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Cowboys roster projection: Pre-camp defensive depth chart

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Let’s go to the other side of the line of scrimmage.

Kansas City Chiefs v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Previously, I put together my thoughts on the many questions on offense the Dallas Cowboys need to resolve in training camp and preseason. Now, it’s time to take a similar dive into the defense. It is not quite as fluid and amorphous as the offense, but there are still plenty of things to look at.

As in the offense post, this is an analysis of how the depth chart appears to stack up for the start of camp. For each position group, this will identify presumptive starters, key backups, where the battles are likely to be, and some special cases. And like on offense, there should be about 25 defensive spots when the 53 man roster finally shakes out.

We’ll start from the back and work out way to the line.

Safety

Starters: Jeff Heath, Xavier Woods

Heath is solid, and always seems to come up with a few picks along the way. Woods may well thrive under new coach Kris Richard.

Backup: Kavon Frazier

He is progressing nicely and is a pretty good fit for Richard.

Special case: Earl Thomas

It is the “will they or won’t they” question of the year for the Cowboys. Thomas would no doubt be very valuable to Richard, who coached him with the Seattle Seahawks, and he would become an immediate starter, probably bumping Heath down the depth chart. But with the recent retirement of Kam Chancellor, the Seahawks may not be able to give Thomas up, no matter what is offered them in a trade. The real control of this situation lies in Seattle, so we may really be putting a lot of thought into it for nothing.

Fighting to make the roster: Kelly Kameron, Tyree Robinson

I want to include Jameill Showers here, but that is most likely just wishful thinking. And when your competition for a roster spot is composed entirely of UDFAs, you have an issue. Barring Kameron or Robinson really breaking out in camp, the real solution may come from outside the team, and not in the form of Thomas or another well-known name like Tre Boston. Look for the Cowboys to pick up someone off the waiver wire between the final cuts and the start of the season.

Cornerback

Starters: Chidobe Awuzie, Byron Jones

When the team is not in the nickel, this is who you can expect to be on the field.

Definitely part of the rotation: Jourdan Lewis

He should be the nickel back to start things.

Probably also in there: Anthony Brown

Brown had a down year in 2017 after a really strong rookie campaign. I think he bounces back enough to push Lewis some, but most likely will be the fourth man in the group.

Most likely to join the bunch: Duke Thomas

He was expected to make the team last year until a late injury derailed things. Now he gets to prove himself.

Special case: Marquez White

White should be going head-to-head with Thomas for the fifth spot on the roster, or making a push to carry six corners. But his recent indictment stemming from a road rage incident in 2017 (when he displayed a firearm) certainly clouds things. At the moment, it appears the league is waiting to see what happens with the legal system before even deciding if it will open an investigation that could lead to a suspension. The situation could be the impediment that costs him a job, or it could wind up having no effect at all.

Sigh.

Linebackers

Starters: Sean Lee, Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch

This is the most certain group of starters on the defense, despite the reportedly minor nick Vander Esch had in OTAs. The only real question is whether Lee will continue to be on the field for virtually every play when he is active, or whether the team will try and protect him a bit by sometimes putting Smith and LVE on the field in the nickel.

Vying for a backup job: Damien Wilson, Joe Thomas, Justin March-Lilliard, Chris Covington

You might also keep an eye on dark horse Tre’Von Johnson, and when the team switches a player to a position, as they are trying to do with Kyle Quiero, it always catches your eye. But the real battle is among the four listed originally, with three roster spots likely available. None of them are assured of making the team, although there is a slight chance Dallas could go with seven because of the value of LBs on special teams. However, there are other places that the team can use that extra spot, so figure someone gets left out. It is another place where staying healthy may be the difference-maker.

Defensive tackle

Starter: Jihad Ward

He may prove to be one of the most valuable acquisitions in the offseason, because of the factors surrounding the next two names.

Special case 1: Maliek Collins

Figure Collins will be a starter by September - but for now, he is in a walking boot and it is doubtful he will be ready to go when the team hits Oxnard. A stint on PUP status seems likely.

Special case 2: David Irving

You know about the suspension. Irving may well be starting in camp, but obviously, the Cowboys have to come up with a plan to handle those four weeks.

In contention to round out the group: Brian Price, Antwaun Woods, Richard Ash. Lewis Neal, Daniel Ross

Yeah, that is not exactly an awe-inspiring list. Price may be the starting 1-tech in Oxnard by default, while the other four are basically seeking to capitalize on Collins still recovering from injury and the Irving suspension to make the roster. The Cowboys may wind up using some of their defensive ends to help out inside.

Defensive ends

Starters: DeMarcus Lawrence, Tyrone Crawford

Lawrence is the best pass rusher the team has who is not facing suspension right now, and Crawford has the confidence of the staff. The latter has also reportedly done a lot of work to reshape his body to be better coming off the edge.

Backups: Taco Charlton, Kony Ealy, Dorance Armstrong

Barring health concerns, Charlton and Armstrong will be on the roster. Ealy could disappoint, but mark me down as a believer that he will thrive in his new situation. Plus, the team really liked him coming out of college.

Special case 1: Randy Gregory

The deadline for Roger Goodell to decide whether Gregory is reinstated is this week. The exact day is a bit uncertain, since it is hard to pin down precisely when the 2,000 page application for reinstatement was actually delivered, but the most likely day seems to be Friday, July 20th. And given the NFL’s penchant for hewing to the outdated practice of dropping things late on Friday when it doesn’t want them to get a lot of coverage, figure we will hear something about 4:59 pm New York time.

If he is reinstated (and there is a lot of optimism so far), then he has to come in and earn that roster spot. He has been out of football for two seasons. Don’t expect him to just walk in and claim a job. But he has been working hard to be in as good shape as he can, and he is definitely talented.

Special case 2: Charles Tapper

Just based on his talent, Tapper should have a backup spot nearly locked down. But he has yet to be healthy for any extended time in his career. This is now probably his last chance.

Special case 3: Datone Jones

Remember the remark about using DE talent to help out at DT? Jones, who goes 285, is big enough to fill in at 3-tech, at least. That may be his route to finding a roster spot. He did flash some last season, and on a team that is looking for answers, he could get a chance to prove his value while the team is waiting for Irving.

Just as with the offense, the picture for the defense overall is a bit murky, to say the least. Even DE, which is thought of as being perhaps the deepest part of the entire roster, has so many things to resolve. And there is the question of just how deep the team can go there, should that depth perception be accurate. (See what I did there?)

Soon, we will start to learn some answers. There are a handful of other names that were not mentioned. And there could be a lot of surprises along the way.

Camp won’t get here a moment too soon.