Training camp has given us all a good glimpse at where the Cowboys are at right now, but it’s time for the next stage of the process: preseason games. Don’t expect too many starters to play Saturday night, but this game will offer a good look at some of the players fighting for a roster spot.
There’s still a long way to go until Mike McCarthy and company have to trim their roster down to 53 players, but it’s never too early to look at where things stand. With that in mind, here’s a final roster prediction ahead of the first preseason game.
The top spot is pretty obvious, as Dak Prescott is the face of this franchise right now. But who will back him up, and how many quarterbacks will Dallas carry? So far through training camp, it’s looked as if Will Grier - claimed off waivers during preseason cuts last year - has been running away with the QB2 job. That is, until he tweaked his groin earlier in the week, causing him to miss the first joint practice with the Broncos.
It’s unclear for now how long Grier will be sidelined. If it’s a more significant injury, that might give last year’s QB2, Cooper Rush, enough time to reclaim the job. Assuming Grier doesn’t miss much time, though, this is his job to lose. And with the Cowboys needing a little more depth elsewhere on the roster, it wouldn’t be a shock to see them go light here and once again stash Ben DiNucci on the practice squad.
Running back (3)
The top two are locked in, as both Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard will see plenty of action this year. Rico Dowdle secured the third running back spot two years ago as an undrafted rookie, but spent all of last year on the injured reserve. The player who took his spot, Corey Clement, is now in Baltimore.
At the start of training camp, it looked like Dowdle might be in for tough competition from Ja’Quan Hardy and two undrafted rookies in Aaron Shampklin and Malik Davis. That hasn’t really materialized, as Hardy was recently waived and Dowdle has seemingly locked down this RB3 spot. The Cowboys may be tempted to keep a fourth in Ryan Nall, who moonlights as a fullback, but they already feel comfortable in playing various offensive linemen at fullback when necessary.
Wide receiver (6)
CeeDee Lamb is the top dog here, and Jalen Tolbert is a near lock given his Day 2 draft status. Both Noah Brown and Simi Fehoko have been routinely impressing in training camp, and could both be in line for bigger roles than previously expected. Dennis Houston has come out of nowhere and earned the public adoration of Prescott, while KaVontae Turpin offers unique value as a return specialist and gadget player.
The important thing to note here is the two injuries to Michael Gallup and James Washington. While nothing has been announced yet with either, it’s a guess that both receivers will be inactive to start the season. Gallup may not make it off the PUP list in time, while Washington could be placed on the injured reserve with a designation to return. However, both players will have a roster spot waiting for them once they’re ready to play.
Tight end (4)
The Cowboys are likely going to use even more 12 personnel this year than they have in previous years, which means they’ll need to go four deep at the tight end spot. Dalton Schultz is a given, as he’ll play this year on the franchise tag, and fourth-round rookie Jake Ferguson has been playing well enough to compete for a serious role behind Schultz.
Sean McKeon enters his third year with the team and has been doing everything asked of him so far in training camp, showing off some significant improvements as a pass-catcher. That likely leaves the Cowboys having to decide between veteran Jeremy Sprinkle and undrafted rookie Peyton Hendershot. Sprinkle is more of a known commodity, but Hendershot offers more as a receiving option if he’s ever called upon in a game; Hendershot has also been popping in practices, giving him the edge here for now.
Offensive line (9)
While it appears that the competition between Tyler Smith and Connor McGovern is more serious than we thought, which may or may not have to do with offensive line coach Joe Philbin’s supposed feelings about the rookie, both are virtual locks for the roster. So, too, are the likes of Tyron Smith, Tyler Biadasz, Zack Martin, and Terence Steele. Rookie Matt Waletzko will undoubtedly be with the team, but the severity of his injury will determine whether or not he’s an active member to start the year.
Josh Ball is probably safe too, especially as he’s the team’s top swing tackle since the Waletzko injury. However, the second-year tackle has been mostly disappointing thus far and it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Cowboys looked to add another tackle during preseason cuts if he doesn’t rebound from here.
Interior defensive line (5)
Neville Gallimore and Osa Odighizuwa are going to be relied upon the most on the interior of the defensive line, and both have appeared to be making strides in their respective games thus far in camp. Chauncey Golston is still technically listed as a defensive end, but he’s reportedly bulked up in order to play inside more, placing him in this category even though he’ll likely continue to split time inside and outside.
Dan Quinn generally likes to carry five interior defensive linemen and five edge defenders, leaving two more spots inside. Let’s go with big nose tackles John Ridgeway and Quinton Bohanna locking those spots up, as the Cowboys further commit to not getting bullied in the trenches like they were in the playoffs last year. That, of course, means the end of the line for Trysten Hill and Carlos Watkins, both of whom played key contributor roles last year.
This group of five is probably already locked in, although who plays where and how much is anyone’s guess. DeMarcus Lawrence is the star of the bunch, but Sam Williams has been looking way ahead of schedule as a rookie.
That could potentially put Dante Fowler, Dorance Armstrong, and Tarell Basham in jeopardy if the Cowboys really want to go deeper elsewhere. For now, though, the smart money is on all of them being safe. You can never have enough pass rush, after all.
Leighton Vander Esch
The Anthony Barr signing will make things slightly more difficult here, which is a good problem for the Cowboys to have. Micah Parsons is the star, and Jabril Cox is expected to take Keanu Neal’s role as a rotational linebacker on passing downs. Leighton Vander Esch offers valuable experience and could potentially resume his role from last year as an early down rotational linebacker.
Luke Gifford has been a valuable special teams player the last two years, and the team prioritized re-signing him this offseason. They drafted Devin Harper in the sixth round for a similar role. Harper may get the short end of the stick but find himself a priority for the team when building out their practice squad.
Moving on to the deepest position group on the roster, Dallas is in a great spot at cornerback. It doesn’t look like Anthony Brown or Jourdan Lewis are ready to give up their starting jobs any time soon, even with both entering potential out years contractually speaking.
Nahshon Wright has produced plenty of flashes so far in camp, and rookie DaRon Bland has been turning heads as well. Kelvin Joseph has easily been the most underwhelming player in this group, but the former second-round pick has too much talent for the Cowboys to even consider moving on this early in his career.
The Cowboys are pretty excited about their trio of safeties at the top. Jayron Kearse was one of their best players last year, and both Malik Hooker and Donovan Wilson finished the season strong. All three figure to be key contributors this year as well, considering the Cowboys fielded three safeties on nearly 38% of all defensive plays last year.
The only question is how much depth they’ll keep behind them. Israel Mukuamu effectively redshirted last year and is now in competition with undrafted rookies Markquese Bell and Juanyeh Thomas, along with Tyler Coyle. If Dallas wants to go five deep at safety, they’ll need to go lighter elsewhere, but their cornerback room has enough versatility to sustain going four deep. To that end, Mukuamu should have the inside track, though Bell will make it a very difficult decision.
Special teams (4)
Three of these spots are likely locked in already. C.J. Goodwin is the special teams ace and John Fassel’s best friend. Bryan Anger (coming off a Pro Bowl appearance, no less) and Jake McQuaide are the only ones at their position on the roster right now.
But the kicker is a huge question mark. Jonathan Garibay worked hard to lose the battle to Lirim Hajrullahu, getting waived earlier in the week. That led to Brett Maher being brought back to compete with Hajrullahu. It’s also possible that the Cowboys’ Week 1 kicker isn’t even on the roster yet. This is a shot in the dark right now, but I’ve laid out my case for why Maher will be better this time, so for now he’s the pick.