nsekhe would seem the favorite to be swing tackle, none of the options have really stood out yet and this game could be the deciding factor.
Dorance Armstrong appears to have locked down a roster spot but what about the rest of the DE reserves? Tarell Basham was injured during camp so can't be placed on PUP; Dallas will likely have to carry him on the 53 until he's ready to returns soon from an ankle injury.
With rookie Chauncey Golston probably starting the year on PUP, prospects Bradlee Anae and Ron'Dell Carter have strong chances at making the roster to start 2021. But if the Cowboys can't carry a sixth DE then this final game could be the final showdown between them for one roster spot.
While being without Trysten Hill and losing Neville Gallimore have been tough for the DT position, rookies Osa Odighizuwa and Quinton Bohanna appear ready to contribute immediately. Dallas will have to decide how they want to handle Gallimore's absence and anything these newcomers do to either increase or decrease the team's confidence could sway them.
Even if it's only temporary, a guy like Justin Hamilton can also seal his fate today in terms of final cuts. He may only have a spot until Hill or Gallimore return but at least can keep Dallas from looking around the waiver wire.
While we talk a lot about this position there's not much that today's game will change. We know who's making the roster and, yes, that includes Jaylon Smith, But will Smith be the fifth and final LB this year or will Dallas keep six?
If there is a point of intrigue it's probably thanks to “Hard Knocks” and the featuring of Azur Kamara. I thin Luke Gifford is your sixth LB if there's going to be one at all, but Kamara is the guy with the best shot at bumping him out.
If the Cowboys keep six cornerbacks then there's a pretty safe bet on who they'll be: Trevon Diggs, Anthony Brown, Jourdan Lewis, Maurice Canady, Kelvin Joseph, and Nahshon Wright. But will the team be able to keep six with needs at other positions, plus C.J. Goodwin likely commanding a spot as your top special teamer?
If someone has to go from this group then it could be the biggest shock of final cuts. That choice could come down to how they perform, and who stays healthy, in this preseason finale.
Damontae Kazee and Donovan Wilson appear to have the starting jobs locked down. Malik Hooker hasn't been here enough to claim either starting job yet but will likely get rotated in a lot during the season.
That leaves Jayron Kearse, Darian Thompson, and Israel Mukuamu vying for the last 1-2 spots at safety. If it's two it'll likely be one of the veterans and Mukuamu as a valuable developmental player. But if the numbers don't allow for a fifth safety, Mukuamu may have to spend his rookie year on the practice squad.
Kicker Greg Zuerlein will see his first preseason action after recovering from a back issue and getting back to work this week. We may see Dallas kick more often than a typical preseason game just to give the veteran a few extra real-game reps before Week One.
One thing we don't appear to have yet at clearly established kickoff and punt returners for 2021. Could one of the RB or WR prospects make a push for a roster spot with a dazzling return against Jacksonville?