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Who is this year’s “Antwaun Woods” player who comes out of nowhere to take a starting spot?

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Which unknown will emerge as a key starter in 2019?

NFL: New York Giants at Denver Broncos Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

It’s hard not to be excited about the the current Dallas Cowboys football team. This group is loaded with star talent and they are loaded with depth. It’s going to be hard for some players to make the roster, but every year there are always surprises. Some player will emerge from nowhere and end up playing a significant role on the team. But who?

Over at the Mothership’s “Ask The Boys” segment, David Helman was asked which player could possibly become the next Antwaun Woods?

Last year at this time, Woods was a nobody. He went undrafted and was signed by the Tennessee Titans in 2016, but only played in one game before he was released in May of last year. The Cowboys signed him a week later as what most people viewed as just a long-shot guy fighting for a depth spot. It didn’t take long for Woods to start turning heads and by the time preseason rolled around, he was seeing time with the first team. And it trickled over into the regular season as Woods’ 583 snaps was the most by any Cowboys defensive tackle. He planted himself down as the team’s starting 1-Tech DT.

Jason Garrett will often tell you that where you were drafted has no bearing on your place on the team. The Cowboys are an equal opportunity employer. Woods is living proof of that. But what player has the best chance to pull off that type of achievement this year?

That’s actually a really tough question. It’s hard to project a player who’s going to come out of nowhere when they, in fact, have to come out of nowhere. As of right now, such a player has given us no reason to feel good about him or else he would already be on someone’s radar. So for this exercise, we just got to have a little faith.

Before coming to a decision, we thought we’d try to narrow the search field by putting together some ground rules.

Rule #1 - Must be an unknown

This is the “pet cat” rule where basically it has to be a player that’s not a lock to make the roster. Veteran free agents like Randall Cobb who are making the roster - don’t qualify. Even higher draft resources like Trysten Hill or Tony Pollard aren’t sneaking up on anyone. Basically, just ask yourself if they are a lock to make the roster. If the answer is yes, then they’re out.

Rule #2 - Must not play a position already occupied by a star

This one is more of a guideline vs. a rule. You are more than welcome to suggest that Mike Weber will be this team’s new starting running back or that Mitch Hyatt takes over at left tackle, but the odds are heavily stacked against them. With All-Pro’s Ezekiel Elliott and Tyron Smith already occupying those spots, you’d essentially be banking on an injury for those players to even have a chance.

Rule #3 - Should be a position where true opportunity exists

Again, this is just a guideline, but I’d be hesitant to throw in any of the dark horse linebackers when players like Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith are expected to hold down most of the reps. And if you’re taking a flyer on one of those deep bench edge rushers just know that a healthy DeMarcus Lawrence and Robert Quinn aren’t likely to be succumbing to some unproven competition.

Rule # 4 - He’s got to have an inkling of upside

You just want to avoid selecting a JAG here. Sure, there are viable players like Justin March-Lillard who is worth keeping on the roster, but we’re looking for a player who has starter potential. They don’t have to be a freakish athletic big guy like David Irving, a surprise player from the past, but there should be something about him that rationalizes him into a starting spot.

So, who’s the choice for this year’s Antwaun?

Prediction: Darian Thompson, Safety

The Cowboys didn’t make a big splash at the safety position, despite a lot of anticipation building up in both free agency and the draft. Sure, they addressed that position, but the investments were pretty minimal. George Iloka is here on a one-year, $1 million deal and Donovan Wilson is a sixth-round draft pick. Both are solid adds, but neither are guaranteed a key role within the safety group. The opportunity for someone to step up is there.

Like Woods, Thompson entered the league in 2016. But unlike Woods, Thompson was drafted as he was selected in the third round by the New York Giants. He was stacked 50th on the Cowboys draft board ahead of players like Dak Prescott and Anthony Brown, which explains why the team signed him off the Arizona Cardinals practice squad last year. He actually played in 10 games for Dallas last year, which one might think would make him ineligible for consideration, but most of the action he saw was on special teams. He only logged one rep on defense. I mean, do you even remember him ever being on the field?

Thompson started all 16 games for the Giants in 2017 alongside Landon Collins. He had 75 tackles and a pick that year. He didn’t make the final cuts for them last season, before joining the Cardinals.

He left Boise State the all-time leader in interceptions (19) so his production got him drafted, but he hasn’t been able to put everything together. He has good hands, but his instincts and lack of discipline can get him in trouble. While he can be a liability in coverage, Thompson is a physical player and can be effective around the line of scrimmage. If you had to pick the weakest starting spot on the roster, Jeff Heath’s strong safety spot would be the one that comes up the most. With Thompson’s ability to maneuver around traffic and make plays in the running game, he could be a sneaky pick to come out of nowhere and steal a starting spot.

It’s anyone’s guess how the safety rotation will shape out this year, but Thompson has looked good in OTA’s, and that’s how these types of things begin.