One of the most repeated descriptions of the Dallas Cowboys roster this offseason is that they are a deep team. They have certainly loaded up at some positions. The staff is going to be faced with some hard decisions at the end of training camp. However, that depth is not evenly distributed. Forced to deal with a cap on how many players can be signed, no team can address all needs the same. The Cowboys have certainly made some specific allocations already.
That depth not only tells us where the camp battles will be, but also where the team is likely planning on going a bit short or long. It can also point out some places that there could be some churn even before the team reports to Oxnard.
But depth is about much more than numbers. It also is affected by the talent level and experience of players.
As we are about to wind up minicamp and go into the dead zone before training camp opens, here is how the team stands position-by-position.
Right off the bat. we get to a place where things are not very good - and it is a perennial. With only Mike White and Cooper Rush to back up Dak Prescott, the team is flirting with disaster.
However, so are most NFL teams. The situation in Philly a couple of seasons ago was definitely the exception, rather than the rule. In acknowledgment of the fact that many of you may have blocked the memories due to the trauma involved, I will remind you that the Eagles lost their starting quarterback, Carson Wentz, who was having a superb year and had led the team to an 11-2 record. They were able to plug in Nick Foles, who only went on to be named MVP in the Super Bowl.
It is exceedingly rare to have two starting level QBs on an NFL roster. There are actually not 32 of them to go around. So teams have to either rely on an untried young player (like the Cowboys are) or carry a veteran who will hopefully help them stay competitive. As you may also have blocked from you mind, that is what Dallas tried and failed miserably to do in 2015.
Still, neither White nor Rush looked good last preseason. Actually, they really didn’t look all that competent. The Cowboys need to have one of them step up this summer. If Prescott would not be available for an extended stretch, the season is likely not going to go well. What they need is someone who can keep the wheels from falling all the way off for two or three games. Right now, that is not at all certain.
Like at quarterback, the running back situation is set at the top, but there is not anything assured behind Ezekiel Elliott. Tony Pollard looks promising. He is also obviously untried at the pro level. Behind him, Darius Jackson and Mike Weber are probably fighting for one backup job. The team may elect to try and keep Jackson, if he does well in camp, and stash Weber on the practice squad. There are plenty of backs out there, so the risk of him being poached would be low.
Jamize Olawale is the lone fullback, but no team carries two of those. Many don’t bother with it at all.
Looking at the numbers, it seems likely that the team is just going to carry three on the 53-man roster. This is also affected by the ascension of Kellen Moore to offensive coordinator. It is expected that he will prefer to use more wide receivers in his sets and fewer multiple TE packages. Jason Witten is of course one of the wiliest veterans in the league, and Blake Jarwin and Dalton Schultz are not bad backup options. This may well be the end of the Rico Gathers experiment. The team also has Codey McElroy. The fact many of you just went “Who?” says about all you need to know there.
OK, now for some really good news. This is a loaded position, with a dozen currently on the roster. And most of them are just plain fast. One thing that came out in the OTAs is that the deep pass is getting a lot of work, and it has looked very good. Prescott is of course a part of that, but the guys have also been catching the ball well.
Although it is not outside the realm of possibility for the team to carry seven into the season, it is doubtful, given other needs. Amari Cooper, Randall Cobb, and Michael Gallup are locks, which leaves us with a real dogfight for what will probably be three more slots. And, health permitting, none of the remaining names can be disregarded. Allen Hurns and Cedrick Wilson still have to show they are fully recovered, and Tavon Austin also had an injury. But look at the rest: Noah Brown, Lance Lenoir, Jon’Vea Johnson, Jalen Guyton, Devin Smith, and Reggie Davis. Some will undoubtedly falter in camp and preseason, but Johnson and Davis were turning heads in OTAs, and any of them can stake a claim with a strong showing, This is a loaded group with a good mix of experience and untried potential.
We are all hoping Travis Frederick is back to his old form, or at least close to it. And his superb ability to call protections is just as important as his physical condition. If Tyron Smith and Zack Martin can stay healthy, the core is in extremely good shape. Connor Williams is bigger and hopefully better, while La’el Collins seemed to be benefiting from the switch to Marc Colombo as line coach midway through the season.
But here, the depth may be the most valuable on the team. That doesn’t just apply to being able to keep winning if one of the starters is out, especially for just a few games. It is a major plus for preseason. Too often in the past, the backup QBs were not able to perform well because they were under constant pressure behind a poor bunch of backups in the preseason games, when the starters were cocooned in bubble wrap on the sidelines. But now, the team has Cameron Fleming, Joe Looney, and Xavier Su’a-Filo, all of whom started games last year, and who could probably win a starting job on one or more other NFL teams. Offensive line depth is not good across the league. Add in rookies Connor McGovern, Mitch Hyatt, and Brandon Knight, and the blocking should be markedly improved in preseason, which will aid immeasurably in evaluating White and Rush. Adam Redmond, Cody Wichmann, Jake Campos, Larry Allen, Jr,, and Derrick Puni are the third string, and most of them are not going to be around in September. Still, there is a reason the team has sixteen linemen. We may see one or two released before camp, but it may be a good idea to hang on to as many as possible to get through the preseason grind. Look for them to try and carry at least nine on the 53, with one or two stashed on the PS.
The Cowboys have a clear preference for building the roster from the inside out, and they have done the same thing on the defensive line of scrimmage. They also have sixteen on the roster now, and just as the will likely go heavy on the offensive line, look for them to have nine or ten defensive linemen on the season roster as well.
DeMarcus Lawrence is the crown jewel, but there is impressive talent to line up with him. Robert Quinn, Maliek Collins, and Antwuan Woods are the leaders to start. Tyrone Crawford is able to play all positions, depending on the situation. Taco Charlton and Dorance Armstrong are looking to prove they belong in the rotation. Kerry Hyder and Christian Covington are intriguing veteran additions. Trysten Hill, Joe Jackson, Jalen Jelks, Ricky Walker, and Daniel Wise were the rookies brought in to beef up the group. Soto Shakir (another “Who?”) looks to be the odd man out.
And there is still the possibility that Randy Gregory might be reinstated. Even without him, this is another deep and talented bunch.
Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch, and Sean Lee (if he stays healthy) just might be the best starting trio in the league. Joe Thomas could win a starting job on some teams. Justin March-Lilliard is a good depth player, and Chris Covington has value as a special teams player. The Cowboys went heavy in the UDFA market to find some options to carry a seventh (which may be needed given how valuable they are on ST), signing Luke Gifford, Nate Hall, Justin Phillips, and Andrew Dowell. That may be more about protecting the starters in preseason, but they have the numbers now to do that. The preseason may see some substandard performance, but with that trio of starters, it is not a concern.
The top four look solid, with Byron Jones and Chidobe Awuzie as the starters, Anthony Brown the current slot, and Jourdan Lewis just doing too much for his failure to fit Kris Richards’ template to knock him out of contention. Mike Jackson will likely force them to carry at least five corners this year, and Chris Westry is really big, which has to have Richards intrigued. C.J. Goodwin, Treston Decoud, and Donovan Olumba will probably wind up carrying a lot of the load in preseason, although all face an uphill battle in breaking through.
In a bit of a pattern that has emerged this year, the further you get from the line of scrimmage, the worse the depth is, and safety caps this off. Xavier Woods is certainly good, but Jeff Heath has too much of a tendency to be a boom or bust player on any given play. Kavon Frazier is a bit underrated and will almost certainly stick due to his ST value. George Iloka was brought in to provide some help. The team must have some faith in him since they waited until the sixth round to draft Donovan Wilson. The rest of the group consists of Kyle Queiro, Jameill Showers, and Darian Thompson. That could also lead to some spotty play in preseason, although Queiro shows flashes at times. But finding four or five solid performers here is crucial for the team, and it is still one of the most concerning spots for the Cowboys.
L.P. Ladouceur is simply perfect so far in his career, and there is no sign he is going to fall off. Scott Drew is here just to give Ladouceur a rest - we think. (Never forget what happened with Dan Bailey.)
That brings us to Bailey’s replacement, Brett Maher, who was not exactly a model of consistency last year. Punter Kasey Redfern has been handling some of the placekicking duties in the OTAs, but is he really competition there? The team may well elect to bring in another leg during camp to see if Maher is the way they want to go.
Chris Jones may face real competition from Redfern. After last year, we all should be ready for anything.
That is the whole list. If you stuck with it, you can see that there is outstanding depth at some positions, but others are not nearly as good. Injuries are sadly a part of life in training camp and preseason, so things can change in a hurry. Some of the groups can weather those better than others. We will find out just how well the team prepared in a few months.