Next week, the Dallas Cowboys start their OTAs and finish the offseason program after that with the full minicamp. That begins the long, dry spell until training camp comes around. For many of us, that is the real beginning of the NFL season. Yes, we know it is just practices, and the offseason games don’t count.
Well, not exactly. Those practices and games before the regular season do count a lot in one respect. That is where the staff decides who to keep on the roster, and what roles they will fill. It is why we follow a bunch of drills and watch games whose lineups have almost none of the regular season starters on the field. Opportunities exist for all the players who make it to camp. While the starters and some key backups will be handled carefully, some of the new players with Dallas will be fighting for their future.
At many positions, particularly on defense, we are not going to be looking just to see who makes the 53, or whether they are a starter or backup. There are a lot of roles that have to be determined. With Dan Quinn making some significant adjustments to the defense, things may not be at all what we are used to.
Here are some of the things that are of interest to see in camp.
This is the obvious one, with the Cowboys drafting both Micah Parsons and Jabril Cox and signing free agent Keanu Neal with the intent of having him play linebacker rather than safety. That follows a lackluster (to be kind) season for Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch.
Both Smith and Vander Esch do not seem in any danger of being cut. Not only would they not save any cap space and create a ton of dead money, the Cowboys don’t like to admit they made big mistakes. And by “Cowboys,” I clearly mean Jerry and Stephen Jones.
But just because you can safely predict both will be on the roster, that does not mean that they will still be starters. Even if they are listed that way Week 1 of the season, that may change quite rapidly. Parsons, Cox, and Neal all are just as assured of a spot on the roster. There is a question of how many linebackers will be carried, since that is often a key resource for special teams. Francis Bernard and Luke Gifford will be trying to make a case to stick in that role more than anything, with no assurances either will be around come September.
Meanwhile, who’s the MIKE? Parsons is being projected for that role, and as the first-round pick for Dallas, he has an excellent chance of being the starter sooner than later. Cox has a reputation for being best in pass defense. Given the emphasis on that aspect of the game in the NFL, he could wrest a starting job as the WILL, or stake out a key role in passing downs. Neal also could challenge to become the starter.
Smith and Vander Esch will have to work harder than most incumbents to hang onto starting roles, and I would predict that at least one will lose that designation very early, with both likely to be in backup roles by the latter part of the season. While the SAM job on early downs, assuming they still use that rather than just going nickel all the time, is very much a question, we will probably see Parsons, Cox, and Neal all on the field at times by midseason, if not earlier.
Camp and preseason performance will tell the tale here, and it should be a heated battle throughout this position.
A big guy on the defensive line?
Quinn prefers to carry five tackles and five ends, which would be a change from recent seasons. And it finally looks like the Cowboys will find an early down run-stuffer. The hope from the draft class is Quentin Bohanna, who played at around 350 in college, but was reported to be down to 327 prior to the draft. That still makes him the biggest guy on the D line, and the staff may want him to add some muscle to get back up in weight. He has a good chance to make the roster as a draft pick, but as a sixth-rounder, it is not assured. Bohanna still has to prove his value.
Since the majority of defensive downs will be in situations where the pass is the biggest concern, those will likely have two of the remaining DTs on the field. Trysten Hill is coming back off of injury after looking much improved in the few games he played, and Neville Gallimore grew a lot over last season. Osi Odighizuwa is probably assured a roster spot as third-rounder, which could mean Justin Hamilton can claim the last spot, assuming the five DT formula is what Quinn is sticking with. However, competition could come from Brent Urban. He is listed as a DE on the current roster at DallasCowboys.com, but his reputation as a solid run defender could make him a candidate to move inside.
DeMarcus Lawrence is your every down starter, with solid ability against both the run and the pass. If he remains at DE, Urban could wind up the nominal starter opposite Lawrence because of that ability as a run defender. Randy Gregory is probably going to be the designated pass rusher on most downs.
That leaves Bradlee Anae, Dorance Armstrong, Tarell Bashan, Ron’Dell Carter, Chauncey Golston, and Carlos Watkins fighting for what may be only two remaining spots, although Urban could also be beaten out. Golston was a third-round selection, which should give him some protection. But more than one of these are going to be on the outside looking in when the final releases are made after camp. Just the numbers alone should make this a heated battle.
Dallas has nine on the roster, and at most they will carry six, with five perhaps more likely. Trevon Diggs is a lock, of course. Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis have a leg up due to experience. The Cowboys drafted Kelvin Joseph and Nahshon Wright. Both are certain to be on the roster, Joseph because he was taken in the second, and Wright as much because he was seen as a significant reach in the third. (See previous reference to the Jones family.)
That leaves maybe one more job for the remaining five players to fight over. Again, numbers alone ensure this will be worth watching.
Donovan Wilson will be the starting strong safety. Demontae Kazee is expected to be a true free safety, but there is still some concern over his recovery from injury. The Cowboys drafted Israel Mukuamu to play safety. He was another late round “makeup” pick as the team once again failed to use much draft capital to address what remains a real need, but expect the staff to give him every chance to earn a spot. Jayron Kearse is a free agent acquisition who is somewhat overlooked, and may have an inside track for the fourth safety spot, unless they go short there to carry an additional corner. The player who is most likely to challenge Kearse is Darian Thompson, who saw a lot of action last season. He may be something of a temporary fix if Kazee is not fully healthy to start the year.
The team is expressing nothing but confidence that Tyron Smith and La’el Collins will be back and ready to hold down the starting jobs, but we learned just how important quality backups are. They simply did not have enough depth last year when Brandon Knight and Terrance Steele were forced onto the field. However, both grew a lot, and have to be considered contenders to keep their roster spots this year.
The Cowboys were not content to assume they were the best options, however, and signed free agent Ty Nsecke, then followed up by drafting Josh Ball. The swing tackle job looks to be wide open and the preseason games should be particularly revealing. They will also be looking to stash a tackle on the practice squad, and that may become the plan for Steele or Knight.
Interior offensive line
The name to watch here is draftee Matt Farniok. He played all five offensive line positions in college, and being able to backup both center and guard may win him a roster spot.
We know who the big three are, and Cedrick Wilson and Noah Brown look to have a pretty good hold on spots four and five. But Simi Fehoko could challenge for five, or more likely could make the case for the team to carry six on the 53. He’s probably going to have pet cat status for a lot of people.
Garrett Gilbert is the presumptive leader here, but Cooper Rush will be trying to make a case to supplant him, and the team has been kicking the tires on some other veteran options. It could be the end of the Ben DiNucci experiment as well. Don’t be surprised to see a signing that pushes one of these names off the roster before camp even starts.
Sewo Olonilua may face a challenge from one of the UDFA backs signed, JaQuan Hardy or Brenden Knox. But the real battle here may be just seeing if Dallas can figure out how to get some production from the position.
We even have a camp battle looming between Bryan Anger and Hunter Niswander. Anger has the advantage of ties to special teams coordinator John Fassel, who really likes his old players, but Niswander did a very good job last year and should not be discounted.
That covers every unit on the team except tight end, where Blake Jarwin, Sean McKeon, and Dalton Schultz seem to be your likely trio. It will make for some exciting times when camp finally rolls around.