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Getting to 53: Where the likely camp battles will be for the Cowboys

The roster looks a lot deeper than we are used to. That could point to some real fights to have a job in September.

Philadelphia Eagles v Dallas Cowboys
Who gets to wear the Star this year?
Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

For now, at least, we know the group the Dallas Cowboys will use to build their 53-man 2018 roster. While there could well be more additions to come (safety and defensive tackle seem the most likely spots), for the most part the team has the group that will enter training camp at Oxnard. It is early to try and pin down who will make that 53-man roster.

Well, not entirely.

In reality, there are probably between 40 and 45 names that we know will be on the roster, pending something that starts with the letter “i” but shall not be written out here. What training camp really boils down to as far as the roster is concerned is figuring out who those last ten or so names will be. There is of course a lot of other business to conduct. The team is expected to have some pretty drastic changes on both offense and defense that must be installed and practiced. But for about half the 90 players (and late additions as needed) that will show up, this is one huge audition to make the squad and be part of the most watched team in the NFL, year in and year out.

This is one more attempt to forecast that 53-man roster, but it also will hone in on what will likely be the biggest camp battles. And it also will look at just how many players the Cowboys will carry at each position. That last is going to be very interesting this year. Those changes mentioned earlier will likely lead to a shift in the mix.

So here goes.

Specialists (3)

It’s always the easiest one to predict, both because the three positions are fixed, and because the Cowboys are so solid at all three. If they are healthy, K Dan Bailey, P Chris Jones, and LS L.P. Ladouceur will be on the roster.

You math majors will quickly calculate that this leaves 50 spots to split up between offense and defense.

Quarterback (3)

Dak Prescott

Cooper Rush

Mike White

Last season, the Cowboys only carried two quarterbacks, Prescott and Rush. But the drafting of White will likely push them to keep three, assuming Rush shows any improvement at all over his surprising rookie season and White lives up to predictions. A good backup quarterback is gold in the NFL, and Dallas will not want to part with one for nothing. (Remember 2015?) And waiving one to try and sign them to the practice squad may be far too risky, especially if the almost certain QB injuries happen for other teams in the league. And if you want to see a real horror story, look around the NFL at what some teams have for QB depth. Don’t believe me? Brandon Weeden still has a job.

There is not likely to be any real challenge to the top three.

Running back/fullback (5)

Ezekiel Elliott

Rod Smith

Bo Scarbrough

Tavon Austin (web back)

Jamize Olawale (fullback)

This group looks pretty solid, and the numbers look like a given as well. Elliott is the lead dog here by a long shot, but the need for depth was also blatantly obvious to even the most casual observer of the 2017 season. Zeke is going to be out to prove something in 2018. Rod Smith is a solid backup, and Scarbrough is already drawing exclamations of awe at how big he is. Using him as a battering ram to wear down the opponent and run the clock late in games while protecting Elliott is an intriguing prospect.

Austin is going to have a package of plays to utilize his speed and evasiveness, although perhaps not to the extent Stephen Jones has talked about. His addition to the team (plus his ability to fill a WR role at times) means the team should go a bit deeper here than at times in the past. And the Cowboys are one NFL team that still believes in the fullback position - plus Olawale is a legitimate weapon himself, both as a ballcarrier and as a receiver.

There is an outside chance that Jordan Chunn and/or Trey Williams could challenge Scarbrough for that RB3 job (a seventh-round investment is not much protection come cutdown day). But they are going to have to do something special to make it much of a fight at all, and are likely trying to earn their way onto the practice squad or catch on with a RB needy team after they get released.

Wide receiver (6)

Allen Hurns

Michael Gallup

Terrance Williams*

Cole Beasley

Noah Brown

Cedrick Wilson

Here is where those changes on offense really start to kick in. Given the move away from having a true WR1, and the focus already seen in rookie minicamp on route-running, it looks like there are a ton of reasons to go a bit deep at this position. And of the six listed above, only Hurns, Gallup, and Beasley are what you would consider locks. Williams is coming off an injury that may put him behind at the start of camp (hence the asterisk), and the team also has Deonte Thompson, Lance Lenoir, and K.D. Cannon that look like contenders to challenge both Brown and Wilson. Wide receiver is usually one of the most riveting competitions in camp, with unexpected risers and fierce battles. This looks like another year for that, and there may be less separating the players after the locks mentioned above than in many previous years.

Tight end (3)

Blake Jarwin

Geoff Swaim

Dalton Schultz

If you are going long at wide receiver and/or running back, you have to go short somewhere else. Here you go. With Jason Witten gone, the team is likely to run plays without a TE on the field at times. A shocking and radical concept, indeed - at least while a future Hall of Fame player with fifteen years’ tenure is basically telling the coaches when he will come off the field, which was never. Now, the TE position can be de-emphasized, with Olawale and/or Rod Smith playing an H-back role at times (and given Scarbrough’s size, don’t be surprised if the coaches don’t try him out that way as well).

And Rico Gathers? Some writers have assumed he is the heir apparent for TE1. That is questionable. He has never taken a snap in a real game at tight end - not just in the pros, but college, either. And he missed all last season with his neck/concussion issues which means he did not even practice after being injured in the preseason. Going into camp, he is going to have to prove he deserves any place at all with the team. And given how limited his chance to develop has been, the practice squad may be the best he can hope for. Another team may want to sign him to their roster based on his potential. The Cowboys may do that as well - it just is hard to figure out how they can afford to do that given the need for that roster spot elsewhere.

Offensive line (8)

Tyron Smith

Connor Williams

Travis Frederick

Zack Martin

La’el Collins

Cameron Fleming

Marcus Martin

Joe Looney

That projected starting lineup is one of the most exciting things about this team. Three All-Pros, a RT that was showing marked improvement late last season, and an extremely athletic rookie LG that has already shown remarkable ability in the limited drills in the rookie minicamp. Fleming has starting experience and looks to be the best swing tackle since Jeremy Parnell - and he might be even better. Martin would likely be the backup at all three interior spots on game day, with Looney the weekly inactive.

The fact the team could likely be forced by numbers to only have eight O linemen likely spells the end of Chaz Green in Dallas. You have to feel a bit sorry for Green, because he was done no favors by the experiment to make a guard out of him. But it is a harsh business, and he is likely to be the latest victim.

Total offense: 25

Defensive line (10)

DeMarcus Lawrence

David Irving

Taco Charlton

Randy Gregory*

Dorance Armstrong Jr.

Tyrone Crawford

Maliek Collins*

Jihad Ward

Kony Ealy

Brian Price

Two asterisks here. Gregory is still pending reinstatement, and could well get Goodelled. Collins is coming off recently announced foot surgery. Both are therefore question marks.

Datone Jones and Charles Tapper are likely candidates to replace Gregory if needed, and will be challenging Ealy as well. Sadly, we are left to wonder what might have been if Terrell McClain had not spurned the Cowboys. The team may still be on the market for a FA to bolster the DT group. But look for the DL to be another spot for some hard-fought battles to earn a roster spot. The good news is that this may be the deepest group of talent we have seen for the rushmen in a while.

And if the team needs another spot on offense (say, if Gathers comes on much stronger than I predict), this is where they would likely look to carve it out by only carrying nine DL.

Linebacker (6)

Sean Lee

Leighton Vander Esch

Jaylon Smith

Damien Wilson

Joe Thomas

Chris Covington

The starting trio of Lee at WILL, LVE at MIKE, and Smith at SAM looks already locked in. The backups are all liable to face challenges. Justin March-Lilliard is not going down without a fight, and a dark horse to watch is UDFA Kyle Quiero, who has been moved to LB from DB. The deciding factor for the camp battles is likely to be special teams value.

Defensive backs (9)

Byron Jones

Chidobe Awuzie

Jourdan Lewis

Marquez White

Anthony Brown

Jeff Heath

Xavier Woods

Kavon Frazier

Tyree Robinson

The quartet of second-year DBs plus the move of Jones back to CB makes this a strong group, with Heath (who seems to have a knack for being in the right place at the right time) and Frazier also good players, despite some critics. White is being highly touted to break through after a year on the PS. Brown’s experience will probably keep him on the roster, and Robinson has already caught some attention in rookie minicamp. One player you can’t count out is Jameill Showers, who the team seems to really like.

This could be another place the team takes a spot to up the offensive side of things.

Total defense: 25

There is my projection. It is still early, but the entire roster looks to have good depth. Arguably, it is the best we have seen in a long time. The battles for the last spot or even two in most groups will be fascinating to watch. And that “i” word can always change things.

One of the hardest things to try and factor in is the changes to the coaching staff and the expected shifts in philosophy on both sides of the line. This is all based on my interpretation of what those will mean, and I will not be surprised at all if I miss, especially on the way the numbers break out by position.

But that is the fun this time of year. Take you shots at this lineup, compare it to some of the others out there, and try you own hand. Then count the days until camp starts and we see how it all plays out.

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