Between now and August 31st, NFL teams will have to accomplish the harshest part of the preseason and that’s deciding who makes the 53-man roster. The Dallas Cowboys have a lot of players in their 90-man offseason pool that currently look to be in a group of perhaps ten or fifteen players that will vie for the final five to seven spots. It isn’t just about talent, however. In order to figure out the cuts, the staff has to figure out just how many players they can carry at each position. If they go heavy somewhere, another spot has to be light.
This is an attempt to break down things and allocate all 53 slots available.
Quarterback - 2
Right off the bat, we are peering closely at the tea leaves to try and sort this out. Dak Prescott is the most obvious name on the entire roster, but how many backups will they have for game day? All indications point to just one, though there is no clear choice for QB2. At the moment, Garrett Gilbert seems to be the choice. We still have to see if they will look at veterans, and this could include looking at who are among the cuts on other teams. That is still a case of sorting through leftovers. This prediction is also predicated on Ben DiNucci showing enough progress to try and stash him on the practice squad as an emergency resource. Barring unforeseen developments, there simply isn’t a good candidate for QB3 in the house.
Running back - 3
You can put Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard down in ink, and expect both to see almost no exposure in preseason games, just as Prescott will be held out. There has to be at least one more, and Rico Dowdle is a good bet for the third spot. With the emphasis on the passing game, it doesn’t make sense to carry a fourth. Dowdle will have challengers he has to fight off, and it should be a very interesting camp battle to watch.
Wide receiver - 6
With the first two positions going short, that affords the team the ability to carry an extra wide receiver, who may also be part of the return game as well. That seems to be the plan for Simi Fehoko. The starters from last season are all locks, and with the extra game to survive this season, expect Cedrick Wilson and Noah Brown to get some more reps, especially late in the year if the Cowboys get a playoff spot locked up with a game or two left to go. That extra depth is also a nod to how passing is the most important part of the offense.
Tight end - 3
The team is going to want to keep Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, and Michael Gallup all on the field as much as possible unless they have a commanding lead. That means that two tight end sets are going to be few and far between. Dalton Schultz proved he is a legitimate starter, and the hope is that Blake Jarwin will be fully back from his injury. As with running back, the team will just need one more for depth, and the competition for that job is another thing that could be very entertaining, especially in the preseason games.
Offensive tackle - 4
This is based on the belief that the entire staff is emotionally scarred after what happened last year. They will want to go deep here to back up Tyron Smith and La’el Collins. Ty Nsekhe is a very solid insurance policy. For the other spot, expect them to look at a player who can also kick inside. From reports at camp, that may be the intention for Brandon Knight, who was seen working a lot at guard.
Interior offensive line - 5
Again, position flex will be key for the two backups. Connor McGovern has a big advantage from his experience. The candidates to be the other backup should get a lot of looks at all three positions, and whoever is best at center likely gets the nod. The three starters, Connor Williams, Tyler Biadasz, and Zack Martin are, of course, known already.
Offensive roster allocation
That is light on offense, and it represents a bet on regression to the mean for injuries. It still allows extra depth at tackle and wide receiver.
It must be noted that Dan Quinn is in charge of a serious rebuild on his side of the ball, with a bunch of new free agents and rookies to throw into the mix. Further complicating this are things like how he will look at players for roles when the team is showing a 3-4 look, and the use of designated pass rushers. That all still has to be determined, so for now, we will stick with more traditional designations.
EDGE - 5
DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory are locked in, although Gregory may be mostly on the field for passing downs. Dorance Armstrong and Bradlee Anae are going to have to fight off players like Tarell Basham and Chauncey Golston to keep their jobs. Mike McCarthy has expressed a preference for carrying five defensive ends and five tackles. We still have to find out if Quinn is in agreement, but for now, let’s go with the head coach’s thinking.
Interior defensive line - 5
This is a crowded group as well. Neville Gallimore is the only remaining player that looks to be secure. Osa Odighizuwa is going to make the team due to his draft position, assuming he does not fall completely on his face. Trysten Hill has been mentioned as a surprise cut and will have to prove he is back from injury and can build on to a solid if brief showing from 2020.
The rest is not only about talent but how Quinn wants to use the players. Brent Urban is a solid run-stopper, and that is expected to be the role for rookie Quinton Bohanna. It leaves an open question about whether the team can carry two such players, which would make the challenge even greater for Bohanna. Carlos Watkins may be a bit of a sleeper to watch.
Linebackers - 5
Barring injury, the five will be Jabril Cox, Keanu Neal, Micah Parsons, Jaylon Smith, and Leighton Vander Esch. Parsons and Vander Esch look like the most likely starters, and in the nickel Neal and Cox could get looks, while Smith could get some significant snaps in a DPR role. Cox is another who would have to force a cut on his own due to where he was drafted.
Cornerbacks - 5
Tevon Diggs and Jourdan Lewis appear to be locks, and Anthony Brown is probably as well. Kelvin Joseph will get every possible chance to hold onto the fourth spot, and Nahshon Wright was turning heads in the OTAs. That leaves a bunch of players out in the cold - for now.
Safety - 5
It could be a big year for Donovan Wilson, and free agent Demontae Kazee did nothing in the OTAs to make us doubt his ability to be a true free safety for Dallas. Jayron Kearse is somewhat of a forgotten name, but his experience could be important. The staff also seems to think that Israel Mukoamu has real potential as a converted corner. Darian Thompson got a lot of experience last year, while Tyler Coyle seems to be one UDFA to keep in mind. This is one of the more uncertain groups, but they want to have some depth here. Defensive backs are also an important resource for special teams coordinator John Fassel.
Defensive roster allocation
It is an odd symmetry, but I think this is how it could shake out.
You might note that there are only 48 spots taken so far. That is not an oversight.
We know Greg Zuerlein is the only kicker on the current roster, and Jake McQuaide has a similar claim at long snapper. Bryan Anger is believed to be Fassel’s favorite at punter, but Hunter Niswander is expected to not go quietly.
That leaves two spots left, and I have to credit John Owning of the Dallas Morning News for how to use those. He had one roster spot in his recent 53 man projection that was given to Fassel, and it was to keep C.J. Goodwin. I think he will get two, which will be Goodwin and a linebacker, another defensive back, or possibly an offensive skill player. Technically, those players will show up in another position group, but they are really there to help Fassel keep the improvements he brought to special teams intact.
There are several spots that are truly competitive this year, and health may still play an unfortunate role in how things finally come together. Training camp is drawing ever closer, so soon we will start gathering more data.