Yes, we just had a consensus roster projection for the Dallas Cowboys at this here site. However, I was already planning on doing one of my own, based on my recent four-part look at the state of the roster this offseason, now that the NFL Draft in all its glory has concluded. (Not all teams will see the draft that way, but after the debacle of 2019, we are gonna celebrate this one for a minute.) A roster projection was always part of the plan, and the position-by-position examination was not done in time to join the group exercise. More to the point, this will explain why some decisions were made, and also will fold the practice squad in, because the active roster and the PS are no longer as discrete as they used to be.
It is because the new CBA immediately changes the rules. We talk about the 55-man roster, but that is not precisely correct. It is now a 53-man roster plus two. Here is the pertinent information from the CBA, as reported by Dan Graziano at ESPN shortly after it was approved.
The game-day active roster will increase from 46 to 48 players (although one of the extra players must be an offensive lineman, which will give teams more flexibility to have three extra linemen). Practice squads will expand from 10 players to 12 in 2020 and 2021 and to 14 starting in 2022. Practice-squad salaries also are going up — the minimum salary is $8,000 per week in the current CBA, and it will rise to $11,500 by 2022 — and those players will be eligible for 401(k) and tuition assistance benefits.
Two practice-squad players per week may be elevated to the team’s roster, meaning game-week roster sizes could effectively increase from 53 to 55. And a player elevated from the practice squad to the 55-man roster could be sent back to the practice squad two times without having to clear waivers.
So the team will now have 48 active players each game, but the two extra men on the roster are actually optional. Teams don’t have to call someone up. The only increase is on the practice squad. But the new rules mean it is now much simpler to use those PS players, and that ability to send them back without risking waivers is an important protection.
Suddenly, who you put on the PS is a more important decision. They are truly an immediate ready reserve of players. While it is possible that some teams may not fully utilize this every week, by midseason the inevitable accumulation of injuries will make this an almost mandatory tool to employ.
And then there’s that provision that one of the two men added to the game day roster has to be an offensive lineman. This is not completely clear, but it seems to imply that this will often be done by elevating an OL from the PS.
In any case, this information has to inform any attempt to project a roster. So, here are the names projected to make the team, and why.
Quarterback - 3 active
Dak Prescott is the starter, of course. The contract will get worked out. And in a Saturday night special, the Cowboys severely upgraded the backup situation by signing Andy Dalton, who got cut after the Bengals drafted Joe Burrow. It has been a very long time when we could think that maybe the season wasn’t completely toast if Prescott missed significant time. That Cooper Rush and Ben DiNucci contending for a possible third QB job.
I think DiNucci will get the nod. Admittedly, that is based almost solely on the connection he has with Mike McCarthy - but with QBs especially, that is not something you can disregard. The new PS and game day active rules would make that a great way to keep DiNucci on the PS without burning that roster spot - but players still have to clear waivers to make the PS after the cutdown before the regular season. We usually overestimate the appeal of the bottom of Dallas’ roster to other teams, but QB is an exception. If DiNucci is worth keeping at all, they won’t want to risk him going through waivers. Remember, there were other teams interested in signing him to a UDFA contract, so this is a logical precaution. Dalton is likely a one-year rental, so having that developmental guy in the pipeline is still a necessity.
Running back/fullback - 4 active, 1 PS
Ezekiel Elliott is the starter, with Tony Pollard serving as both the primary backup and a change of pace option, and Jamize Olawale reprises his weekly cameo at fullback. For the fourth back on the active roster, they go with UDFA Sewo Olonilua.
But wait, you say. Reports are that the team is looking at Olonilua as a fullback. I have a sneaking suspicion that Mike McCarthy and Kellen Moore see a multi-role player. Olonilua is 6-3 and 240 pounds, he played tailback at TCU, and he had 60 receptions in his four-year career to go with his 1,600 yards rushing. Think H back, who can line up as a lone back, a lead back, next to a tackle, or split out wide. The options for pre-snap motion and shifts are just tasty.
They should carry a practice squad back because the position is very liable to injury, and it’s almost a coin toss between the last two options. Just guessing, Rico Dowdle sticks.
Tight end - 3 active, 1 PS
Blake Jarwin is the starter, while Dalton Schultz and Blake Bell will compete for TE2 work. The Cowboys only carry three, because we are seeing the end of three TE packages, and a great reduction in having two on the field. That allows them to go light here, since they should be able to get through many games with only using two TEs. Charlie Taumoepeau makes the PS for depth. He was one of the best regarded undrafted players across many boards, and his value to the team is enhanced because he also may have some H back traits.
The position is not going to look the same at all this year.
Wide receiver - 6 active, 2 PS
Your starters are clearly Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and CeeDee Lamb - and good luck ranking them WR1, 2, and 3. Sorting the backups is extremely difficult now because camp battles are so crucial at this position. Let’s say they roll with Cedrick Wilson, Devin Smith, and Jon’Vea Johnson, which makes Noah Brown the odd man out. I just think his time is about to end. The expanded practice squad makes this a useful place to stash UDFA Kendrick Rogers, with Ventell Bryant also getting a chance to stick around.
Offensive line - 8 active, 3 PS, 1 IP
Tyron Smith, Connor Williams, Zack Martin, and La’el Collins are obvious. It’s likely that Williams will not be factored into the center situation. It’s a toss-up as to whether Joe Looney, Connor McGovern, or Tyler Biadasz will be the starting center, but all three make the roster. Brandon Knight is the guess to lock down the swing tackle position.
The new PS rules really help the Cowboys out here, since that ability to bring players up, and the rule on adding one OL each week, make this truly a working extension of the roster. Mitch Hyatt, Wyatt Miller, and Adam Redmond will get to share that game day money.
While he won’t be available to be called up or signed away by another team, Isaac Alarcón gets to be a part of the organization on the PS for a season to try and grow into a roster-worthy player through the International Pathways program.
Totals on offense - 24 roster, 7 practice squad
The new rules on PS players and call-ups really adds some roster flexibility to the mix. That ability to send called-up players back to the PS twice without clearing waivers should lead to some creative use of them. Like with all things, the real value for each team depends on how well they use the rules.
Defensive end - 6 active, 1 PS
Mike McCarthy said he likes to go into the season with 6 DEs and 4 DTs. Given how things have played out so far, he should be taken at his word.
This of course gets a little iffy, because we still don’t know if Randy Gregory and/or Aldon Smith will be reinstated. The team seems optimistic still, so for the sake of this exercise, they get included. With them will be DeMarcus Lawrence as the starter on the left side, and Gregory and Smith likely rotating opposite him. Tyrone Crawford with his ability to kick inside is still a valuable piece, and Dorance Armstrong and Bradlee Anae round out the room. Ron’Dell Carter looks like the PS candidate, and will get playing time if anyone misses a game or two with injury.
Defensive tackle - 4 active, 1 PS
Three new faces make this the most revamped position group on the team, with Gerald McCoy, Dontari Poe, and Neville Gallimore all looking like upgrades in the middle. Word is that Antwaun Woods will finally get his ERFA tender signed to round out McCarthy’s four.
That leaves Trysten Hill out, and likely going on the practice squad. Waiving him to get him on the PS would come with about a $1M dead money hit and no cap increase, but that is not a significant figure. This staff is not at all wedded to him as a former second-round pick. A year or maybe even two on the PS may be a good thing for him in the long run, if he can learn and grow to either earn a spot with the Cowboys later or generate some interest from other teams. But looking at the rest of the players involved at DT, he just looks to clearly be the fifth best option the team has.
Linebacker - 6 active, 1 PS
Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch are the projected starters when the team is in the nickel, also known as the new base defense. Their roles may be swapped this year, but if healthy, both will get the bulk of the snaps. Sean Lee is the primary backup as well as the likely SAM when they use it. Joe Thomas, Justin March, and Luke Gifford will all likely be core special teams players as well as depth. That teams role is why you keep six around.
Francis Bernard is the highest-graded UDFA the team signed, and probably should have been drafted by someone. But Dallas scooped him up after the draft, and he will be a valuable reserve for a position where injuries happen frequently.
Cornerback - 6 active, 1 PS
Jourdan Lewis and Anthony Brown keep their jobs, but not necessarily as starters. They now have Trevon Diggs, Daryl Worley, Reggie Robinson II, and Maurice Canady all vying for starting jobs. This looks like one of the best competitions for camp, whenever it finally rolls around. They will have to earn it covering Cooper, Gallup, and Lamb in practice.
C.J. Goodwin is the likely PS player here, but don’t expect Chris Westry to go out without a real fight.
Safety - 4 active, 1 PS
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Xavier Woods should be the starters, with Donovan Wilson one of the backups. The call here is that Chidobe Awuzie will be switched, and getting some snaps as well. Darian Thompson should spend another year on the PS.
Defensive totals: 26 active, 5 PS
Due to the needs of the special teams and the expected rotation at end, the defense gets the numerical edge here. That reflects the rule on OL being called up each week as well. The new rules really make managing personnel much more flexible and interesting.
Specialists - 3 active
L.P. Ladouceur is the long snapper barring totally unforeseen circumstances. I think Kai Forbath wins the kicker competition. At the moment, Chris Jones is the default punter, but I fully expect the team to bring in someone to compete for the job before camp.
That’s the projection. As I have stressed, the roster is still really 53 players, with the PS now serving as a rotational source for the two extra game day players. But the team now will have 48 active players each game. That is fairly significant, especially in filling out the ST slots.
You probably have some different takes on the roster, so join in the discussion in the comments.