Although the Cowboys’ training camp has technically been going on for a couple of weeks already, the team will have its first real practice on Friday. While the time spent thus far has been on the players and coaches safely returning to the team’s practice facilities in Frisco, it’s finally time for players to get out on the field and do some work.
Mike McCarthy says next Friday (August 14th) will be the Dallas Cowboys' first practice in shells.— RJ Ochoa (@rjochoa) August 7, 2020
With this being the first kind of action any of the Cowboys players will have seen for the 2020 season, it’s also the first opportunity for players to start fighting for their roster spots. With no preseason games, it’ll be difficult for some players to distinguish themselves, which makes these practices all the more important. As the action begins, let’s take stock with a 53-man roster projection.
This one seems pretty obvious. Dak Prescott is the franchise quarterback and Andy Dalton is the best backup quarterback in the league. Mike McCarthy would probably like to keep rookie Ben DiNucci on the final roster, but with so much certainty at the position, he’s a prime candidate for the practice squad.
Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard are getting the lion’s share of the workload here. After those two, it’s a little unclear. Jamize Olawale’s decision to opt out bodes well for converted fullback Sewo Olonilua, and his former TCU teammate Darius Anderson has enough to offer on special teams to lock down the RB3 role.
The first three are locks, and frankly it’d be a surprise to see any other receiver see more than 20 targets all season. But Cedrick Wilson has familiarity in Kellen Moore’s scheme, especially given his Boise State roots, and he’s shown an ability to contribute on special teams. After that, it’s a crapshoot. Ventell Bryant had some flashes near the end of last year, and Jon’Vea Johnson would’ve made the final roster last year if not for catching a case of the butter fingers in preseason games.
Blake Jarwin is expected to be the sole starting tight end, and McCarthy brought Blake Bell in during free agency for a reason. There will be an interesting battle for the third tight end spot, but undrafted rookie Sean McKeon might have the combination of blocking and receiving skills to clinch a spot.
We know Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, and La’el Collins are starters for sure. Connor Williams, Joe Looney, Connor McGovern, and Tyler Biadasz are all competing for starting spots, making them virtual locks as well. Cameron Erving’s experience as a starter and versatility playing all five positions probably means he’s on the roster too. After that, Brandon Knight offers some good depth at tackle while Adam Redmond shouldn’t be counted out either.
It seems as if McCarthy prefers to roll with four defensive tackles and six defensive ends, which helps narrow things down. Gerald McCoy, Dontari Poe, and Neville Gallimore are safe bets at tackle, creating a battle between Antwaun Woods and Trysten Hill for the last spot. While Hill offers more upside, Woods’ ability to serve multiple roles in the trenches helps him.
On the edges, it’s clear that DeMarcus Lawrence, Tyrone Crawford, and Everson Griffen are locks. Aldon Smith and Bradlee Anae aren’t necessarily guaranteed to make it, and overwhelmingly poor performances in practice could cost them their jobs, but they’re more likely than not making the roster. After that, Dorance Armstrong narrowly wins out, although a reinstatement of Randy Gregory could push Armstrong out the door.
Leighton Vander Esch
The top four are locks to make the roster, but after that it largely depends on how many linebackers Dallas aims to keep. Comments from McCarthy, Mike Nolan, and Leighton Vander Esch all hint at a lot of nickel being played this year, so the Cowboys might opt to go heavy in the secondary and light at linebacker. If that’s the case, Francis Bernard has the traits to beat out Justin March.
Things get a bit messy at this spot because of the potential positional flexibility. Chidobe Awuzie might play safety, as could Daryl Worley and Reggie Robinson, and there’s questions about who plays in the slot. Ultimately, it’s likely the Cowboys roll with just three true safeties, knowing that Awuzie, Robinson, and Worley can all play on the back end in a pinch. The bigger question is which of these players earns starting snaps.
Whereas some of these positional groups seem pretty locked in, this one is literally no competition. There’s only one kicker, one punter, and one long snapper on the roster. The only threat is the free agent pool at this point. Unless things change, these three are the specialists for the 2020 season.