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A position-by-position look at how the Cowboys will build their 2020 roster

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The situation this year is vastly different, and projecting the players who make the Cowboys has to be adjusted.

NFL Combine - Day 2
Decisions, decisions, decisions.
Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images

It’s projected roster season! Every year, we pour over the names going into training camp for the Dallas Cowboys and start figuring out who may make the 53-man roster. Some of us also dig into possible practice squad signees. There will often be multiple iterations as we digest the news out of training camp and preseason games, and fold that in with what we were able to glean from OTAs and minicamps.

Yeah. That ain’t how it’s gonna work this year. Everything except training camp has been eliminated, and practices are curtailed in camp. And for reasons that aren’t exactly clear, coverage of camp is now restricted to a limited pool of reporters, specific portions, and with only one videographer and one still photographer allowed. Putting together our hypothetical rosters is going to be even more a matter guesswork and speculation.

It’s not just us, either. Mike McCarthy and staff are also limited by all that is being missed, although they at least will have up close observation of the practices to work on.

The decisions are just not the same. There is more complexity because of the uncertainty, but there also might be some simplicity just because there is so much less hard data to work with.

The size of the practice squad has also increased temporarily to 16, and teams now can protect four of their PS players every week from being signed away from them. There are also some provisions just to cover promotions due to COVID cases, which is not the same as IR in these bizarre times. That is in addition to the already established ability to elevate two PS players per week to the active roster, making the 53-man roster effectively 55, and not having to expose the elevated players to a waiver claim to return them to the squad. That adds another new factor to the equation.

So before any of us start compiling those rosters, here are some things to keep in mind. Many are unique to this strange time, but there are certainly others that would apply in any case that have to be remembered.

By positions group:

Specialists

Let’s start with the easiest one, although it is more complicated than it has been in a while. While LP Ladouceur is the presumptive long snapper, the team has an open competition set up between Kai Forbath and Greg Zeurlein. Frankly, you might as well flip a coin there, because the portions of camp that are cut off to video could include their kicking. If there is a clear leader, it should emerge from the reporters - but this was likely to be a close thing, anyway. The lack of preseason games could really leave us in the dark here.

Chris Jones currently has no competition on the roster. If the team signs a punter before the start of the season, then we may be in the same boat as with kicker. If not, then they have to roll with him.

Quarterbacks

This may be even easier. Dak Prescott starts, Andy Dalton backs him up, and Clayton Thorson is the designated camp arm. That just leaves Ben DiNucci, and the decision for him is whether the team carries three QBs on the game-day roster, or is comfortable with stashing him on the PS. The rules for this year make that even more attractive with the shielding provision. That will carry over to any player that is right on the margin of the game-day roster.

Running backs/fullbacks

This is the first really interesting spot to consider, and it is mostly because of the fullback position. The Cowboys have only four running backs set to enter camp, with Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard obvious locks. The others are two UDFAs and Dallas went much of last season with only Elliott and Pollard active, anyway.

But another UDFA in camp this season is fullback Sewo Olonilua, and he is interesting. His college career was as a halfback, although he certainly has a fullback’s size. He may be more than just competition for Jamize Olawale for a lone roster position. McCarthy has a history of creative and effective use of fullbacks. It always appeared that the coaching staff underused Olawale, who seems to be a good athlete and a possible weapon in the passing game. Now they have two fullbacks like that, which could open up a whole bag of tricks.

Just one example: Put a 12 package on the field, which looks like a running play. Then motion the fullback out to the slot, or kick the tight end out and let the FB line up in his place. Suddenly it looks like a pass play, but as the defense adjusts to the motion, they would pull a defender out of the box, which could make the run the best decision. While having a proven receiver as your fullback is not a necessity to make this work, it certainly is more threatening if the player, as both Olawale and Olonilua have shown, is a threat with the ball in his hands.

Now add in that Olonilua could also serve as RB3, and this is an interesting experiment. It would have been a lot more likely if the team had a normal camp and preseason to work with, but it still might be something they consider. Two RBs and two FBs is an unusual look, but this is a group that might make it possible.

So how many backs total do the Cowboys take into the regular season? It could be anywhere from three to five, and anyone except the three starters from last season (counting Olawale as one) could be put on the PS. It’s anyone’s guess as to how the staff comes down on this.

Tight ends

Blake Jarwin has the starting job in hand. Dalton Schultz and Blake Bell seem set to fight it out for the TE2 spot. UDFA Sean McKeon is an interesting wild card.

But how many will the team carry? Three or four? It is entirely possible that the plan is to largely eliminate multiple TE sets, which could make them lean towards three, or maybe even just carry two to use a spot elsewhere.

Wide receiver

The three starters are set, and they are an exciting trio to consider. But after Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and CeeDee Lamb, the backups spots are wide open. The recent news that Jon’Vea Johnson is now on the reserve/COVID list after a positive test takes one of the fan favorites out of the mix. The backup jobs are now a free for all, and would have been a real highlight of preseason games.

Sigh.

Offensive line

Had there been a normal camp and preseason, there would have been a lot of interest in whether Tyler Biadasz could compete for the starting job, or if Connor McGovern could push Connor Williams at left guard. Now, those seem unworkable camp battles. Look for the starting line to be Tyron Smith, Williams, Joe Looney, Zack Martin, and La’el Collins. McGovern is a solid backup in the interior. And the new CBA has some special provisions that affect the offensive line. Teams basically have to carry eight on the active roster, which is now 46, or be penalized one spot. It probably makes elevating an OL from the PS a matter of course for some. The Cowboys may just obviate all that by carrying eight or more all season.

In any case, the backup positions will be where the camp battles are relevant, and things are quite uncertain outside McGovern. Swing tackle has multiple candidates, including Brandon Knight, Mitch Hyatt, and possibly Cameron Erving, who is listed as under contract by Over the Cap, but not shown on the unofficial roster at the mothership. Adam Redmond is listed as a C/G, so he might be a good bet as another depth player.

Defensive ends

It’s a bit crowded. DeMarcus Lawrence and Tyrone Crawford seem likely to be the starters early in the season, and Aldon Smith is hoped to get more and more into the mix as he gets back into football shape. Dorance Armstrong has the advantage of experience with the team, while Bradlee Anae is expected to make the cut, although both Jalen Jelks and Joe Jackson may have something to say about that. Remember how players can be protected on the PS, and all would be eligible. Ron’Dell Carter is one more player that we miss getting to see in preseason. McCarthy has stated he prefers six ends and four tackles on his defensive roster, so that is good for planning.

Sadly, it looks increasingly like Randy Gregory will not be reinstated.

Defensive tackles

Gerald McCoy, Dontari Poe, and third-round pick Neville Gallimore are the foundation for this group. That leaves a fourth spot, and Antwaun Woods has just been re-signed. That could leave Trysten Hill on the outside looking in as another PS stash. At the least, he is going to have to show a lot to earn a game day spot.

Linebackers

Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch are your starters in the nickel, or the real base defense. Sean Lee provides excellent depth, and Joe Thomas has a good reputation as a backup as well. There will probably be two more carried as special teams assets. UDFA Francis Bernard may be in that mix, and Luke Gifford also seems to be highly thought of. The rest will have to prove themselves in practice, which may be hard for us to follow.

Cornerbacks

With the previously mentioned limitations, veterans Chidobe Awuzie, Anthony Brown, and Jourdan Lewis should be safe. So should second-round pick Trevon Diggs. The Cowboys often load up on corner at the cost of safety, which makes sense with so much nickel, and that has free agent acquisition Daryl Worley in play. But keep a spot open for C.J. Goodwin, who is a real value to special teams.

Safeties

Xavier Woods, free agent Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, and Donovan Wilson seem to have the inside track. The fourth spot, assuming they carry four, would apparently go to Darian Thompson, who is the only other safety on the roster at the moment. They may have an eye on converting a corner, but that remains to be seen.

There just seem to be more variables this year. and having sixteen PS positions offers additional flexibility. It all adds up to more uncertainty about who makes the roster than ever.