The Dallas Cowboys had a healthy roster throughout much of last season, making their untimely playoff exit all the more frustrating. Football Outsiders ranks every team’s injuries with a metric called Average Games Lost (AGL), which weighs the effects of injuries differently at various positions. The Cowboys had the third best improvement from 2020 to 2021, mainly because of Dak Prescott returning at quarterback. The Cowboys had the eight best score overall in ‘21, just below teams like the Bills, Chiefs, Bengals, and Rams - all of which made deep playoff runs with the Rams coming out Super Bowl champions.
With the Cowboys losing key starters in free agency, the depth of this roster is a real concern. They’ll be relying more than ever on star players to not only perform consistently, but stay on the field along with rookies and other young starters.
Here is a look at some of the players the Cowboys can’t afford to lose given their current depth chart.
WR CeeDee Lamb
The Cowboys offense now runs through CeeDee Lamb as the number one receiver. Not creating enough touches for Amari Cooper was part of the reason the Cowboys moved on from the veteran this offseason, but now Kellen Moore faces the same challenge with Lamb.
Defenses will be drawn to Lamb, putting even more pressure on Michael Gallup, James Washington, and Jalen Tolbert to also contribute. Gallup is the only receiver with even a little experience playing in the top role, and he won’t be available to start the season, making Lamb one of the most irreplaceable players on this roster.
RG Zack Martin
The Cowboys have at least put the work in to build their future at tackle, drafting Matt Waletzko, developing Josh Ball last season, and planning to work first-round pick Tyler Smith at left tackle some. While they still may need another high draft pick to actually replace Tyron Smith or upgrade over Terence Steele at right tackle, the Cowboys can survive at tackle this season - even if it means moving Zack Martin here temporarily.
Martin is much more irreplaceable as a guard currently, with only Connor McGovern, Matt Farniok, Isaac Alarcon, and Braylon Jones as potential backups. The Cowboys saw McGovern replace Connor Williams this season at left guard, but still drafted a new starter here at 24th overall. Farniok got some reps late in the season for Tyler Biadasz at center, another position the Cowboys could have upgraded in this draft.
This leaves Dallas woefully thin at both backup guard spots, and they’ll be relying on Martin to be the cornerstone player on this offensive line for the ninth straight season.
DE DeMarcus Lawrence
When the Cowboys restructured DeMarcus Lawrence’s deal this offseason, there was a clear path towards them keeping Lawrence and Randy Gregory paired together as a pass rush duo. Gregory slipped away to the Denver Broncos, leading the Cowboys to re-sign Dorance Armstrong and add Dante Fowler Jr.
With Armstrong, Fowler, and Micah Parsons, the Cowboys have the weakside pass rushers to come in on passing downs and make up for the loss of Gregory. Their lack of depth on the defensive line comes at left end, where Tank Lawrence’s run defense is hard to replace.
Second-year player Chauncey Golston can play some here, but also flashed as an interior rusher in 2021. The Cowboys have to figure out who will be playing at linebacker around Parsons in training camp, making their run defense from the front four much more important, and increasing Lawrence’s value as a vocal leader on Dan Quinn’s defense.
LB Micah Parsons
In just one season, Micah Parsons has proved himself as a player to build this defense around. The Cowboys asked a ton of Parsons in his rookie season, and he passed every test with flying colors, surprising as a pass rusher while holding down any linebacker position as well.
The Cowboys want to keep Parsons as a matchup player capable of lining up anywhere, but ran the risk of needing him as a full-time defensive end when Gregory signed elsewhere. Now, the more dire position of need is linebacker, where adding talent around Parsons should be a priority. Jabril Cox off of ACL surgery will get a chance to earn a lion’s share of the snaps and veteran Leighton Vander Esch is back on a one-year deal.
Luke Gifford will be trying to prove himself as more than a special teams player, where his role as a key player on STs could be replaced by Devin Harper, a sixth-round draft pick. Repeating defensive performances from year to year is one of the hardest things to do in the NFL, especially when it comes to taking the ball away, but the Cowboys have their core defender in Parsons as well as a player and fan-favorite coach in Quinn.
SAF Jayron Kearse
The Cowboys found a very specific role for Jayron Kearse last season, but this didn’t stop the veteran safety from exploring the free agent market for better opportunities elsewhere. Even playing a position the Cowboys haven’t exactly valued highly in recent years, losing Kearse would have made safety too glaring of a need in the draft, and the two sides got a deal done.
Kearse makes up a safety group with players mostly under contract through only 2023, but his hybrid play as a linebacker makes him the more valuable starter. Kearse can line up in the box and play in run support, cover a deep half of the field, and even called the Cowboys plays on defense at times this season.
Trying to replace Kearse would likely involve putting one of the unproven linebackers listed under Parsons on the field, or giving more coverage reps to players like Donovan Wilson and Malik Hooker - who haven’t exactly proved their consistency in this area.