The Dallas Cowboys are back home, and they will finish out the preseason with two games at AT&T Stadium. Next up is the Houston Texans. It is the traditional “dress rehearsal” game, but that is becoming less true as many NFL teams are putting the health of their starters ahead of polishing things up as the regular season draws near. We don’t know how Jason Garrett plans to approach things yet. We may see a couple of series from the starters, at most, or they may go a bit deeper. (I, for one, hope they see almost no time on the field.) But there are still things to watch as the staff works toward choosing the 53-man roster.
Who gets the starter treatment?
We have already seen Tony Pollard come off the field with the rest of the starters. He has been filling in for Ezekiel Elliott of course. Still, the way he is being protected is a strong indication of the anticipated role he has with the team even after the expected end of the Cabo adventure.
Any other player who is treated similarly can be assumed to have a safe place on the roster. On offense, both Tavon Austin and Alfred Morris saw very few snaps in the last preseason game. For Austin, that looks like an indication that he is pretty much locked into the fourth WR spot. Given his injury history, it only makes sense to limit his exposure.
Morris is a bit more complicated. The team knows him well from his prior stint with Dallas. They may just be more interested in trying to evaluate Darius Jackson, Mike Weber, and Jordan Chunn. More importantly, Morris is very much an insurance policy against Elliott’s holdout continuing into the regular season. They probably have a clear contingency plan for him that preseason reps will not change.
On defense, two players that did not see much time on the field against the Los Angeles Rams are Kavon Frazier and Jourdan Lewis. That also may indicate a desire to get more work for the newer faces in the secondary. But it may be a sign that both are more secure than many might assume. Lewis has always been in a strong position if you pay attention to what is said about him as well as his excellent performance throughout camp. Frazier has been a bit of a forgotten man, but when added to his obvious value on special teams, this is a bit of a hint that he is in better shape than a lot of roster projections have him.
On the flip side, free agent pickup George Iloka saw a good number of snaps against LA. On paper, it looks like the staff is treating him a lot more as a guy who is having to try to earn a spot. More snaps in the latter preseason games is not always a good sign.
What real battles remain?
This is where these last two preseason games might tell us a lot, particularly early when the twos are out there. As a rule of thumb, and assuming the backup QB race stands where we think it does and is reflected in the Texans game, look who is seeing work when Cooper Rush is taking snaps, or playing defense between his series.
We don’t know in advance how that will shake out. What we do know is that there were always only a handful of spots that could not be called before camp ever started. Fortunately for the Cowboys, injuries have not really changed much.
Here are the places that there is still some real competition going on - maybe.
Running back. With Pollard locking up one position behind Elliott, and Jamize Olawale secure at fullback, there is probably one more job available, and it is rather wide open. My colleague DannyPhantom thinks they will only carry two, but I demur given the importance the team still places on the position. (No matter how much pain that causes the analytics crowd, which does not mean I think they are wrong.) The team might want to go with Morris for his experience and familiarity. If not, Jackson, Weber, and Chunn are in a dogfight, and none of them has made a convincing case so far. The last two preseason games are big for all three of them.
Wide receiver. Like with running back, the number of WRs carried is still to be determined. It looks to be either five or six, and with Austin looking like a lock, that leaves one or two spots up for grabs. Noah Brown has still not seen the field as he continues to recover from injury. If healthy, he would certainly be in the mix, but PUP to start the season looks more and more likely for him.
Of the remaining names, Cedrick Wilson has taken a lead. He has been very good. Only the concussion protocol from a dirty hit has slowed him.
If the team goes six, Devin Smith has stood out a bit. Jon’Vea Johnson, Jalen Guyton, and Reggie Davis all are seeing their opportunities dwindle. If they don’t stand out the next two weeks, they are probably out of the running. And their lackluster performance to date argues for only carrying five into the season.
Offensive line. Connor McGovern would have had a spot on the 53 if he had been healthy. It would likely have been to be inactive for most games, but there is usually an OL on that list anyway. But since he has been unable to go, I am in agreement with DannyPhantom on him going on IR to stash him for next year. And I also concur that Adam Redmond has made a real case to be retained. That will depend on the team carrying nine OL on the 53, however, as the five starters and first three backups look to be pretty set. However, there is some competition for Redmond in Brandon Knight and Jake Campos. The latter has been a bit surprising this camp and bears watching in the next couple of games.
Defensive end. With Robert Quinn on ice for the first two games, it is safe to say Kerry Hyder has his spot secured. Don’t believe Taco Charlton is fighting for a roster spot. His only competition is whether he is ahead or behind Dorance Armstrong on the depth chart. (I’m guessing a bit behind.) The team is very likely to carry five DEs, but to start the season, that is going to be where Tyrone Crawford fits. After Quinn comes back, then Crawford may revert back inside, where he is more suited. Crawford makes the DL roster interesting because of his versatility. (Hyder offers some similar advantages as well.)
If the team goes with 10 DL overall, which is possible or even probable, that puts Joe Jackson and Jalen Jelks in a head-to-head fight to be a sixth DE. Both have looked good so far. This may come down to consistency as the preseason winds down. It all depends on the numbers. Even if one does manage to break into the 53, it may be just as a two-week placeholder for Quinn.
Defensive tackle. Obviously, something has to give, and with Christian Covington looking strong so far and Trysten Hill obviously making the team, there is not much room for another DT with the depth at DE and both Crawford and Hyder able to kick inside if needed.
That could ice out Ricky Walker and Daniel Wise, both of whom have had more than their share of moments. Fortunately, both are practice squad eligible.
Linebacker. With Joe Thomas backing up all three positions, the Cowboys may have the best four off-the-ball linebacking group in the NFL. Chris Covington has been a big special teams contributor, so he would be a near-certainty. But he was injured on the opening kickoff last week. Hopefully he is fine for the season, but it is worth watching.
That leaves a sixth spot up for grabs, and the Cowboys are not at all likely to carry less. If there is an experienced veteran who is fighting for a spot, it is Justin March-Lillard. His competition appears to come from the trio of UDFA linebackers, Luke Gifford, Justin Phillips, and Nate Hall. Gifford (who also has been injured) and Phillips each grabbed an interception in the earlier preseason game, which is not insignificant.
Still, it is hard to count March-Lillard out completely. The Cowboys value veteran experience. This is another battle to watch closely.
Cornerback. Even with Byron Jones still on PUP, the starting CBs have been excellent. Jourdan Lewis has proven he belongs. The team will probably have need for at least five, however. That looks to be down to Donovan Olumba and Micheal Jackson. Right now, Olumba appears to be ahead in this battle, but Jackson still has a chance to make a charge.
Safety. All indications are that Donovan Wilson is going to make the roster. That leaves a fourth safety spot, and the contenders are Kavon Frazier, Iloka, and Darian Thompson. As mentioned above, Frazier may be the favorite here, and frankly Iloka looks like his time is coming to an end with the team. And yes, we will bid a sad farewell to Jameill Showers. There is an outside chance for five safeties on the 53, which could open the door for Thompson, but it feels doubtful.
Specialists. The team has made no real move to create competition for Brett Maher. Yes, Kasey Redfern has caused some hope to grow as he has taken a lot of kicks in practice, but he is primarily a punter. What he might be is a real threat to Chris Jones. Redfern’s ability to step in as the placekicker may make him more valuable, and he has looked pretty comparable to Jones punting - maybe a tad better, even. That raises the question of who would be the holder. It seems something that could be managed, however.
Those are all the places where there is still some competition, with tight end and quarterback pretty much sorted out already. There can still be major impact from injury, which we hope doesn’t happen, but is always a threat. If that dreaded thing does happen, someone will get an opportunity. Barring that, there isn’t a great deal else to see as preseason winds down, especially with much of Kellen Moore’s offense still likely to be kept under wraps.
It is still quite a lot.