Rookie minicamp has come to a close, and the veterans will take the field this week in “phase two workouts” before their first set of offseason training activities begins on May 25th. By this time, you’ve likely seen some 53-man roster projections for the 2021 season. Those are fantastic exercises to get a glimpse at some of the competitions that will take place during OTAs, minicamp, and training camp.
One exercise that I find helpful is to look at the players who are locks to make the roster at this point in the offseason. It makes it easier to see where there are opportunities for players to make the roster and where players will have to compete to earn their roster spot.
Generally, you can look at a roster and figure 40 or so players pretty well locked into their spot on the roster. The other 13 are up for grabs and will have some serious training camp completion going on. The other thing to factor in is the potential savings by releasing a player before the start of the season.
In this first edition of the roster locks, I’m projecting 40 players to be locked in for the 53-man roster at this time. As we move throughout the offseason and into training camp, more players will add their names to this list. So far, just 15 players on the offensive side of the football have a guaranteed spot on the roster, while there are 23 spots already ironed out on the defensive side of the ball. There are two special teamers locked in on the roster.
- The Cowboys don’t have a clear answer at backup quarterback at the moment. It could be Garrett Gilbert, but they could sign a veteran as well. Gilbert showed well in his lone start against the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2020 and should be the favorite to win the job. However, if he gets into these practices and training camp and doesn’t look competent, the Cowboys will look elsewhere.
- There are several options for the Dallas Cowboys at third running back, but I wouldn’t rule out them bringing in a veteran down the road. With an extra game on the schedule and the wear and tear that Ezekiel Elliott has already endured, the Cowboys would be wise to have some insurance behind Elliott and Tony Pollard. The Cowboys may not carry a fullback. It’s a position that generally gets only 5-10 offensive snaps a game, so is it a position that is worth the roster spot? That’s the question that every NFL team is answering these days.
- Noah Brown and Cedrick Wilson are the favorites to win the fourth and fifth wide receiver jobs but aren’t guaranteed. The Cowboys could save a little more than $2 million by waving him after June 1st. They can save $850,000 on Brown’s contract. Simi Fehoko is the favorite for the sixth spot at the wide receiver position, but if he can prove to be an asset on special teams, he could push one of the veterans off the roster as well.
- Tight end is solid at the top, and Jeremy Sprinkle would be a good third tight end. However, he’ll get competition from Sean McKeon for a roster spot, and if all things are equal, the Cowboys will go with the younger, cheaper player.
- The competition at backup offensive tackle is probably the most intriguing on the offensive side of the ball. The Cowboys signed Ty Nsheke as the presumptive swing tackle, but they also drafted Josh Ball in the fourth round, and Terence Steele showed he’s a capable backup tackle in the NFL. Brandon Knight also played a ton of tackle last year, and they still have the option of using Connor Williams at tackle if he were to lose the left guard competition to Connor McGovern. Isaac Alarcon is a name to watch as well.
- Guard feels pretty well settled aside from competition for left guard. McGovern also has some flexibility as a center if the Cowboys need him to.
- Matt Farniok was drafted as a guard but has experience all over the offensive line. He took snaps solely at center during rookie minicamp. He looks like he’ll get a shot to be the backup center, but seventh-round rookies are far from guaranteed.
- Edge rusher is going to be an interesting dynamic this year. New Defensive Coordinator Dan Quinn has mentioned using 3-4 looks and 4-3 looks, and the Cowboys will be in nickel at least 60% of the time. So how they compile their edge depth chart will be really interesting. Chauncey Golston gets a spot because he’s a third-round pick, and I’d imagine that Dorance Armstrong will as well. Armstrong is a versatile edge that can play some SAM linebacker if needed.
- Osa Odighizuwa and Tarell Basham figure to be their inside/outside players. They can play some defensive tackle in passing situations and some edge on run downs. They’ll take over the Tyrone Crawford role on the defensive line.
- Defensive tackle is going to be the most interesting battle on defense. They signed Brent Urban and Carlos Watkins to give them some beef on the interior. Then they drafted Odighizuwa and Quinton Bohanna as well. Add them to Neville Gallimore and Trysten Hill, and you have a lot of guys to work with. I think Watkins gets left as the odd man out as the Cowboys want to see what they have in Hill in the third year of his rookie deal.
- Linebacker looks to have some great depth now. The talent level has improved, and the Cowboys have five guys they can feel pretty comfortable deploying. Keanu Neal is listed as a linebacker, but I could also see him get looks at strong safety as well.
- Cornerback looks pretty well set in stone. To me, the only question is who starts in the slot in nickel packages. Will they use Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis as situational slot corners depending on the matchups? There’s some intriguing talent, and Kelvin Joseph looks to be the starter opposite Trevon Diggs. What they do with Nahshon Wright will be interesting to watch. Quinn certainly likes him, but how will he figure into the cornerback group. CJ Goodwin will be on the roster. Until he’s unable to play special teams, he’s got a roster spot solidified.
- Reggie Robinson is still a safety at the moment. He was a player that Dan Quinn liked coming out of Tulsa, so I think he sticks around in year two. While Donovan Wilson is the starter, the Cowboys have a great alternative in Keanu Neal. There could also be some defensive looks where the Cowboys put Neal and Wilson out there together.
- The kicking job is Greg Zuerlein’s unless he falls apart in training camp or the preseason.
- Punter is the place where we could see some competition between Bryan Anger and Hunter Niswander. Anger is a nine-year veteran who ranks ninth all-time and fifth among active punters in yards per punt at 46.2. Niswander has punted in just eight NFL games, all in 2020, but he averaged 47.2 yards per punt. Anger had four punts downed inside the 20 and Niswander just one in his eight games. Niswander, however, averaged a better hangtime than Anger at 4.54 seconds to Anger’s 4.4. Niswander edged Anger out in net yards per punt by 0.2 yards per punt. It will be an interesting special teams competition.
- At the moment, Jake McQuaide is the only long snapper on the Dallas Cowboys roster. So unless they make a move to add another guy, he’s the guy until further notice.