There are few starting jobs that are up for grabs with the Dallas Cowboys. For the most part, that is a good thing. There are plenty of very good, even great players on the roster, like Dak Prescott, Micah Parsons, Zack Martin, and Trevon Diggs, just to name a few. But the ability to continue to perform at a high level as a team in the NFL often hinges on who is available to step in when the inevitable injuries crop up. Last year, we saw Ezekiel Elliott’s performance suddenly drop when he was hurt in the first New York Giants game. Prescott also was hampered by a calf strain. The list of injuries grew as it always does and seemed to play a major part in the dismal way things ended. Looking at the depth on the roster today exposes some real issues. They have to figure things out in training camp, or the season may have another disappointing finish.
Here are some of the issues that stand out.
A backup for Zeke
Last year, Elliott remained the starter while playing through his knee issue. Many argued that Tony Pollard should have taken over his role at least to a degree. Countering that idea is the nature of Pollard’s play. He is definitely a change of pace back. His best value is outside the tackle box, whether as a runner or passing target. What the Cowboys need is an early down back that can step in for Elliott to attack the interior of defenses. At the moment, they have not identified one. The current plan seems to be developing JaQuan Hardy or Rico Dowdle to be the RB3.
Part of the issue is that last year demonstrated a desire to get by with just three backs active on game day. This relies heavily on Elliott staying healthy. His mileage is just increasing and the position is one where heavy contact carries an elevated risk of another injury. There needs to be another option than forcing Pollard into an inappropriate role. This is not only about who can emerge in camp and the preseason games. It is about the staff taking a different approach. Both are questionable situations and a source of worry.
Michael Gallup is already expected to miss multiple games to start the season. CeeDee Lamb is poised to take over WR1, and it can be argued that he already had that role last year. This is one position where the starting jobs behind Lamb also are in question. The team is banking heavily on third-round pick Jalen Tolbert and bargain free agent James Washington for that. Even if they are the answers for the starters in 11 personnel, the team’s preferred grouping, WR4 and WR5 are up for grabs with no clear answers apparent. Noah Brown and Simi Fehoko are penciled in at the moment, but Fehoko especially will have to prove his worth. The rest of the options are a bunch of current and former UDFAs with no real experience. After what happened with Gallup last year, that is something to keep us worried.
Whether they go with one swing tackle or carry two on the active roster, there is no ready answer. Josh Ball missed all last season and Matt Waletzko is a fifth-round rookie, yet they are the likely leaders for the role. No one else on the current roster has any experience, either. That means relying on very inexperienced players to be ready to fill a vital role. This is to date one of the most glaring failures of free agency for Dallas. Stephen Jones remains adamant that the team is not done, yet the available talent pool for adding quality depth will only shrink if something doesn’t happen soon. With how important Prescott is to the offense and Tyron Smith’s injury history, this is absolutely playing with fire.
Dalton Schultz has been tagged. There is no progress reported on getting a longer term deal done, and the team has shown a willingness to let players go the season on the tag and then either letting them go or having to overpay. Behind Schultz, they have Sean McKeon, Jeremy Sprinkle, and fourth-round pick Jake Ferguson. They have to hope that a couple of them look good in camp. Also, they have to depend on Schultz not holding out for a long-term deal. It is precarious at best.
Micah Parsons is one of the best defensive players in the league at any position. However, he fills two roles, filling in as a part-time edge rusher, so you need to be able to fill in for him on those downs. Jayron Kearse helps out playing as a hybrid safety/linebacker, and he was very good last season. But outside those two, the depth at LB is frankly poor. Leighton Vander Esch could be workable, but that is hardly reliable. Luke Gifford is a special teams asset more than a reliable LB. Fifth-round pick Damone Clark looks like a “redshirt” player, and sixth-rounder Devin Harper was more an insurance pick than anything else. Jabril Cox saw very limited action last year as he dealt with his own injury problem. He has a good upside, but we have no way to know if he can approach it. As with WR, the staff may be banking on UDFAs Aaron Hansford and Storey Jackson to rise up and help out. It is another muddle.
Not all is terrible. There are places the team is in decent shape.
Dak is back
Prescott is fully healthy for the first time in almost two years. He has to stay so for the team to succeed, but that is by and large the situation facing all NFL teams. There are not 32 legitimate starting QBs in the league, much less backups capable of stepping in and keeping things flowing without a hitch. That makes the question at OT even more concerning.
The interior of the O line
This assumes that first-round pick Tyler Smith is going to work out. Connor McGovern may not be who you want to start, but between him and Matt Farniok, the team may have some workable depth here. UDFA Alec Lindstrom could insert himself into this conversation as well.
The defensive line
Dan Quinn uses a lot of rotation to keep his linemen fresh, and this may be one of the stronger parts of the roster. Even if second-round pick Sam Williams and fifth-round long shot John Ridgeway are not immediately useful, there is a lot of experience on the roster. Dorance Armstrong may solidify RDE across from DeMarcus Lawrence, and Tarell Basham, Dante Fowler, and Chauncey Golston look like good depth. With Williams in the mix, the DE situation should be workable. DT is not dire. Assuming Neville Gallimore and Osa Odighizuwa continue to look like they did late last season, the team has Carlson Watkins, Trysten Hill, and Quinton Bohanna to try and fill out things. Quinn also likes to kick edge guys inside on passing downs. Overall, this is a group that should work out if they are not decimated by injury.
The Cowboys finally seem to have a handle on things here. Trevon Diggs and Anthony Brown are quality starters. Jourdan Lewis is a bit underrated in the slot, and if Kelvin Joseph does not get hit with suspension, he should see a good bit of playing time. Nahshon Wright should also be part of this equation with a year under his belt in the system. If they do have four reliable CBs in that group, they are fine even if none of the others really stand out in camp.
Safety is for the second year in a row a strong group, which we are not used to. Kearse has already been mentioned, Malik Hooker is back as well, and Donovan Wilson is the next man up. We have to see if Israel Mukuamu can hang onto a roster spot as UDFA Markquese Bell is one of the early favorites to claw his way onto the 53, but that is a good problem to have.
No matter if they wind up keeping Jonathan Garibay or finding someone else, this should be in better shape than it was last year. Punter and LS are set.
While there is good news, the possible problems previously addressed are unsettling at this point. Of course, many if not the vast majority of teams face similar concerns. You cannot have too much quality depth in the violent NFL. How well Dallas answers these questions could make the difference this year.