Late in 2013, the Cowboys had a record of 7-5 and were still in good shape at winning the NFC East. But losing three of their last four games put a stop to all that. One of the most disappointing losses in that span was when the Cowboys allowed the Green Bay Packers to score five touchdowns in the second half, allowing the Packers to complete a huge comeback led by unimpressive backup quarterback Matt Flynn. It was gut-wrenching. While that was a tough defeat, that games serves as a reminder of yesteryear. A time where players like Cameron Lawrence, Ernie Sims, Drake Nevis, Jarius Wynn, Everett Brown, and B.W. Webb all played in the same game. Not only are players like this no longer getting a good dose of snaps, but they aren’t even on the team now. Instead, the strength of the bottom of the roster is stronger than it has been in a long time.
As we take a look a the next group of ten players, some of these guys will make the team and some of them won’t. Some may be signed to the practice squad and some will be gone forever.
Here are the rankings for 51 through 60:
60 Andy Jones, WR
A year ago there was a lot more promise for the undrafted free agent out of Jacksonville. The Cowboys gave Andy Jones the highest signing bonus of any of the UDFA’s, as he was a priority acquisition for them last year. The only real competition he had was Brice Butler and Devin Street, and neither of them were doing much to run away with the job. Ultimately, Butler won the gig, Street was released, and Jones was signed onto the practice squad.
Jones’ outlook this season had appeared to look a little better with two Cowboys WR’s hitting free agency - Terrance Williams and Butler. Unfortunately for Jones, both were re-signed. And to make matters worse, the only two offensive players the team selected in the draft were both wideouts - Ryan Switzer and Noah Brown. It’s going to be harder than ever to make the squad this season.
The Cowboys could very easily carry six wide outs this year, but even that might not be enough to keep Jones on the team.
59 Joey Ivie, DT
It seemed like the mark of death that would seal his fate when Joey Ivie decided to wear Bob Lilly’s number. No player has ever wore that number in the regular season since Mr. Cowboy himself. Should Ivie earn his way onto the roster, he’ll most likely don a different number. That’s the right thing to do.
On the flip side however, if you’re into that “destiny” sort of thing, you might find this interesting...
It’s a good thing he didn’t get a new Yorkie Terrier.
Ivie doesn’t have the power or explosiveness that you want from a defensive linemen and that hurts him when he is exposed to double teams or combo blocks. What he does have though is high energy and a relentless motor. He also reads the play well and knows how to use his hands effective to shed blockers. These traits will help buy him a little time in Dallas.
Not a lot of people get too excited about a seventh-rounder, but don’t tell that to Rod Marinelli.
58 Rod Smith, FB
You remember that scene in the movie A League of Their Own where Jon Lovitz is the talent scout for the women’s baseball team and he really wants Geena Davis on the team? However, in order for her to agree, he is forced to take her sister too. That’s the feel I get with Rod Smith. In all seriousness, the Cowboys aren’t going to make important personnel decisions and keep Rod just to make his brother Jaylon Smith happy. Rod has certainly earned his spot based on his own efforts.
It’s just hard to see the value in keeping a second fullback. Sure, Rod is a great special teams player. In fact, that’s his only value to the team. Barring an injury to Keith Smith, Rod is not likely to get any snaps at FB. Like the other Smith fullback was when he was a linebacker, Rod could just be one of those placeholder guys. If someone gets hurt and it requires bringing in another player, Rod’s a prime candidate to be released. And that’s exactly what happened last year when Morris Claiborne got hurt.
Rod is still listed as a fullback on the Cowboys roster, but he could be trying to make the team as a running back.
Rod Smith tells me today he's now a running back, not a fullback, with the Dallas Cowboys.— Justin A. Cohn (@SportsiCohn) March 22, 2017
57 John Lotulelei, LB
In 2013, I was hoping the Cowboys would draft defensive tackle Star Lotulelei. But that didn’t happen. Now, they have his cousin on the team in linebacker John Lotulelei. The Seattle Seahawks signed him as an undrafted free agent, but has had a tough time finding a home as he has spent time with the Carolina Panthers and Oakland Raiders as well. He’s only played in 16 games and is now trying to earn a spot on the Cowboys roster.
Standing only 5’11” and weighing 233 pounds, he’s a bit undersized, but he has good quickness and was always around the ball during mini camp. Here is what Bryan Broaddus had to say about him:
Veteran linebacker John Lotulelei took a ton of snaps in this practice. Lotulelei usually runs with the second defense, but not only did he take those snaps, he also got some with the first defense in place of Sean Lee. He doesn’t have ideal height, but he makes up for that with his ability to run. He is an aware player so when he sees it, he can cover some ground. The coaches had him doing some rushing as well from his linebacker spot.
With Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith not seeing a lot of preseason action, Lotulelei should get plenty of opportunities to show people what he’s got.
56 Robert Blanton, S
The Cowboys love to sign solid “just in case” guys in free agency and that is exactly what veteran safety Robert Blanton is. The former fifth-round pick of the Minnesota Vikings was a college corner who transitioned to safety in the pros. The move was a smart one because Blanton has some physical limitations that would make him a liability at the CB position. He doesn’t have the great speed to be any type of standout player so his upside is restricted. But at the same time, he’s got a high floor. Blanton is a smart guy who can read plays well. Playing the safety position allows him to use his reaction skills to make plays. He’s a competitor and puts it all out there.
Last year, Blanton served as a rotational player for the Buffalo Bills. If he works himself into a role in Dallas it will be as a coverage safety in nickel and dime situations.
The snaps for the bench safety spots are up for grabs and the Cowboys will have some good roster battles between Blanton, Kavon Frazier, and rookie Xavier Woods. While we don’t know who will come away with the gig, we do know this - whoever it is won’t be terrible.
55 Mark Nzeocha, LB
Time is running out for Cowboys linebacker Mark Nzeocha. That may seem like an odd thing to say for guy who hasn’t really had much of a chance. In his two years with the team, Nzeocha has only played in seven games and most of that has been on special teams. Not only has he had a tough time staying healthy, but he will by 27-years-old entering the 2017 season. That is one of the drawbacks of drafting a player whose already 25-years-old.
His transition to American football began when he started at Wyoming, so he’s had a greater disadvantage than the typical players coming out of college. But the Cowboys love wild card guys like that, especially if they have something to offer. And he does. Nzeocha had the second-highest Sparq score of all linebackers in the 2015 draft. The potential to be something is there. BTB alum rabblerousr had this to say about him during his scouting profile after the Cowboys selected him:
Nzeocha is a lump of clay, filled with promise but not yet molded. On one hand, he boasts tremendous athleticism, length and speed (he supposedly runs a sub-4.5 forty). Plus, he's agile and rangy and can run from sideline to sideline. On the other, he's a relative football neophyte, so his instincts are under-developed and must be sharpened with diligent coaching. In the meantime, most scouts believe he can be a strong contributor on special teams while he develops his recognition skills to the level where he can compete for significant defensive playing time.
After essentially red-shirting his rookie season, Nzeocha gave us a little glimpse of what he has when he picked off a pass in last year’s first preseason game against the Los Angeles Rams. Unfortunately, he suffered a strain Achilles the following week and once again he missed the first part of the season. Even after returning from injury, his contribution was minimal. He played in five games (inactive for seven) and only played in 16 defensive snaps.
So what now for Nzeocha? Well, it’s a new season, but it’s the same story. He didn’t practice during the Cowboys minicamp because he’s still recovering from a knee scope earlier in the month. It’s tough to say what his place will be on the team, but if this
young mature player isn’t able to get on the field, it’s going to be tough for him to snag one of those final linebacker spots.
54 Kavon Frazier, S
You might remember Kavon Frazier as the 2016 draft pick that nobody talks about. He’s clearly not one of the dynamic rookies like Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott. He’s also not one of those great gems like Maliek Collins and Anthony Brown. Maybe he was injured and red-shirted like Jaylon Smith and Charles Tapper? Nope, that’s not it either. Frazier was healthy and was active for 12 games last year, yet he’s been forgotten about by many fans. Even practice squad guys like Rico Gathers and Darius Jackson make more news that Frazier, and Jackson isn’t even on the team anymore.
Sure, Frazier is one of the rare draft picks that didn’t make a splash last year and he’s not a guy that fans are excited about going into the new season. He only played in 36 defensive snaps last year, and 20 of those came in that meaningless Philadelphia game in week 17. He’s a special teams guy and his biggest play last year was this one:
Frazier looked good in preseason last year as he made a couple really nice plays deep in the red zone. With both Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox leaving in free agency, there is now an open competition to replace those snaps. Can Frazier be a player that takes that year two jump?
53 Byron Bell, OL
After Doug Free retired, the Cowboys looked to free agency to fill a void left by the departure of their veteran right tackle. That resulted in a one-year, $2 million deal with 28-year-old Byron Bell. As an undrafted free agent in 2011, Bell wasted no time in finding a home as a starter in this league. During his four seasons with Carolina, he only missed two games and in the games he played, he started in all but six of them. He started out as the Panthers right tackle, but by his final season he was holding down the left side. Not bad for an UDFA.
The Tennessee Titans signed him in 2015 where he started all 16 games for them. He injured his ankle in OTA’s last year and missed the entire 2016 season.
The Cowboys are moving La’el Collins into the right tackle spot and now the left guard spot is vacant. That’s good news for Bell is that he has the position flexibility to play guard. The bad news is that he’s got Jonathan Cooper, Chaz Green, and Joe Looney all fighting for a spot too.
Bell has a few things working is his favor. First off, he’s a big, powerful blocker. The move inside could end up being a blessing for him. With the exception of last year’s ankle injury, he’s proven himself to be a reliable commodity. And finally, only four offensive linemen spots are locked down so the remaining spots are wide open. While he’s got some good competition for a starting spot, he’s right in the thick of things for holding down a roster spot. Position flex is huge with this football team.
While he’s an anchor of a blocker, he’s not a finesse guy and can be a liability when he’s asked to move around. The Cowboys rely on good movement and execution in the second level from their offensive linemen. The front office structured his contract to where it’s allowing Bell to bet on himself. With only $250k of his $2M guaranteed (signing bonus), the rest he has to work for, including workout bonuses that require him to drop weight. He’s already met the mini camp mark and pocketed $150k and can earn another $300k if he meets his weight goal before training camp starts.
If he’s going to be a part of this offensive line, he’s going to have to demonstrate good mobility. But you got to give him credit, he’s putting in the work to get his body in shape. Bell did tweak his hamstring at the end of minicamp so that’s a small hiccup for him, but this off time will come in handy for that.
52 Rico Gathers, TE
The Cowboys drafted Rico Gathers in the sixth round last year and stashed him on their practice squad. The Baylor basketball star has spent the last year developing his football skills. So, the 32 thousand dollar question is - has he done enough to earn a spot?
Fans love Rico and why not - he’s got a cool sounding name. And you have to admit, the appeal of this over-sized, athletic guy emerging from nowhere to become one of those “Antonio Gates” type tight end has everyone excited about his potential. But this is serious business. A Cowboys roster spot isn’t just something that’s handed to someone. Gathers has to earn it.
Gathers has the athleticism and good pass-catching ability to make him an appealing option at tight end. He’s got a nice catch radius and that could make him a profitable target in the red zone. But Gathers has a lot to work on still on the mental aspects of the game. Being new to the game of football, he doesn’t yet have a good understanding of the offense. And executing his blocking assignments are something that can’t be swept under the rug.
In minicamp, Gathers failed to pick up a blitz and ran a route instead. He came off the field and threw his helmet in frustration.
"That type of stuff makes the coaches be like, 'Oh, he still ain't got it.' I want them to know I know my information and I'm the total package. I want to be reliable."
It’s still early, but training camp is going to be huge for Gathers.
51 Alfred Morris, RB
If this was a character contest, Cowboys backup running back Alfred Morris would be in the top 10. And that says a lot because this team is laced with some great character guys. But there is more to making the team than being a great person. In 2012, Morris busted on the scene having a rookie season that was very comparable to Ezekiel Elliott last year, rushing for over 1,600 yards. And he followed that up with two Pro Bowl seasons where he rushed for over 1,000 yards. Morris has demonstrated that he flourishes in the bell-cow roll as he’s one of those running backs that’s gets better the more he gets going.
Unfortunately for Morris, the last couple seasons have seen him deferring to rookie running backs and it has severely dampened his production. With Zeke getting as many touches as possible, and Darren McFadden re-signing this offseason, Morris’ chances of seeing the ball are very slim. And his lack of skills in the passing game and zero ability in special teams makes him very limited in how he can help the team.
Morris has a $1.2 million base salary in 2017, which would make him a good candidate for cap savings if he was deemed expendable. While the team has been very frugal with their spending, they also don’t mind pony upping the dough for good guys. Morris may seem like a very unexciting third-string running back, but he’s got great vision and knows how to get thin between the creases. He’s also had an extremely durable career which is the opposite of McFadden’s career. McFadden’s gets hurt while making a phone call (that’s a joke, but also not a joke). Should something happen to Zeke where he’s missing some games, having Morris in your back pocket is not a terrible thing. The more touches he gets, the better he gets.
What do you think about these rankings? Which of these guys do you think are in great shape to make the team?
These rankings are a subjective way to stack guys together in order to get some sense where they sit within the 53-man roster, but the also serve to help get a feel for some players we don’t hear that much about. Make sure to check out the 61-70 players rankings if you haven’t already.