As the Dallas Cowboys aim to remain in contention while getting younger, they have several unproven starters stepping into bigger roles. That leaves question marks further down the depth chart. The Cowboys will also be more dependent on their franchise players consistently staying on the field and performing. With training camp around the corner, the next hurdle to clear is to get through Oxnard without major injury setbacks.
Besides the obvious names like Dak Prescott, CeeDee Lamb, Trevon Diggs, and Micah Parsons though, who are some players the Cowboys can’t afford to lose that are in position to make the most of their playing time?
Mark Lane and I nominated four players for this list on the latest edition of our Hidden Yardage podcast, which you can listen to on Spotify and Apple:
LB Jabril Cox
The Cowboys lack of linebacker depth is concerning, with only second-year sensation Micah Parsons making up for an otherwise thin position group. Parsons has lofty expectations for his sack output this year too, but any reps he takes as a rusher could leave the Cowboys vulnerable at linebacker. Leighton Vander Esch is also the other potential starter here.
The current hope is that Dan Quinn can get the most out of a healthy Jabril Cox. Only playing nine snaps on defense last season in three games, Cox is still fighting to live up to his draft expectations as a high-upside fourth-round pick. Cox’s versatility is his best trait, capable of lining up in coverage positions as far out as a boundary corner.
The Cowboys actually have decent depth in the secondary with Jayron Kearse returning as a nickel defender, so the need for Cox in this role may not be needed as much. It will be his strength against the run and ability to keep contain on the edge that keeps Cox on the field, and the Cowboys from having to force a Luke Gifford or Devin Harper into extended playing time on defense.
SAF Jayron Kearse
The Cowboys found a clear role for Kearse to excel in last season, but still needed to re-sign their versatile safety once he hit hit free agency. By keeping Kearse on a two-year deal, the Cowboys have their immediate starters at safety with Kearse, Malik Hooker, and Donovan Wilson.
Kearse’s role as a box defender could help the Cowboys depth at linebacker, and his knack for always being around the ball will be key in keeping this defense’s turnover production near the top of the league.
“His role has made safety dynamic for the first time since the Cowboys had Roy Williams.” - Mark Lane, Hidden Yardage podcast
The Cowboys have concerns behind the Kearse/Hooker/Wilson trio, with their entire backup plan at safety being Tyler Coyle and UDFA hopeful Markquese Bell as the next in line players.
TE Dalton Schultz
The Cowboys are no stranger to being reliant on players at the end of their contracts, this is the case for franchise tagged tight end Dalton Schultz. While the Cowboys have reliable veterans behind Schultz with some experience in Kellen Moore’s system, losing Schultz would take away from the component of the team that’s already been hit hardest this offseason - the passing offense. One less receiving option for Dak Prescott is not something Moore and Mike McCarthy want to prepare for, but opposing defenses aren’t going to give the same attention to Sean McKeon, Jeremy Sprinkle, or Ian Bunting as they would Schultz.
Fourth-round rookie Jake Ferguson has potential as a receiving threat, but faces the uphill battle of beating out any of these players ahead of him to even see the field. The Cowboys broke OTA practices with the enticing note that Dak Prescott’s mobility will be a bigger part of this offense again, and throwing to Schultz on the move has been a strength of his game that the team will need.
C Tyler Biadasz
Biadasz’s starting job as the Cowboys’ center going into year three was challenged by fans and the media this offseason, but the team felt their other needs were more pressing and drafted a guard and tackle instead.
First-round pick Tyler Smith is expected to be the starting left guard, while fifth-rounder Matt Waletzko is another depth option at tackle along with Josh Ball. The Cowboys have their contingency plan at tackle behind Tyron Smith or Terence Steele, but have a lot to learn about Matt Farniok or Alec Lindstrom before feeling comfortable with either at center.
With Tyler Smith in the starting lineup, the Cowboys are looking to get back to their interior offensive line mauling in the run game again. Zack Martin is still one of the best guards in football on the right side, and in between Martin and Smith the best option is still Biadasz.
It won’t be a worst case scenario if the Cowboys come out of training camp with neither Ball or Waletzko ready to see starting snaps. The bigger concern is not finding a backup center, with consistent pressure in Prescott’s face being one of the quickest ways the Cowboys offense fell out of sync last season.