The Cowboys are fast approaching the first practice of training camp, and one of the things the Cowboys coaches have done over the last few weeks is slot their players into some kind of a depth chart; a depth chart they have been building since free agency and the draft, and one that will form the basis of how they start their activities in training camp.
So we’re going to do a similar exercise today and take a look at what the Cowboys’ final 53-man roster could look like, based on reporters who are closer to the Cowboys than many other sources. One is from Todd Archer of ESPN, one is from Jon Machota of the Dallas Morning News, and one is from Drew Davison from the Fort-Worth Star Telegram.
Below, combined in the table, are all three projections. The table highlights (in yellow) the spots that do not yet appear to be locked down, and where there will likely still be competition for a roster spot. Look closely and you’ll see that there aren’t many of those spots left, if these three projections are anything to go by.
Note that the order of the names may differ from the order they were originally published in, but the order here makes the three projections more comparable.
|Todd Archer, ESPN||Jon Machota, DMN||Drew Davison, FWST|
|R. Smith||R. Smith||R. Smith|
|T. Smith||T. Smith||T. Smith|
|C. Williams||C. Williams||C. Williams|
|L. Collins||L. Collins||L. Collins|
|M. Collins||M. Collins||M. Collins|
|Vander Esch||Vander Esch||Vander Esch|
|J. Smith||J. Smith||J. Smith|
|J. Thomas||J. Thomas||J. Thomas|
|J. March-Lilliard||J. March-Lilliard||J. March-Lilliard|
|B. Jones||B. Jones||B. Jones|
|D. Thomas||D. Thomas||D. Thomas|
|C. Jones||C. Jones||C. Jones|
* Machota and Davison published their projection before Gregory’s reinstatement. I’ve included Gregory in their projections, even if that adds up to 54 players for them.
Overall, it looks like the beat writers are pretty much agreed on most of the roster. Only six spots (marked in yellow) appear to be up for grabs. And as far as projections go, these three have probably summarized the general sentiment about the roster pretty well at this point of the season.
But suspensions (knock on wood), trades, injuries (knock on wood), and other things of that nature (knock on wood) tend to wreak havoc with these projections. Projecting such roster moves before camp is impossible, and they will naturally make any projection look weak in hindsight.
But there’s more to watch out for than just the IR list (knock on wood three times). As we’ve tracked these early projections over the last few years, a handful of roster projection twists have emerged which can be broadly classified in the following five categories, and which we’ll use to speculate about potential twists that could be coming for the three projections above.
The “Progress Stopper”
”Progress stopper” is a term Bill Parcells introduced to Cowboys Nation. The term has stuck around and is mostly used for veteran players with no upside who fans and media alike are convinced should leave to make room for an exciting young talent they believe has almost unlimited potential. But coaches don’t always think in terms of potential. Instead, they see reliability versus lack of experience, and will often take the former over the latter. It’s not sexy and it’s not what fans and the media are clamoring for, but it’s what coaches do - especially if they are in “win-now mode,” as Archer writes.
At wide receiver, only Todd Archer has Deonte Thompson penciled in. Drew Davison opted instead to go with a younger player in Cedric Wilson, possibly for no other reason than the new is more exciting than the old.
As you look at roster projections, look closely at where there’s a trade off between a middle-of-the-pack veteran and a young (and unproven) player. The veteran may have the edge more often than you think.
The Former High Draft Pick
Draft pedigree can be a tricky proposition. The average NFL fan is quick to throw around the ‘bust’ label for former high draft picks but can be just as quick to proclaim other former high draft picks as potential franchise saviors.
The Cowboys currently have 10 former first-round picks on their roster, eight of which were drafted by the Cowboys. Tavon Austin and Datone Jones are the other former first-round pick, but while Austin looks to be a roster lock, but does his draft pedigree give Datone Jones a better chance to stick on the roster?
Draft pedigree is much more important to fans and the media than it is to the coaches making the roster decisions.
The You-Can-Never-Have-Enough-Players-At-His-Position Guy
Every year, projections have the Cowboys going ‘long’ at certain positions. This year, that could be the defensive line, with up to ten roster-worthy candidates.
Building the roster is not a color-by-numbers exercise. Beware of the guy who tells you that you can’t have enough corners, or that you can’t have enough linebackers, or that you can’t have enough rushmen. Of course you can have enough.
Who’d be the odd men out on the defensive line if the Cowboys go with just nine, or even eight, linemen? Keep in mind that David Irving will likely be back in Week 5, which would add one more to the position.
The System Guy
There’s a chance the Cowboys have a player in mind that could be an essential element of their game plan, even if that guy may not get a lot of snaps.
Who’s going to be this year’s system guy, a web-back, a war daddy, a pass-rushing linebacker, a space player, or a receiver who can stretch the field vertically? The coaches probably already have a pretty good idea, we don’t.
The Pet Cat and the Stray Dog
Everybody has a pet cat. And whether we do it knowingly or not, we all construct our projections to some way, some how fit in that one player we’ve taken a liking to. Similarly, we often try to construct a roster in the hopes of getting rid of that one player we don’t like for some reason, the stray dog.
TE Rico Gathers is probably this year’s biggest pet cat. RB Darius Jackson went from pet cat in 2016 to stray dog in 2018. And this year’s biggest stray dog may be sixth-round pick Chris Covington, who’s mentioned just once in the projections above.
With all of that in mind, which down-roster player do you think will unexpectedly make the roster come September?