The fourth and final preseason game is never a particularly exciting event. Not only is it common for starters to not play a single snap, but several top backups who have sewn up a roster spot are usually kept out as well. What you’re left with is a final opportunity for those competing at the back-end of rosters around the league to make their closing arguments for an NFL job. The intriguing thing about this process is that players are not just competing with their current teammates, but those all around the league as the deadline to cut rosters down to 53 looms on Saturday, September 3rd. With that said, let’s take a look at some of the Cowboys’ more intriguing end-of-the-roster battles to keep an eye on as the 2016 preseason comes to a close against Houston on Thursday night.
Please note that the numbers per position, i.e. “Wide Receiver 6” or “Running Back 4 and 5”, does not necessarily mean that I think the Cowboys will keep six receivers or five backs, it’s just that these are the positions on the roster that are open for competition in my mind. The coaching staff will have to trade off whether they want to keep a sixth receiver versus a fifth running back versus a seventh linebacker, etc.
Tony Romo and Dak Prescott are the roster locks, but with Romo set to miss 6-10 weeks it has been rumored that the Cowboys are interested in bringing in a veteran backup behind the rookie starter. Jameill Showers has not been overly impressive and this may be his last opportunity to convince the coaching staff that he is worthy of a spot on the 53-man roster. Names like Mark Sanchez, Zach Mettenberger, and Austin Davis have been suggested as possibilities, with Davis coming in for a visit on Wednesday, and it is likely that Showers will end up competing with a TBD veteran quarterback for this spot. While Showers was thought to have a good chance at being the Cowboys’ third quarterback before Romo’s injury, there now seem to be better than even odds that he will be relegated back to the practice squad, if he goes unclaimed that is. The one potential saving grace for Showers would be if the Cowboys put Romo on the short-term I.R., thereby saving a roster spot and potentially handing Showers a spot on the 53 along with a veteran, at least until Romo is ready to return.
Running Back 4 and 5
Ezekiel Elliott and Alfred Morris are locks, and Darren McFadden looks to be in despite having missed all of training camp and the preseason (unless they work a trade.) Lance Dunbar has missed almost the entire offseason after tearing his ACL and MCL last October, although he did recently return to practice and may play against Houston. Reading between the lines, it seems that the coaching staff and front office are perfectly happy to keep Dunbar on the 53 despite him missing so much time. With McFadden and Dunbar out sixth-round pick Darius Jackson has operated as the third back behind Elliott and Morris, and while he hasn’t impressed enough to be a roster lock, he has shown enough to warrant very strong consideration. If the team tries to sneak Jackson onto the practice squad they may be left disappointed.
Trading McFadden for just about any decent offer would be the ideal solution but I can’t imagine teams will be willing to part with much for a 29-year-old back. The most realistic option could be putting McFadden on the NFI list, which would keep him out at least six weeks and give the team an extra roster spot, potentially allowing them to keep both Dunbar and Jackson for now. Watching Jackson and perhaps Dunbar on Thursday will be one of the most intriguing story lines.
Tight End 4 and 5
Jason Witten, Gavin Escobar and Geoff Swaim are the locks. If James Hanna were healthy this wouldn’t be a conversation, but he was placed on the reserve/PUP list after undergoing knee surgery about two weeks ago and won’t be eligible to return until Week 8. In the meantime, the Cowboys are left with intriguing sixth-round pick Rico Gathers and UDFA Austin Traylor. Gathers, a former basketball player, had little to no football experience before joining the team and to be honest he is too raw to play in a regular season game in just two weeks. Traylor has impressed as a blocker and even got snaps with the starters in 3-TE formations against Seattle, but is the team willing to cut bait on a recent draft pick and hope he clears waivers in favor of Traylor? Do they keep both?
Wide Receiver 6
Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley, Brice Butler, and Lucky Whitehead are the locks. Andy Jones was the early darling of camp but has since underwhelmed in games, Vince Mayle has had moments but neither him nor Jones have done enough to earn a spot on the 53. Devin Street was a fifth-round pick in 2014 but has had a quiet offseason, could this be his final chance to save his roster spot? Right now it doesn’t look like any of these guys will make the team but there is one game left to go to change that and that’s part of what makes the final week of preseason fun.
Defensive End 5 and 6
Benson Mayowa, Jack Crawford and presumably David Irving and Charles Tapper are the locks, although Irving and Tapper haven’t been seen or heard from due to injury in weeks. Irving should make the team based on his track record and offseason prior to suffering an injury following the Rams game, while Tapper should make it simply because he was a high fourth-round pick and seemingly showed promise prior to injuring his back. With DeMarcus Lawrence set to miss the first four games, and considering the injury concerns to both Irving and Tapper, there should be at least one or even two other defensive ends that make the roster.
Ryan Russell is the logical front-runner based on his history with the team and the fact that he has generally been the first end to rotate in behind the “starters” during the preseason, but his play has been underwhelming. Mike McAdoo and Lawrence Okoye are the remaining contenders as the roster currently stands, and they are likely in direct competition for a final spot. Okoye flashed at times against Seattle and may have a leg up on McAdoo thanks to his ability to line up inside and outside. This is almost certainly a situation where these three are not just competing against each other, but also against other players around the league as the Cowboys are sure to be on the lookout for help at this position during roster cut downs.
Linebacker 5, 6, and 7
Sean Lee, Justin Durant, Kyle Wilber, and Anthony Hitchens are the locks. Andrew Gachkar, likely the best linebacker after the top four, has missed the entire preseason with a broken thumb although he recently returned to practice and says he’ll be ready for the Giants. I don’t want to count him as a lock just yet but it sounds almost certain that he makes the 53 according to Jason Garrett. After him you have Damien Wilson, a 2015 fourth-round pick who looks to be next in line on the depth chart behind the top four while Gachkar is out. This indicates that he has a strong shot to make the team, but he has not impressed in the games after missing a good chunk of training camp with an eye injury sustained in a most unfortunate paintball incident. The forgotten man in all of this is 2015 seventh-round pick Mark Nzeocha, who after an impressive performance against the Rams has missed the rest of camp and preseason since injuring his Achilles against Miami. The severity of the injury isn’t clear, but is the team willing to use a spot on the 53 on someone who may not be able to play for weeks? Is the injury serious enough to put him on short-term I.R. to save a roster spot? Are they willing to risk losing him on waivers?
Nzeocha looked like a lock to make the roster early on but at this point it’s hard to tell when he’ll be back on the field. Derek Akunne has flashed at times but looks to be only a strong practice squad candidate at this time. Could an impressive performance on Thursday make the coaches re-consider a potential spot on the 53 considering the injury concerns to Gachkar and Nzeocha, and the inconsistent play from Wilson?
Defensive Back 8, 9 and 10
Orlando Scandrick, Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne, Anthony Brown, Byron Jones, Barry Church, and Jeff Heath are the locks. The pickings get slim at safety after the top three, arguably even the top two actually. Former third-round pick J.J. Wilcox hasn’t improved much and may have actually regressed from his uninspiring play over the last few seasons. There has been speculation that the Cowboys may cut him, but despite that he has received some snaps with the front-line secondary in the preseason, rotating in with Church and Jones early in games. 2016 sixth-round pick Kavon Frazier has not been particularly impressive but the team likes his aggressiveness and may not want to risk losing him on waivers. At corner, Deji Olatoye looks to be the front-runner after the top four, although Isaiah Frey and Dax Swanson could force their way onto the roster with a big performance against Houston, especially if Swanson continues to impress as a returner. You get the feeling that the depth chart after the top four corners and top three safeties is very fluid and may be another situation that comes down to who is released around the league.