The Dallas Cowboys have wrapped up the open practices in Oxnard and are headed to the Rocky Mountains for some joint work with the Denver Broncos before playing them in their first preseason game. We have been watching the reports out of training camp for every shred of information about the team they will field. Preseason games and the practices, mostly closed, from here on will add more information that could well shuffle things. But based on the data so far, here is an early attempt at a roster projection. Think of it as a first draft.
A few notes. Players in ALL CAPS are expected starters or key role players, like Tony Pollard. Those in italics are those who could be challenged by someone who still emerges. For backups, being to the left indicates they are more secure than players to the right.
Early 53 man roster projection
|QB||DAK PRESCOTT||Will Grier||Cooper Rush|
|RB||EZEKIEL ELLIOTT||TONY POLLARD||Rico Dowdle|
|WR||CEEDEE LAMB||JALEN TOLBERT||NOAH BROWN|
|WR||Simi Fehoko||Dennis Houston|
|TE||DALTON SCHULTZ||Jake Ferguson||Sean McKeon|
|OT||TYRON SMITH||TERENCE STEELE|
|OT||Josh Ball||Free agent/trade|
|IOL||ZACK MARTIN||TYLER SMITH||TYLER BIADASZ|
|IOL||Connor McGovern||Matt Farniok|
|DE||DEMARCUS LAWRENCE||DORNACE ARMSTRONG|
|DE||Dante Fowler||Sam Williams|
|DT||NEVILLE GALLIMORE||OSA ODIGHIZUWA|
|DT||Carlos Watkins||Chauncey Golston||John Ridgeway|
|OLB||MICAH PARSONS||Anthony Barr|
|ILB||LEIGHTON VANDER ESCH||Jabril Cox||Devin Harper|
|CB||TREVON DIGGS||ANTHONY BROWN||JOURDAN LEWIS|
|CB||Kelvin Joseph||Daron Bland|
|S||JAYRON KEARSE||MALIK HOOKER|
|S||Donovan Wilson||Markquese Bell||Israel Mukuamu|
|P/K RETURNER||KAVONTAE TURPIN|
|ST ACE||CJ GOODWIN||Luke Gifford|
Breaking it all down by position:
Dak Prescott is a given. You may note an oddity here that doesn’t show up for any other position. Will Grier seems to have taken a lead over Cooper Rush for the QB2 job, but he suffered a groin injury that may keep him out of the Denver game, depending on an evaluation later this week. Rush might have a performance that puts him back ahead, at least for the moment. If Rush winds up as the clear number two, they might elect to only carry two QBs on the roster. But if Grier is still ahead of Rush after they finish camp, the team might carry three given Grier’s lack of experience. If they do only go with two, the extra spot will probably be used to carry another WR or TE.
Three may seem light given the insistence that the team will lean on the running game, but they were comfortable with that for much of last season. Given all the other needs of the team, it just seems likely that is the direction they go, with Rico Dowdle as the backup for Ezekiel Elliott and Pollard.
This is based on the assumption that both Michael Gallup and James Washington are going to miss several games to start the season. In essence that means reinforcements are coming, allowing the team to go with what looks like a light number. CeeDee Lamb is the clear WR1 and the chemistry between him and Prescott was evident all through the practices. Jalen Tolbert will indeed be forced into starting, and this could be Noah Brown’s year to become a significant part of the offense. Who will give up their starting job for Gallup remains to be seen. Semi Fehoko should fill the WR4 role Cedrick Wilson had last year. Dennis Houston makes this group based on all the time he spent with the ones in camp, but he is on a bubble and there are a bunch of other receivers who will be hoping to use the preseason games to come after him.
If there is one place that’s an error, it is likely only projecting three tight ends. With the inexperience at WR, TE should be a major factor in the passing game. Dalton Schultz is Prescott’s new security blanket and should get a ton of targets. Jake Ferguson is the guy they drafted to be a potential replacement for Schultz once they no longer want to use the tag. (Count me as one who does not expect him to ever see a long-term contract from Stephen Jones.) Sean McKeon seems to have a slight edge, but faces competition from both Jeremy Sprinkle and UDFA Peyton Hendershot. Preseason is crucial for this particular battle.
Between Tyron Smith’s injury history, the struggles Terence Steele had on many reps in practice, and Josh Ball not doing so well himself, this is arguably the most concerning position on the team. A spot is reserved here for a player to be acquired later, likely as other teams begin making cuts. As for Ball, there seems to be at least a chance that Isaac Alarcón could supplant him. We also still don’t know how long Matt Waletzko will miss dealing with his injury, and he could wind up right back in the mix. He is still inexperienced. Additionally, history tells us that injury problems are often downplayed by this team. This will be a potential issue all year with too many ways it could go south.
Interior offensive line
Zack Martin is the rock of the line. There are some who question whether Tyler Smith is going to be ready to start out of the gate, but with what we have seen from Connor McGovern, they don’t have much of a choice. Tyler Biadasz needs to be more solid at center, but again they pretty much have to roll with him. McGovern may not be starter level, but he is probably about average for a backup. Matt Farniok looks to be the backup center, and could move ahead of McGovern as the next man up at guard with some strong preseason work.
There’s a cheat involved here, which we will get to soon, that lets them only need to carry four DEs. DeMarcus Lawrence not only has the LDE starting job locked down, he looked ready to start pilling up some sacks during camp. Dorance Armstrong should be the early season starter at RDE, although that could go to Dante Fowler, who has been better than expected. Sam Williams is probably going to be more of a rotational player to begin the year, but don’t be surprised to see him move up at some point. This leaves Tarell Basham as the odd man out, unfortunately.
Neville Gallimore and Osa Odighizuwa should continue the starting jobs where they finished 2021. Chauncey Golston has apparently been moved to full time DT work, and Carlos Watkins is a bit of insurance. I do think they carry five total to have a big body NT type. They want that to be John Ridgeway, but Quinton Bohanna flashed at times. There is a very slight chance that they could sub one of those for Watkins, but don’t expect it.
Here is the cheat for defensive end. Micah Parsons will still play some as an off-ball linebacker, but it certainly seems that Dan Quinn plans to use him more up on the line as another pass rusher. And Anthony Barr seems slotted to be in the same kind of role and will probably spell Parsons at times, although Quinn probably has some packages using both.
This is a bit of hybridization, as Dallas runs what is on paper a 4-3 scheme, but these two are more 3-4 OLBs whose main job is rushing the passer. It worked beautifully with Parsons last season, so expect more of the same.
Leighton Vander Esch looks much better than expected, which is entirely a good thing. Jabril Cox will make the team just because they drafted him so high last year, but since he is recovering from injury, it opens up a spot for Devin Harper to make the team as a bit of insurance if he can hold off any challengers.
The starters all had good camps, despite some videos of 1v1 matchups with WRs that heavily favored the offense. Trevon Diggs is looking to prove that his league lead in interceptions last year was no fluke, Anthony Brown continues to be one of the most criminally underrated players on the team, and Jourdan Lewis just keeps showing people he isn’t losing his job. Kelvin Joseph also benefits from his draft status, but has not come on enough to not have some insurance in Daron Bland, who had a very strong camp.
Jayron Kearse is a cheat for linebacker the way Parsons is for defensive end, playing his hybrid role superbly. Malik Hooker earned another contract after his work last year, and Donovan Wilson is a solid backup. Everyone at camp seemed to have Markquese Bell as the UDFA most likely to make this team, and that’s the case here. He seems to be projected for a similar role as Kearse. Mukuamu may be the name on this entire list most clearly on the bubble, but he squeaks through.
We’ve beaten up the team about the kicker situation for months now. They deserve it. At first glance, this seems even more of a bubble situation than Mukuamu’s, but it really is more one to be determined. The prediction is that Lirim Hajrullahu keeps kicking well enough to fend off Brett Maher, but the decision making process for kicker is about as convoluted as the plot of Tenet. In reality, it’s anybody’s guess how this ends up.
At least Bryan Anger and Jake McQuaide seem to have their jobs locked down.
As for the rest, KaVontae Turpin looks to have the return duties locked down and also provides a de facto sixth wide receiver for game days. he could even be considered as a backup for Pollard’s role as well. And this year, they have two players in C.J. Goodwin and Luke Gifford who make the squad and are active for their special teams contributions. They will show up on the defense, but this is really why they are here.
There you have it. Expect things to change as the team gathers more information from preseason games, which will be almost all for the backups and bubble battles now that there are only three. We will have far less information coming from the practices from now on with most of them being closed to the public and affording limited access to the media. That allows room for a few real surprises.
It’s really a best guess. But that is part of the fun of getting ready for the regular season.