We are to the end of this brief series on the state of the Dallas Cowboys roster following the additions of the NFL Draft and UDFA signings. This looks at the back seven of the defense, the linebackers, cornerbacks, and safeties. If you want to check out the previous installments, here are the links:
Before we delve into the players and how they fit on the roster, there is a different point about linebackers that needs to be considered. The Cowboys did not add any in either free agency or the draft, only picking up a lone UDFA. There is only one other position group that this is true for, running backs.
If you still aren’t completely convinced that Mike McCarthy has had a great impact on the entire philosophy of the Cowboys, this should put that to rest. Under Jason Garrett, the team almost always drafted the two positions. In his tenure, only 2017 saw them not take at least one of either. What is really crucial about that is the analytics-based idea that LB and RB are among the least valuable positions in the NFL, at least from the perspective of investing draft capital. Multiple teams have been successful in finding more than adequate ball carriers in late rounds and even the UDFA ranks. And the off-ball linebacking job has become less important in a league where passing is understood more and more to be the real path to offensive success. Linebackers just aren’t as good in coverage as defensive backs, with very rare exceptions. Yet during Garrett’s time, the team sunk 15 of their 74 picks into the two positions - and that included two each first- and second-round picks.
Some may not put a lot of faith in analytics, but if you give them credence, then the Cowboys drafted a whole lot smarter this year.
Moving on to who they do have.
Leighton Vander Esch
Speaking of a couple of premium picks. The former first- and second-rounder at least are paying off as far as being starters, and in 2018 they were simply outstanding, with Vander Esch earning a Pro Bowl berth, second-team All Pro, and All-Rookie Team recognition. Their performance was not as effective last season, but they still have the starting jobs in the most frequently deployed nickel defense nailed down. And now there are reports that the two may be flipping their assignments, with LVE moving inside to the MIKE position while Smith slides out to the WILL with maybe some increased work rushing the passer. These honestly seem to be better fits.
If he stays healthy, Lee is the likely SAM whenever the team goes with three LBs on the field, and also should be the primary backup. With a reduced workload last season, Lee seemed to do better most of the time.
Linebackers are still necessary for the defense, but they are also core special teams players, and in this trio, the Cowboys may have some solid pieces for John Fassel to solve the teams puzzle that was so confused and ineffective last year. Thomas is also a good backup at all three positions. Gifford was out the first three games of last season, and only appeared in six before going on IR for the last two weeks, but the team was impressed enough to keep the former UDFA around.
The lone UDFA this year is a player to watch, because he is seen as the reason that Dallas just released Chris Covington.
That leaves the Cowboys with seven players to fill out the room. Given that ST value, there is a shot that all could wind up on the team this year.
The Cowboys had a definite need here after the departure of Byron Jones in free agency. They wasted no time in addressing it by taking two, investing a second- and a fourth-round pick.
It feels like the top three will come from this group - although there is a bit of an asterisk here that we’ll get to later. Diggs may have been taken in the second round, but the team likely has first-round expectations for him, so he will get a crack at starting. Canady was signed earlier in free agency, and Worley was brought in late to help make sure they had a couple of experienced corners if the other options don’t pan out. In any case, they are why D.J. White was cut.
Reggie Robinson II
The fourth-rounder looks like someone who could eventually become a starter, but he also was very involved in special teams in college, and that is where he will project to get his most work as a rookie.
You’d think these players are not likely to make it out of camp, but the team had enough interest in both Goodwin and Westry to keep them around. Still, they are long shots.
If you’ve been counting, that’s ten corners to fight for what will most likely be five or six spots. The departure of Jones left a pretty big void, and the way the team is casting a wide net to find someone to fill it shows they realize the reality of things. One of the biggest things that will determine how successful they are is the development of Trevon Diggs. If he is close to NFL ready, things should go well. If not, there may be some hiccups at the least.
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix
The signing of Clinton-Dix was big, and should go a long way to shoring up things here. But that is still very light, since the team will probably carry at least four in the regular season. Hence, the asterisk.
The team is at the very least giving this change of position some thought. There are some reasons to think it might be a better fit for him. One thing that has been brought up on social media is that he may play better if he is facing the ball rather than running with the receiver and having his back to the quarterback. If that is true, this could well happen. In any case, the numbers at corner lend some logical support to this idea.
The UDFA looks to be more about filling out the roster for camp than a real shot at making it to the regular season.
That wraps up the examination of the current state of the Cowboys personnel. It is subject to revision, and there were changes while this was being written. Hopefully things will hold at least long enough for this to be current when you read it, but if not, it just shows how roster-building really does go on 365 days a year.
So who makes the 55-man roster this year? Glad you asked, because there will be a follow-up post with my best guess on that.