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The “starting” 53 for Cowboys training camp

Looking at Cowboys roster-building from the front end.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys-Training Camp Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

We are down to mere days. The Dallas Cowboys hold their first practice of their 2019 training camp on Saturday. For many of us, this is the real starting point of the season, as the serious work of installing the plays and honing skills begins. Perhaps most importantly, the team will truly get into figuring out which 53 players will make the roster at the end.

There have already been many roster predictions, and there will be many more. This, however, is a bit different. It is not focused on who will win camp battles and such. It is more concerned with who the team would designate for the roster if they had to name them on day one of camp.

If you have followed the Cowboys for any length of time, you have heard a certain term: Process. Obviously that is a very applicable word for the evaluations and decisions that will be made between now and August 31st. Considering that led me to think about where the team starts it all. We are all familiar with the idea of “locks” to make the roster. In addition to those, the team has a rough idea of who goes into camp with a leg up. Those are players that will have to be beaten out of their spot with the team. And not just by a hair. A clear and convincing case will have to be made by any challengers.

Before listing who I think would be the 53 players if the team was forced to make an immediate call, there is one other thing that has to be mentioned. Injuries are always a threat to any player. The first day of training camp saw that risk come home for the Atlanta Falcons, who started early because they are in the Hall of Fame game.

We can’t predict who might fall victim for the Cowboys, but the odds are overwhelming that it will be a number greater than zero. So some decisions may be made for the team.

But without a reliable crystal ball, we cannot know who that will be. Without further ado, here are the players who have staked a claim, with further explanation as to why when appropriate.

Specialist (3)

L.P. Ladouceur, Brett Maher, Chris Jones

Yeah, we’ll knock this one out right off the bat, because it is so simple. These are the incumbents. It will be interesting to see if the team brings in another kicker to contend for Maher’s job, but that hasn’t happened yet.

Offense (25)

In building this side of the line of scrimmage, we have to start talking about overall numbers. The Cowboys like to have an even split between offense and defense, at least to start the season. So we will be looking for 25 names in each case.

Quarterback (3)

Dak Prescott, Mike White, Cooper Rush

Prescott is obvious. The battle for the primary backup looks to be wide open, but the more I study the numbers, the more I think they will go with three total, meaning White and Rush will make the team again. However, in this case, both the backups are not fighting so much with another player as with themselves. If one just does not look up to the task, or at least show more potential than they did last season, the team could well go short here and invest that slot elsewhere - perhaps at wide receiver.

Running back/fullback (4)

Ezekiel Elliott, Tony Pollard, Darius Jackson, Jamize Olawale

Despite the fevered rumors of a holdout, count me as one who thinks Elliott and the team will work things out in some fashion, and he will report at least before the August 6th deadline to accrue a season towards free agency. There is absolutely no sense in sacrificing all your leverage. Pollard has both his draft position and the anticipated versatility he offers to make him safe. That leaves one slot running back slot open, and I believe Jackson is the leader there. He has experience with the system, and Mike Weber was taken late enough to make him a likely practice squad candidate.

Olawale is hopefully going to be better used this season, because the Cowboys will be the last team to go without a fullback, at least as long as Jason Garrett is head coach.

Tight end (3)

Jason Witten, Blake Jarwin, Dalton Schultz

The Rico Gathers experiment will end this summer, leaving Witten, Jarwin, and Schultz. This is a stronger trio than many give them credit for. Especially if Kellen Moore delivers on the creativity factor.

Wide receiver (6)

Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, Randall Cobb, Noah Brown, Tavon Austin, Cedrick Wilson

We all know the first three are set. For the depth receivers, the value the Cowboys place on veterans is a big factor. Many are hoping for one of the speedy UDFAs or someone like Reggie Davis or Devin Smith to break through and supplant one or more of the veterans, but that will take a real display in camp. Health may also change the equation, as both Austin and Wilson are coming off injuries, but just as a new face will have to have an outstanding camp and preseason, one of the three returning depth receivers will have to clearly struggle, or, in Austin’s case, be rendered truly irrelevant by the drafting of Pollard.

In the interests of full transparency, the original draft of this post had Allen Hurns making the team rather than Wilson. Obviously, that changed rapidly.

I mentioned that one of the backup quarterbacks could play himself out of spot, and if that should happen, then that could open the door for someone like Jon’Vea Johnson or Jalen Guyton. The team might also elect to go heavy on defense, because things are a little more competitive in a couple of places there.

Offensive line (9)

Tyron Smith, Connor Williams, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin, La’el Collins, Cameron Fleming, Joe Looney, Connor McGovern, Xavier Su’a-Filo

The team remains optimistic that Frederick will be back to near his old self and get the rust knocked off quickly. If so, this should be a much better unit overall than last season, despite the yeoman work Joe Looney put in. Williams is expected to take a significant stride, and Collins was looking much better once Marc Colombo became the line coach. Fleming and Looney are quality backups, and McGovern is going to be a star one day, I think.

That leave’s Su’a-Filo, and he is most likely the 25th man in this group. If there is one player who could be challenged for his spot on offense, it is him. With Looney and McGovern available for interior depth, the team could wind up using the ninth offensive line slot for Mitch Hyatt or Brandon Knight, depending on how their camp goes.

Some predictions have Dallas carrying ten offensive linemen, but given how they are not useful for special teams, leaving one or two inactive every game, it is not a good use of roster spots.

Defense (25)

Putting the offense together was actually fairly simple, especially if things like preferring experienced veterans was factored in. But the defense is a bit trickier.

Defensive end (5)

DeMarcus Lawrence, Robert Quinn, Taco Charlton, Dorance Armstrong, Kerry Hyder

There is also an elephant in the room named Randy Gregory in trying to figure this group out. The team is still awaiting a decision from the league on his application for reinstatement. If he is able to return, he will bump one of the names above. That would most likely be Hyder, but that is more a guess, as the team would have to see how things go in practices. A lot of people are openly pulling for Charlton to be cut. The Cowboys put a lot of weight on draft position (perhaps not wisely), and the reality is that Armstrong is probably in a weaker position. Still, practices and preseason games will make the final decision. Joe Jackson and Jalen Jelks are lurking for an opening, but barring injury to someone, they are more likely competing for practice squad jobs.

Defensive tackle (5)

Maliek Collins, Antwaun Woods, Tyrone Crawford, Trysten Hill, Christian Covington

Crawford still may see a suspension due to his bar fight incident in Florida, which would delay cutting someone until it was served. Given the need for depth here after things got a bit worn down late last season, five just seems a necessary number once things shake out. Crawford also gives them some extra depth at end. But Rod Marinelli has been longing for a DT group that can fully execute his defensive scheme, and this could finally be it.

Linebacker (6)

Leighton Vander Esch, Jaylon Smith, Sean Lee, Joe Thomas, Justin March-Lillard, Chris Covington

With the need for spots on the defensive line and in the secondary, there are a lot of roster projections that show the Cowboys only carrying five linebackers. I just can’t see that. First off, linebacker is more important in Dallas than most other franchises. And linebackers are often key special teams players. You aren’t going to risk your starters on STs, so that will probably keep Covington around.

Cornerback (5)

Byron Jones, Chidobe Awuzie, Anthony Brown, Jordan Lewis, Michael Jackson

The numbers game pretty much dictate carrying five here, with the heavy reliance on the use of a nickel corner. That will save Lewis’ job, and Jackson gets the nod over players like Donovan Olumba - but it is not a strong one, and he will have to prove himself more than a veteran. This will be one of the closer camp contests to watch.

Safety (4)

Xavier Woods, Jeff Heath, Geroge Iloka, Donovan Wilson

One of the hardest calls to make on the entire roster was between Kavon Frazier and Wilson. It really could go either way, but I think the team sees Wilson as having no lower a floor than Frazier, and a much higher ceiling. Frazier has made his biggest impact on STs, but Wilson should be able to assume that role with absolutely no problem. Still, this was as much a coin flip as any spot, and like Su’a-Filo for the offense, Wilson is probably the 25th guy on defense.

That is how I see things stacking up to start camp. Major shifts are certainly possible once the pads come on, and in all likelihood one or more injuries will unfortunately come into play. But for now, this is what I think the 53-man roster would be if the team had to make the call right now.

They don’t, of course, That is why camp and the preseason are so interesting.

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