The first place to look if you are thinking about Cowboys’ roster battles is our own 2017 Dallas Cowboys Interactive Roster Builder. This handy tool is kept up to date by OCC, and is well worth the visit because it shows that roster battles aren’t always within position groups, but across groups. For example, keeping a third quarterback or a tenth or eleventh defensive lineman means going light somewhere else. We also know that roster churn is a year round business, so there are likely to be some new names by training camp, and potentially even after final cut down day. With that caveat, let’s begin.
Part X - Recap and 53-Man Projection
Now that we’ve gone over the down-roster battles for the nine position groups on the roster, what does that say for the 53-man projection?
Once you get beyond position groups, who is more valuable? Ninth offensive lineman? Sixth wide receiver? Fourth tight end? Third quarterback? Fourth running back? Tenth defensive lineman? Sixth linebacker? Sixth cornerback? Or fifth safety?
Offensive line - 8 for sure, 9 possible
Locks: Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, Zach Martin, La’el Collins, Jonathan Cooper, Chaz Green. Only Cooper’s role as a lock drew some doubts.
Probables: Joe Looney.
Last slot: Byron Bell, Emmett Cleary. Cowboys might keep both, depending on whether there are any lingering health concerns with Chaz Green, Jonathan Cooper, or La’el Collins.
Wide receiver - 5 for sure, 6 a longshot
Locks: Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams, Cole Beasley.
Probables: Ryan Switzer. Really a lock, but he has to show up in camp.
Last slot: Brice Butler v. Noah Brown. Others: Andy Jones, Lucky Whitehead. May be one of the most heated competitions of camp, and this one received the most comments.
Tight end - 3 for sure, 4 possible
Locks: Jason Witten, Geoff Swaim. Swaim, like James Hanna, is coming off injury, but he’s cheaper. Perhaps he should have also been a probable.
Probable: Rico Gathers. May elevate himself all the way to #2 if he can prove to be a reliable blocker, and run enough routes to be useful occasionally. Could be big end zone target.
Last slot: James Hanna, Blake Jarwin, Connor Hamlett. If healthy, Hanna would likely remain #2 on the depth chart, but his injury is concerning, as is the size of his contract.
Quarterback - 2 for sure, 3 a longshot
Locks: Dak Prescott, Kellen Moore. Some may consider Moore’s job to be in jeopardy, but there have been no indications from the coaches or front office that he’s at risk. The tryout QBs Dallas is bringing in look like camp arms and practice squad candidates.
Last slot: Cooper Rush, Zach Dysert, anyone else the Cowboys bring in. Dysert isn’t even eligible for the practice squad, so his role is perhaps to have a better QB for the receivers in training camp.
Running back - 3 for sure, 4 probable
Locks: Ezekiel Elliott, Darren McFadden, Keith Smith.
Last slot: Alfred Morris, Rod Smith, Jahad Thomas. Last year, the Cowboys kept two fullbacks in addition to three running backs, and they kept McFadden all year on the non-football injury list until he was ready. With Elliott and McFadden both able to take starter loads, there isn’t much of a role for Morris, and money could be saved by cutting him. It likely comes down to Rod Smith and Jahad Thomas, or someone not yet on the roster.
Defensive line - 9 for sure, 10 probable
Locks: Maliek Collins, Tyrone Crawford, Benson Mayowa, DeMarcus Lawrence, Cedric Thornton, Taco Charlton, Damontre Moore. Some questioned Moore’s role as a lock, but with Irving’s suspension, and his flashing in OTAs and mini-camp, plus his willingness to play special teams, he’s a lock.
Probables: Charles Tapper, Stephen Paea. Tapper is more likely than Paea, who’s on a cheap prove-it contract.
Last slot: Joey Ivey, Jordan Carrell, Richard Ash, Lewis Neal. The two seventh-rounders are likely fighting for that last slot inside, unless both can show more than Paea.
Wild card: David Irving. Out four games, he’ll bump someone when he returns.
Linebackers - 5 for sure, 6 probable
Locks: Sean Lee, Jaylon Smith, Anthony Hitchens, Damien Wilson* (with aggravated assault news, may not even remain on the team).
Probable: Kyle Wilber
Last slot: Mark Nzeocha, John Lotuelei
How much will Smith play? Can Nzeocha stay healthy? These are the biggest questions. The Cowboys might also pick up someone off the street to fill a sixth slot, especially if Wilson is suspended or let go.
Cornerbacks - 5 for sure, 6 possible
Locks: Orlando Scandrick, Anthony Brown, Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis.
Probable: Nolan Carroll.
Last slot: Marquez White, Leon McFadden, Jeremiah McKinnon. White is likely leading this group by a lot, but can he unseat a veteran like Carroll, with two other rookies slated as locks? Probably not. The Cowboys would have to break tradition and keep a sixth corner for White to make the team, or he’d have to clearly outplay Lewis, or Lewis would have to be suspended.
Safety - 4 for sure, 5 possible
Locks: Byron Jones, Jeff Heath.
Probables: Xavier Woods, Kavon Frazier. Both unproven. Who will take the lead in training camp?
Last slot: Robert Blanton. If the Cowboys want veteran stability and Blanton proves useful on special teams, he might last.
On offense, the Cowboys will certainly have at least 8 offensive linemen, 5 wide receivers, 3 tight ends, 2 quarterbacks, and 3 running backs. That’s 21 total. In three of the last four years, they’ve kept 25 players on offense. They may not need that many this year. But you can see the battles.
Four running backs seem likely, as do four tight ends. That brings them up to 23. Next up might be that ninth offensive lineman. But what about a sixth wide receiver, especially one like Noah Brown who is like a small tight end? It could all come down to what is needed on defense.
On defense, the Cowboys are going to carry at least 9 defensive linemen, 5 linebackers, 5 cornerbacks, and 4 safeties. That adds up to 23. But with David Irving suspended, do they carry a tenth lineman and replace him with Irving in game five? A sixth linebacker seems certain even if the Cowboy may not be enamored with the last two on their current roster. They’ve taken seven in two of the last four years. And this seems like the year to go heavy in the defensive backfield as the team tries to weave in several rookies. So a 10th or even 11th defensive back may be possible.
Overall, it’s possible the Cowboys could go with 27 defenders, 23 on offense, and the three special teams guys - LP LaDouceur, Dan Bailey, and Chris Jones. More likely is a 26-24 split.
Who’s on the bubble?
Offensive line: Byron Bell and Emmett Cleary
Wide receiver: Brice Butler and Noah Brown
Tight end: James Hanna versus two UDFAs
Quarterback: No one
Running back: Alfred Morris, Rod Smith, Jahad Thomas
Defensive line: Joey Ivie, Jordan Carrell, and some others.
Linebacker: Mark Nzeocha and John Lotuelei
Cornerback: Marquez White
Safety: Robert Blanton
One thing I noticed from writing this series is that we may be overrating the Cowboys’ depth. No one on this list would be a terribly painful cut if it came down to it. I’d rank the ones with the most potential value as the two offensive linemen Bell and Cleary, the two wide receivers Butler and Brown, Marquez White, and James Hanna if he’s healthy. Of these, Bell and Hanna have played the most, followed by Cleary, with Brown and White as 2017 draft picks. Next up would be the two seventh-round defensive tackles, Joey Ivie and Jordan Carrell (my pet cat). I’d put Robert Blanton next. Perhaps Jahad Thomas has potential, but I don’t see much of a role for him, with Zeke and McFadden both complete backs. Rod Smith may have more value for what he provides on special teams. The linebackers don’t excite me, and I expect Morris to be cut.
It will be an intense competition, and with five preseason games instead of four, the young guys will have every opportunity to prove themselves.
My 53 for now
As we sit here right now, this is my projection, with a few practice squad notes:
Offensive line: 9. Smith, Cooper, Frederick, Martin, Collins. Reserves: Green, Looney, Bell, Cleary.
Wide receiver: 5. Bryant, Beasley, Williams, Switzer, Butler. (Brown to practice squad.)
Tight end: 4. Witten, Hanna, Gathers, Swaim. (Jarwin or Hamlett to practice squad.)
Quarterback: 2. Prescott, Moore.
Running back: 4: Elliott, McFadden, Smith and Smith. (Thomas to practice squad.)
Total offense: 24
Defensive line: 10. Moore, Collins, Crawford, Lawrence, Charlton, Tapper, Mayowa, Thornton, Paea, Carrell (he’s my pet cat). (Ivie to practice squad.) (Irving back after four games.)
Linebacker: 6. Lee, Smith, Hitchens, Wilson, Wilber, with the 6th not yet on the team, though Nzeocha might stick if he stays healthy for once.
Cornerback: 6. Scandrick, Brown, Carroll, Awuzie, Lewis, and White.
Safety: 4. Jones, Heath, Woods, Frazier. (Blanton is the 54th man.)
Total defense: 26.
Part X - 53-Man Overview