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Early roster predictions and positional rankings for Cowboys

What remains as the biggest concerns for the Cowboys?

NFL: Dallas Cowboys Rookie Minicamp Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

For a team that’s coming off a pretty stellar 2021 regular season, including finishing first in the NFL in total DVOA, the Cowboys have undergone quite a bit of change. They lost six different players who played on 40% or more of snaps on either offense or defense last year, and most of them are being replaced with rookies or bargain-bin free agent signings.

Yet the Cowboys still find themselves with the eighth-best Super Bowl odds in the NFL, and the fifth-best odds among NFC teams. They’re still the betting favorites to win the NFC East, as well. So where exactly does this roster stand? Let’s break down each positional group, in order from most complete to least complete, and throw in some way-too-early roster predictions while we’re at it.

Running back

If we were looking at long-term outlooks, then the running back spot would be much lower considering both Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard could potentially leave the team a year from now. But as things stand for 2022, Dallas boasts one of the best running back tandems in the league. This past season, both backs finished in the top 20 in rushing efficiency, which measures how many yards a runner actually traveled north/south. Only the 49ers and Patriots had two different backs that also placed in the top 20 in this metric.

Behind Elliott and Pollard are Rico Dowdle and Ja’Quan Hardy, both of whom held the RB3 role in either of the last two years. They’ll see healthy competition from undrafted free agents in Aaron Shampklin and Malik Davis, as well as waiver claimee Ryan Nall. Speaking of Nall, he’s also got versatility to play fullback, potentially offering competition to second-year pro Nick Ralston.

Early roster prediction (3): Ezekiel Elliott, Tony Pollard, Rico Dowdle

Quarterback

Dak Prescott is the quarterback of this team, and as long as that sentence is true then the Cowboys have a shot at winning any game they play. Over the course of the six seasons that Prescott has been in the NFL, he’s ninth among all quarterbacks in expected points added (EPA) per play. ahead of the likes of Matthew Stafford, Russell Wilson, and Josh Allen.

Behind Prescott, things are less impressive. Cooper Rush won his only career start last year against the Vikings, but he wasn’t lighting things up in that game. Ben DiNucci is forever teeming with potential but never materializing it into anything, while Will Grier has yet to show what he can do with a star on his helmet.

Early roster prediction (2): Dak Prescott, Will Grier

Cornerback

Two years ago, the Cowboys had one of the worst pass defenses in recent history. Now, cornerback is one of their strongest positions. The starting trio of Trevon Diggs, Anthony Brown, and Jourdan Lewis played so well that Dallas ranked second in pass defense DVOA last year.

All three return, with Diggs looking to improve on an already productive 2021 season. But Brown and Lewis may see competition from last year’s rookies, Kelvin Joseph and Nahshon Wright, as well as newly-drafted DaRon Bland. Either way, the Cowboys are in good shape at this position.

Early roster prediction (6): Trevon Diggs, Anthony Brown, Jourdan Lewis, Nahshon Wright, Kelvin Joseph, DaRon Bland

Safety

It almost doesn’t feel real to say but the Cowboys’ safety position is in good shape. Jayron Kearse had a career year wearing the green dot for Dallas last year, and he returned on a two-year extension. Malik Hooker received a similar extension after coming on strong towards the end of the year.

They’ll play alongside Donovan Wilson, who’s struggled to stay healthy throughout his career and will be entering the final year of his rookie contract. That’s a solid trio of safeties near the top, and Israel Mukuamu may have a chance to do more after effectively redshirting last year. Undrafted rookies Markquese Bell and Juanyeh Thomas will certainly make a push, but they may be on the wrong side of the numbers game in the end.

Early roster prediction (4): Jayron Kearse, Malik Hooker, Donovan Wilson, Israel Mukuamu

Linebacker

There are several questions at the linebacker spot, but most of them can be answered by simply saying “Micah Parsons.” The reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year can seemingly do it all, but who plays next to him isn’t quite clear.

Jabril Cox is coming off a torn ACL but figures to challenge for a starting spot when healthy. Leighton Vander Esch ended on a strong note last year, and his experience presents a valuable fail-safe . Additionally, Kearse played in a sort of safety/linebacker hybrid last year, making it slightly less imperative for Cox to become a key contributor. Luke Gifford and rookie Devin Harper offer great special teams value, as well.

Early roster prediction (5): Micah Parsons, Jabril Cox, Leighton Vander Esch, Devin Harper, Luke Gifford

Tight end

Dalton Schultz seems to be the real deal, but what else is there? Offensive coordinator Kellen Moore likes to play a lot of 12 personnel, and will likely use it even more with so many fresh faces in the wide receiver room, thus making depth behind Schultz all the more important.

Rookie Jake Ferguson seems to check all the boxes, with a very similar play style to Schultz, but it’s hard to predict how quickly he’ll transition to the next level. Sean McKeon and Jeremy Sprinkle are the veterans and may be competing with each other for the final tight end spot; McKeon seemed on track to beat Sprinkle before an injury last year.

Early roster prediction (3): Dalton Schultz, Jake Ferguson, Sean McKeon

EDGE

DeMarcus Lawrence isn’t going anywhere any time soon. Neither is rookie Sam Williams or last year’s rookie Chauncey Golston. Dorance Armstrong just signed a new contract to stay in Dallas, making his future seemingly secure.

That effectively creates a competition between Dante Fowler and Tarell Basham, unless the Cowboys opt to go heavy here. Basham joined the team last year and was a solid rotational piece with good versatility, while Fowler just signed a one-year deal due in large part to his history with Dan Quinn. All the competition should be good as Dallas tries to fill the void left by Randy Gregory.

Early roster prediction (5): DeMarcus Lawrence, Dante Fowler, Sam Williams, Dorance Armstrong, Chauncey Golston

Interior defensive line

The Cowboys’ interior defensive line was bullied, beaten, and exposed by the 49ers in the playoffs last year, but very little has been done to change that. Neville Gallimore was expected to make a big second-year jump before an injury sidelined him half the year. They’re now counting on him to make that jump now, while Osa Odighizuwa also has his second-year jump.

Big man Quinton Bohanna now gets joined by rookie John Ridgeway, another space eater who can help with the run defense. They also brought Carlos Watkins back, seemingly igniting a competition between him and Bohanna to play alongside Ridgeway as early-down run stuffers.

Early roster predictions (5): Neville Gallimore, Osa Odighizuwa, Trysten Hill, Quinton Bohanna, John Ridgeway

Special teams

It’s pretty easy to figure out the names here, as the Cowboys have no competition on the roster right now for kicker Jonathan Garibay, punter Bryan Anger, long snapper Jake McQuaide, or ace C.J. Goodwin. The last three of those names are all sturdy starters with a strong history.

But it’s Garibay, an undrafted rookie from Texas Tech, whose performance will have the most impact on the special teams unit. If he can be as reliable on field goals and extra points as he was in college (93.8% and 98% respectively) then Garibay will be a big addition to the team. If not, the search for a reliable kicker in the post-Dan Bailey era will continue.

Early roster predictions (4): Jonathan Garibay, Bryan Anger, Jake McQuaide, C.J. Goodwin

Wide receiver

There are a ton of questions here. CeeDee Lamb is being elevated to the top spot in the receiver room, and how he handles those new responsibilities will play a huge role in the offense’s success. Michael Gallup may not return to the field until later on in the season, leaving it up to a fairly uninspiring cast of names to provide production until Gallup can return.

Rookie Jalen Tolbert likely has the best shot at emerging from the crowd, as his combination of deep threat skills and ability to generate yards after the catch add to his versatility. Noah Brown and Simi Fehoko are solid depth pieces who can make special teams contributions.

But the biggest surprise could be undrafted rookie Dontario Drummond, who has experience as a return specialist, stealing a spot from free agent signee James Washington. If Tolbert is able to impress in training camp, and Drummond shows his value on special teams, it’ll make the cheap Washington too expendable to hold onto despite his experience.

Early roster predictions (6): CeeDee Lamb. Michael Gallup, Jalen Tolbert, Noah Brown, Simi Fehoko, Dontario Drummond

Offensive line

Offensive line is the biggest area of uncertainty for the Cowboys, and for good reason. Starters Connor Williams and La’el Collins are both gone; Williams is being replaced by a player many considered to be very raw in rookie Tyler Smith while Collins’ replacement is Terence Steele, a former undrafted rookie who took a big step forward last year but still served in a reserve role primarily.

Beyond those two, Tyron Smith is almost guaranteed to miss some time (he hasn’t played a full season since 2015) while Tyler Biadasz struggled at times during his first full season as the starting center. Zack Martin is really the only sure bet, which is why this is such a big question mark for Dallas.

One positive is that the Cowboys do seem to have solid depth, which will likely come in very handy at some point this year. But Dallas will need a lot of things to go just right for this unit to actually improve from a 2021 performance that was, at best, uneven.

Early roster predictions (10): Tyron Smith, Tyler Smith, Tyler Biadasz, Zack Martin, Terence Steele, Connor McGovern, Josh Ball, Matt Farniok, Matt Waletzko, Alec Lindstrom