The Dallas Cowboys are just days away from cutting down to 53 players. The dress rehearsal game is in the books. All that is really left is the final preseason game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, which will almost exclusively involve third- and fourth-stringers vying for a spot on the roster, at least for Dallas. That makes it roster projection season, and it’s in the Blogger’s Oath that all who write about NFL teams must do at least one.
OK, it really isn’t a sworn duty to uphold. It just is something that is always fun and interesting to do, and then debate after it is sent wafting into the interwebs. So here is mine. However, it has some wrinkles you might not see most places.
The biggest is that it is heavily influenced by the research for this post about the influence of special teams on roster construction. This is a bet that special teams will be very important for the Cowboys, even with this being the first preseason we have experienced under head coach Mike McCarthy and with the input of ST coordinator John Fassel. So unlike most roster projections, there aren’t just three spots for special teams. It includes some for players whose primary role is to cover kicks and block for returns. Many others who do projections have taken to carving out a spot for C.J. Goodwin, who is still in the equation. but now we’ll have a total of four. They will all technically count against a specific position, but putting them in a defined ST category makes the logic of the roster a bit easier to follow.
There are also some priority practice squad targets and a couple of PUP/IR stashes included to let you know about players that you think should be somewhere on the roster. It should also be remembered that the 53-man roster at the cutdown deadline will likely see multiple changes before the season opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. This is a best guess at what the latter version will look like.
Without further ado...
Cooper Rush or a player to be signed later
The QB2 position may be both. Rush could be on the initial 53-man roster, only to be released once the Cowboys find a better option among the quarterbacks hitting the street after the rest of the league makes their cuts. But it really looks like it is down to Rush convincing the staff he is a worthy backup option or not.
Running back (2)
The thinking really changed here with the loss of Rico Dowdle to IR. He looked like a lock as the RB3. His injury leaves the Cowboys with a question of how to replace his spot.
So how about not? JaQuon Hardy or fullback Nick Ralston aren’t really necessary. They, or other options, can be signed for the practice squad, making them available for callup if needed. If the team needs a blocker in the backfield, they can use a tight end.
This is one prediction that may come back to haunt, because it would really represent an all out commitment to the pass over running the ball. It may be a misreading of Kellen Moore and the coaching staff, but with Prescott back, it’s in the realm.
Tight end (3)
If Sean McKeon gets back in practice, he might threaten Sprinkle. But Sprinkle was one of the names that came up as a possible ST contributor, and he is one that can also be a valid depth option at his position. That should tip the scales in his favor.
Wide receiver (5)
Top to bottom, this is one of the best and deepest wide receiver groups in the league. As with running back, the team can have some ready reserves on the PS.
Offensive tackle (5)
This is clearly heavy, but Knight is a bit of a cheat since he may really belong in the next group. After the 2020 debacle, though, they likely will keep all of these players.
Interior offensive line (5)
Love it or hate it, and most aren’t in the first category, the team still seems to think that Williams can move over if they need another center to play, with McGovern backfilling LG. Knight is also depth for this group, as mentioned.
Farniok is the 53rd man, and the most likely to be removed if the team needs that spot for something else, such as deciding they really do need a third RB.
Offense total: 22
Yes, Anae makes the list. However, you can still expect him to be inactive on game days, especially at the beginning of the season. 2022 may be his year, since Armstrong is a free agent after this season.
Interior defensive line (5)
This is predicated on Neville Gallimore starting the season on IR with an eye to getting him back after the minimum of three games he has to sit out. If his recovery is quicker, Hamilton is the likely man to suffer.
Leighton Vander Esch
Yes, this, like all the other position groups, is listed in depth chart order, and how the snaps should be allocated during the season.
This is also the depth chart for Week 1, but Canady and Joseph certainly have the potential to move up as they get some time under their belts. Many will be asking “Where is Nahshon Wright?” but he could benefit from at least starting the year on the practice squad. That also raises concerns about him getting signed away from the Cowboys, but remember how most thought they overdrafted him in the first place. Add that to how we worry too much about other teams coveting our waived players, and it is a reasonable chance to take.
Kearse and Hooker are neck and neck on this depth chart, but expect the latter to move ahead as he gets more time since his injury. Kearse is still very valuable for the team.
Defense total: 24
The easiest part of the whole projection.
C.J. Goodwin (CB)
Darian Thompson (S)
Luke Gifford (LB)
Azur Kamara (DE)
And here are the four players that will be on the roster primarily for their special teams value. The positions of each are noted because they could be pressed into service in an emergency. During our YouTube livestream following the most recent episode of HBO’s Hard Knocks, we detailed how that may be the reason the staff is working hard with Kamara as well as giving him a good number of preseason snaps with the defense. If you want to see that, you can follow this link and scroll to the bottom to play it.
That’s the 53-man roster projection. But wait, there’s more.
Priority PS targets
JaQuan Hardy or outside RB signing
Outside QB signing
Ralston is the shakiest, but McCarthy will likely want to have him around as an option. Hardy’s chance likely depends on how he looks in the final preseason game. The first three names on the list are from this year’s draft class. The Cowboys tend to try and keep them on the 53-man roster, but there are better options for right now than any of them.
And there are the final two draft picks. This is also where Trysten Hill should land for the start of the season. The team may “discover” an injury or two to others before the deadline for designating such things. They always seem to crop up when Dallas needs them to.
One final note: Unless I missed someone, every single one of the free agent signings from the offseason is making the team, plus Hooker. That is not how things have gone in recent seasons. If it holds up, then just maybe the Cowboys are figuring out how to properly evaluate their options.
That’s the projection. It is definitely open for more argument than most. That is all part of the fun of these exercises.