The Dallas Cowboys have done a good job lately of finding roster contributors in the late rounds of the NFL Draft. Will Defensive End Jalen Jelks, the 7th-Round pick in 2019, be able to fight his way onto the team in 2020?
Jalen joined the Cowboys as an athletic pass rusher who had potential to play both defensive end and outside linebacker. He was kept at DE through the end of the preseason, playing in three games and registering one sack.
Unfortunately, Jelks' rookie season was cut short when he was placed on injured reserve just before final cuts. What that injury was has never been disclosed, and it's likely the Cowboys used something very minor to stash Jalen away for a year. Whatever happened, don't expect it to be an issue going forward.
Back to active duty in 2020, Jelks is once again going to have a hard time making the roster. The numbers at DE and LB don't look good for him, meaning he will have to be a huge surprise this summer if he wants to stick around.
Jelks has a great frame and athleticism for a pass rusher but was lacking in strength and technique when he entered the league. Was he able to get enough development from IR last year to be a more competitive candidate now?
Even if Jalen is better, he's up against a stacked group at defensive end with DeMarcus Lawrence, Aldon Smith, Tyrone Crawford, Dorance Armstrong, Joe Jackson, and Bradlee Anae all in the current mix. We also expect Randy Gregory to be reinstated and command a roster spot as well.
If Jelks is going to make the team in 2020 it would likely have to happen as a SAM linebacker. But even there the prospect isn't that great.
We know Leighton Vander Esch, Jaylon Smith, Sean Lee, and Joe Thomas will all be on the roster. Backups Luke Gifford and Justin March are also highly likely; Gifford is an exciting young prospect and March has good experience and special teams ability.
For Jelks to make a transition to LB and outshine any of these six players is highly unlikely. We don't even know that that move is on the table.
Something that could work in Jalen's favor, though, is the change in coaching from Rod Marinelli to Mike Nolan as defensive coordinator. While the Cowboys are sticking with the 4-3 scheme for now, Nolan and Mike McCarthy have both indicated that “3-4 principles” will be added and we could see more variety in the formations and looks used.
If Jalen Jelks gets opportunities to work as a pass-rusher from an OLB position, it could be his best chance to impress and earn a roster spot.
Nothing says Jelks is entitled to make the team as a drafted player. If you go back through the drafts from 2015-2019, only six of 18 players drafted in Rounds 6-7 are still with the team today. Of those six, only Jelks and WR Noah Brown were 7th-Round picks.
It's far more likely that Jalen will soon be joining Mike Weber, Joey Ivie, and other recent 7th Rounders who never played a regular-season game with the Cowboys. Making the practice squad in 2020 would be a good goal.
But in a league where pass rushing has become all the more vital in the modern era, Jalen Jelks has made it this far on that coveted attribute. If the raw potential that got him drafted has had a chance to develop, he may become a more noteworthy name in the 2020 roster battle.