The front office of the Dallas Cowboys has done a great job assembling their team. This roster is as deep as it’s been in a long while. The Cool One recently pointed out that after six seasons (2010-2015) where the team had 18 undrafted free agents make the opening day roster, no UDFA made the team last year. And that’s likely to continue again this year. It’s hard to make the team these days as the Cowboys have good depth on this roster.
While there is still plenty going on to see how the 53-man roster shapes up, there is a lot less mystery as to which players will hold down starting spots. Sure, there are some good position battles happening, but many spots are set in stone.
Here are my predictions for the Cowboys starters to open the season (those in blue are considered locks).
There is nothing to say here. Dak Prescott is the team’s new franchise quarterback. The backup job may be up for grabs still, but nobody is close to challenging Dak for the starting spot.
Ezekiel Elliott is a star in this league. The only thing in question is how big of a star can he be? If he keeps his head on straight, you got to believe he’s going to do great things throughout his career.
Keith Smith entered last offseason in a roster battle for the fullback spot. He seemed like the underdog after having to convert from a linebacker, but he has done a great job at the position. Now, with a year experience under his belt, he’s got firm hold on the position.
These three amigos make an outstanding starting wide receiver ensemble. While Cole Beasley holds down the slot receiver role, his rapport with Prescott makes him a big part of the offense.
While Ryan Switzer and Brice Butler have locked down their own spots on the roster as well, it will take an injury to slide into the starting unit.
Jason Witten is remarkable. If you believe he’s lost a step, don’t fret. He’ll find it before the ball is snapped and will run his route so perfectly that it will create the illusion that he’s a zestful young lad with amazing feet. That’s what always happens so don’t try fighting it.
When the Cowboys are in 12 personnel, they’ll roll with two tight ends and that spot has been occupied by James Hanna over the last several years when he’s been healthy. He was sidelined by a knee injury last year, but he’s out running around and looking good. A healthy Geoff Swaim could challenge Hanna for that spot, but so far - the veteran seems to be holding serve.
The big three are written in stone. All-Pro performances will do that for you. La’el Collins is pouring in cement as we speak as he is solidifying his spot as the team’s new starting right tackle. The only question that remains is - who’s starting at left guard?
It was looking like a two-man battle between Chaz Green and Jonathan Cooper, but then Green started pulling away a bit. That didn’t last very long because, as what always seems to happen with Green, he got hurt and suddenly this position is back up for grabs.
In a perfect world, the upside of Green or Cooper would show itself and the team could get a strong player at the position. This upside is getting murkier and murkier with each new day. Cooper just hasn’t been impressive and while Green has done well, he cannot stay healthy. I’m still wishing for a healthy Green, but I’m leaning toward the guy I predicted would grab to spot a few months ago. Don’t sleep on Joe Looney.
@TomRyleBTB I know the first round draft stock is appealing, but my money is on Jumbo Joe at LG at this point in time.— Dan Rogers (@DannyPhantom24) May 8, 2017
Since defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli uses a healthy rotation, it’s of little importance which guys end up starting in each spot. The Cowboys will be experimenting will all kinds of combos as they search for the right fit. The only real set position is the 3-tech defensive tackle, which belongs to last year’s third-round draft pick, Maliek Collins.
The second DT position should make for a nice position battle between Cedric Thornton and Stephen Paea as the Cowboys try to supplement the quality play they got from last year’s 1-tech, Terrell McClain. While Thornton may have been given the nod early, Paea’s strong camp could push Thornton back into a bench role.
The edge rushers are going to be one of the most closely watched position groups this offseason as it’s anyone’s guess who emerges. There are so many interesting candidates. The Cowboys appear to like Tyrone Crawford at left defensive end. One might have thought that he’d get some snaps at the 3-tech DT spot when Collins got hurt, but that didn’t happen. The coaches seem committed to keeping him on the edge. Fan favorite David Irving (suspended) and rookie Taco Charlton (still learning) could be intriguing players to keep an eye on as the season progresses. But right now, Crawford’s been playing well and is now the front runner to hold on to that starting spot.
That leaves a slew of rushers to compete for the right side. While Benson Mayowa and Damontre Moore are right-side kind of guys, a healthy DeMarcus Lawrence offers more talent. Charles Tapper is still in the mix too, but he’s still raw and will take some developing before he is ready.
The Cowboys linebacker situation is in good shape. They got some real talent at the top and some solid depth at the bottom. There are two real questions from this position group - how healthy will Jaylon Smith be and will Damien Wilson be available?
As great as Jaylon has looked so far, the Cowboys are going to proceed cautiously with him. Not only that, but Anthony Hitchens has been playing extremely well so health restrictions aside, he could be the more consistent player when the season begins. Over time, 54 will become more and more involved, but Hitch still has the middle linebacker job until Smith proves otherwise.
It is unclear what the future holds as it pertains to Wilson’s road rage incident. If he’s on the field, he’s the Cowboys best strong-side linebacker candidate. Veteran LB Justin Durant might get called upon to fill the void temporarily should Wilson miss time.
On the surface, this seems like a shaky group. You have a six-round draft pick, Anthony Brown, from a year ago thrown into a starting role. You have free agent, Nolan “burnt toast” Carroll, coming off a down year in Philadelphia. And then there’s veteran, Orlando Scandrick, who just wasn’t his self last season after dealing with nagging injuries.
As grim as it may look, these three are good cornerbacks. Brown is looking to build off a great rookie season where he finished the season as a shut-down corner. During the last five weeks of the season he allowed a league best 0.21 yard per coverage snap.
Carroll has good size and is a physical corner. He also has decent speed. The traits are there, but it’s up to the Cowboys coaching staff to help put things together. He’s a competitive guy and it’s one of the reasons he chose to come to Dallas.
“I like the culture that's here. When you play against them, you could just feel every single time you played that energy, that type of passion and confidence this team played with every time they played. It didn't matter if we were up. Like last year, we were up 23-10 and they came back and beat us in overtime so that was one of the things I saw.” - Nolan Carroll
And then there’s Scandrick. Many cornerbacks have come and gone in Dallas during Scandrick’s tenure, but he’s the guy that’s been holding down the fort as the team’s top CB. Last year certainly showed a decline in his performance, but he was dealing with injuries and people shouldn’t just figure that’s the player they’ll see this season. He’s healthy now and playing with vigor as he has something to prove.
“But the chip on my shoulder this year is I was hurt last year, and that guy that was on film, when I watch it this year and I watch cut-ups, that guy that was out there last year, that wasn't me. That's just not- that wasn't indicative of who I am as a player and I want to erase that, so every day I come out here at practice in training camp, I try to erase that and just get back to myself." - Orlando Scandrick
And I have to admit, he’s looking like the old Scandrick so far in camp.
While Scandrick is the slot specialist, he’ll be the first to tell that he’s a three-down corner. He’ll man the outside, but then move to cover the slot in the nickel defense.
Chidobe Awuzie is the team’s top CB draft pick and he’s having an outstanding camp, so why isn’t he in the mix here? He’s too good not to find his way on the field, but not making the starting CB squad should serve as evidence of what the coaches think of these three corners.
Byron Jones and Jeff Heath are the starting safeties. Nobody is really doing much to challenge these guys for their spots. Last year, the team got a lot of snaps from their number three and four safeties (J.J. Wilcox and Heath). Part of this was because of how the talent distribution played out among all the defensive backs, especially when Scandrick and Claiborne missed time due to injuries.
Whether you call him a corner or a safety, Awuzie will be utilized, especially in dime packages.
Which positions do you disagree with and who do you think will be starting?