The 90-man preseason roster for the Dallas Cowboys is largely set. Although the Cowboys can still bring in new faces as free agents, the team is not expected to be very active there. With the draft done and the UDFA crop signed, we have a pretty good idea who will be going to Oxnard for training camp. Now the question becomes: Who will make the 53-man roster? While a lot of names are a given, there are a large number of very compelling battles on the roster. Here is a list of the ones that are going to be a lot of fun to watch.
Although the staff has been very consistent in stating that Kellen Moore is the incumbent at QB2 and expected to keep the job, almost everyone seems to be rooting either quietly or openly for Dak Prescott to challenge him as much as possible. And there are many who would not mind seeing Jameill Showers push Moore completely off the roster. The preseason games are going to be huge in sorting all this out and it will be the most intensely scrutinized and hotly debated action leading up to the regular season.
This is the most wide open position group in some ways. There are a number of names that seem almost certain to make the team, but two of them, DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory, face suspensions to begin the season, which will give a couple of players at least a few games to make the case to become part of the long term plans. The team will probably carry at least eight defensive linemen to start. Position flexibility and athleticism are qualities that are favored, and the current group is a very young one. Free agent signee Cedric Thornton and Terrell McClain, who has fought injuries, are the old guys at 27. With 16 defensive linemen currently on the roster, the fight to be the last man or two to make it into the rushmen room is going to be fierce.
Second and third running back.
Ezekiel Elliott will be the man, but how the rest of the running back group shakes out is very much up in the air. Alfred Morris would have to have a really horrid preseason to lose his spot on the roster. Darren McFadden has gotten a lot of support from the front office and coaches, but is still very much a square peg in a round hole in the Cowboys' zone blocking scheme. With Lance Dunbar likely to start the season on PUP and Rod Smith trying to convert to fullback (with Keith Smith competing for the job as well), there may well a chance for sixth-round pick Darius Jackson to carve himself out a role.
With Byron Jones now the starting free safety, there is going to be a real competition to see who makes the squad at strong safety. Jeff Heath may be in very good shape because of his special teams role, and Barry Church will be hard to supplant as the starter. But J.J. Wilcox has to be looking over his shoulder at UDFA Rolan Milligan. And although Kevan Frazier is listed as a free safety on the roster, Rod Marinelli's defense does not always follow the more traditional way of defining the roles. Frazier looks to be the right size to also be in the SS mix, or he may be intended as Jones' backup.
Wide receiver depth.
There is an obvious target on Devin Street's back. He has to really show some improvement to fight off the group of UDFA wideouts the team has brought in, and Lucky Whitehead is possibly going to feel some pressure as well. Also, Terrance Williams seems to be certain to make the roster, but could Brice Butler overtake him as the WR2? Butler has the talent, but there is something of a question about how hard he applies himself. If he puts his mind to it, he could move ahead of TWill on the depth chart.
After being a non-factor in his rookie year due to the injury he had in college, Chaz Green has an opportunity to justify his selection last year. The team probably wants him to become the swing tackle, at least for the short term, but the best way to prove himself is to put some real pressure on Doug Free. The smart money should be on Free to keep the starting job, but a close battle between him and Green is the best thing for the team.
Interior offensive line depth.
Ron Leary is slated to be the backup guard - although he is not going to let La'el Collins just take the starting left guard job by default. If you like camp fights, watch Leary every time he is on the field. He has a reputation for playing with a bit of anger and is likely to bring some real fire to things. And Jake Brendel has a real chance to make the team as the backup center.
Sean Lee is set as the WILL. Rolando McClain is the incumbent starter at MIKE, but there is always a concern that he could slip up and run afoul of the substance abuse policy again. Kyle Wilber is a good SAM with the ability to provide some pass rush from there, which is important with all the issues Dallas had pressuring the passer last year. But the name to watch is Mark Nzeocha. Like Green, he was hampered by a college injury his rookie year, but he is one of those freak athletes that the team loves. And Damien Wilson will be trying to prove he deserves a spot, possibly challenging Anthony Hitchens for that all-purpose backup role. The wild card is Jaylon Smith. No one knows when or even if that nerve is going to come back all the way, but he was seen working with cords in the rookie minicamp, which raised a few eyebrows. You should keep those expectations low, but there just seems to be a knowing smile whenever one of the staff talks about his chances of making an unexpected early recovery, despite how they downplay the idea with their words.
The Rico Gathers story has the potential to be one of the most interesting in the entire NFL. At first glance, a basketball player who hasn't participated in organized football since junior high would appear to have almost no chance of making the roster, but he may have a better chance with the Cowboys than he would almost anywhere else. Dallas really has only two solid tight ends right now, the evergreen Jason Witten and James Hanna. Gavin Escobar may be another player starting the year on PUP, and Geoff Swaim is very unproven. In the minicamp, Gathers impressed some with his hard work and by looking a little further along in his progress than expected. Is it too much to expect him to find a way to be a contributor this year? Maybe, but if you like to root for a real underdog (albeit a very big and extremely athletic one), Gathers is your guy.
If you have been keeping track, that covers every position group except the specialists. There are opportunities for players everywhere else on the roster, which is not always the case. The best thing for Dallas is that there are some very talented new faces ready to show the coaches what they have. We will get our first look at the whole roster in the OTAs later this month, but due to the rules under the CBA, those and the minicamp in June are much more restrained than things will be once training camp convenes. Get your popcorn ready. It should be a real show in Oxnard.