As free agency continues, one of the often animated discussions we have is about how much the Dallas Cowboys have improved their roster. It is a valid concern. Over time, most analysis is centered on what has been done compared to last year, but focused more on what the team took to training camp, or even the final 53. It should be obvious to anyone who thinks about it that the roster is still a work in progress.
So to try and get a better read on the situation, let’s look at the current players signed (or about to be) and compare it with the roster the team had exactly one year ago, or at the same point in the offseason. Fortunately for this, the website Ourlads keeps an archive of the roster of each NFL team, showing who was on each the beginning of each month - including the entire offseason. By looking at the 4/1/2020 roster for the Cowboys, we can see how the team has or hasn’t improved each position at the same point. It is more informative than trying to compare the players under contract at this time with what the team was like by May or July or September of last year.
One note, there are some names that the team has under contract or are about to sign that Ourlads doesn’t show in their current roster. They have been included.
Here’s a fun fact. The two quarterbacks that are back from this time a year ago are Dak Prescott and Cooper Rush. Rush is frequently ignored by people discussing this in social media, perhaps due to his leaving and then being signed back.
Clayton Thorsen was the third QB a year ago, which you may be forgiven for forgetting. Now, the Cowboys have Garrett Gilbert and Ben DiNucci as QB3/4. Given the way Gilbert almost led the team to a win last season in his only start, which may actually make him the de facto QB2, it looks like a stronger room. Of course, Prescott being back, under contract, and apparently on track to be fully healthy for the season is the biggest factor here. This was all pre-Andy Dalton.
Arrow pointing: Up, slightly.
Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard return. Rico Dowdle has replaced Jordan Chunn as RB3, while Sewo Olonilua took over the fullback job from Jamize Olawale, who has been released after sitting out last year under the COVID rules.
Arrow pointing: Up a bit as well
Blake Jarwin and Dalton Schultz are both back as TE1 and TE2. If Jarwin stays healthy, this is stronger now than it was a year ago, because Schultz had to play virtually the entire season, and by the end was clearly at least a competent NFL tight end. Cole Hikituni has been waived, and UDFA signee Sean McKeon replaces Blake Bell. Bell was decent, especially as a blocker, so that is a minor step back, but the experience Schultz gained more than offsets that.
Arrow pointing: Again, slightly up
The Cowboys return the top four from last year, Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, Cedrick Wilson, and Noah Brown. But now CeeDee Lamb is entrenched as a starter, and is probably WR2. Gallup is a heck of a WR3 to have, and Wilson and Brown are not bad depth at all. They didn’t see a lot of action, but Wilson contributed two touchdown receptions.
Malik Turner. Stephen Guidry, and Aaron Parker are the only other WRs they currently have, which means that the group will be fleshed out for camp via the draft and UDFA signings. The only name from last year that really is worth mentioning is Jon’Vea Johnson, who was released earlier in March.
Arrow pointing: Clearly up, just because of Lamb.
At this time last year, they only had Tyron Smith, La’el Collins, Brandon Knight, and Mitch Hyatt under contract, since Cam Erving had not been signed yet. That looked good since we had no idea that Smith and Collins would both be lost by just a couple of games into the season.
Now, Smith and Collins are back, and hoped to be healthy. They have Knight back with a lot of experience after so many starts, and Terrence Steele also was forced into a lot of plays, with clear growth over the year. They added veteran Ty Nsekhe as a swing tackle, and have William Sweet, Eric Smith, and Isaac Alarcón for camp, with the opportunity to perhaps keep one on the practice squad. In any case, the depth looks much better.
Arrow pointing: Up, depending on health for the starters.
Interior offensive line
The projected starters at this point last year were Connor Williams, Joe Looney, and Zack Martin, with Connor McGovern, Adam Redmond, Mitch Hyatt, Henry Marcus, and Cody Wichmann as depth. Hyatt is still shown as under contract by Over the Cap, but the others are gone.
Now Looney has also left, and Tyler Biadasz is the heir apparent at center. This looks a little thin, so it is likely they will look for more depth later in the draft.
Arrow pointing: Let’s say this position is flat at the moment. Looney was solid, and we have to see if Biadasz pans out the way we hope. However, McGovern got a lot of work last season and hopefully will be better for it, so this might be a tad on the pessimistic side.
Defensive end/pass rusher
DeMarcus Lawrence, Joe Jackson, Dorance Armstrong, Tyrone Crawford, Jalen Jelks, and Daniel Ross were the whole group here. That was not much, and would lead to a lot of additions through both free agency and the draft, but remember, we are looking just at what they had at the time.
Now Lawrence and Armstrong are joined by Randy Gregory, Bradlee Anae, Tarell Basham, Ron’Dell Carter, and Ladarius Hamilton. That is a much stronger group than last season, even if you take the unproven nature of several into account.
Arrow pointing: Up, especially given the addition of Gregory.
Gerald McCoy, Dontari Poe, Trysten Hill, and Antwaun Woods were the group, with Crawford also counting due to his position flex. McCoy would be lost early in camp, Poe was a clear failure, and after a promising start to his season, Hill would go on IR in the first weeks of the season.
This was a big focus in free agency, with Brent Urban and Carlos Watkins both joining the team. Woods is back, Hill will hopefully be fully recovered, and the team also has Neville Gallimore, Justin Hamilton, and the little known Walter Palmore on the roster. Again, with the value of hindsight, this looks to be an improved part of the roster. And as badly as the IDL performed last year, it may be enough to make a big difference, especially in the run game.
Arrow pointing: Up
This was a pretty full room at this point a year ago. Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch, and Sean Lee seemed a solid trio of starters, Joe Thomas and Justin March were quality depth and ST contributors, and they had Luke Gifford and Chris Covington vying for spots.
Smith and Vander Esch would struggle all season, to put it kindly. Thomas, March, and Covington are gone, while Lee is mulling retirement. Joining Smith and LVE now are Gifford, Francis Bernard, and Azur Kamara. It is not only thin, but very unproven. However, both Keanu Neal and Jayron Kearse are expected to be used as WLBs at times, so that may help.
Arrow pointing: Clearly down, and begging for some additions.
The Cowboys had Chidobe Awuzie, Anthony Brown, and Jourdan Lewis as their top three, with CJ Goodwin, Maurice Canady, Deante Burton, DJ White, and Chris Westry for depth.
Awuzie has left for greener pastures, Canady is still under contract after sitting out under the COVID rules, Trevon Diggs has a solid hold on a starting spot, with Brown and Lewis the other starters pending the draft. Burton is still around, and Reggie Robinson II may be a corner or a safety. Rashard Robinson and Saivion Smith are also shown under contract.
It’s certain that corner will be a target in the draft, perhaps at 10. But for now, things seem to be a bit uncertain.
Arrow pointing: We’ll call it flat given the departure of Awuzie.
All they had on board were Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Xavier Woods, Donovan Wilson, and Darian Thompson. Clinton-Dix would be released at the end of camp, and Woods is another loss in free agency.
Wilson and Thompson have now been joined by Demonta Kazee, who if healthy will be a true free safety for Dallas. Neal and Kearse are also part of the mix as hybrid players. Robinson II likely will be playing as a safety, and Stephen Parker rounds out the bunch.
Arrow pointing: Up, providing Kazee is indeed good to go after his injury last year.
Chris Jones, LP Ladouceur, and Greg Zuerlein seemed pretty entrenched. Surprisingly, Ladouceur was not brought back, with old John Fassel hand Jake McQuaide replacing him. And Hunter Niswander stepped in effectively for Jones and won the job for this year.
Arrow pointing: Just a tick up based on the way Niswander performed last season and the expectation that McQuaide is just about as reliable long snapping.
It’s still early, with free agency still ongoing and the draft now just a month away. But it may surprise many to see how many positions are already looking better than they did last year, with a couple pretty convincingly on the upswing.
This has been an attempt to get our expectations more in line with reality. It’s also an attempt to reconcile some differences from the varying sources about who is actually on the roster at this point, and any errors are on me. While the brain trust for the Cowboys still have a lot of work to do, the offseason has gone well. So far.