It’s roster projection season for NFL fans and media. With the 90-man training camp roster mostly set, we will be spending much of the next three months trying to figure out who the Dallas Cowboys will keep for their 53-man roster. A lot of attention is understandably on the draft class. That is not, of course, the only way new players are brought in. While Dallas drafted eleven players, they have so far also signed ten veteran free agents from outside, with WR Johnnie Dixon the latest. In some cases these veterans are in direct competition with rookies, while others may be more complementary. In any case, the team has to make a decision on all of them.
Let’s make some guesses (contracts are included, because those do matter in roster decisions).
P Bryan Anger
One year, $1,212,500, $137,500 guaranteed
Many assume that Anger’s ties to ST coordinator John Fassel mean he is almost certain to get the punting job, but that is an easy contract to walk away from. This has all the hallmarks of a true camp competition, with the preseason games providing the most data. If Anger and Hunter Niswander are neck and neck, that Fassel connection may tip the scales. Otherwise, the team is just going to keep whichever leg looks the best.
EDGE Tarell Basham
Two years, $5.5 million, $1.25 million guaranteed
For the Cowboys, that is a pretty steep price to pay. The size of his guarantee also argues for his retention. He looks like competition for both Bradlee Anae and Dorance Armstrong. Oddly, according to Over the Cap, his entire 2021 salary of $2.5 million would become dead money. I don’t understand why that is, but we all know how Stephen Jones covets his cap space, so I think Basham will make the roster if he stays healthy and doesn’t just blow it in camp.
WR Johnnie Dixon
No contract details available
Given his injury history and lack of playing time, he is an extreme long shot to be anything more than a camp body.
S Damontae Kazee
One year, $1,125,500, $250,000 guaranteed
Kazee’s biggest asset is that he is a true free safety. He is also a Stephen Jones special, acquired at a bargain rate because of his injury history. Given the severity of the injury he suffered last year, it was a pleasant surprise to see him apparently a full participant in the OTAs. He also is a way to buy time while the team works on converting draftee Israel Mukuamu from cornerback to safety. He also could earn a new deal for 2022 if he works out well, although he might price himself out of Dallas with a strong season. But for this year, he is another you can plan on being on the roster.
LS Jake McQaide
One year, $1,212,500, $137,500 guaranteed
He’s the long snapper. Period.
LB Keanu Neal
Three years, last two voided, $4 million, $3 million guaranteed
Outside of McQuaide, he’s about as close a lock as you see with the Cowboys. He’s one of the five best linebackers on the team despite being switched from safety, and that guarantee indicates that he is in the plans for this season. It is structured as a one-year rental, and the team would have to work out a new deal to keep him beyond 2021. Still, you can fully expect to see him on the field, quite likely as a starter at some point, and sooner rather than later. Further, Dan Quinn seems to have some very specific ideas of how Neal’s skill set can make his defense click, and of course Neal played for the new defensive coordinator with the Atlanta Falcons. You can write his name in Sharpie.
OT Ty Nsekhe
One year, $1.75 million, $500,000 guaranteed
Some free agents are signed as insurance, and that looks exactly like what Nsekhe is. After the disastrous injury situation at offensive tackle, which saw both starters and the main backup out for the season by week three, it makes perfect sense to get a proven veteran to make sure the depth was there.
The problem for him is that the O line room is now kind of crowded. Not only are the starters back, but the two players who took most of the snaps filling in are back, and have to be considered for the swing tackle job. Both Brandon Knight and Terence Steele certainly grew a great deal over the season. The Cowboys also drafted two players who played tackle in college, although for Matt Forniok it was not his primary position. And as the linked article above points out, position flex may be a real objective this year.
Nsekhe should be one of those insurance policies you never make a claim on and have his half million to comfort him as he looks for a new team after the final cuts.
TE Jeremy Sprinkle
One year, $1,127,500, $137,500 guaranteed
Sprinkle’s situation with the Cowboys is tenuous. He is in a fight with Sean McKeon for the TE3 job. McKeon’s time with the team gives him an advantage here. There is also a chance that, if Blake Jarwin is fully recovered from his injury last year, that the team may just roll with him and Dalton Schultz. The plethora of wide receiver talent may just make using many two tight end sets unnecessary and allow them to save a roster spot by just carrying two. It would be highly unexpected for Sprinkle to stick around.
IDL Brent Urban
One year, $1.75 million, fully guaranteed
Urban, like Nsekhe, was signed to address a specific problem from last year. In this case, it was the putrid run defense, and stopping the run is his strong point. While his contract is not big enough to make him an absolute certainty, he also may fit a specific plan of Quinn’s the way Neal appear to. He has to have a Dontari Poe like collapse to not make the team for the season.
IDL Carlos Watkins
One year, $1.75 million, $400,000 guaranteed
He looks even more like Nsekhe, a player that the team would have no real problem releasing. He is going to have to fight his way onto the roster, and the odds are not in his favor. Expect Osa Odighizuwa and Quinton Bohanna to push him out with any kind of decent showing in July and August.
That’s one view of the free agents. This reflects the history the Cowboys have of using free agency to plug holes before the draft, and then cutting some of the new veterans loose if the draftees work out. That flexibility is one of the reasons they prefer such cheap deals in signing players. We are now less than two months away from the start of camp, which has not been formally announced, but can commence as soon as July 21st. That will start the real process of evaluation.
Football is coming.