The first preseason game is still a few days away, but after about a week of practice let’s see where several of the Cowboys roster battles stand.
The “starting” cornerback spots look pretty steady with Nolan Carroll, Orlando Scandrick, and Anthony Brown seemingly locked in as the top three, at least at this early stage. Rookie Chidobe Awuzie has gotten strong early reviews for his versatility and it appears as if he will see plenty of time sooner rather than later. He rotated with Brown at right cornerback when Scandrick took a veteran day last week and has also seen plenty of action in the slot and as a dime linebacker. Awuzie’s ability to blitz was one of his biggest strengths in college, amassing nine sacks with eight of those coming in just his last two seasons. Given his versatility to line up at different spots along with his natural feel and timing as a blitzer, it will be interesting to see how Rod Marinelli chooses to deploy him as we start to move into the preseason. Jourdan Lewis missed several practices due to his trial and suffered a minor hamstring injury not long after his return; he’s solidly behind the other four at this point and perhaps behind fellow rookie Marquez White as well who is having a solid camp so far. White could be making a case to keep six cornerbacks.
Last season when Marinelli went to six defensive back packages he often brought in J.J. Wilcox as the third safety, lining up with three safeties and three cornerbacks, although Byron Jones often shifted down to cover out of the slot, playing more or less as a cornerback. Based on early indications I’d have to imagine that the sixth defensive back in 2017 will likely be Awuzie while Jones and Heath will play more traditional safety roles, although it’s still early.
Outside of Jones and Jeff Heath not much has been heard from the other safeties so far. There have been a few positive tidbits on rookie Xavier Woods, but almost nothing on Kavon Frazier or Robert Blanton. It’s hard to tell, but at this point you’d have to think Woods would be the guy if something were to happen to either of the starters.
With Chaz Green suffering a shoulder injury that is expected to keep him out for possibly two weeks, it would seem that Jonathan Cooper has the leg up here. They have been mostly splitting reps at left guard so far but Cooper will now have a chance to solidify a starting role if he is able to execute over the next week or two. Green will almost certainly miss the first two preseason games so Cooper is staring a golden opportunity right in the face. If he doesn’t prove himself in that time, the team may have to start looking at external candidates given Green’s injury-prone nature.
Byron Bell hasn't been in the mix here at all up until this point and if he can't get involved in the competition with Green out it won't be a good sign for his chances of making the team.
Ezekiel Elliott and Darren McFadden are mostly locked in as the top two on the depth chart but there is certainly a battle for the third running back spot. With all of the uncertainty and intrigue surrounding a possible Elliott suspension the third running back could very easily become the number two in very short order. Given the staff’s disinterest in Alfred Morris as anything more than insurance it’s not surprising to hear that fullback Rod Smith is actually starting to nose ahead of him on the depth chart. Newly-signed Ronnie Hillman just began practicing with the team yesterday so it will be interesting to monitor his reps and where he slots in behind the top two moving forward.
Despite some impressive early reviews, Jaylon Smith is still running primarily with the second team, which at this point is a wise move. Smith hasn’t played a live snap in almost two years and there is no reason to put too much on him too soon. Even if he does continue to progress and improve it would be smart of the Cowboys to rotate him with Anthony Hitchens alongside Sean Lee. Given how often the team will have five or six defensive backs on the field there will very rarely be more than two linebackers on the field at any given time, you can bank that Lee will be locked and loaded as one of those two on every snap, while the team should be able to have a healthy rotation next to him between Hitchens, Smith, and Justin Durant once he returns.
Everybody knows who the top three are here, although it sounds as if Brice Butler has made strides since last season while getting extra reps with Ryan Switzer having missed the last few practices due to a hamstring injury. There isn’t necessarily a battle between Switzer and Butler since they play completely opposite roles and neither will be asked to do what the other does, but it’s interesting to note nonetheless. After Lucky Whitehead’s release and Butler’s apparent improvement it doesn’t look like there will be much drama at this position over the next month barring an injury. You’ll have your top three, Switzer, Butler, and then perhaps someone like Andy Jones or Noah Brown can work their way onto the roster if they can execute on special teams and as a blocker in the running game.