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Ranking the Cowboys roster by position groups

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With training camp hopefully on the horizon, it’s time to dive into the strengths and weaknesses of the team.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at New York Giants Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

It is the time of unknowns in the NFL. Rosters and coaching staffs have undergone varying degrees of change, and until they take the field (hopefully on schedule) we won’t know how each team’s preparation for the season will go. The Dallas Cowboys have one of the biggest turnovers on the coaching staff in the league. That means we are dealing with far more uncertainty than most in that aspect. We have a better idea of what the team has on the roster, since both the returning veterans and the free agent additions all have history to study, and even the rookies have their college careers to give us some indication of what they may bring to the table. Some areas of the roster look very strong, while others are not as reassuring.

So how do the various units on the team stack up against each other? Glad you asked! Here is my view of how they compare to one another. This is not an attempt to rank anyone against other teams. It is just an examination of the strengths and weaknesses of the roster with who is on hand and what we think we know.

1. Quarterback

Let’s start with a very non-controversial call.

Oh. Well, how about one that will really stir things up?

This obviously is a vote of confidence in Dak Prescott. There are two camps, with his ongoing contract situation just amplifying the debate. This comes down on the side of multiple analytical examinations of him that show he is a legitimate and well-rounded franchise quarterback. Additionally, he is still growing and developing.

Now the Cowboys have a functional starter filling the backup role in Andy Dalton, and an intriguing developmental prospect in Ben DiNucci. This may be the strongest the QB room has been since that ephemeral moment when Tony Romo was healthy and Prescott was a rookie.

There is another factor at work here. QB is the most important position on the team, and that increases the weight of the unit. If you have a good one, your offense should perform as long as the surrounding units are competent. And if there is better than average talent around the signal-caller, then things can get very good, indeed.

2. Wide receiver

Since we have already ventured into potentially controversial territory, let’s forge ahead. The Cowboys excitingly added CeeDee Lamb, arguably the best WR from this year’s draft, to a pair of 1,100 yard receivers in Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup. The depth is the only question here, but the three starters are a combination of proven production and great potential. With the defense not stacking up nearly as well as the offense, the ability to move the ball and score is vital to the success of the team.

Team 40 burger may be a real thing with this trio.

3. Offensive line

Not long ago, this was the consensus best unit on the team. Now, they have one very real question in who will fill the void left by the retirement of Travis Frederick. For now, the focus is on this season, and we will have to see who will be the starter for the opening game, with Joe Looney, Connor McGovern, and Tyler Biadasz all possible heirs.

The rest of the line is still in good shape, with All Pros Zack Martin and Tyron Smith as a foundation. Martin is arguably the best overall player on the roster, and Smith’s only question mark is his health. He has missed games in the past three seasons, but when he is good to go, he is still one of the better tackles in the league. La’el Collins is a candidate for the most underrated right tackle playing, and might have already surpassed Smith in overall value - although that is not a knock on Smith at all. It is just recognition of how good Collins really is.

That just leaves left guard, where many seem eager to see Connor Williams supplanted, with McGovern as the most likely suspect. But I fully expect Williams to retain his starting job, and show improvement this year.

4. Linebackers

After an outstanding performance in 2018, this unit took a step back last season. Part of that was the neck issue affecting Leighton Vander Esch. Maybe I’m overly optimistic that is cleared up, but I expect a real rebound for him. Jaylon Smith is very talented, and there are some hints that the new defensive staff is going to do more to play to his strengths. Particularly intriguing is the much discussed idea of using a SAM/designated pass rushing linebacker. Smith seems ideally suited to make that work.

Sean Lee provides depth and the ability to play any position should Smith be utilized in that SAM/DPR role. Joe Thomas and some intriguing younger players offer good options as both backups and special teams players.

5. Running backs/fullback

This will look like disrespect to Ezekiel Elliott, but that is not the intent. Just as the quarterback position gets a boost because of its importance, running back slides a bit due to the decreased value of the position in the pass-centric environment of the NFL. And there is a real depth issue. Tony Pollard has tons of potential, but more as a change-of-pace back than as Elliott’s backup. Outside of those two, there are just a bunch of unknowns vying for a potential RB3 job.

Fullback is almost an afterthought for many NFL teams, and Jason Garrett is no longer around with his attachment to the position. Mike McCarthy has shown an ability to use the position effectively in the past, but it is hardly central to his philosophy. He also is indicating that Kellen Moore will make the important decisions on this. We have to see how the position will be used, and who will win the job as UDFA Sewo Olonilua is seen as a legitimate challenger to Jamize Olawale. However, Olonilua is also a possible RB3 candidate based on his usage in college.

6. Defensive line

If everything works out, the D line may deserve a higher ranking. But this is one place where the unknowns really enter in. DeMarcus Lawrence is the cornerstone, and he is excellent. Tyrone Crawford is both solid and versatile, although not a real building block. There were multiple exciting additions to the team in Gerald McCoy, Dontari Poe, Aldon Smith, and Neville Gallimore. But we can’t be certain what they will add, with McCoy and Poe both looking to rebound a bit from their last seasons, and Smith having been out of the game for so long while suspended. For now, they represent one of the major question marks. At least there is reason to be hopeful things will come together.

7. Specialists

They matter. Long snapper is no problem with L.P. Ladouceur still perfect. There is a real competition for place kicker with Greg Zeurlein and Kai Forbath, and we will have to see how that shakes out. Chris Jones had a down year punting, but the team has not brought in someone to push him - yet. That is a bit of unease at two of the three specialist positions, leading to their low ranking.

8. Tight end

Blake Jarwin is a potential breakout candidate. After him, however, there is little to excite in this group. A possible amelioration of this may come from a reduction of the in-line TE role under Moore. It is one more thing that we hope will significantly change with Garrett’s departure as well as Jason Witten moving on. Still, this is the second weakest group the Cowboys have.

9. Secondary

The best defensive back on the team left in free agency when the Cowboys did not see fit to match Byron Jones’ price tag. Now they have to rely on Anthony Brown, Jourdan Lewis, and Chidobe Awuzie, who may wind up switching to safety. They did draft both Trevon Diggs and Reggie Robinson II, which helps. But when you have not one but two rookies who may be in the mix for starting jobs, it doesn’t inspire confidence.

Safety is even more unsettled, as evidenced by the Awuzie rumors. Xavier Woods is the best returning player here, and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix could be a big help, but he could be on the back end of his career and not work out as well as we hope. The team did not draft a safety this year, and Donovan Wilson is the best hope from the remaining safeties on the roster.

That is one man’s ranking. And it is rather subjective. You may not share my priorities or perceptions, so let us know how you would stack things.