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Cowboys roster projection: Digesting the first preseason game

Let’s take what we learned from the loss to the 49ers and factor it in.

NFL: Preseason-Dallas Cowboys at San Francisco 49ers Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys may have wound up on the short end of the score against the San Francisco 49ers on Saturday, but it was still very good to see the players actually line up and go full speed. Things were kept very plain, especially by Dallas, so we cannot judge anything about the anticipated Kellen Moore offense. What we can talk about is how individual players performed. Which leads us logically into an updated 53-man roster projection!

Here is my latest take on things. Below the table, explanations for one player over another and such. We’ll bypass the obvious locks or even mention what we clearly know, like the tight ends, but will focus on players who truly are having to fight for a spot. And as always, injuries can completely change the picture.

Some of the position labels are kind of arbitrary, mostly to keep the table down to four columns.

Cowboys roster projection

Position Starter Backup 1 Backup 2
Position Starter Backup 1 Backup 2
QB Dak Prescott Cooper Rush
RB Ezekiel Elliott Tony Pollard Darius Jackson
FB Jamize Olawale
WR1 Amari Cooper Cedrick Wilson
WR2 Michael Gallup Jon'Vea Johnson
Slot Randall Cobb Tavon Austin
TE Jason Witten Blake Jarwin Dalton Schultz
LT Tyron Smith Cameron Fleming
LG Connor Williams Xavier Su'a-Filo
C Travis Frederick Joe Looney
RG Zack Martin Connor McGovern
RT La'el Collins
RDE DeMarcus Lawrence Dorance Armstrong Kerry Hyder
LDE Tyrone Crawford Taco Charlton
RDT Antwaun Woods Daniel Ross Ricky Walker
LDT Maliek Collins Trysten Hill
WLB Leighton Vander Esch Justin March-Lillard
MLB Jaylon Smith Joe Thomas
SLB Sean Lee Chris Covington
LCB Byron Jones Anthony Brown Donovan Olumba
RCB Chidobe Awuzie Jourdan Lewis
SS Jeff Heath Kavon Frazier
FS Xavier Woods Donovan Wilson Darian Thompson
P Chris Jones
K Brett Maher
LS LP Ladouceur

For the time being, Cooper Rush is the QB2. He looked much better than Mike White, which may be as much a function of where each is in their career as anything. (Rush is entering year 3, while White is just a second-year player). White would really have to be amazing the last three preseason games to change things. He just is not worth spending a roster spot on, and will likely wind up on the practice squad.

This projection of course assumes that Ezekiel Elliott makes it back from his holdout. Tony Pollard is being considered equivalent to a starter, as evidenced by his usage in the game. Darius Jackson will get the nod over Mike Weber, partly because Weber should have no problem clearing waivers and going to the PS. Alfred Morris won’t make the roster - unless worse comes to worse and the holdout drags into the regular season. If that should come to pass, Morris is the insurance policy the team cashes in.

Wide receiver is going to be interesting, especially if the team does carry six. There are four locks, and after his performance, Cedrick Wilson has taken a good hold on the fifth spot (assuming there are no lingering issues from the illegal blow he took.) That leaves one more job available, and it could go several ways. Noah Brown is something of a wild card, since he has not been able to practice. The staff likes its veterans, but not being out there has to be hurting Brown’s chances. And there is his role. He was more of a blocking tight end disguised as a wideout under Scott Linehan, and that just may not be something Moore wants or needs.

So it comes down to one of the speed burners. Jon’Vea Johnson had a rough game, but got his act together late. His hold on a spot is absolutely shaky, and there are eager competitors ready to grab it, but I’m betting he continues to improve in the remaining three preseason affairs to win the job.

Mitch Hyatt just did not look ready to be an NFL offensive tackle, and probably will have to hope for a shot at the PS. Brandon Knight was coming on strong before he was injured, and the team might elect to IR him for future development. So that leaves us with the usual suspects on the line.

That is only 24 offensive players. The Cowboys like to have a balanced split between offense and defense - but they are hardly limited to that, and have varied in the past. With the three spots for specialists, that leaves 26 defensive holes to fill. And they have plenty of talent to spread around.

Defensive end is a bit confusing right off the bat. Robert Quinn has been suspended those first two games, so someone will have to serve as a placeholder, more or less. Additionally, there still has been no word on Randy Gregory applying for reinstatement. If he should become available again, he will push someone off the roster as well (although not necessarily another DE).

Some writers think Taco Charlton is in jeopardy of losing his job, but I think he was competent enough to stave that off - although he still has a long, long way to go. Dorance Armstrong and Kerry Hyder get the nod over rookies Joe Jackson and Jalen Jelks, both of whom the team may try to bring back for the PS. If there is anywhere another team might poach a player from the Cowboys, this is it. Hyder might be bumped when Quinn returns.

Luke Gifford was oh, so close to playing his way onto the linebacker roster before he was injured. Now the team has the same decision it has with Knight to make. Depending on when they think he could return, they could IR for future return, or just put him on the roster until he heals. They have to sit seven players each week, anyway. Still, I think the roster slots are too valuable and the depth too deep for them to go that route.

Donovan Olumba and Darian Thompson both make the roster as special teams guys. Plus Olumba has not looked bad at all in coverage. That leaves rookie Michael Jackson as another name the team probably will hope to sneak through waivers. Of course, no one helped their chances during the game more than Donovan Wilson.

For now, Brett Maher is the placekicker. However, that will last only as long as he shows he is good enough - and 3 out of 4 is probably not it. But unless the Cowboys bring in someone to compete soon, any move will likely be just before the start of the season, so Maher has a chance to set things right.

There were a lot of hard calls to make. At some positions, like WR and DE, there are certainly players who can upset the old apple cart in the next three games. For now, though, this is a best guess.

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