The Cowboys have now played in two preseason games, resting most of their starters for each of them. That gives us a fairly good idea about what the top of this roster is going to look like, and the preseason games have illuminated some of the down-roster competitions as well. Here’s a 53-man roster prediction with one preseason game left to go.
We know Dak Prescott is the star here, but the backup spot is still up in the air. Cooper Rush looked significantly better against the Chargers than he did in Denver, but he was still outplayed by Will Grier. Returning from a groin injury that sidelined him against the Broncos, Grier just looked more comfortable in the pocket and more willing to attack downfield.
Rush did admirably in his one start for Dallas last year, but the coaching staff has to prefer Grier’s confident aggression to Rush’s competent conservatism. This one isn’t quite wrapped up yet, but Grier is in a good spot.
Running back (3)
Undrafted rookies Malik Davis and Aaron Shampklin are doing their absolute best to challenge Rico Dowdle for that RB3 spot, but Dowdle has likely put enough distance between them for the difference to be made up.
Expect both Davis and Shampklin to be prime practice squad candidates, which could end up being big a year from now given the contract situations of the top two running backs on this roster.
Wide receiver (6)
The challenge with this receiver group right now is not knowing how Dallas will handle their two injured starters. If Michael Gallup remains on the PUP list, he’ll be out for at least the first four games of the regular season. Consequently, the Cowboys could activate Gallup from the PUP list and move him to the injured reserve after the final roster cuts deadline, which would keep him out for at least three games. They could also do this with James Washington.
Given how little we’ve heard on either receiver thus far, the smart money is on them using a maneuver like that. Doing so would allow them to keep Dennis Houston, who’s impressed at every turn this preseason, as well as the newly-anointed return specialist KaVontae Turpin.
That said, there will be some very interesting decision to be made when Gallup and Washington are healthy enough to return, but that’s a bridge that doesn’t need crossing yet.
Tight end (4)
The Cowboys appear likely to go heavy at tight end this year, and their top three spots seem fairly set in stone right now. Rookie Jake Ferguson seems to have locked up the TE2 spot as well, a very promising sign for the fourth-round pick.
The final tight end spot is coming down to undrafted rookie Peyton Hendershot and veteran Jeremy Sprinkle. Hendershot played the most snaps of any skill position player against the Chargers while Sprinkle sat out after suffering from Achilles soreness. Hendershot was already trending up, but Sprinkle’s injury could ice things in this battle.
Offensive line (9)
Player to be Named Later
The starting five is pretty much set, even if the Cowboys are insisting that Tyler Smith and Connor McGovern are still competing for the left guard job. Matt Farniok seems to have locked down the backup center job as well. Matt Waletzko will be a valuable depth piece if he avoids season-ending surgery.
The real story here is the prediction that Dallas gives up on Josh Ball. And they could still sign him to their practice squad, but through all of training camp and now two preseason games Ball has done nothing to justify being rewarded with a roster spot. The Cowboys can’t feel good about swing tackle right now, and at this rate it would be shocking if they didn’t look to bring in a free agent shortly after final roster cuts, of which there are plenty of options.
Interior defensive line (5)
In my last roster prediction, I had Trysten Hill missing the cut. No more, though, as Hill has put together two solid preseason performances that would make it very difficult to let him go. He’ll form a nice pass rushing rotation with Osa Odoghizuwa and Neville Gallimore, while Quinton Bohanna and John Ridgeway appear to already be improving this run defense.
The Cowboys have at least six edge rushers that are deserving of making the final roster, and Mika Tafua is making a strong case to be the seventh. But it’ll be difficult to justify keeping more than five, which is Dan Quinn’s preference anyway.
Which player gets the short end of the stick is anyone’s guess, but Tarell Basham is that player in this prediction. Basham has had some flashes throughout camp, but he’s in the final year of a pretty cheap contract and Dallas may opt to go with homegrown talent over their short-term free agent signing from a year ago.
In this prediction, I have the Cowboys going light at linebacker in addition to making two fairly surprising cuts in Leighton Vander Esch and Luke Gifford. I’ll explain more on why they’d go so light here later, but the surprise cuts may actually be more obvious right now.
Vander Esch’s path to playing time is diminishing as Anthony Barr gets up to speed, and he offers little value on special teams. Unless Vander Esch signs elsewhere upon being cut, he could be one of the six veterans allowed on the practice squad, with the potential to be a game day call up on a near weekly basis. That would seem to make sense, as the veteran offers good leadership in the locker room but likely won’t be playing as much behind Micah Parsons, Jabril Cox, and Barr.
Gifford, on the other hand, has been a core member of John Fassel’s special teams unit the last two years, but Devin Harper was drafted for his special teams ability and has been balling out in preseason so far. It might already be time for a passing of the torch, especially if the team is concerned about Harper clearing waivers.
After their preseason game against the Chargers, the Cowboys should have no doubt about keeping these six. Nahshon Wright has had some growing pains but the talent is clearly there, while Kelvin Joseph had the kind of strong showing in Los Angeles he desperately needed. Meanwhile, DaRon Bland seems to have locked up the backup nickel corner job, a major ascension for the impressive rookie.
The Cowboys have their three starters at safety, and Israel Mukuamu has stepped his game up this summer. But this safety group, and the decision to go five deep, is why Dallas goes so light at linebacker.
Last year, Jayron Kearse lined up in the box as a de facto linebacker almost as much as he did at safety, which allowed Malik Hooker and Donovan Wilson to see the field more. Undrafted rookie Markquese Bell has been impressing in a similar role this year too. In short, the Cowboys go light at linebacker and deep at safety because they can comfortably play Kearse and Bell in the box if it comes down to it.
Special teams (4)
K Brett Maher
P Bryan Anger
LS Jake McQuaide
CB CJ Goodwin
The only real question here is whether Brett Maher can beat out Lirim Hajrullahu for the kicker job. It’s entirely possible, and likely probable, that the competition will continue into the regular season regardless of who the Week 1 kicker is.
On Saturday, though, Dallas alternated their kickers but sent Maher out first. He made both extra point attempts, and Hajrullahu connected on his one PAT. Hahrullahu also made a 35-yard field goal while Maher missed a 61-yarder. The long distance of that miss likely mitigated the impact on the kicking battle; it’s also noteworthy that the Cowboys sent Maher out for such a long attempt and not Hajrullahu.
There doesn’t seem to be any obvious frontrunner between these two just yet, but it just feels like it’s going to be Maher in Week 1.