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Three down-roster Cowboys that will be pushing hard for a roster spot

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These Cowboys players had rookies (and others) to fend off, but during OTAs, they showed it will be a fight.

NFL: Oakland Raiders at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

This is the time of year when shiny new toys catch the imagination of NFL fans, and those who follow the Dallas Cowboys are no exception. With an intriguing rookie class and free agent additions like Tavon Austin, we look forward to training camp to see what they can bring to the table. We got our first look at most of these fresh faces in the recently concluded OTAs. And minicamp is next before the long drought leading up to training camp. We will be hashing and rehashing what all these added talents mean for the Cowboys.

But forgotten in all that are some other names, players who were buried deep in the depth chart or perhaps relegated to the practice squad. There are many of them also vying for a position on the 53-man roster. Here are three who have already made it fairly clear that they are going to be pushing hard for a roster spot and playing time.

Blake Jarwin

The surprise retirement of Jason Witten left a big void at tight end, and the earlier retirement of James Hanna just aggravated things. At the moment the Cowboys only have five tight ends on the 90-man roster, Jarwin, Geoff Swaim, Rico Gathers, Dalton Schultz, and David Wells. Wells is a UDFA, so he is almost certainly the last man on the depth chart.

The question becomes whether Dallas will carry four tight ends, or go light and just have three, using that saved roster spot elsewhere such as wide receiver or running back. And with Tavon Austin straddling the line between WR and RB, a smaller TE group seems likely. Also, without Witten, the team may actually join the majority of NFL teams in frequently using personnel packages without a TE on the field.

Swaim is the only one of the current group that has ever caught a pass in an actual NFL game. Schultz was taken with a fourth-round compensatory pick, and is going to get every chance to prove himself. That sets up a showdown between Jarwin and Gathers. The latter has caught the imagination of many with his raw athletic ability and size, but the operative word there is “raw”. And Jarwin obviously has his fans on the staff, given that he was signed to the 53-man roster last year just to make sure he was not poached. Although he was not working with the first team during the OTAs, he did stand out a bit when Cooper Rush was throwing to him.

If it does come down to just three available spots, Jarwin seems to have the early edge over Gathers. Camp and preseason games may change that order, but expect Jarwin to do everything he can to hold off his competition.

Justin March-Lilliard

With Sean Lee being given frequent rest days and first-round pick Leighton Vander Esch held out due to a reportedly minor ankle tweak, there were some extra linebacker snaps available. March-Lilliard made the most of his opportunities so far, particularly late in the OTAs when he had some really good practices.

He is not going to challenge any of the top three linebackers (Lee, Vander Esch, and Jaylon Smith), but is fighting for a backup and special teams role. His primary competition consists of fourth-year player Damien Wilson, free agent Joe Thomas, and draftee Chris Covington. It could be possible for Dallas to carry seven linebackers, which could get all a shot, but it seems far more likely they will go with only six. And there are a group of UDFA types also lurking in the shadows. But the most likely scenario would appear to be the team keeping three of the four second-tier linebackers. If March-Lilliard can keep up the strong showing, he is going to be hard to supplant.

Lance Lenoir

Lenoir had the NFL equivalent of a cup of coffee on the 53-man roster, getting called up from the practice squad for the last game of the 2017 season. Back for a second shot at making the team for a full season after just missing the cut a year ago, Lenoir faces a more favorable situation than either Jarwin or March-Lilliard. There are only three players that seem true locks as WRs, Cole Beasley, Allen Hurns, and Michael Gallup. Austin is also almost certain to be on the 53, but the team has listed him with the running backs. That seems to be tipping their hand on how they will manage the roster. It means that there are two or three WR jobs there for the taking.

Terrance Williams would be expected to make the roster if he had not gotten embroiled in his peculiar legal situation. Until that is resolved, his status has a big question mark attached. Outside of him, that leaves Lenoir primarily contending with Noah Brown, Cedrick Wilson, and Deonte Thompson. And so far, he has been showing up in OTAs the same way the first two players discussed have.

Being second-year players makes this trio of down-roster names easy to overlook. It’s just human nature to be more attracted to new and different rather than what you have seen before, especially given how little all three of these did last year. But all are now more experienced in the Dallas system and have worked with many of their current teammates. All face some significant challengers, but they are also players you definitely want to keep an eye on.