One of the most exciting things about training camp is watching for surprises. Even for a team like the Dallas Cowboys, where outside the defensive line the starters are mostly known, there always seem to be a few players that rise up and exceed expectations to make the roster. But for every one of them, there is usually another player that most predicted would make the team that has to leave.
A few days ago, OCC took a look at three different roster projections for Dallas, from two very experienced beat reporters and one non-professional (but devilishly charming) blogger. It was noticeable that there was not a lot of variation between the three. However, it is highly unlikely that these are going to hold up through the end of training camp. That is not how things usually work. Injuries can always play a role, but we are all hoping those are minimal. Despite that, there are almost certainly going to be a few names that get cut from the team that will be at least somewhat surprising. Here are a few that may be the unlucky ones this season. (Note: This is not meant to be a prediction that any of these players will actually fail to make the team, just a list of some at least plausible scenarios that might lead to that happening.)
This is maybe not that big a surprise to many, since he was left off one of the projections, but given that he was taken in the second round and is still on his rookie contract, many would be surprised to see him lose out, especially given that there is not a lot of really strong competition at the position outside the obvious top two of Jason Witten and James Hanna. The problem is that he has never come close to living up to his draft pedigree. It seems to be a combination of the inability of the coaching staff to find a really good way to use him and his own failure to capitalize on some of the opportunities he does get. Whatever the cause, this may be the year the team decides to move on from him. There is additional pressure in that the team may not want to keep four tight ends so as to use a roster spot elsewhere. If Escobar would be cut, it might be done as an injury settlement, since he is still recovering, but that would largely be a bit of camouflage.
Anthony Hitchens or Damien Wilson
Hitchens would be the bigger surprise given how well he performed his rookie year, but he seemed to regress last season. Further, if one linebacker would not make the team from the projections, most would expect it to be Andrew Gachkar or Mark Nzeocha. But here the risk is clearly someone breaking out in preseason combined with Hitchens or Wilson not having a good showing. An underrated threat may be Deon King, a small school player who is described as a tackling machine. If he beats the odds and pushes someone with experience off the roster, then Hitchens and Wilson better be putting their best on the field to make sure it isn’t one of them. The team hates to give up on fourth round picks so early, but the team is really focused on going as far as they can this year, and drastic measures may be called for.
Brice Butler or Lucky Whitehead
If there is one position where the Cowboys seem to find unheralded players to keep almost yearly, it is wide receiver. Two of the wideouts from last season, Cole Beasley, both started as UDFAs, and Butler was a seventh round pick by the Oakland Raiders. A little further back, Miles Austin had a successful run with Dallas as another UDFA find before the curse of the hamstrings caught up with him.and
There are many who think either or both Butler or Whitehead are near locks to make the team. Butler is thought to be capable of challenging Terrance Williams for the WR2 spot on the depth chart, and Whitehead is the incumbent return man. However, fortunes can change quickly once camp gets started. Andy Jones has already gotten some favorable notices during the OTAs and minicamp. And Whitehead could face some serious competition as a returner, given his history of problems with ball security. In a post on the return job, the staff at the mothership mentioned Chris Brown and Ed Eagan as rookies that could mount a challenge. And running backs Lance Dunbar and Darren McFadden (assuming either or both are healthy) were also mentioned as options. That return job may be one of the more wide-open competitions in camp, and if someone takes that away from Whitehead, he could really be in jeopardy.
Of all these names, seeing Morris not make the team would be the biggest surprise, but there are some things that could make it happen. First is the health of Dunbar and McFadden. The latter is expected to recover from his elbow surgery and be ready at or very near the start of camp, and if he is in the mix as a kick returner, that and his performance last year would give him a leg up. Dunbar is certainly less certain, but if he is healthy, then suddenly the running back room is a bit crowded, and Dunbar has a very specific role as the COP back. Morris’ biggest competition as the RB2 could become Darius Jackson, and it is expected that Jackson is going to get a lot of carries in the preseason games to help save Ezekiel Elliott for the regular season. Morris would represent $1.3 million in dead money, but that is probably not enough to save him if the team really feels it has better options - and there could well be only three roster spots for pure running backs if Rod Smith or Keith Smith are carried as a fullback.
Again, these are not predictions, and at the moment these names may not really be likely cuts. But the results of camp and the preseason can radically change the odds. These may well not happen, for good reason - which is what would make any of them surprising.