It is really great to actually have some positive football stuff about the Dallas Cowboys to write about. Coach Mike McCarthy held a (virtual) press conference, which was far too exciting a moment for some of us news-starved fans and writers. Now that training camp is progressing, we can get serious about trying to figure out the roster for this season. While most focus on the names involved, there is a sort of preliminary step that gets overlooked. That is trying to determine how many roster spots will be filled by each position.
I do this just about every year around this time, and the strange aspects of COVID camp make it even more intriguing to me. It is no secret that I believe that camp battles will be even less a factor this year than normal. In a regular training camp, teams are often only looking at five or six open spots, with most starting jobs also already sorted out. With the greatly reduced practice time, there may be only three or four jobs really open this season, and the staff could probably name 21 of the 22 starters on offense and defense right now.
Where we have uncertainty is exactly how the roster spots will be used. There are still just 53 roster spots to divvy up, although the ability to elevate two practice squad players each week provides extra flexibility. In recent years, we could try and look at past tendencies to help. A new head coach and mostly revamped staff make that a bit less useful. On the other hand, McCarthy has dropped a few hints since coming to Dallas that help.
There’s another thing that is usually not given much consideration. The special teams also have to be manned, but only the three specialists are just for them. In figuring out how many of each position to carry, it is useful to remember which are most valuable for special teams. John Fassel is tasked with fixing the obvious issues they had last season, and that means he needs the right bodies.
As mentioned, the specialists take three slots right off the top. So here is an attempt to sort out the positions that will occupy the other 50, with the reasoning involved.
Quarterback - 2
You have Dak Prescott and Andy Dalton, so starter and backup are covered. The only viable option for a QB3 on the roster is seventh-round rookie Ben DiNucci, and he can be stashed on the practice squad. He is a desperation insurance policy at best, so he doesn’t need to be on the game day roster. There seems no chance whatsoever another team would try and poach him. This is actually good for the Cowboys, since that immediately frees one spot rather than having to protect a QB3.
Running back/fullback - 3
Dallas went much of last season with just two RBs and a FB, so this looks like the way to go. However, this could be just three running backs and no fullback at all after the opt out by Jamize Olawale. Sewo Olonilua is intriguing, but just one possible way the team could go. And outside of Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard, all Dallas has to work with are UDFAs, and just two of those. It does not look at all like McCarthy intends to go deep here.
Tight end - 4
But wait. All indications are that the tight end position is not going to be as important.
That may be an incomplete way of looking at things. Saying “tight ends are not going to be as important in the running game” seems more accurate. Also, looking at TEs more as H backs would be one way to finesse the fullback position.
Blake Jarwin is the starter, but the other three positions could be a true competition among the other five in camp. And remember that bit about special teams? Tight ends can get a lot of snaps when the Cowboys are punting and they need a fairly large lineman that can also go downfield to cover, as well as on other ST plays. That’s the logic here. Of course, if they added a fourth back to the mix, it would probably take one TE away.
Wide receiver - 6
We all expect the Cowboys to have an offense that leans more to passing the ball than in recent seasons. That argues for going heavy here, and depth WRs also are useful in the kicking game, especially if one of them emerges as a punt or kickoff return threat. Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and CeeDee Lamb have the starting jobs locked down. After them, there are eight players to sort out that represent the most missed aspect of the cancelled preseason games.
Offensive line - 9
I’ll give you my prediction on names here. The starters will be Tyron Smith, Connor Williams, Joe Looney, Zack Martin, and La’el Collins. Connor McGovern and Tyler Biadasz will be the interior depth, with Cameron Erving and Brandon Knight swing tackles. One of the latter pair will be inactive each week depending on how they shake out in practices.
Total offense - 24
It seems contradictory to discuss an offensive-minded approach this year, but go short on personnel. That comes down to special teams again, which we’ll cover in a bit.
Defensive end - 6
Defensive tackle - 4
McCarthy makes this easy, having stated clearly that he likes to carry those numbers on his roster. We won’t even bother with who gets the roster spots, just let the coaches sort it all out.
Linebacker - 7
And here you go with one of the most important pools for ST players. You aren’t going to want to risk the top three of Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch, and Sean Lee on teams. Joe Thomas and Justin March both provided good value last year in that role as well as backing up, the team thinks Luke Gifford has something to offer, and are very interested in UDFA Francis Bernard. That’s all the LBs they have in camp, and I am predicting all seven just need to stay healthy to have a roster spot.
It also is worth remembering that new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan likes to be creative with linebackers, and probably wants as much depth as he can get.
Cornerbacks - 6
Here, something that McCarthy said in his presser is very pertinent. This was in response to a question about Chidobe Awuzie playing safety.
Coach sidestepped this issue specifically, but did note that they like players being flexible. Can a player play outside and in the nickel as a slot corner, can they move between corner and safety? He said that having as many players able to play positions on the perimeter is a bonus.
“I think this, yes, we definitely want flexibility back there. If you get into the personnel meetings that we’ve already started with Will McClay and Stephen and Jerry, with the players it’s so important that you have to have at least two things you do. If you’re a corner, does he have the ability to play nickel, does he have the ability to be a primary player on special teams, so that’s a common thread in our approach to how we’re building or roster. If our corners have safety ability, and vice-versa, and they can play inside or outside, we all understand that it’s a sub-defense and sub-offense game. We cannot have enough perimeter players.”
That indicates that talent will be the key, not position designation. And the Cowboys are much stronger at corner than at safety this year. Fassel will also be looking to defensive backs for his packages, so going a bit heavy here makes a lot of sense.
Safety - 3
Dallas only has four in camp. They could keep all of them, but those McCarthy comments indicate this is more likely. It does involve what might be a bit too much reading into things, but there is a hope that there will be more press man coverage with a single-high safety. Given the limited practice time to get the defense up to speed, man coverage seems far easier to have ready than a lot of zones.
Total defense - 26
Going heavy here is really to benefit Fassel. That just looks wise.
Add in the three specialists, and here is a tabular look at this prediction.
Cowboys roster by position