Don’t look now, but there are only ten days until the Dallas Cowboys report for the trip to Oxnard and the opening of the 2018 training camp. And this year, there seem to be a lot more open roster questions to answer than in recent memory. There are so many, that conventional thinking about the depth chart seems inadequate to the task.
So here is another way to consider things. This is an analysis of how the depth chart appears to stack up for the start of camp. Because there is so much to unpack, this will focus on the offense, with a defensive follow-up in a day or so. For each position group, this will identify presumptive starters, key backups, where the battles are likely to be, and some special cases (there are a lot of those this year). Keep in mind that the 53 man roster the team will seek to establish should have about 25 offensive players. Let’s dive in.
Starter: Dak Prescott
Backup candidates: Cooper Rush, Mike White
Already, we have a degree of uncertainty. First, the team has to decide if it will carry two or three QBs total. Given the changes to things, and the competing needs at different positions, that is going to be affected by other developments. And whether Rush or White could make it onto the practice squad if waived is also a major consideration for the staff. However it works out, Rush and White are in a real fight to become the QB2.
Special case: Dalton Sturm
If the Cowboys go with three QBs on the 53, will they want to carry a fourth on the PS? That is likely Sturm’s best case scenario. If he does well, the team may want to keep him around for future development. If not, they are not going to waste a PS spot on him.
Starters: Ezekiel Elliott, Jamize Olawale
Elliott is the linchpin of the offensive attack. While the fullback position is not used all the time, it is still valued by Dallas, and Olawale looks to have that locked up.
Backup: Rod Smith
It would take something very unusual for him to not be on the 53.
Fighting to be the RB3: Bo Scarbrough, Darius Jackson
Scarbrough likely has the inside track here, just given his power. But the team liked Jackson enough to bring him back for another try, and he is a very different kind of runner. How this shakes out may depend as much on the way the team plans to use backs as receivers, which may get Jackson back into the thick of things. Special teams value will also be a major factor here.
Starters: Tyron Smith, Connor Williams, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, La’el Collins
The three All Pros are of course a given. Collins came on strong to close last season, and should still be improving. As for Williams, the team has a lot riding on him fitting in and fixing the left guard spot. We should shudder to even contemplate that not working out.
Backup: Cameron Fleming
Despite some speculation at his signing that he would compete with Collins for the starting RT job, all indications are that he is the swing tackle. And based on his history, he may just be the best swing tackle in the league.
Fighting for a spot: Chaz Green, Joe Looney, Marcus Martin, Kadeem Edwards
The team will most likely carry eight total OL, and nine would seem to be the absolute max. Green is in a real fight to continue his career in Dallas, with Edwards looking like his biggest competition in OTAs. Martin and Looney will likely see their future ride on who is the best backup at center.
Starter: Geoff Swaim
He is the likely starter to begin camp by default. He is the only tight end on the roster that has ever caught a pass in the NFL.
Likely part of the “committee”: Blake Jarwin, Dalton Schultz
It will be very surprising, and indicative of a major failure by the team in evaluating talent and projecting the roster, if both are not on the 53 man roster.
Special case: Rico Gathers
This may be the last chance for Gathers to make the team. After not playing a down his first two years in the league, and being so far behind in his development as a result of spending all of 2017 on IR, he is going to have to do something rather spectacular to move ahead of one of the three names listed before him. And if he can’t do that, there is little chance that the team would carry a fourth TE, for the same reasons they have to think long and hard about three QBs. Even making the PS is going to be a challenge, with David Wells likely pushing for that chance. However, Gathers’ talent may well mean that he would get a chance with another team that likes tight ends who serve more as huge wide receivers. He remains one of the most divisive names on the current roster, and that is likely to continue through camp.
Buckle those seatbelts, because this one is a real ride.
Starters: Allen Hurns, Michael Gallup, Cole Beasley
Three of the four names in the wide receiver group you can write down in ink as the Cowboys look to reshape the way the position is used.
Special case 1: Tavon Austin
Austin is called a web back/receiver, one who can also pull duty as a running back in certain situations. In essence, he sort of counts on the 53 as half WR, half RB, plus he is expected to have a role in the return game. He is the fourth name you can count on, as Bryan Broaddus explains:
Don’t be surprised if Linehan and new receivers coach Sanjay Lal work him as a true receiver with routes down the field. That is an area where the Rams didn’t focus with him and the Cowboys are willing to explore.
Special case 2: Terrance Williams
Williams is coming off injury and had the well-publicized run-in with both a lamppost and the police. Could there be another suspension in the offing with him? Will he be able to show the precision running routes and sure-handed catching Sanjay Lal demands of his receivers? Inquiring minds want to know, and his will be a story to watch closely through camp and preseason.
The backup candidates: Deonte Thompson, Cedrick Wilson, Noah Brown, Lance Lenoir, KD Cannon
Something has to give. The Cowboys may want to go heavy at WR, but given the four “locks” plus Williams, there just aren’t that many spots. The battle to make the roster among this group is going to be fierce. Health may be a major factor, even though we all hate to see it come down to that. And how well these players take to Lal’s coaching is crucial. There are argument to be made for all of these, even Cannon. But the argument they put on the field in the coming weeks will tell the tale.
Trying to fit these names into those 25 or so spots makes my head spin, and I don’t think I am alone. This is shaping up to be the most fascinating camp in recent memory. The good news is that, at the moment at least, there looks to be a lot of talent to sort through. That may fizzle, but if it doesn’t, there are some good players that will wind up on the outside looking for a job come September.
There are no right or wrong answers now. Performance in practice and the preseason games will give us those. The Cowboys seem to have a lot of potential to work with, but until it translates into accomplishments, it is strictly unrealized.
At least the wait is almost over. Camp is coming, and so is football.