It’s going to be something to see.
In my last two posts, I took a stab at projecting the depth charts for the Dallas Cowboys on both offense and defense as training camp in Oxnard draws ever closer. It was an interesting exercise, and one thing stood out: There are just so many more camp battles that really matter than we are used to seeing. And there may just be more talent competing for the open positions than is normal as well.
Having been writing about the Cowboys for seven seasons already (my, time flies when you are having fun), I have come to expect the bulk of the roster to be fairly easy to figure out. Most years, barring injury, it is easy to figure out about 45 of the names that will be with the team when they make the cuts to the 53 man roster. That only left eight or so spots that new faces had a real chance to break through with the team. Likewise, the starters were mostly easy to name.
Not in 2018. Going back through the articles referenced above, there were only about 37 players (including the three specialists) that inspired a real level of confidence as to who would make the team this year. That leaves sixteen truly open spots, or double what we have seen in the past few years. And among the names that are basically locks to make the team, there are several positions, like tight end and wide receiver, where the starters and backups are still very much open to how they wind up on the depth chart. Add in the hard decisions the team needs to make about how many players they actually will carry at positions like quarterback, wide receiver, safety, and defensive end, and the stakes for many of the players currently on the expanded preseason roster are very high, indeed.
And while some caution has to be taken regarding that preseason optimism that makes us think everyone with the Cowboys is a potential All Pro, this still looks like a situation where the issue in most cases will be cutting talent instead of hoping to find players with enough talent to be on an NFL roster.
Of course, that may actually be putting too much faith in the talent Dallas has at hand. The receiving corps is a great example of this. We all have heard ad nauseam how unproven the wide receiver and tight end groups are. But as far as abilities and physical traits to fit what the team is trying to do, there seem to be more than enough candidates at hand. That emphasis is crucial. This year sees a Cowboys staff that is looking to make real changes. It has no choice in a couple of cases, thanks to the departures of Dez Bryant and Jason Witten. But the defense is also looking to take some new approaches as well, and the same stocking of the roster with players that fit the new mold is taking place there.
This kind of wide open situation with lots of real competition in camp is probably not that uncommon around the league. But often that happens for teams with little proven talent to build on. Dallas, on the other hand, seems to have a truly solid core of talent to build around. Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, DeMarcus Lawrence, and Sean Lee have all proven they can play at an elite level when healthy (or not dealing with suspensions). Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, Jaylon Smith, Xavier Woods, and Byron Jones are champing at the bit to join them, and Randy Gregory may also get another shot if Roger Goodell is over his feud with Jerry Jones. And if Scott Linehan uses him effectively, you can throw Tavon Austin into that mix. (David Irving would be here, but you know why we don’t talk about him for the roster at the end of camp.)
Having so much competition for the rest of the roster should make for an exciting and riveting training camp/preseason. But it comes with the cost of a huge amount of uncertainty. Having apparent talent and fitting a specific profile is about potential, and we have seen far too many cases of that never being realized. Realistically, things could go either way. The Cowboys could enter the season as a real contender, or they could wind up with another disappointing performance when they have to go out and play real games.
But there is no way to be sure, and the last four Cowboys seasons are a great reminder of how quickly things can change. 2014 was a big change after the three-year run of 8-8 records, with everything coming together until a couple of key plays (one involving perhaps the most famous mishandling of the rulebook in history) ended things in the playoffs. It inspired high hopes for the next year, only to see injuries to Tony Romo and a markedly inept set of backup QBs bring things crashing down. Hopes rose again in 2016, were dashed when Romo was hurt in preseason, and then soared as Prescott took the league by storm, greatly aided by Elliott’s league-leading rushing campaign. It led to another round of optimism for last season. That was to be dashed by a combination of key injuries, bad coaching decisions, and the legal saga surrounded Elliott’s suspension.
If things work out according to plan, then this could be a team that will play into January. But plans don’t always come together. If they don’t, January could instead mark major shakeups at the top of the coaching staff.
One way or another, there are going to be a lot of different faces in the Cowboys locker room this year. A look back at the final depth chart of 2017 shows that there are fifteen players who have already moved on from the team - and at least one or two others (cough) Chaz Green (cough) are really fighting to hang on. Churn at the bottom of the roster is a given in the NFL, but this year it much more pronounced for the Cowboys.
We will soon see the process unfold, and begin to find out who will remain standing at the end.