One thing we all learned to our dismay in 2020 is that depth is crucial to an NFL team, and the Dallas Cowboys did not have nearly enough. Now, just a week into training camp at Oxnard, we are seeing the bumps and bruises already piling up. That is showing us some things about the current state of the roster. And it is not all good by any means.
On the current edition of Ryled Up, which you can listen to right above this, Roy White and I spent a lot of time looking at where the team seems strong and where it doesn’t. Make sure to subscribe to the Blogging The Boys podcast network wherever you get your podcasts so you get access to all of our shows. Apple users can subscribe right here and Spotify users can subscribe right here.
Here is a breakdown of the position groups for the Cowboys and how they look at the moment, starting with the one that brought this urgently to mind.
If you have been under a rock for the past day or so and this is the first thing you have read about Dallas since emerging, brace yourself. Dak Prescott left practice. It was later described by both the team and himself as a minor problem with a muscle strain in his throwing arm, and he was kept out due to an abundance of caution. The latest word is that he could miss a couple of weeks as the team strives to have him ready for the season opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
That is the relatively good news. The bad is that in Prescott’s absence the backup QBs rather sucked. They threw a combined five interceptions and were unable to generate anything offensively in the first padded practice.
This could lead to a serious reevaluation of the plan to have Garrett Gilbert as the QB2. His work with the ones on Wednesday was just not good enough. It may be time to consider looking for a veteran backup QB.
And there just might be a much better option available than there was a couple of days ago.
With Aaron Rodgers back in town, the Packers are releasing veteran QB Blake Bortles, a source said. Bortles signed a one-year, minimum contract with no guarantees on May 24 in the midst of Rodgers’ absence from the offseason program.— Rob Demovsky (@RobDemovsky) July 27, 2021
Now that Aaron Rodgers is in practice and has gotten a thing or two off his chest, Bortles is on the street. This could be a bit of serendipity for Dallas. The market for him is not yet hot, given that other teams are just getting into practice and do not have a sudden need the way the Cowboys do. Bortles has some Andy Daltonesque things about him, including being a former first-round pick. We know how the brain trust loves those, and he certainly should be more capable than the current group of backups. It makes a lot of sense, but the Cowboys can’t wait too long. This is a case where they need to move fast.
Michael Gallup is also missing practice after his scary tumble over a fence. With Amari Cooper already out and predicted by Jerry Jones to not practice before the team leaves Oxnard to return to the Star, the Cowboys are already having to rely on the backups.
This has not been a visible issue yet, however. CeeDee Lamb is putting on a show and engaging in battles with Trevon Diggs, which is likely helping both. Cedrick Wilson is more than capable. Noah Brown has a chance to solidify his roster spot. Semi Fuhoko can make the case for the team to carry six on the roster. And Malik Turner has become the early leader to be the down-roster WR that everyone falls in love with. Outside of missing out on Prescott working on timing with his receivers, this does not seem to be a problem.
In Blake Jarwin and Dalton Schultz, the team appears to have two NFL-caliber starters. Mike McCarthy is talking about using more 12 personnel to capitalize on that. Sean McKeon and Jeremy Sprinkle are in a competition to be a backup if they only carry three into the regular season, and could both make the team if they go heavy there. This is fine.
This is also not something to worry about at this juncture. Ezekiel Elliott looks primed to have a very good year, Tony Pollard is doing Tony Pollard things, and Rico Dowdle is at worst a decent backup. There are others who could also step up if needed. McCarthy also talked about the importance of running backs, but since they don’t really matter (kidding, folks) things should work out fine.
Things are not great there. Tyron Smith is back snatching souls and La’el Collins looks ready to go, but the depth is emerging as a real concern. Ty Nsekhe was supposed to be that reliable veteran swing tackle, but he has not impressed. Terence Steele is getting manhandled too often. Josh Ball is a rookie and this is not something you want to put in his hands after what happened last year.
Going out on a limb here, someone to watch in this unsettling situation is Isaac Alarcón. The International Pathways player is big, long, and has flashed so far in camp. He could be a surprise player to make the 53-man roster if the others don’t get their act together. Someone needs to emerge. Smith and Collins look to be 100%, but, 2020.
Interior offensive line
Zack Martin is dealing with a minor issue, but so far it has not raised any concerns. Connor Williams is not only solid at LG, but is being worked at center in what appears to be the plan for having a backup for Tyler Biadasz. And good news arose on that front Wednesday.
My standout performer on the offensive line today is Connor McGovern at RG. The dude has looked really stout with whatever the defensive line has thrown at him. #CowboysCamp— Kyle Youmans (@Kyle_Youmans) July 28, 2021
#Cowboys' Mike McCarthy says G Connor McGovern was "clearly our most improved offensive lineman" in 2020. Likes the way he came along. Feels like they have a good rotation with McGovern, Connor Williams getting C reps, and Tyler Biadasz owning the C position.— Mark Lane (@therealmarklane) July 28, 2021
McGovern’s progress has been slow, but it looks like the light has come on. If he is solid, and the team can perhaps succeed with the experiment of making Brandon Knight a backup at both guard and tackle, they just have to settle that primary swing tackle job and will have depth without having to resort to things like the roster projections with ten or even eleven offensive linemen. They really want to be able to just carry eight on game day, with nine overall a bit of a sweet spot for the 53.
DeMarcus Lawrence has yet to practice, but there is also no concern there. Randy Gregory has been tearing things up except for when Tyron Smith is throwing him to the ground like a rag doll - and that is just part of life with Smith lined up against you. Tarell Basham looks like a lock to make the team with some really solid play. There are enough other options, including Chauncey Golston who also has yet to practice, that this does not raise any flags. Yet.
It looks like the heavy investment in the position is paying off. With pads just now coming on, we will have to watch this, but Neville Gallimore, Brent Urban, Quinton Bohanna, Osa Odighizuwa, and Carlos Watkins have all looked good so far. This position has not looked so solid for the Cowboys in a while.
Keanu Neal is in the early days of his transition from safety, and needs to get used to his coverage responsibilities from the linebacker postion. Micah Parsons has changed just about everyone’s minds about him being drafted in the first round and Leighton Vander Esch has been getting some raves. Jaylon Smith will still leave a bit of an unsettled feeling until we see if Dan Quinn’s scheme can put him in a better position to succeed. Jabril Cox is a rookie and should not be depended on too much at this stage.
And that is just not enough. Maybe Luke Gifford can finally be more than a special teams ace. Perhaps UDFA Anthony Hines III can emerge. But depth is a big worry here.
Diggs is emerging as a true lead dog in this group. Early reports on rookies Kelvin Joseph and Nahshon Wright are good. Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis are known if unspectacular quantities. And Maurice Canady has been a bit of a sleeper, with back-to-back days with interceptions. Even Reggie Robinson II may be a good insurance policy. Let’s tentatively say this is OK.
The addition of Malik Hooker greatly improved the outlook here. Donovan Wilson and Damontae Kazee look like good options at SS and FS respectively, and Hooker can play both spots. Jayron Kearse is not bad as insurance. Even Israel Mukuamu has shown how his length and athleticism may make his transition from corner a success. It is even more tentative than CB, but this may be a decent place for the team to be in.
Those are the groups. Some are fine, but there are unquestionably questions left. As the grind of camp and preseason goes on, others can unfortunately arise in a moment. Let’s just hope they don’t keep coming so fast.