The Dallas Cowboys are fortunate this year in that much of the 53-man roster is fairly clear already. All the starting jobs and key role players on offense are set except for the running backs, and Joseph Randle has all but locked up the RB1 job. The defense is also pretty clear as to starters and some of the depth players. There are really only a handful of jobs for about 45 of the 90 players still in camp to try to win, plus the practice squad which many hope to make in order to extend their chances of making a career of football.
The remaining two preseason games are the best chance these players have of earning the chance to wear the Star in 2015, and they are not only competing with other players currently with Dallas, but with all the coming waived players from other teams. The Cowboys are firmly committed to churning the bottom of the roster and will not hesitate to bring in someone they think offers more than someone currently under contract. Additionally, the players are also in a position to influence the mix of positions on the 53-man roster. In a real sense, they are competing with all the other fringe players in the league.
While the first part of the Minnesota Vikings game is the dress rehearsal for the starters, the remainder of that contest and the entire final preseason exercise against the Houston Texans will be all about evaluating the guys on the bubble. Here are some of the top battles to keep an eye on.
As much as some of us may hate the thought, Brandon Weeden is pretty well entrenched as the backup to Tony Romo. Jason Garrett has shown in the past that he will only roll with two quarterbacks on the 53, so Dustin Vaughan and Jameill Showers face two tasks. The first is to justify being on the roster at all, and failing that, they are auditioning for a chance to be considered for the practice squad as that emergency call up should the unthinkable happen - Weeden getting hurt in practice, of course. (What did you think I was referring to?)
This year, Showers has thrown an interesting throw-back kind of wrinkle into the mix by not only being willing to play on special teams, but doing rather well at it. There was a time when rookie quarterbacks routinely helped out on teams (graybeards like me may remember Danny White's punting prowess), but escalating contracts and the increasing difficulty in finding college talent that can transition to the NFL have made that a thing of the past. Now Showers is offering the team a way to get both a developmental quarterback and a special teams ace in one package. If he plays well enough as a quarterback, he is a serious threat to Vaughan.
For a while, it looked like Lucky Whitehead had the lead to be the fifth wide receiver, but he was not seen returning punts in the last couple of practices, and that was supposed to be his main strength. This suddenly looks to be a wide open competition, and anyone who can stand out in the final preseason games may just push him off the 53 - if he hasn't already fumbled that away. Devin Street's recent injury issue will likely open up some reps for the other receivers as well. A.J. Jenkins is one player to watch, since the former first-round pick has started to look like just that in the last couple of weeks.
Dallas spent a 2016 sixth-round selection to get one last pick in 2015 so they could take Geoff Swaim. Although he was thought to have been taken as a blocking tight end, he has proven to be both much better as a receiver and not so strong at blocking. But his ability to come down with the ball has created some buzz. He might be something of a challenge to James Hanna, but, somewhat ironically, Hanna is likely safe because of his blocking. Swaim is most likely going to have to convince the staff that he is worth going deep at tight end and keeping four, but there are many who think that is exactly what the team will do.
Darrion Weems is something of a mystery, because his performance so far in preseason is seen very differently depending on the observer. At the same time, Laurence Gibson is being described as the most improved rookie on the team to this point in camp. There is still enough time for Gibson to make himself a real challenger for the swing tackle job, especially when you compare the speed of his development to the slow, laborious process Weems has gone through. There also might be an argument to be made for keeping a fourth OT, since the team will probably just go with two backup interior linemen. The biggest one would be that Gibson might be too tempting to other teams who are not blessed with the OL talent Dallas has if they tried to sneak him onto the PS. Carrying nine OL may be worth it when you have an eye on the long term - and Jason Garrett and company certainly do. There has even been an argument advanced that the team may be interested in Ronald Patrick as a possible replacement for Mackenzy Bernadeau at a considerable cost savings, something that La'el Collins makes much more feasible.
Although the team continues to express confidence in Darren McFadden, he still has not shown a great deal due to his injury issues early in camp. Likewise, Lance Dunbar is still more promise than reality as far as what he has done on the field. Gus Johnson may be some kind of an option here, but the biggest threat to both McFadden and Dunbar is the waiver wire. If someone the Cowboys really likes is cut elsewhere and there is some lackluster play by McFadden and/or Dunbar against the Vikings, churn may happen.
This is mostly whether the team keeps one or not. Garrett likes the position and he also seems fond of Tyler Clutts. But with so many other positions that might benefit from an extra roster spot, this always is something that the staff has to consider.
Face it. A lot of you are going to get your heart broken by one or more of the cuts here. Dallas has a wealth of talented players vying for a spot in the DL rotation, and right now an argument can be made for at least twelve of the linemen in camp. The team is highly unlikely to keep more than eleven, and ten is much more likely. Even with the short-term spot opened up while Greg Hardy sits out his suspension, one or two in this group are going to be cut and there is a very good chance a needy team will snap them up. Even the incredibly raw Efe Obada has shown real promise that may lead a team to grab him. This is going to suck, people.
This is all about Keith Smith. All reports are that he has been very good so far in preseason. With Rolando McClain sitting out at least the first four games, Smith may be a great candidate as a "placeholder" in the linebacking corps. And depending on how McClain continues to rehab from injury, Smith might also be a very economical insurance policy to invest in.
Prior to Orlando Scandrick's extremely unfortunate injury, many assumed the Cowboys would carry six cornerbacks. This was largely due to the depth shown at the position in camp. But with Scandrick gone for the year, will the team just carry five CBs, or will it look to find another? This is another spot where the team is certainly going to watch the waiver wire very closely as well.
If you were keeping tabs, that accounts for everything except the specialists. Even with so many players who are now locks to make the roster, there is plenty to watch for in the final preseason games. Pick you favorites (or those domesticated feline things so many are enamored of) and root for them. And feel free to make your arguments for and against any of these possibilities in the comments.