We are almost to the long quiet stretch between the end of the Dallas Cowboys minicamp and the opening of their training camp in Oxnard. For some diehard fans, camp is when football really starts. This year, we are all anxious to get a real look at the beginning of the Kellen Moore offense, but we may not get a really clear look at how it actually will go until the games start to count. The real function of camp is to get from 90 players down to the 53-man roster for the season. And this year, that looks to be a very exciting process for the Cowboys.
There are several factors that enter into it. The change at offensive coordinator is one, as is this being a contract year for head coach Jason Garrett. But the biggest and best thing is that, as far as just about anyone can tell after a couple of weeks of practices in helmets and shorts, this is one of the deepest 90-man groups for Dallas in a long time. There have been years in the past when the struggle was to find 53 legitimate NFL talents for the season. Now, the problem is going to be paring down the current group and hopefully not losing too many good players. Obviously, the latter is a much more preferable situation than the former.
This may even challenge some of the approaches the Cowboys usually take. In particular, it may force them to back off on their preference for retaining veterans and their own former draft picks over rookies, especially UDFAs. Even when you rule out those who will obviously have a roster spot if healthy, there seem to be a large number of spots where the team could turn to new, young candidates.
Although it is a bit arbitrary, this also will count the first three draft picks taken as locks on the roster. The staff basically is not going to give up on any player taken in the fourth round or earlier unless something extraordinarily bad happens, either on the field or off. But from the fifth round on, there is always a chance the team will just move on, and it increases the later the player was picked.
There is also going to be churn at some point, and that will likely include a handful before camp even starts. Some of the names here will therefore see their chances nipped in the bud. And injuries are always a threat and could take some off the table, or open up more holes to fill. We don’t know who those might affect, so we have to work with the roster as it now stands.
So with those ground rules in place, here are the coming camp battles where veteran players will have to stave off a challenging rookie - and in some cases, we are talking more than one on each side of that equation. (This also is not going to get into situations where the battles are strictly between players who were on the roster last year, like at backup quarterback.)
Running back: Darius Jackson vs Mike Weber
This may be the most even competition going into camp as the two strive to be the third RB on the roster. There is a chance the team could go deep and carry both, but given the need for roster spots at other positions, it is hard to see the Cowboys carrying four running backs plus a fullback. Jackson failed to impress in his limited chances last year, but a strong showing in camp and preseason could move him back into the coaches’ good graces. He is also aided by the fact that Weber could probably make it through waivers to the practice squad, which means in a dead heat, Jackson might get the nod. Weber still has a great opportunity to make a convincing case for his retention. And they both should get plenty of snaps in preseason, because Ezekiel Elliott is going to be sitting on the sidelines for almost all of those reps, swathed in bubble wrap. Tony Pollard is envisioned to have a more expansive role, so while he may get some reps in a traditional RB function, most of those will probably go to Jackson and Weber.
Offensive tackle: Cameron Fleming and Jake Campos vs. Mitch Hyatt, Brandon Knight, and Derrick Puni
This is one of the fun ones to consider, because all of the rookies here are UDFAs. Some may consider Fleming one of the locks to make the roster, but while he would be very hard to beat out, the team is reportedly very high on Hyatt and Knight. Fleming is likely going to be allowed to go into free agency after this year, so the team might want to bet on the future by making sure they have Fleming’s replacement as swing tackle in place. They could try to get Hyatt or Knight, or both, to the PS, but that is where the quandary comes in. If they look good in preseason, an OT-hungry team may come poaching. The team also has some insurance in Connor Williams and Connor McGovern, with the drafting of the latter making the idea of using the former at tackle in an emergency more viable.
No offense, but Campos has little chance to make it out of camp. Puni is not talked about in the same way as the other two UDFAs, so his odds don’t look good, either.
Interior OL: Xavier S’ua Filo, Adam Redmond, and Cody Wichmann vs Larry Allen, Jr.
To be honest, all four of these players may not make it onto the 53-man roster, since Joe Looney and McGovern are not going anywhere, and the team may just not have enough roster spots to carry three backup IOL. But if there is a spot, it is hard not to root for the son of a true Cowboys legend to show that genetics matter.
Defensive end: Taco Charlton, Dorance Armstrong, and Soto Shakir vs Joe Jackson and Jalen Jelks
Shakir looks like the odd man out right off the bat, although you never can tell what will happen. That leaves an interesting battle, because all four of the players who are likely battling for two spots are draft picks. Charlton and Armstrong represent more draft capital (a lot in Charlton’s case, obviously), but the fact Jackson and Jelks were also worth a draft spot may make the idea of moving on from one of the vets a bit more palatable. Jelks in particular has gotten some good reviews in OTAs, for what that is worth. The team is seen by many as going heavy on DL this season, especially in light of how that unit looked worn down by the latter part of 2018, but it still seems all but impossible for all four of the main contenders to make the 53. And if Randy Gregory should get reinstated (an admittedly rather big if), someone likely gets bumped to open his slot up. We know DeMarcus Lawrence will probably sit out most or all of camp and preseason while he recuperates from surgery. Charlton is recovering from two procedures himself, and that means there is the opportunity to
game the system take a cautious approach by putting him on PUP and possibly IR. That would certainly give Armstrong, Jackson, and Jelks a lot of opportunities to prove what they can do.
One interesting twist to all this is how free agent Kerry Hyder will be used. There is a school of thought that he might be better as an end than in the interior of the line, so that is something that could complicate things further.
In any case, look for some strong efforts by those playing in preseason to stake a claim.
Defensive tackle: Christian Covington, Kerry Hyder, and Daniel Ross vs Ricky Walker and Daniel Wise
First off, let me admit there is a bit of a disconnect somewhere, as all but Ross are listed on the DallasCowboys.com roster as defensive ends. But that gives a very unbalanced distribution on the 90-man roster of 11 DEs, four DTs, and Tyrone Crawford as a utility DL. Walker and Wise were both DTs in college, while Covington and Hyder were playing that position with their last teams. Hyder may belong with the DEs, as mentioned above, but there is reason to believe the rest are primarily competing for a spot in the interior of the line, with some flexibility to move outside at times.
In recent seasons, we have seen Dallas quite willing to cut ties with free agents, and Covington and Hyder were signed to contracts that have small dead money figures if they were released. This is another place where the competition should be fierce and meaningful throughout preseason.
Linebackers: Chris Covington vs Andrew Dowell, Luke Gifford, Nate Hall, and Justin Phillips
The Cowboys broke a bit with recent history by not drafting any linebackers - but they must see a need when they signed four as UDFAs. That need is on special teams. With only six who carried over from last season, they may want to add one for the 53 because linebackers are so heavily used on STs. That does not mean Covington is safe at all, but there is certainly going to be a lot of competition between the rookies. And since the team has no reason to risk the starters or proven backups, look for them to get many, many reps in both camp practices and preseason games.
Cornerbacks: Jourdan Lewis, Treston DeCoud, C.J. Goodwin, and Donovan Olumba vs Mike Jackson and Chris Westry
Lewis is a bit of a hard call to be included, but he is the one CB that doesn’t exactly fit the Kris Richard model. However, he probably has a leg up on the rest. Jackson is also going to get every chance to prove himself. Westry is a bit of a freak at 6-4, but it will be interesting to see what Richard can do with him. The other returnees are on some very thin ice. Who makes the team will also be affected by how many CBs the Cowboys decide to carry. They could go four, five, or six depending on how many spots they need at the other defensive positions.
Safety: George Iloka, Kavon Frazier, Kyle Queiro, Jamiell Showers, and Darian Thompson vs Donovan Wilson
Again, it may be a bit pessimistic to include Iloka and Frazier in this group, but the team wants to upgrade here, despite only using a sixth-round pick on Wilson. They will be looking for the best options, no matter who it is. Numbers are important here, as the team could carry four or five into the season. Still Queiro, Showers, and Thompson all are at great risk of not making the team in any case, since the other three would be the expected names if the team carries five safeties.
Wide receiver: Tavon Austin, Noah Brown, Reggie Davis, Allen Hurns, Lance Lenoir, Devin Smith, and Cedrick Wilson vs Jalen Guyton and Jon’Vea Johnson
If this seems a bit out of order, it is for a reason. I saved what I see the as best for last, and the fight to make the roster at WR is going to be a no-holds-barred cage match. Austin, Hurns, and Wilson are coming back from injuries last season, although Austin did get back on the field at the end of the year. However, Austin also faces a challenge from Pollard, who may be able to do everything Austin was signed to do and maybe better. If you want a key attribute likely to come into play, it is speed. And that is why the two UDFA rookies are already generating some (possibly overstated) excitement. They can absolutely fly, and could become a factor in the Moore-run offense. Smith also has a lot of speed, and if he can finally overcome the injury bug that has plagued his career, he might break through.
That puts Brown at some risk, and Lenoir has not shown much in his all-around game so far. But route-running and chemistry with Dak Prescott also come into play, so there are many ways this battle could go. The team has at least two and possibly three or even four spots for this group to contend for. There may be more than one way for these contenders to fight their way onto the roster.
This is one take on the most interesting camp battles to watch - and as you can see, it covers all but the QB, TE, and specialists positions. Kicker may be one that could become interesting between now and the start of the season, as punter Kasey Redfern has been given some opportunities to kick field goals - and we all remember what happened to one Dan Bailey last year. The team still has plenty of time to bring another leg into camp as well.
It looks to be a very fascinating camp coming, although there are more names listed here that won’t make the 53 than will. Still, we will almost certainly see some of these young players supplant some veterans on the team.
Camp is coming, and the final battles will follow.