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Five Cowboys players who are lost in the weeds

These Cowboys are somewhere between overlooked and under-the-radar, with a little premature dismissal thrown in.

Dallas Cowboys v New York Giants
I can’t even find a picture of him wearing his new number.
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

With the entire Dallas Cowboys roster now officially on break before the beginning of training camp in Oxnard, a lot of coverage is about the usual suspects. Dak Prescott, the other players coming back from injury, Micah Parsons and the rest of the rookies, free agents, and the plight of Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch. Well, not this one. Every year there are players who just fade from sight before camp despite still being on the roster. Some will never emerge, but others, due to unexpectedly strong performances or misfortune for others, wind up having a bigger role in the fall than we imagined. None are challenging to be starters at this point, but depth is vital. 2020 was a harsh example.

Here are some of the players who are, at the moment, somewhat buried in the depth chart, but perhaps should warrant more attention. All will be trying to stake their claim in training camp.

Cedrick Wilson

Oh, sure, everyone and their weird uncle know that Wilson is the presumptive WR4. But almost all discussion of the best unit on the roster focuses on the three players ahead of him, all of whom are expected to be at least flirting with 1,100 yard seasons. (Don’t talk to me anymore about 1,000 yards. With a seventeen game schedule, that simply is not that impressive.) Only having 189 yards receiving and two TDs last season also doesn’t help put him more in the spotlight.

But here’s a prediction that Wilson is going to have a much better year, in the 500 to 600 yard range. Here are several reasons why.

  • All those injured offensive players are back, and Dan Quinn should get more out of the defense. That should lead to fewer games the Cowboys are trying to claw their way back, which should logically lead to leaning on Wilson to give the starters a breather later in games.
  • The expanded schedule is also going to argue for more rest for the big three, with him the one they lean on.
  • With Michael Gallup in a contract year, Wilson is one of the candidates to take his spot as a starter, and the team is going to want to see more of what he brings to the table.
  • The third year is often the one where wide receivers really hit their stride, and it is year three for Wilson.

He is not exactly going to be a breakout player. Think of it more as breaking in.

Brandon Knight

The addition of free agent Ty Nsekhe and the drafting of Josh Ball have many thinking that they are the primary options for swing tackle. We learned how important depth at the position is last year. Knight, along with Terence Steele, was thrown abruptly into the fray last year. There were obvious growing pains, but by the end of the season, Knight in particular was proving he was able to hold his own enough to not be a detriment.

My theory is that experience will carry more weight than most expect when it comes time to set the 53-man roster. Knight knows the offense and Kellen Moore and Mike McCarthy know him. Despite Nsekhe’s years with other teams, Knight should still provide the best option to keep things on track if called on. Ball is a mid-round rookie who cannot be expected to overtake him, either. Figure on Knight being around for this year at a minimum.

Dorance Armstrong

In his three years, Armstrong really hasn’t shown as much as hoped. In his own contract year, he is often named as a veteran who is at great risk of not making the roster at all.

But wait a minute. Last year, Armstrong had more tackles than any defensive lineman except DeMarcus Lawrence and now-departed Aldon Smith. Randy Gregory would have surpassed him with a full schedule, but Armstrong is competing to be the third EDGE on the depth chart. He already may be, and having a visibly hands-on coach like Quinn may help him greatly. It is also possible that the chaos under Mike Nolan also depressed his production.

His main competition look to be Bradlee Anae, who basically was unused all last year, free agent Tarell Basham, and rookie Chauncey Golston. If the Cowboys do carry five EDGE rushers this year, then Armstrong could be in good shape, and not buried all that far down.

Things are complicated a bit by the expected usage of more 3-4 personnel packages, with the attendant uncertainty of how players like Brent Urban and Basham may fit in. Still, expect that Armstrong will defend his roster spot, and be more of a factor on the field.

Francis Bernard

He’s really a largely forgotten name. Admittedly, there are five linebackers who look all but certain to be ahead of him.

What works in his favor is that the team may well carry a sixth ‘backer. That would likely be as more of a special teams role player. John Fassel will likely have a deciding voice on at least a couple of the final roster spots, and if Bernard can prove his value there, he could get to wear the star again this fall. This is one thing that is often tipped in training camp by who is lining up for ST work. If Bernard keeps showing up for kickoff and punt work, then expect him to do so in the regular season.

Hunter Niswander

All he did was come in to effectively replace the injured Chris Jones, and frankly he turned out to be an upgrade. Now, however, he faces what should be a legitimate punting competition with Bryan Anger. Anger has a connection with Fassel in his past, and a lot of observers are reading that as giving him an inside track.

It shouldn’t. It really should come down to who is the most consistent and productive in both practices and the preseason games. Niswander can win this battle outright. It is true that Fassel might put his thumb on the scale. But that can only go so far. This truly has to be a case where the best punter wins.