We posted a 53-man roster projections for the Dallas Cowboys early. As always, expect some of the predictions to be wrong. But in doing that particular exercise, there were a surprising number of positions that had some difficult choices to make. In past seasons, much of the roster was easy to predict, leaving only a handful of battles both for making the roster and who would be the starter. This year, it looks like there will be a lot more actual decisions made in training camp and the preseason games. So it seemed like a good followup to dive into just who is guaranteed a job if healthy, which jobs are legitimately up for grabs, and the relative chances of the players involved. We’ll use three categories: Locks, near-locks (players who should make the roster, but could get beaten out), and those who have to fight their way onto the roster.
Obviously, this is based on the current 90 man roster, which will almost certainly change for reasons that will be discussed. There is always churn in any NFL roster, and several of the names here could be gone before the OTAs, much less the start of training camp.
Dak Prescott is a lock to be the starter. Mike White and Cooper Rush are in a battle with each other to be the QB2, and within the overall numbers need to convince the staff to carry a QB3. As mentioned in the projection piece, either could become a practice squad player if they clear waivers. Rush is the most likely to drop off the 53 as a former UDFA. That makes White a near-lock, with Rush fighting for a job.
But the team usually carries a fourth QB as a camp arm, and they don’t have one right now. To add one, the team will have to drop one of their current roster members, most likely from the reserve/future group. So even before camp, someone is going to lose their chance (for now). As to where the team will find someone to share the load throwing the ball, look for who gets invited in for a tryout during rookie minicamp.
This is an easy one to put together. Ezekiel Elliott is the starting RB, with Jamize Olawale getting the nod as the only FB (and the assumption that the team will keep a fullback.) Tony Pollard is a third lock, since the Cowboys almost never cut a player taken in the first four rounds.
Mike Weber is a near lock, since his selection looks to be a clear attempt to upgrade the backup to Elliott (given that Pollard fills the same role as Tavon Austin, however you want to classify that).
That leaves Darius Jackson and Jordan Chunn on the outside. They will mostly be working in preseason to get picked up by another team. Chunn is also PS eligible.
Jason Witten, Blake Jarwin, and Dalton Schultz can all be written down in ink. I probably anger many with my assumption that Rico Gathers will not be on the roster. Codey McElroy is also not expected to make it into the season.
If the team does not add another tight end for camp, that is an indicator to note. It could mean that the team is moving away from using two tight end formations often - unless that is just wishful thinking for the Kellen Moore offense.
There are three locks with Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and Randall Cobb. Tavon Austin is a near lock, since he provides depth along with Pollard for the role they fill, plus he is still expected to have a role returning punts for now.
That leaves a bunch of players competing for one to three additional jobs. The list: Allen Hurns, Cedrick Wilson, Noah Brown, Lance Lenoir, Devin Smith, Reggie Davis, Jon’Vea Johnson, and Jalen Guyton. Wide receiver is almost always an entertaining group to watch, and it is a position where undrafted players often make the Dallas roster. This year is going to riveting. It is also a position where injuries unfortunately often have a major role in determining the outcome.
At the moment, the starters would be Tyron Smith, Connor Williams, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, and La’el Collins. Cameron Fleming and Joe Looney are also locks as proven backups. And Connor McGovern makes an eighth lock, given his draft status and college resume (Bob Sturm has an excellent breakdown of McGovern at the Athletic, for those with access).
Dallas has often only carried eight OL during the season, so the rest are another case of competing with both each other and the numbers. Of them, the name to watch is Mitch Hyatt, who could force his way into the mix as a future swing tackle with upside for a few seasons down the road. The rest are, sadly for them, likely to wind up as having been camp bodies, but Xavier Su’a-Filo had some starts last season, and may also be in the mix to make the team. The rest fall definitely into the true longshot category: Cody Wichmann, Adam Redmond, Dustin Stanton, Jake Campos, Brandon Knight, Derrick Puni, and my pet cat, Larry Allen, Jr. All will get a lot of chances to show the staff something as the starters are going to get a lot of days off and almost no work in the preseason games. But this is another place that the numbers are the issue.
Like the wide receivers, the DL has a few players who are pretty much guaranteed to make the roster, and a bunch who are vying for however many spots are left. DeMarcus Lawrence, Maliek Collins, Antwaun Woods, Robert Quinn, Tyrone Crawford, Taco Charlton, and Trysten Hill all should not really face a challenge, although the team may have a critical eye on Charlton. That is seven, and the team should carry somewhere from eight to ten. I debated putting Joe Jackson in the “near lock” category, but there are just too many other names to do so: Kerry Hyder, Christian Covington, Dorance Armstrong (another that might warrant “near lock” status), Jalen Jelks, Daniel Ross, Daniel Wise, and Ricky Walker.
We don’t include Randy Gregory in the equation, but if he should be reinstated, he would be another lock. It is hardly something to expect, however.
This unit looks fairly predictable. Four of the six returning veterans are solid: Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch, Sean Lee, and Joe Thomas. Justin March-Lilliard’s veteran experience makes him a near lock. It is tempting to include Chris Covington as well, but he is going to be pushed for what may be the last LB spot. And the Cowboys really like to carry seven, because they rely on them for special teams duties. Covington is in a competition with Kyle Quiero, Andrew Dowell, Luke Gifford, Justin Phillips, and Nate Hall.
It looks like Byron Jones, Chidobe Awuzie, and Anthony Brown are locked in at cornerback, and Xavier Woods and Jeff Heath are coming back at safety. This is an unusual group, though, because there are multiple near locks in George Iloka, Jourdan Lewis, Kavon Frazier, and Michael Jackson, but they just seem a bit less firm than in other groups. That leaves Donovan Wilson, Chris Westry, C.J. Goodwin, Darian Thompson, Jameill Showers, Trestan Decoud, and Donovan Olumba all trying to prove they deserve a place. And Wilson and Westry have a real chance at bumping one of the near locks here.
L.P. Ladouceur is Mr. Perfect as a long snapper. Drew Scott is just going to be around long enough to enjoy the perks and privileges of camp.
But punter Chris Jones is really only a near lock. Casey Redfern may not be his real competition, but don’t expect the team to hesitate to go to the free agent market if they think Jones is underperforming. Brett Maher faces no competition yet, but the team will add another placekicker at some point just to handle the load. And we all remember what happened last year. I think it will be pretty much an open competition for that job, and punter may be as well. It is a big change from a couple of years ago.
Totaling it all up
Are these assessments correct? Your mileage may vary, and please consult your physician if you experience outrage lasting longer than four hours, but this is my best guess. And that comes down to these numbers:
9 near locks
46 in open competition (or just there as a camp body, but there aren’t as many of those this year, it seems)
Taken together, the locks and near locks give us 44 players, which would have nine roster spots up for competition. That is still not a large group - but it is a bit higher than most years, when there were only about five or six truly open competitions. Of course, there would usually be a surprise or two where we would see someone we thought had it sewn up being released, and there is always the threat of some jobs opening up due to injury.
And while it is hardly a precise measurement, the “near locks” also seem to be a bit higher, and those all could be challenged by someone putting in an outstanding camp.
But there is some good news here. The reason that there are relatively fewer locks and near locks this year is that, in my mind, the competition from the rookies is a lot stronger than foreseen. This is a talented looking bunch that seem to fit the scheme very well.
There will be more than one very heated camp battle. And it is a good sign.