The most exciting thing for NFL fans this time of year is the prospect of camp battles. But there is a sort of general rule about that. When a team is coming off a good season, as the Dallas Cowboys are, there are usually more positions with strong incumbents. And when the team also has what appears to be a good draft, which the Cowboys also seem to have, that locks up some more positions since the team is not going to part ways with a player they spent valuable draft capital on. Add in free agents who have a high dead money cost, and suddenly there just aren’t all that many open jobs for the down-roster hopefuls to contend for.
To establish something of a baseline, this is an examination of who is currently a lock for the roster, and then adding in some players that, at least coming out of the minicamp, seem to have a leg up on earning a roster. That will give us an idea of just how many really open camp battles we can look forward.
Let’s start with the easy ones. Dan Bailey, Chris Jones, and L.P. Ladouceur (or LaDouceur, the team website spells it both ways in places) are not just written in ink. They are preprinted on the depth charts.
Dak Prescott is the starter for hopefully a decade or more. And no matter how much it may make you grind your teeth, Kellen Moore is the favorite to be the backup, at least if Scott Linehan has anything to say about it.
Ezekiel Elliott is obvious, and Darren McFadden seems to retain the confidence of the staff as his backup. After that, it gets much less certain.
Dez Bryant, the underrated Terrance Williams, and the incredibly reliable Cole Beasley form the core. Ryan Switzer not only was the best offensive rookie in OTAs, his relatively high draft position makes him the fourth lock. The fifth spot is where we may see competition, and there is also going to be a decision to be made about carrying a sixth WR on the 53-man roster.
This is an odd situation this year because of injury. Right now, Jason Witten is the only tight end you can be sure of. James Hanna and Geoff Swaim both are coming off injuries, and until we see how they respond, there has to be a question mark by both their names. Rico Gathers had some struggles late in minicamp after missing some time due to illness. This will be a position to watch closely.
Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin provide the stellar core, and all signs are that La’el Collins is the new right tackle. Even is he didn’t hang onto that, he would certainly be put back into the interior of the line. Left guard is definitely to be determined, as are the backup jobs.
The way the Cowboys move players like Tyrone Crawford and David Irving inside and out makes the distinction between ends and tackles a bit blurry at time, so we’ll look at this as one big group. Dallas currently has seventeen defensive linemen on the roster at DallasCowboys.com. In no particular order, it looks like Crawford, Irving, Demarcus Lawrence, Benson Mayowa, Taco Charlton, Charles Tapper, Maliek Collins, Stephen Paea, and Cedric Thornton will all come into camp with every expectation of making the team. That’s nine, which is already as many or more rushmen as the team has carried in some recent seasons, but there is an expectation that they will go heavy here given the need to improve the pass rush. Irving also faces an expected suspension for using a banned supplement, creating at least a temporary spot.
Sean Lee is the best player on the defense and enjoying perhaps the best health of his career. Jaylon Smith will make the roster, but the question is just how effective he will be early on. A somewhat underreported story is the resurgence of Anthony Hitchens, who provides some nice insurance if Smith needs some time to bring along, and Damien Wilson also had a nice showing in OTAs. Sadly, Mark Nzeocha had surgery and missed out on an opportunity to get into the mix here.
Position flex is one of the most valued traits here, so who will be playing cornerback and who might wind up more of a safety is still up in the air. But Byron Jones, Jeff Heath, Nolan Carroll, Orlando Scandrick, Anthony Brown, Chidobe Awuzie, and Jourdan Lewis all are safe. Add Xavier Woods because he is widely seen as a steal at his draft position, and Kavon Frazier as the special teams ace to replace J.J. Wilcox.
Total up the numbers, and you have 39 names, leaving 14 open spots for the 53. But there is a second tier of players who have a leg up based on the various factors cited above.
Rod Smith saw use as both a halfback and fullback, plus he was a key special teams player last year. The Cowboys will carry at least three running backs, and he looks like the leader for the third job. Alfred Morris is going to have a tough time earning a spot, and will also have to fight off UDFA Jahad Thomas.
Brice Butler stood out in the days the media was at OTAs and the minicamp. He looks like the player to beat for the fifth WR spot right now, and the rest of the hopefuls may have to convince the team to carry that sixth spot on the 53.
At tight end, Hanna and Swaim both will probably lock up a spot if they are healthy, but that is a huge if. Still, it is a good bet that at least one of them will be back to claim a spot.
The battle for the LG job and probably three backups is wide open right now, but as a group, Jonathan Cooper, Joe Looney, and Chaz Green probably have the three best shots, with Emmett Cleary and Byron Bell fighting for the last job. However, Dan Skipper and Nate Theaker are dark horses to keep an eye on.
Damontre Moore was one of the surprises the past few weeks, displaying a work ethic and motor that belied his previous reputation. Additionally, Jordan Carrell and Joey Ivie, the two DTs taken in the seventh round, will get long looks from the staff just because they were drafted.
Marquez White, even though he was taken in the sixth round, has that draftee advantage working for him as well.
There seems to be a good chance that the team will only carry two quarterbacks this year, given Prescott’s youth and apparent durability. Linebacker depth may be the most wide open competition we have going into camp.
So looking at the “nearly locks”, there are perhaps eight more spots that will be taken by the players mentioned. That really leaves only six roster slots that are truly competitive.
Of course, a lot can change once the pads come on, and the hated injury bug always lurks, as much as we hate to even think about it. The good news is that there are some interesting options. Dallas really seems to have some depth to work with going into camp. And that is not far off now at all.